The gruesome, shocking, heart wrenching death of a beloved television character is par for the course on Sunday evenings, the night that airs The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Downton Abbey, and Dexter. Yet the most surprising, emotional TV death of the past month occurred on the last series anyone would expect: Family Guy.
Yes, Family Guy killed off the Griffin family dog, Brian, in last night’s episode. He was hit by a car as Stewie watches in horror from the front door of the house. His death scene was actually quite graphic—we see him spin through the car tires, eventually spit out to lay limp on the side of the street. The Griffins cry as they say goodbye to him. We cry, too. By the end of the half hour, the Griffins already have a new dog and Brian is just a fond, often crass memory.
The first reaction from Family Guy fans, naturally, was: why? This is an animated comedy series, with fans tuning in for politically incorrect boob and fart jokes, not for the emotional gut-punch of seeing a family dog die. When The Simpsons killed off Mrs. Krabappel, it was a classy tribute to the actress who provided the teacher’s voice, Marcia Wallace, who had just passed away in real life. On the other hand, Family Guy writing off Brian—Seth MacFarlane is very much alive and well—has fans wondering if the show jumped the shark.
The series’ executive producer, Steve Callaghan, claimed it hasn’t. And he’s right.
Grilled by E! Online on why he would, after 14 years, make the seemingly random decision to kill a main character so vital to the comedy DNA of his series, Callaghan said, “We thought it could be a fun way to shake things up.” OK, it’s not the most elegant explanation. “We got very excited about the way this change will affect the family dynamics and the characters,” he continued.
He also said that longtime Family Guy fans know enough to trust him and the show’s writers that the decision wasn’t taken lightly, and is for the benefit of the show. “Our fans are smart enough and have been loyal to our show for long enough to know that they can trust us,” he said. "We always make choices that always work to the greatest benefit of the series.”
As odd as it is to imagine Family Guy without the pretentious trainwreck of Brian and as unnatural it may seem at first to see Stewie paling around with another family dog, the death really is to the greatest benefit of the series. It’s not just Brian who was 14 years old when he died—the series is 14 years old, too. (Though only in its 12th season.) To begin with, it’s remarkable that a show that old and has made its reputation on the shock value of its humor is still capable of conjuring up surprises—and this certainly was one.
But more than that, it was a necessary reminder of what the show has been able to build in its 12 seasons. Quahog is a rich world full of despicable, immoral, and implausibly selfish characters. And we’ve fallen in love with them all, for better or worse. The Griffins, as it turns out, are a TV family that really does reflect our own, even if we don’t have hyper-intelligent babies obsessed with diabolical plotting and bipedal dogs who talk. They may cruelly insult each other and even attempt to kill each other (remember those Lois/Stewie episodes?), but they love each other in a twisted way that sort of reflects our own family dynamics—albeit through a raunchy fun house mirror.
The Griffins gather to say goodbye to Brian as he takes his last breaths. “You’ve given me a wonderful life,” he tells them as they weep. It’s as devastating a moment as any TV series has produced this season. And it was produced by Family Guy. The show has earned it.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that the Simpsons character Edna Krabappel was killed. The character was retired when voice actress Marcia Wallace died.