Family Guy is more than a love-it-or-hate-it show. It's a love-it-AND-hate-it show.
There is talent to burn. Seth MacFarlane, who oversees the animated half-hour comedy and provides the voices of family man Peter Griffin, mother-hating baby Stewie and Brian the intellectual dog, is a brilliant performer, gifted writer and impressive singer. Supplying other recurring voices are name actors Mila Kunis (daughter Meg), Seth Green (son Chris), Patrick Warburton (neighbour Joe) and Adam West, TV's Batman, as a mayor called Adam West.
All that goes in one end. What comes out the other is a mishmash of pop-cultural references, toilet humour and creepy storylines that can handily offend even those who aren't easily offended.
Peter is casually racist, chauvinist, blasphemous and irredeemably self-centred, unmoved by others' pain. A major character, neighbour Quagmire, is a necrophilic rapist, played for laughs. A supporting character is a pedophile, played for laughs. The violence the characters inflict on each other makes slasher flicks seem tentative. In this company, the ubiquitous fart jokes could pass as tame.
In other words, watching this show to enjoy the wit and savour the talented performances is like dancing across a minefield. You never know when the crude, frequently ugly side of the show will explode beneath your feet.
Little has changed in this week's DVD collection, Family Guy Volume Nine, which contains 14 episodes from the show's eighth and ninth seasons. There is, however, one novelty. Starting with the episode And Then There Were Fewer, the image changes from boxy to widescreen. In that episode, MacFarlane blows the budget on an hour-long, richly animated tribute to traditional murder mysteries, in particular Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.
MacFarlane loves to indulge his passions. In the past, he has made three parodic but often shot-for-shot Family Guy remakes of the Star Wars films, with George Lucas's blessing. This time, the man who has just released a CD ( Music Is Better than Words) on which he sings Broadway show tunes encouraged his composer to write a sweeping score for a 90-piece orchestra that recalls Bernard Herrmann's scores for Alfred Hitchcock's movies.
And, says executive producer Steve Callaghan in a bonus commentary, MacFarlane resolved that if any regular characters died during the mystery (and a few do), they would remain dead for the rest of the series. There would be no cop-out "where you reset things at the end of the episode."
As in the Christie original, a wealthy man (James Woods, in his recurring role as an evil James Woods) summons the regular characters to an isolated manor, where one after another is killed. The episode takes the genre so seriously that even Family Guy's principal tic – brief cutaways whenever a character says, "It's like that time when ..." – kicks in only sparingly.
Still, some habits are hard to break. One of the guests is the pedophile, gazing longingly at teenage Chris. Another is Quagmire, who gets a disturbing, necrophilic punchline. Newcomers, you have been warned.