Re-watching the “retarded” episode of Family Guy in 2020

There was a moment when I was a teenager that Family Guy became everyone’s favourite animated show. Suddenly, rather than watching old Simpsons reruns at 6pm every evening, which had been a ritual of mine for years, I wanted to watch Family Guy. It was faster, punchier and way more out there than anything else I’d watched before. I fell in love immediately.

I think one of the reasons I loved Family Guy so much is that it was coming of age at the same time I was. It felt more in touch with the times I was growing up in. The Simpsons had blown up before I was even born and was decaying fast by the time I got into it. Although I was crazy about The Simpsons as a kid, a lot of it flew straight over my head. The episodes they showed on terrestrial TV were at least 10 years old, and like Family Guy they seem to be pegged to a particular time and moment that I couldn’t relate to. The humour in Simpsons tends to be cleverer than in Family Guy, too, less rooted in slapstick or sarcasm or overt racism, which explains why teenagers like me found the latter so much funnier.

I saw recently that Netflix had added some of the newer seasons of Family Guy. Since I tailed off after about season 8, I was curious about what had become of the show I used to love so much. I know that with The Simpsons it is generally accepted that the newer seasons are garbage compared to the old ones, but I hadn’t heard the same said of Family Guy. As I found out soon enough, the latest seasons of Family Guy are a disaster. They feel like they’re written by people who just can’t be arsed anymore. I suspect that may be the case.

What a sad fall from grace for another beloved animated show. But then I couldn’t help but wonder how big the fall actually was. Was Family Guy ever as great as I imagined it to be? I decided to investigate. I thought for a while about which episode stood out as the high point of Family Guy’s run, and one screamed out at me: “Petarded”.

Season 4’s “Petarded” revolves around Peter, the main character, being certified as mentally retarded after taking the MacArthur Fellowship test and all the mad shit he gets up to when he realises that his new designation is a free pass for obnoxious behaviour. I remember this episode being the one that cemented Family Guy’s greatness in my mind. I also found out that IGN ranked “Petarded” number one in a list of best Family Guy episodes in 2014. It even beat the one where Peter has a stroke, which was the one everyone at school wouldn’t shut up about.

It was the first time in around a decade that I’d seen this episode, and I watched it very differently as an adult. Having gone through university, where I had to pick apart the most banal material and scrutinise the living shit out of it, I was no longer able to not look for the deeper meaning in anything. Suddenly I was thinking about themes and symbols and social commentary, the kind of stuff academics and film critics get all horny about. I felt this was probably not the proper spirit in which to watch Family Guy but once you become used to analysing everything you can’t really turn it off. I grabbed a notebook and pen so I could jot down my reflections on the episode. I took a few hits of a joint I’d been saving to aid me in my research.

Buckled up, pen at the ready. It all came back to me in an instant. “Petarded” has one of the most frenetic opening acts of any Family Guy episode. The Griffins are hosting their neighbours for a game night, the highlight of which is when they play paintball with actual handguns after Brian realises he forgot to pick up the paintball guns. The whole house lights up with gunfire as the characters chase each other around, leaping over furniture and riddling the walls with bullet holes. The craziest thing about this opening is that this indoor gunfight isn’t the climax of game night. There’s still Trivial Pursuit to be played.

Peter wins the game after he identifies the colour of a fire truck and pronounces the word “what”. Lois has switched out Peter’s questions for preschool-level ones to “let him have his moment”, but Peter becomes convinced that he’s a genius and lords it over everyone around him. This starts to piss off Brian, who suggests that Peter make his genius official by applying for the MacArthur grant. When his test results come back, they reveal that Peter is in fact mentally retarded.

So far, so good. Snappy intro, good cutaway gags. The episode was just as fun as I remembered. It seemed old Family Guy really was great. But then things got a bit weird.

Peter’s diagnosis seems to weigh heavily on him. Lois tries to reassure him that it needn’t change the way he sees himself or lives his life. She also reminds him that it isn’t contagious after he calls a girl he hooked up with at senior prom and suggests she get tested. Peter has to suffer the indignities of having a sign put up outside his house to alert neighbours that a retarded person lives there and is made to wear inflatable armbands in a restaurant when he orders the soup. Meg is terrified about going back to school for fear of being ridiculed about her dad’s condition, and at one point the whole of Quahog bursts into a rendition of Telephone Hour from Bye Bye Birdie. He’s retarded! He’s retarded! He’s retarded! Peter is slow! they sing to each other.

I was enjoying the episode a lot less by this point. I don’t know if I’ve become oversensitive or too PC or whatever, but I found some of the jokes about mental retardation pretty cringeworthy. And the song? Why is everyone so goddamn happy that Peter is retarded? Or is political correctness just eroding my sense of humour?

Things are wrapped up as quickly as they began. Child Protective Services takes the kids away after Peter is deemed mentally unfit to care for them. There’s a court battle, which Peter loses. But then, when everything seems lost, Lois makes an overnight recovery and breezes through the front door with the kids in tow. They all hug and Peter offers some half-arsed reflections about how there’s nothing wrong with being retarded. And that’s pretty much it.

I was left scratching my head. Was “Petarded” really just taking the piss out of disabled people? Had I missed the deeper commentary? Was it silly of me to go looking for deeper commentary? The water wings scene gives us a bit to chew on about how society humiliates people who aren’t “normal”, but even that felt like it was done for cheap laughs. I know Family Guy is all about irreverent humour, but perhaps they should have left the subject alone if they had nothing positive or constructive to say about it. Isn’t it an unwritten rule of comedy not to punch down?

Watching this episode was as much an exploration of my own changing tastes as of a TV show. I doubt you’d get away with doing an episode like “Petarded” today. TV has changed too much in the last decade. The animated shows I like watching today – Bojack Horseman, Big Mouth, old Simpsons – manage to be funny and do social and political commentary without being downright offensive. I know we shouldn’t judge the past by present standards, but shit, this episode has not aged well.

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