“Family Guy” is a pretty unique animated show that awakes many different emotions in me– some very good, some very bad. The show is a true, surrealistic rollercoaster. I enjoyed the shows first couple of seasons, but honestly have hated the last couple of seasons, due to repetitive nasty hits at overweight women and badly written characters. I digress though.
The series centers on the Family Griffith, who is contain of Peter, the usually dimwitted, politically incorrect, child-like, and spiteful main star, his phenomenally beautiful wife Lois, and their three children. The oldest is the outcast, brutally bullied teenage daughter Meg, the early teen Chris who like his father is a bit slow, and the evil genius infant Stewie. The family also has, of course, a pet: the talking, wise human-like dog Brian, who this post will be about.
Brian, despite being the pet of the family, functioned as the voice of reason for the earlier years of the show. He was portrayed as a liberal, reasonable and unhappily in love with Lois as well as a bit of a drinker, though intermittently. Brian was shown on several occasions as being critical of religion, but it wasn’t until the seventh season, in the episode “Not all dogs go to heaven”, when the series finally “outed” Brian as an atheist. In the Episode, Brian, due to Meg’s sudden conversion to Christianity and attempt push to bring Brian into the “flock” of her church (and their form of Christianity), gently laughs and states: “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Meg. I’m an atheist”. When watching this episode, I was at first blush overjoyed at first at this radical act (seeing how being non-religious is still taboo on TV), but then began to reconsider what this act would mean and my first hesitations seem born out after the show’s recent episodes featuring Brian as the main protagonist which show character flaws wildly out of synch even for this genre. I cannot but wonder: is Brian really a positive portrayal of atheism? Or does his character just re-enforce negative stereotypes or images of us non-believers?
***Spoilers may be below!***
Let’s first look at how the writers of “Family Guy” talk about the experience of being an atheist in the States. “Not all dogs go to heaven” was a brilliant episode in this case, showing all the prejudice Brian meets after Meg gossips to the whole town about his atheism. Brian is not allowed to go to from such divergent venues as liquor stores to libraries, and is ridiculed on TV for being “worse than Hitler”. Admittedly, some of the discrimination may seem exaggerated; however there is something unsettlingly true in the depiction as well. To some religious folks, not believing in god is the worst possible sin, making us even worse than serial killers or mass murderers (especially if the criminals happen to believe in god). This is a pretty extreme belief and actively held by some, and which is portrayed comically in “Family Guy” when the intensely religious News-People announce Brian to be by far worse than Hitler.
Brian also gets brutally (yet only verbally) attacked by Lois and Peter after his confession. Lois states: “We believe in god in this family!” which showed how sometimes even people close to non-believers can be unsympathetic and dismissive to a theoretical structure struggled to be achieved. Brian gives even in to this pressure to “believe” temporarily, pretending to have “found god”, since he can’t take the peer pressure. But after witnessing Meg burning books about science (since she feels they are contrary to the “statements of God”) Brian gives a harsh talk to Meg, crushing her belief. The speech is devastating to Meg, since Brian points out some painful things to Meg about her life and how that is really what has spawned her beliefs. To this Brian then gives a more hopeful, comforting speech. The whole episode, in my opinion, is a perfect way of telling not only what it can sometimes feel like to be an atheist, as one can in a cartoon, but also is good in showing that Brian is a caring person, crushing the stereotype of the heartless cold atheist.
Brian was portrayed in a positive light during most of the output of the show. He had his flaws, but always came through with reason, compassion, and self-reflection underlying his thoughts and actions. It was in Season Eight where Brian started to become decidedly more odd and began a run of doing questionable things with little intellectual nuance or moral underpinnings. Take as an example of this the Episode “Brian writes a bestseller”, from Season Nine. In this episode Brian is depressed over his published novel doing so poorly, stating to Stewie that only trash literature and phony self-help books make it big. To prove his point he writes one himself and publishes it. It becomes a bestseller, making Brian famous and rich, sweaping him away to the hinterlands of fame, recognition and media adulation, and making him along the way into an arrogant, megalomaniac and mean spirited person. He comes to treat those around him as mere props to his existence (including Stewie who has facilitated his empty rise) and who seem to be considered by him now mere objects to satisfy his random and arbitrary desires. In particular harsh scenes, Brian is shown yelling at Stewie and verbally abusing him for anything that annoys him. This, in a number of painful scenes brings Stewie to tears and self doubt over his supposed lack of abilities to gratify the chance cravings of Brian.
The episode’s climax comes when Brian is invited onto “Real Time with Bill Maher”, a real show hosted by one of Americas most famous non-believers. Maher trashes the book heavily, making Brian confess that he wrote the best seller in a day, and that he doesn’t really believe in anything written in the book. Maher then tells Brian that he is the lowest of the low, since if one is going to bullshit; they should have the “honesty to stand by their bullshit”. Brian, coming somewhat back to his normal self after the harsh critique returns home where he talks a little to Stewie saying that he knows the book was dumb and his behavior inappropriate in extreme.
However, even at this point of the narrative – where a reasonable lesson has been learn and self-reflection is re-imposed by the awareness of the emptiness of his fame – Brian openly admits he will not apologize to Stewie for mistreating him. Here Brian is made into a truly horrible person, who not only doesn’t apologize after treating someone so poorly, but also a person who is actually so arrogant he refuses to learn from mistakes.
Brian at this juncture of the show (and others which are embed in these later seasons, and which can be recounted, but will merely “add” to the direction being taken in this case episode presented here) is made into such a terrible person that it is quiet imperative to reconsidered whether it is good his character is one of the few out-ted atheist characters on TV or not. Since there are so few atheist protagonists around, it is important that at least some of the more famous ones would not strengthen the stereotype that we’re morally-vacuous, empty-elitists, and intellectually-devious self-gratifies which no genuine concern for others beyond the narrowest of evil self-interest who wish to contaminate and spoil. Brian, in this episode, in bodied the stereotype to a max.
Brian was also shown to perhaps not truly stand for any of the opinions he’s expressed in the show, since he abandoned them all in the episode “Excellence in Broadcasting”. Brian, in the episode, becomes a republican and so conservative, he actually tries to go and waterboard – torture – a Democrat (the” supposedly” more left-leaning, worker-supporting party in the United States). Lois pinpoints in the episode that Brian has a need to go against the stream, to always have the more “unpopular” opinion. If that is the case, and Brian really gets all his opinions that way, does that mean he is only an atheist since they are a minority? Not only does this make Brian seem childish, but makes everything he said in previous episodes unimportant. So it is impossible to take his atheism seriously.
There was also the misfortune of Brian actually trying to force Lois to kiss him (maybe even more) in “Play it again, Brian”, a episode from season six. This act of creepiness and slight (though significant) violence towards a woman was before he was outed as an atheist (in a later season), which in a way makes him a lost case as a “model” for an acceptable and representative non-believer from the start.
I want to like Brian’s character. Aside from Dr. House from “House” (who is a total stereotype of the mean, miserable atheist) and Dr. Temperance Brennan from “Bones”, Brian is one of the most mainstream portrayals of atheist in popular culture. Yet his character was made so completely unlikeable and unreliable in the later seasons of the show, it feels like a disfavor for non-religious people that Brian was ever made a openly atheist character.
Seth Macfarlane, the creator of “Family Guy” and voice talent of Brian, also made his other characters, Haylee Smith and Roger the alien from “American Dad!”, atheist. But even these characters don’t really do much for the atheist community. Haylee is bland and hardly does anything memorable, and Roger is a sociopath who seems able to be anything which can temporary satisfaction.
What is lacking from popular culture is an atheist character that is portrayed as likeable. Few Medias have done this.
Daria Morgendorffer, from the animated series “Daria”, was done well, and somewhat outed as an atheist in the last season. Also Mal from “Firefly” was a good atheist character: anti-hero who despite some flaws was a good person. However, these shows have been cancelled or are off the air now. I was hopeful Brian would be the next Daria or Mal, but no such luck. Seems like we atheists have to wait a little longer for a more positive depiction.