There was a time when Family Guy not only held some significant cultural cache but was regarded as a legitimately dominant force within the cultural zeitgeist, a show oft-quoted, copied and generally admired for its off-kilter humor, button-pressing sensibilities and for delivering a relentless slew of quickfire gags. Emerging from the colossal shadow of The Simpsons, Family Guy went on to become one of the 2000s’ defining shows, frequently making headlines for its willingness to push the boundaries of taste, decency and offence.
It is a shame to see that nowadays Family Guy is in the dog house, accused of being out of touch and time yet limping on gamely as a shadow of its former self. The thing about Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcom is that at one point it really did feel as though it was tapping into something special, taking the “one man and his family” format into surreal and often hilarious places. It may not be what it once was, but looking at this list of the best Family Guy episodes, it’s clear there was much to love about this faded star all along.
The Best Family Guy Episodes
20. The Simpsons Guy Parts 1 & 2 – Season 13, Episodes 1 & 2
“Huh, guess we’re in a town called Springfield.” “Springfield, eh? What state?” “I can’t imagine we’re allowed to say.”
The Simpsons Guy is such a bizarre episode of television it’s almost like seeing the cast of Glee performing a song and dance routine on an episode of NCIS. Family Guy might have suffered from constant barbs that it was nothing but a pale-skinned knock-off of one of the greatest animated shows of all time, but what the eventual crossover actually ended up demonstrating was just how different the two creations actually are. The premises might be similar, the tone and execution certainly aren’t.
To use a musical analogy, Family Guy is like Gilbert and Sullivan. Bolder, more accessible and more in your face, it often looks and feels like something more substantial but rarely attains the rarefied reaches of what you could term high art. The Simpsons, on the other hand, is (or at least was) a concerto or an opera, a layered piece of work that only unfolds upon deeper inspection and is appreciated by everyone from serfs to connoisseurs. Except that unlike opera, people actually watch The Simpsons.
This all sounds rather negative for what’s supposed to be a list of the best Family Guy episodes ever, but it’s worth remembering that sometimes television is important for what it represents, not just for what it does. Plus, there are moments when amid the strange tonal discord everything clicks together, such as when Peter and Homer clash in an undeniably slick fight sequence or the residents of Quahog and Springfield attend a court hearing over intellectual property theft (hint hint) and each town’s respective character is placed alongside his or her counterpart.
Love it or loathe it, as a television event, The Simpsons Guy is a piece of cultural history. Or at least, it would have been had they released it 15 years earlier.
19. Not All Dogs Go To Heaven – Season 7, Episode 11
“You need your shoes to bowl!” “Now why exactly can I not wear my loafers? What is the danger there?”
It’s rare that a cartoon’s “B” storyline outshines its main “A” strand, but that’s the case for the 11th episode of Family Guy’s solid seventh season as Stewie’s kidnapping of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast ends up overshadowing Meg’s attempts to convert Brian to Christianity.
Let’s be clear, both strands are exceedingly enjoyable, somehow cohabiting within the same 22-minute framework despite their wildly different subject matter. Meg’s indoctrination at the hands of Kirk Cameron’s saccharine preachings on the divine is a great piece of satire on how vulnerable people can be suckered in by any form of indoctrination, but it’s a storyline that loses the limelight to the Stewie’s adventures with the stars of one of Seth MacFarlane’s favorite sci-fi shows.
Everything about The Next Generation subplot works superbly as Stewie, initially utterly besotted by the likes of Patrick Stewart (always good value), LeVar Burton and Will Wheaton soon becomes the infuriated warden to a bunch of squabbling man-children who refuse to give him a moment’s peace. It’s a perfectly executed turn as the group of revered thespians drive a small baby to distraction, and in terms of pure comedic value, makes for one of the best Family Guy episodes ever.
18. The Fat Guy Strangler – Season 4, Episode 17
“Pow, right in the kisser!”
Sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly why an episode works or why it doesn’t. A storyline in which Peter establishes the NAAFP (National Association for the Advancement of Fat People) feels like a satire on constructed victimhood for a group trying to gain the same social status as a genuinely oppressed People, but it’s hard not to be on the side of Peter and his fellow members when they’re hunted down by a serial killer with a strange hatred of larger gentlemen.
That figure turns out to be Patrick Pewtershmidt, Lois’ long-lost brother who has been committed to an insane asylum after a string of ugly murders. Voiced by none other than Robert Downey Jr. before he revitalised his career as Tony Stark, Patrick is a great one-off character whose softly spoken hatred for all things corpulent makes him an oddly compelling figure in contrast with loudmouthed Peter and his wheezy associates.
The Fat Guy Strangler is a weird, weird episode, even by Family Guy standards, so much so that synopsising it on paper only highlights what an utterly unusual premise it actually is, but the end result is an effective and surreal romp that stands up to repeat viewing thanks to its morbid sensibilities and an unerring commitment to its dark premise.
17. Death Is a Bitch – Season 2, Episode 6
“For if humanity discovers I’m no longer lurking in the shadows, the consequences will be dire.” “Go on…” “That’s it. What the hell do you see in him?!”
Family Guy used to do cameos really, really well. In fact, It’s not hyperbole to say that many of the show’s best episodes are elevated thanks to the strength of single-time or non-recurring appearances from some seriously notable talent. James Woods is the obvious example, but the late great Norm Macdonald proved just as adept at stealing the show with his sarcastic, half-assed incarnation of the embodiment of death itself.
Death’s subsequent appearances, all voiced by the hugely competent Adam Corolla, are always a treat, but it was Macdonald who first made the character shine. Lazy, snarky and utterly unimpressed with his ghastly vocation, Death is a long way from the ghoulish spectre who haunts mankind and, as he puts it, lurks in the shadows waiting to perform his bleak duties.
Macdonald’s acting career never quite matched his legendary status as a stand-up (have you seen Screwed?), but the old chunk of coal could still pull it out of the bag when required. It’s a shame the show didn’t use him more, but the Canadian comic did appear in a later episode of Family Guy as himself, as well as bagging a recurring role in Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville as Yaphit, the green gelatinous engineer.
16. Brian and Stewie – Season 8, Episode 17
“Wanting to kill yourself? Well, I think that’s pretty selfish of you.” “How is that selfish?” “What would I do if you weren’t here, hm? You’re the only one who makes my life bearable.”
By the time the eighth season rolled around, Family Guy was on the cusp of a decline. The rot hadn’t quite manifested visibly when 2009’s run made its debut, but a gradual slip into the cheap comedy malaise was inevitable, even if no one at the time was fully aware of the impending descent.
As was arguably also the case with The Simpsons, the show found itself at its apex just before it slid down the other side of the metaphorical mountain. Season 8 is peppered with excellence, from Road to the Multiverse to Peter-Assment, with Brian and Stewie standing out as a quiet gem that deserves more credit. Taking the form of a classic bottle episode, Brain and Stewie locks its two protagonists in a bank vault and watches them implode, reunite and, ultimately, strengthen their relationship.
Because, let’s be honest, the affinity between a talking alcoholic dog and a psychotic upper-class baby has always been the true heart of Family Guy. The episode isn’t perfect, often turning viewers off with lazy vulgarity and enough shock humor to undermine its message, but when Brian and Stewie finally get down to shooting the proverbial and confessing their true fondness for one another, everything falls into place. It turns out that when the poop gags take a back seat, the show has a heart after all.
15. McStroke – Season 6, Episode 8
“Peter, sweetheart, how do you feel?” “Er, had better days, Lois. Had better days.”
McStroke proved somewhat divisive among TV critics when it first aired in the early months of 2008. While some dubbed it lazy, crass and offensive (not the first time Family Guy had weathered such accusations), others saw it as a wacky highlight of the show’s sixth season.
When Peter saves the life of a fast-food restaurant owner, he is given a lifetime supply of free burgers, only for the Griffin patriarch to consume thirty in one sitting and suffer a massive stroke, paralysing half of his body and rendering his life a misery. A local stem cell research facility miraculously rectifies the damage, allowing Peter to pursue a legal crusade against the local burger joint for negligence.
It’s all flippant, throwaway fun, but the episode’s greatest strength is its B story in which Stewie passes himself off as a high school student called Zac Sawyer to prove how easy it is to become one of the popular kids these days. Stewie was always one of the main reasons for Family Guy’s success, whether in his psychopathic Rex Harrison mode or his camper mid-season incarnations. His imagining of what constitutes social acceptance in the mid-2000s, (saying that everything is “lame” and wearing “long-sleeved shirts over short-sleeved shirts”) really makes the episode shine.
“Stewie, er, how long you been all messed up and evil like this?” “Oh, so now you’re interested in Stewie? Last week when I made that macaroni picture of an owl you didn’t give a damn!”
Do you remember a time when pretty much the entire raison d’etre of Stewie’s character was his desire to kill his own mother? Hugely prevalent in the earliest seasons and increasingly pushed to the background as things wore on, the baby genius’ desire to see Lois six feet under waned as he himself was increasingly mellowed with time.
While the football-headed would-be killer probably still wanted to slay his oppressive matriarch, it certainly reached its head in the hundredth episode, a cinematic two-part treat that sees Stewie finally making good on his many threats and promises. Totally non-canonical and a massively enjoyable departure from the usual Family Guy format, both parts are hugely rewarding departures that combine to feel like a proper televisual event.
None of the cinematic action gets in the way of the actual comedy, either. All of the usual jokes, cutaways and snarky cultural references are there to keep things moving along, satisfying long-term fans. Peter’s forays into dating and Chris’ ignorance at his mother’s apparent demise are especially rewarding gags.
13. Three Kings – Season 7, Episode 15
“Andy Dufresne, the man who crawled through a river of poop and came out clean on the other side. Why he chose enchilada night, I will never know.”
Anthology episodes are murky waters. Most long-running cartoons end up relying on a couple once in a blue moon, either to keep things fresh or, perhaps more likely, as something to turn to when the creative well occasionally runs dry. The Simpsons and Futurama did them in their various forms, usually with a degree of success, while Family Guy also dabbled with non-canonical trilogies as a break from the usual routine.
The best of them all is Three Kings, a trilogy of different takes on three classic Stephen King movie adaptations: Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption. Each one has its own merits and each clearly has some degree of love and reverence for its source material, a carefully selected trio each of which brings something slightly new to the table, be it coming-of-age whimsy, horror or redemption.
What’s most impressive about Three Kings is each mini-sode’s direction. Modern cartoons can stray into the realm of soullessness, especially as the art of the hand-drawn has fallen out of vogue, but Three Kings, much like Family Guy’s intergalactic Star Wars pastiches, always offers a sense of the cinematic.
12. Petarded – Season 4, Episode 6
“Peter, I’m not retarded, I’m handicapped.” “Ok, now you’re just splitting hairs.”
You can’t get much more provocative than a story with that title delving into some subject matter that, in truth, walks a fine line between satire and out-and-out mockery. Call an episode Petarded and you’ve got to be pretty careful that you, and your audience, know exactly which side your bread is buttered.
This was a much better time for Family Guy, though, and the writers just about pull it off unscathed. Peter’s hubris after beating a children’s version of Trivial Pursuit inflates his ego so much that he believes himself to be a genius, only for an application to the McCarthur Fellows Grant to reveal that he has learning difficulties.
The joke of Petarded doesn’t really come at the expense of the differently-abled or the educationally subnormal. Instead, the entire gag rests on the premise of Peter exploiting, wilfully or otherwise, the extra attention and support he receives, not to mention the social taboos he is now able to break as a result of his diagnosis or the initial humiliation he suffers as a result of thinking himself a genius but being revealed as quite the opposite.
And say what you like about Family Guy’s use of cutaways, their Hiroshima gag still stands up as one of the show’s best pieces of misdirection.
11. The Thin White Line – Season 3, Episode 1
“Wow Brian, have you lost weight? You gotta’ tell me your secret.” “Here’s a hint. Put down the fork!”
It’s hard when writing a list of the best Family Guy episodes not to start every entry with “there was a time when” or “remember when the show used to do this?” as you yearn for the better days of those faded years when the world seemed brighter and the show was unarguably better. The Thin White Line is case in point, an episode that isn’t so much flippant or cynical as it is concerned with the personal growth of one of its main characters.
The Thin White Line sees Brian taking up a job as a sniffer dog as he searches for more purpose and meaning in his life, a role that eventually leads him to become a burnt-out drug addict in need of serious help. Look, actual character exploration. Remember that?
Things get slightly bogged down when Brian is admitted to a rehab centre in the third act, a diversion that’s less interesting than his exploits as a cop on the edge, but it does give a chance for the Griffin pooch to rediscover himself with some much-needed introspection and growth. When Brian stands up for Peter after the latter is accused of being a bad influence, it’s a touching moment that simply wouldn’t be found in a modern-day outing.
10. I Dream of Jesus – Season 7, Episode 2
“There seems to be an absence of a certain ornithological piece. A headline regarding a mass awareness of a certain avian variety. “What are you talking about?” “Oh, have you not heard? It was my understanding that everyone had heard.”
Family Guy’s impact on mid-2000s culture was undeniably pretty huge. It wasn’t always some profound piece of social commentary, but there really was a time when the show was legitimately a dominant force in the time of pre-meme culture. In fact, if we had anything close to viral ‘memes’, dozens of them stemmed from clips of Seth MacFarlane’s animated creation.
Few were as infamous as the show’s take on Surfin’ Bird, The Trashmen’s surf rock hit that exploded back into the communal psyche of easily-influenced teenagers everywhere thanks to I Dream of Jesus. When Peter rediscovers the hit when it’s mistakenly played at a 50s-themed diner, his obsession with the record leads the rest of the Griffin clan to destroy it to preserve their collective sanity.
The premise of the episode actually leads to Peter meeting Jesus, our Lord and Saviour having taken a job at a local music store (remember those?) in order to keep a low profile, but even the Son of God can’t contend with the might of a viral phenomenon. In an episode starring Jesus Christ himself, the main attraction is instead the constant recurrence of a novelty record from the ‘60s.
9. Meet the Quagmires – Season 5, Episode 18
“Hey, did you guys hear on the news about President Gore hunting down and killing Osama Bin Laden with his bare hands?”
Travel through time and dimensions was always a Family Guy forte. While it was usually the youngest member of the Griffin clan who would fire up one of his various high-tech devices in anticipation of a high-concept adventure with trusty sidekick Brian, Meet the Quagmires instead shifts the focus onto Peter to discover what would happen if he had never asked Lois to senior prom when the pair were both a couple of wide-eyed eighteen-year-olds.
Heavily influenced by Back to the Future, Meet the Quagmires has fun not only in exploring what life was like back in the 1980s when many of the Family Guy regulars were still trendy adolescents but in seeing what life would have been like had Peter made the wrong choices by ditching Lois and partying with Cleveland instead. This being Peter, of course, a consistent failure to learn his lesson and actually accept Lois’ date invitation makes for one of the episode’s best running gags.
The end joke, meanwhile, is a great reference to the original movie’s gag about the penning of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, reworked so that Brian instead sings ‘Never Gonna’ Give You Up‘ and Rick Astley’s cousin Marvin rings his relative to tell him he’s found the “mediocre, generic sound” he’s been searching for.
8. Da Boom – Season 2, Episode 3
“Oh my God, they’re eating Asian reporter Trisha Takanawa!” “That’s crazy, they’re just gonna’ be hungry in an hour.”
The third episode of Family Guy’s second season goes nuclear as fears of Y2K loom large for Americans everywhere. Released in late 1999 and set on the eve of the new Millenium, Da Boom sees Peter fretting over the end of the world to the bemusement of his family. In a bizarre twist of fate, however, Peter’s powers of prognostication are proved accurate and Y2K really does materialise, leaving Quahog, and the entirety of America, plunged into a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
Da Boom stands on its own two feet, but it also introduced a number of notable firsts for the show. For a start, the episode is the first to feature Mila Kunis as the voice of Meg following the departure of Lacey Chabert. It’s also notable for featuring the first-ever chicken fight, a running gag that would go on to become a staple over the years and a firm fan favorite.
Da Boom can also boast a terrific live-action ending, recreating the infamous return of Bobby Ewing from Dallas with its original actors and set design but with new dialogue that refers to the events of Da Boom instead.
7. Peter’s Got Woods – Season 4, Episode 11
“Ooh, a piece of candy!”
Hollywood character actor James Woods going on to become one of Family Guy’s best recurring gags is something that few could’ve predicted when the fourth season debuted in 2005. This is especially true considering that most of the show’s target audience probably weren’t particularly familiar with the oeuvre of the star of Any Given Sunday, Contact or Videodrome.
Nevertheless, Woods’ peerless performance as a warped version of himself cemented Peter’s Got Woods as an all-time great episode, with the actor’s relationship with Peter souring after the pair’s burgeoning friendship soon turns decidedly sinister. As far as episode endings are concerned, the tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably up there with the most memorable of them all.
Woods would return to the role numerous times over Family Guy’s run, each visit usually making for a season highlight whenever the star of Once Upon A Time In America popped up in animated form. Season 6’s “Back to the Woods” is especially enjoyable, but “Brian Griffin’s House of Payne”, “And Then There Were Fewer”, and “Tom Tucker: The Man and His Dream” all feature enjoyable Woods cameos.
6. Road to Rhode Island – Season 2, Episode 13
“We’re off on the road to Rhode Island! We’re having the time of our lives!”
Seth MacFarlane rarely keeps his adoration of all things music hall from his TV shows. Even episodes of his most recent space-based sci-fi project The Orville make nods to all things musical, but his earliest work was peppered with references and homages to what he deems “the classics” of musical cinema.
Any excuse to have a Road To adventure, you can bet that it would be taken. Drawing heavily from the “Road to” series of oddball adventure comedy movies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Road to Rhode Island captures the spirit of the films that inspired it with adoring ease. When Brian offers to collect Stewie from his holiday at his grandparents’ home in Palm Springs, the pair end up missing their flight and having to set off on a cross-country adventure to get home safely.
What’s great about Rhode to Road Island is that it manages to work as both a pastiche and a straightforward piece of quite brilliant musical cinema, cocking enough of a snook at its source material while never being so referential as to alienate casual viewers. How many 14-year-olds know who Bing Crosby is, anyway?
5. And Then There Were Fewer – Season 9, Episode 1
“If anybody’s gonna take that bitch down it’s gonna be me.”
Agatha Christie parodies are everywhere. The classic murder spoof has been done to death in practically all forms of media that there’s a risk of it going stale, but a good spoof does have the potential to remind us why so many shows continually look back to one of the masters of crime fiction as a source of inspiration or pastiche. When done right, it can certainly be effective.
The thing about And Then There Were Fewer is that it does truly understand its source material. There’s a lot of the usual Family Guy propensity for goofing about, but the writers’ recognition of the bleak darkness of Christie’s original text means that the feature-length episode does manage to elicit some feelings of real dread and terror.
It’s also a story that feels as though it has real stakes. The likelihood of one of the Griffins finding themselves on the wrong end of a nasty accident is always out of the question (Meg aside), but with minor characters being dispatched left, right and centre, it can be hard not to feel a degree of emotional investment when the sword of Damocles hangs over the head of some potential tertiary victim.
4. Blue Harvest – Season 6, Episode 1
“Hi, I’m Darth Harrington of Darth Harrington’s Intergalactic Proton Powered Electrical Tentacled Advertising Droids Emporium and Moon Base!”
Remaking the entire original Star Wars trilogy as an episodic three-parter is a pretty ballsy move when you think about it. Or it’s lazy and cheap and evidence of a decline in original ideas. Depends who you ask.
Whatever the motivations behind Blue Harvest, later followed by Something, Something, Something Dark Side and It’s A Trap!, the end result is a string of parodies that do what parodies should do; show clear reverence for the source material while also pointing out some of its clear deficiencies and points of ridicule.
Fans of Star Wars will obviously get more out of Blue Harvest than regular viewers, especially when Alec Sulkin and co. get deep into the more niche references to Lucas’ acclaimed space saga, but there’s still easily enough broad humor for regular viewers not to feel utterly alienated. For its ambition and scale alone, Blue Harvest deserves a place on this list of the best Family Guy episodes.
3. Back to the Pilot – Season 10, Episode 5
“Oh my god, what’s with Meg’s voice? She sounds like someone who’s about to give up a huge opportunity.”
Family Guy usually did time travel rather well, and the affection for the genre is once again on show in Back to the Pilot, the fifth episode of the tenth season seeing Brian and Stewie journeying back to the late nineties so that Brian can retrieve an old tennis ball buried in the yard, only for things to go awry when he messes with the space-time continuum.
Back to the Pilot works because of its relentless self-awareness. Seeing Brian and Stewie encounter their former selves isn’t so much about how the pair respond to their in-story past incarnations as they are reacting to how the show formerly portrayed them. Jokes such as Brian asking “what, did you carry a thesaurus around with you?” when Season 1 Stewie rants on about escaping his “ovarian Bastille” are great pieces of meta-commentary, as are the pair’s disgust and confusion over the various mistakes and flaws from the show’s formerly rather rickety animation.
Then there’s the more contentious side of Back to the Pilot which posits the idea that preventing 9/11 would ultimately have left America in a worse position than if it had simply been allowed to happen. Yes, it initially seems insensitive, but the idea that Bush wasn’t able to exploit post-9/11 fears about terrorism to win a second term as President does prove that some of the writers at Family Guy do still have some degree of satirical awareness. The idea that Bush only gained re-election via exploitation is solid satire, but the real humour comes from the episode’s depiction of a 3D post-nuclear world caused by the terrible consequences of a modern-day American Civil War.
2. PTV – Season 4, Episode 14
“Gentlemen, we got 20 calls about the David Hyde Pierce incident. And as you know, one call equals a billion people, which means 20 billion people were offended by this.”
There was a time, far back in the recesses of the past when Family Guy was a force for satirical good. During the simpler times of the mid-2000s, it was the over-censoriousness of prissy, reactionary airheads and buttoned-up government agencies that was most deserving of ridicule, with Seth MacFarlane’s outwardly offensive animation championing itself as the show that happily tweaked the nose of men in suits who refused to acknowledge the presence of genitals, bodily functions or non-Christian gods.
Taking the brunt of this satirical ire was the Federal Communications Commission or FCC, roundly skewered for being humorous corporate types who, not only content with banning anything of interest on television, finally go the whole hog and attempt to black out those aspects of real-life they deem corruptive.
Most enjoyable of all is Peter’s reaction to all this excessive prissiness, as the Griffin patriarch sets up his own network as a way of getting around the rules and regulations now hindering his mainstream viewing enjoyment, with Stewie’s ‘Cheeky Bastard’ sitcom, filmed in front of a live studio audience of one (himself) proving a particular highlight, as is the episode’s raucous FFC musical number.
1. Road to The Multi-Verse – Season 8, Episode 8
“It’s a wonderful day for pie!”
Family Guy has often rubbed people up the wrong way. Fox’s animated hit has increasingly come under fire for its declining quality, reliance on cheap cutaways and for losing the tone and spirit of what initially made the show so watchable. Even at its best, there were times when you wished it would ditch the self-indulgence and over-reliance on cynicism and puerility and be the show you knew it could be.
And then it does something like Road to the Multiverse and you can’t help but forgive its transgressions and wish that the standard was maintained like this every week, all the while repressing your rage that, sadly, it isn’t. The fact that a show capable of making Road to the Multiverse also spewed out some of the bilge of the later seasons is just infuriating.
Road to the Multiverse is simply a delight from start to finish, showcasing everything that Family Guy can be when the cylinders were truly firing. A rollicking adventure through various multiverses gives the episode a feeling of infinite possibilities, of a dozen canvases on which to paint any picture or weave any tale that takes its fancy.
With musical numbers, stunning animation, some of the season’s best gags, boundless imagination and a fair amount of sincerity and heart anchored by its central duo, Road to the Multiverse is the best of Family Guy condensed into 22 minutes. The Disney-style reimagining of life in Quahog stands as a particular highlight, but it’s the intoxicating overall effect that puts Road to the Multiverse as the best Family Guy episode of all time, in this, or any other, universe.
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