[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Family Guy” Season 16, Episode 12, “Send In Stewie, Please.”]
Cutaway gags have always been a “Family Guy” calling card. Whether non sequiturs with unrelated characters or flashbacks to various horrific chapters in the Griffin family history, it’s been the show’s preferred joke delivery device for the better part of two decades now.
So there’s something baffling and exciting about realizing that this show was capable of “Send In Stewie, Please,” a bottle episode, one that not only stuck to one location for most of the episode, but managed to keep the show’s consciousness from drifting as much as it usually does. From the start, Stewie and his child therapist Dr. Critchfield (Ian McKellen) hashing out the precocious young Griffin’s psychological foibles is the closest “Family Guy” has ever come to a two-hander stage piece. Presented with minimal ads after a few months’ hiatus, the show’s 301st episode eventually loses some of that steam, but watching it try something new is the biggest jolt to the show’s watchability in years.
Stewie comes in hot with a Bethenny Frankel joke or two, but as he begins to deflect Critchfield’s line of questioning, the episode settles into a supersized Hercule Poirot explainer. Taking tiny details from around the office, Stewie crafts an elaborate backstory for Critchfield and his presumed partner.
Drawing out jokes so long they slingshot around from being amusing to grating all the way back to amusing again is something of a “Family Guy” touchstone. So it’s no surprise that with some extra runtime to work with, this episode would toss in a few extended riffs. This rivaling bit of psychoanalysis isn’t funny, not necessarily because the jokes don’t hit, but because they’re absent. It’s a stylistic curveball that has more characterization and attention to detail than the show usually affords. There’s a sense that this will all get undercut later, but to get a chance to let this straight-faced deleted scene of sorts play out unedited is satisfying in a way the show rarely can be.
But then, like Roger Rabbit unable to keep from screaming “Two bits!” at someone knocking “Shave and a Haircut,” this experiment falls right into working against itself with a truly uninspired “Hamilton” section. Intro’ed by Stewie’s sense of performance anxiety, there’s a faint hope that this won’t just be Seth MacFarlane turning “Alexander Hamilton” into a dirge. Despite the minimized gravitas McKellen brings to this — there’s something rushed and distant about the way his voice is recorded in relation to MacFarlane’s — this promising setup is brought to a screeching halt.
Not even a few bits of stray mucus are enough to make this a joke, really. It’s just “Family Guy” falling back on filtering trends through a faux British accent. For something this close to the show’s equivalent of high concept, it just feels like an act of desperation to keep viewers interested who may balk at something outside the ordinary.
Watching this show have a compelling Stewie moment within its grasp, only to let it slip away is doubly frustrating. In a few of the past “Family Guy” special episodes, the show has transcended a gimmicky setup to deliver something that manages to play with its format and be entertaining at the same time. The “Road to the Multiverse” episode toyed with styles and expectations and managed to deliver something cohesive that wasn’t just throwing gags at the wall to see what stuck.
There’s a faint echo and whisper of that when the episode closes. Stevie opting not to grab his pill bottle effectively murders Dr. Critchfield, a dramatic ending to a surprisingly introspective episode. But all that comes in the shadow of a major snot distraction. And that’s before the “reveal” of “Stewie’s real voice,” something that would feel significant if there wasn’t the ever-present need for a hard reset at the end of the episode.
Some of the episode’s self-referential bits have mixed results. We get another “That only works when I do it”-style callback to the “Mum! Mum! Mummy!” scene from the Season 5 premiere. And Stewie makes a winking reference to fans upset that he’s not as bent on world domination as he used to be.
You know what? They’re right! Not because beloved characters have to stay rigid to what made them endearing in the first place or follow the will of fans, but because the specificity that initial hook had was replaced by a bland, easy set of joke-replacement references that always lagged a few months behind their sell-by date.
Hand in hand, that acknowledgment paired with a hyper-focused setup gives a sliver of hope that by going from the close of 300 episodes into its next phase, “Family Guy” might have more than its old tricks up its sleeve. But at least for a brief moment, “Send In Stewie, Please” is a quick glimpse into what this show could still be if it really, truly tried. Like its tiny little protagonist, though, it may have just its eyes set on a less interesting plan. It might not be taking over the world, but it would be nice to see it at least have something giving it a sense of purpose.
“Family Guy” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on Fox.