Ten years later, is it too soon for television to have some fun with the events of September 11, 2001? I've been wondering about this since the November 20 episode of Fox's often controversial Family Guy, a hugely popular animated comedy series that is known not only for its razor-sharp humor but also its merciless lack of sensitivity. In that episode, two of the characters took several trips back in time, at one point preventing 9/11 and at another making sure that it happened.
Clearly, Family Guy goes too far on so regular a basis that a vague sense of offense fatigue shields it from critical or cultural attack. Everyone and everything has been the target of series creator Seth MacFarlane and his cohorts throughout the history of the show, so if everyone is equally offended then we should all be okay with it, right?
I'm guessing a number of people might answer "wrong," given a full review of that episode's storyline. From where I sit, 9/11 is still off limits, and I really can't say how much time will have to go by before I'll feel otherwise, if indeed I ever will. And yet, I can't say I was deeply offended by what I watched. I understand that sensitivities to such terrible events vary from person to person, but I have to ask: in general, how many years have to pass before unthinkable horror becomes comfortable comedy material?
There was much of MacFarlane's usual comic genius on display during the Nov. 20 show, which found Stewie and the Griffin family dog Brian traveling back in time on a mission to locate a tennis ball Brian had buried many years earlier. They landed in the Griffin yard in January 1999, smack in the middle of the Family Guy pilot, where they watched themselves play out much of that long-ago episode, including the moment when Lois interrupted Stewie's efforts to build a mind-control device and he horridly snarled, "Damn you, vile woman! You've impeded my work since the day I escaped from your wretched womb!"
Before Stewie and Brian returned to the present, Brian violated the No. 1 rule of time travel -- do not alter the past in any way or the consequences could be dire -- by telling his January 1999 self about the September 2001 attacks. They returned to the altered 2011 just in time to catch a news report about the unveiling in their town of a statue of Brian, a national hero because he indeed prevented 9/11.
The news report included an amateur video that showed Brian, presumably on American Airlines Flight 11 (the first plane to be boarded by terrorists that morning), retrieving a bat he had hidden in the compartment above his seat. "Time to terrorize the terrorists!" he cried before beating two of them senseless. "Mohamed oughta'd stayed home!" he boasted, taking a not-so-subtle swipe at 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta. Brian then radioed the control tower. "Tell them to ground every plane out of the East Coast!" he commanded as the passengers cheered.
A very tasteless joke followed the news report, as one of the anchors announced, "Coming up next in sports: Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman tackled by his own team!" (There was no excuse for that one.)
Stewie's fears about altering the future by changing the past proved true, as a subsequent news report revealed that nine southern states had declared that they were seceding from the United States and that George W. Bush had reformed the Confederacy after a bitter loss in his re-election bid.
"Bush lost in 2004?" Stewie asked?
"He probably couldn't exploit people's fears with no 9/11," Brian surmised.
Stewie and Brian then traveled five years into the future to see if the world really had gone to hell. Sure enough, there was war-torn devastation as far as they could see; the result of concentrated nuclear strikes up and down the eastern seaboard that resulted in more than 17 million deaths during the New American Civil War. Then they hurriedly went back to their original 1999 destination to put the past back in order. When they returned once again to 2011, Stewie hopped online to see if 9/11 had indeed happened. It had.
"We did it!" he happily exclaimed. "We made 9/11 happen! High five!" Then, in hushed voice, he added, "Wow. That probably wouldn't look very good out of context." The story continued, with Brian altering the past once again by becoming the author of the Harry Potter books.
All the 9/11 stuff was very smart and clever, and not significantly tasteless (like the Tillman joke or, some might argue, the bit about a bitter Bush blithely starting another Civil War), but it was somewhat troubling just the same. Was I uncomfortable because Family Guy went there or because I wasn't as put off by it as I thought I should have been? I also wonder if MacFarlane himself was at all uncomfortable given the fact that he was supposed to be on Flight 11 that morning but arrived at Logan Airport too late to board the plane.
This column was first published on the MediaPost TV Board.