Family Guy premiered in 1999 following Super Bowl XXXIII. The series quickly established itself as a parody of more traditional sitcoms, running for three seasons on Fox before being canceled in 2002. But before an era where television revivals were the norm instead of the exception, Family Guy became enough of a cult favorite that it was brought back to television screens in 2005 -- albeit, darker than before.
Now in its 17th season, Family Guy has become one of the longest running primetime series currently on television. In that time, the lives of the Griffin family members (Peter, Lois, Chris, Meg, Stewie and Brian) have gone through a number of drastic changes in tone, style and self-awareness. Looking back on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the series' premiere, Family Guy has proven to have one of the most unique histories of any modern television series.
Canceled To Cult Classic
The first season of Family Guy aired on Sunday nights and was paired with The Simpsons, leading the freshman year of the show to achieve high ratings. But it was moved to Thursday nights for the second season and ratings declined thanks to stiff competition in the time slot from massive hits like Survivor and Friends. The series was even almost canceled following the second year, but managed to survive into a third season.
By all accounts, that should have been the last we ever saw of the Griffin family. But two factors, previously unheard of in television, played a role in reviving the show. The first was that syndication rights for Family Guy were sold to Cartoon Network, which added reruns of the series to its Adult Swim block of adult-oriented programming.
The series was a huge success for the network, earning some of the highest-ratings of any show on the channel. This exposure helped push the other driving factor behind the revival of the series: DVD collections of the show. The first DVD volume of episodes sold 400,000 copies in the first month of release, going on to sell over 2 million copies.
After three years off the air, Family Guy was brought back by Fox in 2005 to huge ratings and increased awareness. But it didn't return the same as it was before.
Changing With The Times
The new version of Family Guy proved to be stranger and more unexpected then the previous run of episodes. The characters all gained an edge of cruelty to them and became broader versions of their earlier incarnations. The most obvious change saw the series defacto protagonist, Peter, go from a doofus Dad into a dangerous idiot, with most of the cast changing similarly in the process.
Peter also saw his role reduce over time, allowing more room for Stewie (who went from a mad genius to a surprisingly lonely but brilliant little boy) and Brian (who gained more of a personality, including some very notable flaws) to supersede him. The humor of the show followed suit. Many of the jokes were already considered sophomoric, but after it was revived, Family Guy seemed to double down on the surprisingly graphic violence and sexuality it now had leeway to get away with.
Part of these changes stemmed from the departure of producers/writers Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, who turned their attention to American Dad!, a new collaboration with creator Seth MacFarlane. Another new aspect of the show was the changing sense of humor. Always dark and leaning into the surreal, Family Guy increasingly focused its attention into shock humor, upping the number of cutaway gags utilized during the show and turning episodes into less complete stories.
It also found itself at the center of the cultural conversation and was regularly criticized and mocked by other shows like The Simpsons and South Park. All of this left amore bitter tone than it had before, with much of the humor becoming harsher. This is the period where The Simpsons called Peter Griffin plagiarism. Family Guy responded by having Quagmire assault Marge and kill her entire family.
Even within the show, the series took a harder edge then before, especially in regards to Meg Griffin. The oft-forgotten member of the family quickly became a cosmic punching-bag, the ultimate example of the changing tone of the series' humor.