Seth Macfarlane’s directorial debut is like Family Guy with a pulse - but it isn’t nearly as original or funny as it is cracked up to be.
The words ‘offensive’ and ‘controversial’ are often used to describe the comedy of Seth Macfarlane. Family Guy, the animated sitcom to which he owes his fame and fortune, has, since its debut in 1999, been mired in controversy and the constant threat of cancellation. Building upon the formula laid out by The Simpsons, the show has taken familiar sitcom arcs and layered them with irreverent humour and pop-culture references, yet has remained somewhat more risqué in its content.
During its first few seasons, Fox - the US network that broadcast the show - came under constant pressure from conservative groups, and entire episodes were pulled due to their supposedly inflammatory nature. With somewhat underwhelming ratings and increasing pressure from the easily offended, Fox almost pulled the plug at the end of the show’s second season. While it limped on for a third run, Family Guy was officially cancelled in 2001. However, the programme’s colossal DVD sales, which made it the second most successful TV box-set ever, meant Fox eventually renewed its contract.
Now, with 10 seasons under its belt, it is one of Fox’s biggest earners and Family Guy is free to be as rude as it pleases. As a result, it is often held up as one of the recent examples of coarse-but-quality TV triumphing over the censors and the politically correct. But that remains a gross overestimation of the show, both in terms of its humour and its ability to offend. In truth, the prize belongs to South Park, the crudest and cleverest show that network rival Comedy Central has ever produced, by which Family Guy pales in comparison.
With Ted, Macfarlane’s cinematic directorial debut, he seeks to push the limits of the Family Guy formula but ends up producing an unfunny and unsurprising film which attests to how acceptable and relatively tame his style of comedy has become.
The film centres on a thirtysomething rental-car salesman called John (Mark Wahlberg), who is forced to choose between his long-term girlfriend, Laurie (Mila Kunis), and his best friend, a talking teddy bear called Ted (voiced by Macfarlane). As a dejected youth, John made a Christmas wish for his cuddly toy to come to life, yet while Ted initially gives him the friendship and confidence he always yearned for, 20 years down the line he has become little more than a bad influence. Laurie has itchy feet and is hoping for a marriage proposal, yet this seems less and less likely as John constantly ditches work and cancels their plans to go and smoke weed, watch TV and make fart jokes with his teddy bear.
Henceforth, hilarity is presumably meant to ensue, but at every turn the comedy is underwhelming and predictable. Ted is really just a fluffy stand-in for Peter Griffin - the meat-headed, loudmouth patriarch from Family Guy - with Macfarlane even affecting the same voice he uses in the series. While the script knowingly jibes at the similarity, it still feels incredibly lazy. Similarly, the rampant references to popular culture which define Family Guy are scattered throughout this script, too, but are used in an even more shallow and obvious way than usual.
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Macfarlane is clearly influenced by the sort of broad comedy that David Zucker & Co defined with the likes of Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, but his script lacks the kind of wit and absurdity that made those films so great. What we have instead is a lot of swearing and over-reliance on the spectacle of a cuddly toy taking bong hits and hiring prostitutes. Not only do Ted’s antics wear thin rather quickly but even at its most crude, Ted is no more shocking in its humour than The Hangover or any number of irreverent comedies we’ve seen in the last few years. It would be a lie to say that Ted never raises a smile, but more often than not it feels woefully sophomoric.
The plot, too, is unremarkable. The romance vs bromance arc plods along as expected, with the familiar characters announcing themselves so blatantly that they may as well be referred to as ‘love rival’ or ‘wacky co-worker’ to save on giving them proper names. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with inhabiting established forms, if you’re going to do something interesting with them - but, as strange as it sounds, even the inclusion of a womanising, pot-head teddy bear doesn’t manage to set Ted apart from the usual fare.
In many ways, Macfarlane is a victim of his own success. With Family Guy, he brought crude comedy to a stratospheric level of popularity, and as he trots out the same style in his first feature it fails to shock, let alone entertain. As the old adage goes, comedy is only obscene when it isn’t funny; this is eminently true of Ted.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.
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