Created by 25-year-old wunderkind Seth MacFarlane, the weekly, half-hour cartoon series Family Guy shamelessly -- and hilariously -- exploited the nothing sacred, anything goes TV animation field fostered by such earlier trailblazers as The Simpsons and South Park. Set in Quahog, a suburb of Providence, RI, the series' main characters were the Griffin family: dad Peter, an impulsive fathead who worked at a local toy factory and who turned "dysfunctional parenting" into an art form; mom Lois, a frustrated social climber who bore the humiliation heaped upon her by her family in quiet desperation; 16-year old daughter Meg, as high-strung and neurotic as they came; 13-year-old son Chris, whose oafish slothfulness gave other slackers a bad name; and little Stewie, a sinister-looking one-year-old infant with an erudite vocabulary, the mind of a serial killer, and the ambitions of Genghis Khan. By contrast, the family's talking, martini-imbibing dog, Brian, was a monument to well-adjusted normalcy. The Griffins' neighbors included whiny, self-loathing Cleveland, paraplegic police officer Joe Swanson, and sex-obsessed Glen Quagmire.
The tone of the series was established by its debut episode, "Death Has a Shadow," originally telecast just after Super Bowl XXXIII on January 31, 1999, in which most of the running time was devoted to the gimlet-eyed Stewie's elaborate efforts to murder his mother! Making its formal debut over the Fox network on April 6 of that same year, the series followed the Simpsons pattern of irreverent, iconoclastic plotlines, cutting-edge, borderline obscene dialogue, and wildly non sequitur pop-cultural references. However, Family Guy went far beyond Simpsons or any other prime time cartoon of its era in its pursuit of the bizarre and the grotesque, and also heaped on more culture-shock gags, in jokes, and obscure movie and literature references than any other series in living memory. It was not an unusual sight to see Peter and Lois don S&M gear before going to bed, or for a pimple on Chris' cheek to suddenly develop a diabolical mind of its own, or for Stewie and Brian to embark upon European vacations at the drop of a hat, or for Meg to watch her slumber party morph into a ribald MTV-esque reality series. Finally, name another series of the era in which the head of the family would kidnap Pope John Paul I in broad daylight just to prove a point to his father, or a mob boss would demand that the family take a petulant "wiseguy" to the movies, or Mr. Death (skull, scythe, and all) would break his bony leg in the family living room and be forced into a Man Who Came to Dinner extended stay-over, or a disgruntled paterfamilias would try to figure a way out when actor James Woods insisted upon being his best friend forever! (Woods was one of several celebrities who provided voices for their "surprise" appearances. Others included Adam West, Victoria Principal, Gene Simmons, Erik Estrada, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage).
If ever a cartoon series was creator-driven, Family Guy was it. Not only did Seth MacFarlane produce, direct, and write the series, but he also provided most of the character voices. The series also eminently qualified as a "cult favorite," in that it attracted a huge following of fiercely loyal fans but never did particularly well in the ratings. This was largely due to the cavalier attitude of the Fox network, whose programmers repeatedly shuttled the series from one "sudden death" timeslot to another and pre-empted it at the slightest opportunity. It was not until Fox canceled the show and it was picked up for rerun play on cable's Cartoon Network that Family Guy truly built an audience -- an audience so large that the show regularly out-rated such late night network attractions as Jay Leno and David Letterman in several major markets. Even more successful was the show's first DVD release in 2003. So many units were sold in so short a time that, beginning in the spring of 2005, Fox restored Family Guy to its prime time schedule with brand new episodes -- the first instance in which a series made a network comeback solely on the basis of its home-video popularity. Seth MacFarlane immediately responded to this move by brazenly biting the hand that fed him, poking cruel fun at the hidebound "standards and practices" people at Fox and having Peter Griffin rattle off a list of all the failed Fox series in the past two decades.
If MacFarlane seemed unhibited during Family Guy's original run, he absolutely ran wild in the "new" version, merrily tossing in random running gags and inside jokes that only the series' most encyclopedic of fans could fully appreciate. (On one episode, for example, the plot stopped dead in its tracks for an extended fist-fight sequence that had been carried over from the previous week!) While many non-fans were turned off by the excesses of the renewed Family Guy, there were millions of other viewers who swallowed those excesses whole and demanded even more.