July 3rd, 2012




            Family Guy has taken a lot of flack over the last couple of years.  Most of the blame for the supposed decline of the show has been (fairly) pinned on Seth McFarlane, whose singular vision is what made Family Guy worthwhile in the first place.  But, I think most of the criticism directed towards McFarlane has been misdirected, because the frustration with the current Family Guy product is much more a result of our own tendency to grow weary with established comedy formats (which makes the 23-year run of The Simpsons all the more incredible).  Comedy, which is always based on the elements of surprise and absurdity, grows stale after we've wizened up to the processes that make it work.  And besides, no matter how many internet comments or blogs you read that swear off Family Guy altogether, you can still find episodes, both new and old, endlessly recapitulated all over the TV landscape.  And with the ready availability of the entire Family Guy catalogue, one can easily see that McFarlane hasn't gone soft; if anything he's ratcheted up his assault on anyone within the public eye.  The first seasons of Family Guy seem tame compared to the more recent seasons; though the primary complaint about McFarlane is that he plays it "safe" nowadays.  This disconnect between our perception of the past and present is born of comedy's recent move towards determined explicitness.  Every TV show, not just Family Guy, can be considered almost politically correct compared to the balls-to-the-wall impropriety seen on premium cable or in movies.  Whether it is the new trend to expose male genitalia or the ever-presence of the F-Bomb, primetime comedy is as dirty and subversive as ever.  If there were any doubts about McFarlane and his first attempt at a feature-length movie, it was that he would only give us more of his garden-variety form of bland humor.  But instead, he goes for the jugular, and the result is pretty damn enjoyable.

            Ted's story revolves around John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), who find their relationship hindered by John's childhood friend: a talking Teddy Bear named Ted, who was endowed with human life by a falling star.  The crux of the story is a bald-faced tale of maturity: of a boy becoming a man.  John must find a balance with his slacker lifestyle and the growing responsibilities of adulthood (marriage, work, money, etc.).  John finds this to be almost impossible, not only because of Ted's influence, but because he seems unwilling or unable to abandon the rosy memory of his past.  Still, the film funnels John towards making a choice between Ted, and all the things that were, and Lori, and all the things that will be.

            The humor of the film rests upon the cutting, twisted dialogues between John and Ted, who carry an Everyman's brand of cynicism.  But their quips are softened by their geniality and lightheartedness.  To me, this is why McFarlane's comedy works: it isn't angry comedy.  It is observant and clever, but is more interested in fun than degradation.  McFarlane's particular brand of comedy depends on a careful mixture of raunchy and dorky.  His misfires stem from a tendency towards cultural references that honor a nerd culture nostalgic for the past.  Ted incorporates a long and involved obsession with the 1980 crap-fest Flash Gordon.  I didn't care for the reference because it isn't a cultural pinpoint I'm familiar with.  I would even wager that the vast majority of Ted's audience is similarly confounded by all the Flash Gordon nonsense.  That is the fine line McFarlane walks: when his references are recognizable, his social commentary is spot on and hilarious, but when his references are more obscure, it feels like he's telling inside jokes that we aren't privy to.  I've often felt this way about certain Family Guy episodes.  The jokes that miss the mark for me are the ones that are focused on some long-forgotten fragment of the past.  And, in many ways, Ted is just an extended, uncensored Family Guy episode with live actors (even the actors are plucked from Family Guy, as Kunis, McFarlane, and Alex Borstein, who plays John's mom, comprise the core of the Family Guy voice cast).  In translating his comedy to Ted, McFarlane's dependency on the well-established comedy of Family Guy is both an advantage and a detriment, as it allows him to stick to his comfort zone, giving Wahlberg and Ted plenty of hilarious things to say, but stunting the narrative into a farce as cartoon-ish as one of the most absurd Family Guy plots.

            Personally, I wouldn't have objected to two hours of Wahlberg and Ted sitting on a couch talking to each other and getting high; their rapport is that entertaining (which is a huge credit to Wahlberg's adaptability, whose counterpoint is a nothing more than a CGI Teddy Bear).  But movies, more than TV shows, depend up story structure.  Ted would have benefited from a story that was as good as the one-liners that punctuated its comedic vibrancy.  In one regard, McFarlane (who wrote and directed the film) did a superb job of putting a new twist on a familiar theme.  We've all seen coming of age films in which slackers struggle with the loss of childhood under the realization of manhood, but McFarlane complicates the matter by offering his protagonist a real-life Teddy Bear that is a tangible link to his juvenile past.  Through Ted, John really could remain a boy forever, holding onto his childish fears (Thunder Buddies for life!) and refusing to commit to his adult responsibilities.  Unfortunately, McFarlane does not take that next step with the subject material and attempt to transcend the story into something meaningful.  In fact, he doesn't attempt to resolve the story at all.  Like Judd Apatow before him, McFarlane relies on the inexplicable intervention of love to handle the complications of his characters.  McFarlane brings almost nothing new to the "man struggling with the onset of adulthood" premise.  The plot of Ted is resolved by a frantic, almost completely meaningless chase scene into Fenway Park.  In the end, Lori takes John back for the same reasons she kicked him out: his utter devotion to Ted.  For narrative purposes, this make no sense.  Nothing has changed, yet we are force fed the idea that things will work out.  It's the type of resolution that we accept in cartoons because...well, they're cartoons.  Ted neglects the more complicated issues of maturation that can only assuaged with the passage of time and the wisdom of compromise.

            Much is left unexplained at the end of Ted.  How did Lori know there would be another shooting star?  Will Ted move back in?  Will Lori's boss stop being a creep?  What's to stop Giovanni Ribisi from bear-napping Ted tomorrow?  Films are required to elicit questions in a general sense, but only questions of meaning and substance, not confusion over simple particulars of the story.  After two hours of Ted, everyone was right back where they started.  The credits are utilized (always a weak way to conclude a story) to explain a few things that happen later on, like John and Lori getting married, but with none of the other issues resolved (did John ever get that promotion?), we can only assume that things will go wrong again:  Ted will continue being the lovable instigator that he always was, John will follow him down the slacker rabbit-hole, and Lori will continue to tolerate the outright sexual harassment of her boss.

            Still, Ted is enjoyable enough that one can almost disregard the failures of the plot.  It's a brand of humor very particular to McFarlane and, unchained by the censorship of television, the comedy really pops.  If you lower your sights a little (literally and figuratively), you can almost fall in love with this foul-mouthed Teddy Bear.  And if you lower your expectations, the same can be said of McFarlane; you just have to ignore the half-assed storylines and concentrate on the quality of the dick jokes.