By Tyler Hersko

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard the news: Brian Griffin is dead.

If you haven’t, then…Uh, spoiler alert.

Brian, the anthropomorphic dog of “Family Guy” fame, was unceremoniously run over by a car on Nov 24 in the “Life of Brian” episode. While some critics considered the episode’s shocking plot to have been handled with uncharacteristic respect and reverence, audience backlash was unsurprisingly entirely negative.brian   by mjambon

Petitions to repeal the change and threats to boycott the show entirely were abound, and while it’s unlikely that such outcries will have any sort of real impact, they have accomplished one thing: people are talking about “Family Guy” again.

There is much speculation as to whether or not Brian’s departure from the show is permanent. Several upcoming episodes have “Brian” in the title, and the dog’s name additionally appears on the voice cast list for a handful of future episodes — though it should be noted that he was also listed on the voice cast for last Sunday’s episode, despite not having any actual role.

Whether or not Brian returns to the show, regularly or otherwise, his controversial demise could have several outcomes. Could such a drastic plot twist serve to revitalize a franchise that has been stagnant for several years? Or, is the death of one of the show’s most popular characters merely a foreshadowing of the inevitable fate of “Family Guy”?

While I believe that despite the obvious sadness of the episode, many good things could come of it, but for the moment, it’s hard to remain optimistic.

Judging the family’s new dog, Vinny, so soon after Brian’s death isn’t exactly fair, but it’s hard to deny that the Tony Sirico-voiced replacement simply comes off as bland. Vinny is Italian, therefore he is loud and the frequent subject of Italian jokes. The character comes off as an overlong version of a typical one-dimensional Family Guy cutaway.

While bias against Vinny may be present, it’s hard to deny the fact that the dynamic between Brian and Stewie Griffin was a dominating factor — if not the sole driving force — in the franchise’s continuous popularity. Few would argue that “Family Guy” is far from what it used to be.

While there are usually a few legitimately entertaining episodes each season, much of the franchise has come to rely on the same tired jokes and gags ad nauseam.  Those that do stand out almost always have a focus on the unhinged interplay between Brian and Stewie.

It remains to be seen if Vinny will be able to provide the same level of relatable, dry-witted humor that Brian did for well over a decade. So far, there’s unfortunately scant incentive to assume that that will be the case.

Looking past the obvious changes in cast, Brian’s death may have several positive connotations. It may well be a sign that the show’s writers have become more willing to reestablish “Family Guy” as an animated sitcom that is capable of more than just pop culture gags and inside jokes.

In 11 full seasons, several relatively minor characters were killed off, and Bonnie Swanson gave birth after several years of pregnancy. Oh, and Cleveland Brown moved out of town to star in his own television show, which might as well have been titled “Less Funny Family Guy for Black People.”

The show has long since passed the divide between consistency and repetition, and the utter lack of progression has really hurt the comedic aspect of “Family Guy” in recent years.

If future episode titles and descriptions are any indication, however, there’s a fair chance that Brian’s death could shape the tone and plot for a good portion of the season’s remainder.

It’d be a refreshing change of pace for “Family Guy” to create humor outside of half-assed pop-culture references. Brian’s death may be the catalyst for “Family Guy” to return to the kind of smart and sensible — yet undeniably racy and off-kilter — comedy that the series was originally acclaimed for. And this is but one major plot twist; the aforementioned Brown family — a staple set of characters in the show’s earlier years — is scheduled to return to the show later this season.

Brian’s passing is about as tragic as the death of any animated character could get. While the Griffin’s replacement dog has yet to prove his worth, with luck, the death of Brian may be just what “Family Guy” needed to return to its former state of comedic glory.

Tyler Hersko can be reached at thersko@nevadasagebrush.com.