I have no problem with Seth MacFarlane as an animator, comedian, writer, or person. I’ve never cared for Family Guy – its humor and animation strike me as lazy without reason, the result not of an aesthetic choice (like South Park’s anarchic cut-outs or the elevated reality of The Simpsons’ yellow caricatures) but refusal to push itself to greater heights – and I haven’t seen American Dad or The Cleveland Show enough to cast judgment. From what I understand, aside from placing more focus on politics and an African American cast, all three shows are riffs on the same theme: dysfunctional family portrayed with simple animation and pop culture references.
But Seth MacFarlane? Nothing against him. He’s a hard-working man in a neglected field who cares about his work and fans. He is a great voice actor, a welcome supporter of gay rights and other social causes, and he seems to be an all-around nice guy. And now with Ted MacFarlane shows he has a knack for live-action humor, the format in some ways counteracting the flaws of his animation work, loosening and unifying his humor around a specific brand of Boston-slacker wisecracks. Its his soundest, most focused work yet, and it delivers big laughs early on. But it sadly falls apart in the end as MacFarlane’s flaws and hang-ups get in the way: It starts off looking great, and ends up being just all right. How does it get there?
Ted starts with a prologue taking us to one Christmas morning in Boston. An unpopular boy named John Bennet receives a plush Teddy Bear for Christmas with an “I love you” voice function that activates when hugged. Today’s cynical youth might be offended by such an old-timey gift, but MacFarlane strikes the right, earnest tone in what’s a lovely callback to Winnie the Pooh, A Christmas Story, and other holiday classics, complete with warm, honey-toned narration by Patrick Stewart. John is ecstatic. He embraces the bear and declares it his best friend. They spent their first moments together watching Flash Gordon (You remember? The one with the Queen soundtrack?), and that night he wishes the bear could really talk. As luck would have it, a shooting star passes by, and the next morning Teddy (as he’s called then) greets John with unfiltered sweetness. His voice is high and youthful – not yet corrupted by MacFarlane’s raunchy drawl. John is excited, and even his parents, after the initial “Holy shit!!!” at seeing a talking bear, are won over. The media crowds around the Christmas miracle and turn Ted into an overnight sensation, but behind the glitz, he promises John through it all they’ll be “thunder buddies for life.”
Cut to twenty-seven years later. The fame has passed, as it does with all overnight sensations, and Ted (voiced in later years by MacFarlane), spirals into a crime-drug-women induced haze. He’s still thunder buddies with John (now played by Mark Wahlberg), who hangs out with him in the apartment still watching Flash Gordon, doing bong hits, and arguing whether Boston girls are the sleaziest or what. Ted has no intention of even imitating an adult lifestyle, but John tries his hardest. He works at a car rental store and has dated a girl for four years. The girl is Lori (Mila Kunis) and she genuinely likes John and all his geek habits. She appreciates Ted too – at first, but after four years of dating without a marriage proposal, Lori suspects a bad case of arrested development in both her boyfriend and his teddy bear.
Already Ted does more than Family Guy by making clear its central theme: the transitory nature of celebrity-dom and childhood innocence. Ted has a love for retro-schlock-and-nerd culture, as does Seth MacFarlane, that butts heads with the modern entertainment he relentlessly skewers, from Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill to Tweeting to PS3s, and while it’s always been part of his schtick, here MacFarlane makes it a part of character too. Ted really is trapped in the past: lashing out at the modern world and lovingly referencing the past are defense mechanisms as much as good comedy bits.
It also keeps the focus narrow and precise. The pop culture references are limited to rapid-fire dialogue and cameos rather than disconnected cutaway jokes, keeping the humor rooted in the story and its characters. There’s only one cutaway in the whole film, an out-of-left field parody of a parody referencing Airplane!‘s jab at Saturday Night Fever. Otherwise there’s the reoccurring obsession with Flash Gordon, a wonderful character trait when the film begins that evolves and snowballs until it culminates in the film’s best sequence, an out-of-control party led by a coke-head B-movie star. That’s one of the benefits of feature-length live action. It allows you to take a pop culture reference and expand upon it, something Family Guy never bothered to do with half an hour, but MacFarlane more than makes up for in Ted.
If you couldn’t tell, MacFarlane steals the spotlight of his own movie as the talking bear, although he has a worthy sparring partner in Mark Walhberg, who’s always excelled as the straight man and puts his quiet enthusiasm to good use here. Even as the least human presence on screen, MacFarlane’s voice, delivery, and comic personality are all liberated by the motion-cap technology. On Family Guy, MacFarlane always sounded stilted regardless of his work’s quality because the flat animation didn’t match the belligerent wordplay he’s depended on. Given a 3D, physical presence, with computer animation that makes his teddy bear body mesh seamlessly with the human forms around him, and a mouth that wiggles and wobbles to all the syllables he spits, MacFarlane can not only write his best material but deliver it with the loose, disarming comfort of a standup on stage. Some parts – his lecture on good comedic substitution of syllables in names for the word “Brewski,” a visit to the aquarium where he dubs over the fish’s inner dialogue – sound so fresh I suspect they’re improvised. They feel in the moment, even coming from the mouth of a plush, CGI bear.
So what’s the problem? The jokes are there, the premise is solid with sturdy structure, and Seth MacFarlane stands at the top of his game, poised for greater things than his TV career has delivered. Where does he fall apart?
The truth lies in what his ironic deadpan can’t conceive, the comic tics and slips revealing unintended prejudices and ignorance. Here we find Seth MacFarlane’s deep, uncontrolled indulgences, bordering on self-worship, along with his greatest weakness: an inability to break from his very male comic mindset, leaving every female actor in the movie with nothing to do.
I don’t think Seth MacFarlane is egotistical, although having all the power he does at the Fox Network, controlling half its content and dictating the direction of modern comedy, I imagine he’s aware of his importance. He also knows his name is the reason people have heard of and are seeing Ted and the character he voices is the heart of the movie’s comedy. That said, MacFarlane knows enough to kid himself – everyone who’s commented on Ted sounding just like Peter Griffin, the film takes note – so he’s not bloated to U2 levels of cockiness. But MacFarlane also dreads – why, I don’t know – taking Ted’s immature hedonism to its logical conclusions. The film has to end with Ted absolved of his sins – putting a strain on John and Lori’s relationship, holding John back from adulthood – and canonized. In the film’s climax, after Ted is kidnapped by a psychopathic father (Giovanni Ribisi) and his equally creepy son, there’s a long, dramatic moment without a single laugh where we’re supposed to feel bad for Ted. The film’s satirical tone disappears and we’re supposed to forget about the horrible things Ted is responsible for, but as is it just feels weird, like the film forgot its own theme of arrested development and wasted lives. I sat in a crowded house and the audience shifted awkwardly until the moment ended and the laughs came back. Nobody felt the emotions that scene was aiming for.
The reality is: Ted is not a character we feel sorry for. We sympathize perhaps when things go wrong, and more than likely admire him for saying what no self-respecting person would ever dare, but pity does not stick for too long on his fuzzy exterior. So when MacFarlane does an about-face and has Ted running around, apologizing and trying to clean up his mess, before turning into a near-tragic hero, it goes against the essence of the character Ted has built up. It’s a narrative device for the sake of a narrative device, and it has the unintentional consequence of making MacFarlane look like he’s idolizing himself, driving in the point that he’s the star of the movie and his character’s fate affects us more than the human characters.
And aside from maybe Wahlberg, we don’t have much investment in the human characters, especially the women. Here’s another sad reality: Ted does not have any funny women.
That it’s coarse, raunchy, and provocative is no excuse: I point to Bridesmaids and rest my case. I’m not objecting to the fact none of the female characters are the center of comic attention – clearly this is Ted, and he deserves his spotlight – but even when they’re supporting characters, MacFarlane has no clue what to do with anybody without a penis. He can’t write them jokes or give them a story arc–which even the most minor male character is privy to. The only substantial roles he can think of are “annoyed girlfriend” and “drunk party girl / hooker.”
I direct your attention to the picture several paragraphs up: can you guess what profession those four women have? It’s not a trick question. Now guess how much dialogue MacFarlane gives any of the four women? The answer: None. Zippo. Zilch. In what’s otherwise a funny scene, these girls sit around, gawking awkwardly as Ted and Mark Wahlberg engage all the comic lines. Once again, them being bit roles is no excuse. Preston Sturges, one of the greatest comic writers and directors of all time, made sure every role, from the leads to the supporting crew to the waiter who came on screen for ten seconds, got a moment to shine. The leads had to make sure they weren’t upstaged by the world around them. It’s not only possible but beneficial to comedy, where laughter can come from all corners, from any type of person: blue-collar man, talking teddy bear, businesswoman, prostitute, etc. It plays to what’s often the driving force of comedy, delivering the unexpected. Popular prejudice doesn’t see much in prostitutes beyond the profession and its erotic trappings. MacFarlane has a huge opportunity to break this stereotype and show real humanity and comic equality. And he blows it irrevocably.
MacFarlane has always been male-centric, from Family Guy to now, and the only time a woman is associated with a laugh is when a male character makes a comment that makes them the target of the joke. Case in point: after an argument between John and Lori, Lori storms off, leaving John disconsolate. Ted reassures him he’ll have her back soon; besides, she’s probably just watching some sappy rom-com like Bridget Jones’s Diary and crying. A minute later, we cut to her apartment… guess what she’s doing? It’s like women in the MacFarlane universe are extensions of the male mind. They can’t even voice their own thoughts with the speed and wit of the male characters, no matter how dumb the men are.
It’s mind-boggling how MacFarlane can staunchly avoid giving women comic roles. He allows a female cameo in Ted, a person I would never expect in this or any other movie, and in a situation rife with comedic potential MacFarlane reduces her to an “I’d fuck her” joke. At what point does a writer have to face their weakness and acknowledge they must write for all humans, men and women? I don’t think MacFarlane is sexist or intentionally excluding women. I think he’s never really tried to write from their perspective, and he doesn’t want to start now. Well, his refusal colors Ted enough it directly affected my enjoyment in the film’s second half, when it became clear nothing in his approach would change.
Having said that, I’m still optimistic about Seth MacFarlane’s prospects. Ted suggests a definite direction to his career rather than the static pandering inherent in his animated work. Now he just has to admit to himself that comedy is asexual and his characters don’t all need redemption. Then, perhaps, we might receive a work with all of Ted‘s promise and the execution it only wishes it had.