The best thing about Ted is that it is 100% Seth MacFarlane, which, depending on your opinion, might also be the worst thing about Ted. I’m torn on the subject — while MacFarlane kind of rubs me the wrong way, I can’t deny that I have laughed loudly and with varying regularity at many Family Guy episodes. On the other hand, I actually get offended sometimes while watching Family Guy, which is strangely embarrassing/uncool to admit. But, whether you like MacFarlane or not, his (and, by extension, Ted’s) idiosyncrasies are his/its best quality.
The fact that Ted comes from his distinct voice separates it from the bulk of other comedies, which are written and rewritten by unwieldy screenwriting committees, tuned to audience expectations via test screenings and focus group sessions, and generally chopped up and reconfigured in a desperate attempt to please everyone. Those films are like an extended joke told by six different people (and overseen by twelve others) — muddled, overcooked, cobbled together; they are bland and generic because they are created through compromise and conformity. Conversely, Ted is like a joke told by one guy; whether or not you find the joke funny is going to depend in large amount on whether or not your sensibilities match that of the joke-teller. But at least he got an honest crack at it; he didn’t have an overbearing co-worker constantly interrupting and spoiling the punch-line. Ted doesn’t feel particularly manufactured or calculated or soulless, and MacFarlane doesn’t seem overly concerned about whether you like the jokes, or even get them.
At least from a comedy perspective, MacFarlane is an auteur. There are no scenes in Ted that feel like they were written by anyone else (except maybe the surprisingly sentimental ones, the film’s only true “shock”). MacFarlane actually did collaborate on the script with two other writers, but they are both part of his Family Guy staff, and are already part of the creative stamp he has cultivated. In this sense, MacFarlane’s work is reminiscent of other, more critically recognized comedic writers, like Woody Allen. You could have Michael Bay direct a Woody Allen script, and it would still retain Allen’s influence — there’s a quintessential essence to his dialogue, his scenarios, and his characters that is almost tangibly distinctive. MacFarlane has that same quality. In most Hollywood comedies, any sense of individuality is usually imparted by lead actors (i.e. what you’ve come to expect from an Adam Sandler movie) or franchises (i.e. what you’ve come to expect from an American Pie movie). It’s nice to see a writer/director who can impart something unique onto his films. Or, more to the point, it’s nice to see a writer/director get the opportunity to do so.
Ted is sure to have its share of haters, just like Family Guy does. There is no doubt that Family Guy is highly derivative of and much less respected than its forerunners, The Simpsons and South Park. It lacks South Park’s satirical bite, and can’t match the storytelling ability or the consistency of jokes that marked the vintage Simpson’s years (although it is ironic that while Peter Griffin started off as a crude copy of Homer Simpson, Homer has now become a sad clone of the more gratuitous Peter). But, for all its derivation, Family Guy has its own unmistakable flavor, present in Ted’s odd obsession with the fringes of pop culture (Flash Gordon and Tom Skerritt), its flippant mockery of homosexuality/women/non-whites (MacFarlane would probably say he’s mocking bigotry towards those groups, but it’s a fine line), and its unexpected bursts of violence. If you like Family Guy, I’m 99% confident you will like Ted. It should be noted that I also feel this way because Mark Wahlberg is excellent in the film, and Mila Kunis does as much as possible with a role that doesn’t give her enough to do. They have great chemistry, to the point where I kind of want them to start dating in real life.
Ted’s most disorienting quality comes from hearing MacFarlane’s easily recognizable dialogue delivered by live-action actors instead of (well, in addition to) animated characters. After absorbing so many Family Guy episodes (which appear so ubiquitously on TV that it is almost impossible to avoid them), as well as smaller doses of unloved siblings The Cleveland Show and American Dad!, I’ve become quite accustomed to MacFarlane’s style — his quirks and tendencies, his strengths and flaws, and the various elements that define his comedic voice. All of those qualities are on full display in Ted, with the glaring difference that they are now embodied by Wahlberg and Kunis et al, rather than Peter and Lois Griffin et al. Of course, the computer-animated Ted is the centerpiece of the movie, and he provides a large portion of its jokes and choice one-liners. But there’s still something odd about hearing Wahlberg dropping jokes that were so clearly scripted by the man behind the Griffin clan.
It’s interesting that MacFarlane’s voice is so noticeable in Ted because, at least in terms of narrative, the film is really cliché and unoriginal. The characters behave exactly like they do in so many other romantic comedies, acting out arcs that have been traced over time and time again. The romantic leads have well-worn misunderstandings and arguments, while Wahlberg and Ted go through the same friendship dynamic that you’ve seen in dozens of other films (Superbad, 21 Jump Street, Wayne’s World, and Pineapple Express to name just a few). A male character publicly performs a love song in an attempt to win back his ex, a la The Wedding Singer, Role Models, etc. He’s a terrible singer and picks a weird song, but she thinks it’s cute and charming, so the scene serves the same purpose that it has in those other movies. There are underdeveloped, stereotypical secondary characters that, although boosted by universally good performances, are mostly just thinly veiled plot devices. It dredges out the dilemma between maturity/responsibility (as represented by a woman) and youthful juvenility/partying (as represented by friends) that has been so thoroughly mined by Judd Apatow.
Perhaps most surprisingly, pop-culture junkie MacFarlane doesn’t really mock these formulas, but embraces them. While pretty much every scene that features Ted registers as inherently absurd, the movie actually takes the melodramatic machinations of Acts II and III pretty seriously. Occasionally, MacFarlane will poke us in the ribs as if to say, “How silly this all is!” Yet, you get the ultimate impression that the movie rests comfortably and happily on its formulaic laurels. It wants to send the audience home happy.
And hopefully you will go home happy. I did, but not just because I found Ted to be pretty funny and entertaining and generally worth my $12. Despite all its clichés and genre conventions, the humor is decidedly irreverent and refreshingly odd — there are dozens of jokes and filmmaking choices in Ted that would never, ever make it through the usual barrage of focus groups and studio influence. There’s definitely a juxtaposition between the expected and the outrageous; presumably, MacFarlane’s success on television has allowed him this privilege. Perhaps he will adopt a more universally bold approach with his next feature. Regardless, I went home happy because I felt that I had watched something that was created rather than assembled.