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July 18, 2012

Let me make this easy for you: do you like Family Guy? More specifically, did you like its first couple seasons, and the first couple after it returned from its cancellation-turned-hiatus? If so, then you’re going to like Ted. If you didn’t like Seth MacFarlane’s sense of humor then, then you’re not going to like it now that it can be fully R rated. Ultimately, that’s all that it comes down to: more MacFarlane in a new medium.

I will admit up front: I do like Family Guy, and MacFarlane’s sensibilities in general. Those who don’t have various reductionistic ways of expressing their distaste, and I’m not going to say they’re wrong. Still, what he’s really about is not mere absurdism — a tank full of manatees batting around “idea balls” more or less at random — but a twisted lampoon of any and all genres that cross his path. Ted starts with the core of a heartwarming magical-realism family-friendly drama, and then looks twenty or thirty years down the road.

Specifically, we peek in on the life of John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg). As an unpopular young boy in the mid-’80s, he wished that his stuffed bear, Ted, was really alive so they could be best friends. And since there is nothing so powerful as a young boy’s wish — except, of course, for an Apache helicopter — Ted comes to life.

In the present day, John and Ted — now with MacFarlane’s voice — are still best friends. John is a low-to-mid-level functionary at a car rental company who has landed a long-term girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis) despite being a nearly ambitionless stoner. But, of course, Ted’s fratboy antics wear on Lori, who wants this relationship to be heading somewhere serious sooner or later.

What follows will not be winning any Pulitzer prizes. MacFarlane runs from bit to bit with glee, but always within his characteristic style. He even lifts some of his own running gags, like the send-up of a cinematic fight scene usually played out between Peter Griffin and the Chicken. He employs many of his regulars (Kunis, Alex Borstein, Patrick Warburton) along with his talent for pulling in solid guest stars (Joel McHale, Matt Walsh, Bill Smitrovich, Giovanni Ribisi). He even gets Tom Skerritt and Nora Jones to make appearances as themselves. But he truly outdoes himself when it comes to recruiting Sam J. Jones, star of the astoundingly campy Flash Gordon.

Now, the obvious objection comes: how can I love and applaud Ted while reviling and castigating other R-rated comedies like That’s My Boy? For this, I fall back on a principle that Eugene Levy claims to have learned at the venerable Second City improv company: whatever joke you make, make it as smart as you are able. It’s hard to put into just so many words, but Seth MacFarlane has a way of making a lowbrow joke feel sly and insightful that Adam Sandler is simply incapable of matching. Whether Levy lives up to that challenge when he appears in the likes of American Reunion, I leave for you to decide.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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