Family Guy seems to have received a fair amount of attention recently for the death and resurrection of Brian, which I’m sure is what the creators were looking for. This article on the subject claims that “the decision [to kill a character] is never a creative one, but is more about the franchise owner reinvesting in their property to keep it relevant.” It’s like when they killed off Superman in the nineties. I’m sure everyone knew DC wasn’t going to get rid of their flagship character for good (although it WAS for more than a mere few weeks), but it still made the news even among people who don’t normally read comics. Of course, death in comics and cartoons can be a tricky issue, even in a series that takes a somewhat more realistic approach than Looney Tunes. If a character can’t be brought back believably, there are always retcons. On the other hand, some characters actually do stay dead.
Maude Flanders still hasn’t come back to life, even though she was just knocked off a set of bleachers and Homer fell down a gorge repeatedly, not to mention the kind of stuff that happens to Hans Moleman practically every time he’s on screen.
Sure, some people do survive things that kill others, but The Simpsons obviously exaggerates it. The general approach of Family Guy is even more detached from reality than The Simpsons, but there have been characters who died and stayed dead, although most of them weren’t significant enough to the show to make their deaths major events. While it’s not at all surprising that Brian’s death wasn’t permanent, I do have to give the show some props for playing with viewer expectations. First of all, Brian stayed dead at the end of the episode where it happened, usually a signal in shows with loose continuity that a permanent change had been made. Then the next episode went along with Brian being dead and Vinnie taking his place as the family’s talking dog without making it a central point. What’s more, it used Peter killing himself as a brief gag at the end that would never again be addressed, which was rather bizarre coming right after an episode that took death at least mostly seriously. The most recent episode, “Christmas Guy,” didn’t bring the possibility of Brian’s return into the picture until pretty far along in the story. It also made Stewie’s going forward in time to buy toys, originally just played as one of the show’s frequent cutaway gags that don’t advance the plot in any way and often completely contradict each other, into a significant plot point. I have to wonder if we’ll ever see Vinnie again, because he was pretty funny, even though I doubt they could have gotten a whole lot of mileage out of him as a regular character. Stewie did make it so the Griffins never met him, but he wasn’t killed off, so I wouldn’t necessarily rule out a future reappearance. The Christian Science Monitor article that I quoted earlier says he’s gone for good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the long run.
In general, I’d say the lack of realism and continuity on Family Guy makes it rather bizarre when they DO try to play something seriously. It often seems to involve changing the dynamic entirely. Take how Meg is often just a human punching bag, but occasionally we’re actually supposed to care about her. Or how the show has done a bunch of domestic abuse jokes over the years, but “Screams of Silence: The Story of Brenda Q” had an intentionally disturbing take on the same subject. Of course, you could make a long list of inconsistencies in the rules for the show, and they’ve lampshaded some of them. Can other people understand what Stewie says? Is Brian regarded as a dog or a person in canine form? There are, however, some elements that are kept more or less consistent, so it isn’t totally an anything-goes approach. In some ways I think American Dad is a more internally consistent show. It has a lot of totally unrealistic elements, but they work in somewhat logical ways. Sure, there’s a fish with the brain of a German guy, but it’s the result of a top-secret government experiment and not something commonplace, as talking dogs apparently are in the FG universe.
On the other hand, it’s killed off main characters several times and brought them back with no explanation, and the house sometimes has rooms that are only there for a single episode, so maybe I’m wrong about this.