[14 May 2009]
FOX’s Sunday Night “Animation Domination” has a dirty little secret. For more than a year, American Dad!, initially undone by being a hacky carbon copy of Family Guy that focused almost exclusively on political themes that can’t be smartly dissected in 21-minutes, has been far and away the best show on FOX’s Sunday night lineup.
As the The Simpsons has been hell-bent on self-referencing for roughly six years, King of the Hill floats by, content to play it safe as the producers still can’t believe it got re-launched in 2005, and Family Guy completes its devolution into cutaway pop culture gags in lieu of cohesive storytelling. Meanwhile, American Dad has raised its game, shifting focus from being a directly political, completely unfunny show starring a neo-con dad, to being a vaguely political, sometimes uproariously hilarious show starring a neo-con dad.
American Dad! Volume 4 collects 14 episodes from seasons three and four and bloats them with commentary on every episode and a smattering of sometimes-funny but mostly unnecessary deleted scenes. Because FOX slides around when the “seasons” of all their animated shows begin and end, it’s kind of a random cropping of episodes, but the ones included here are some of the series’ strongest.
The most subtle, and perhaps most important, thing producer Seth MacFarlane changed about American Dad! is that it no longer has to rely on the highly predictable exploits of titular hero and CIA agent Stan Smith (voiced by MacFarlane). While earlier episodes found Stan getting shipped off to Saudi Arabia to inevitably learn that the Saudis are just like him, or moving Iranians next door to learn essentially the same thing about Iranians, and setting up easily resolved arguments with liberal daughter Hayley (voiced by MacFarlane’s sister Rachel), later episodes have taken advantage of Stan’s career as a CIA agent to frame long-form parodies of adventure movies (like Indiana Jones) and James Bond.
Volume 4 opens with “Tearjerker”, an episode that deftly parodies James Bond movies (Stan’s wife is given “Sexpun” as a name, for instance), and laughs out loud at the contrivances of the absurd exploits of spies in movies. It’s not exactly like watching This American Life, but it’s more focused and all around more entertaining than Family Guy’s similar foray into Star Wars parody.
Unlike Family Guy, American Dad! never forgets to keep its eye on the plot, in no way cutting away unless a story needs it (like to show Stan as a kid), and allowing the jokes to happen more organically within the confines of the plot. It also allows for American Dad! to be pointedly bizarre, since characters are allowed to make random pop cultural references apropos to nothing, leaving an awkward silence as the punchline (most of those jokes go to alien Roger, who is also voiced by MacFarlane) instead of predictable and useless video segments. It’s a minor difference, but one that has helped American Dad! flourish while Family Guy flounders.
A lot of Volume 4’s best moments come thanks to ancillary characters like Stan’s geeky son Steve (voiced by Scott Grimes), who almost gets turned into a communist by one of Stan’s old Red Curtain enemies in one episode, and runs a cutthroat student council campaign for his goth girlfriend in another. They also highlight Stan’s bleeding heart liberal daughter Hayley, who apparently turns into King Kong following getting dumped (a metaphor that is made literal when she scales a model of the Empire State Building in a toy store and two guards try to get her down with model planes). But the undeniable star of the series, after being essentially an excuse to do sci-fi and drunk jokes at the beginning, is Roger the Alien.
Roger is the perfect foil to the conservative and controlling Stan, as Roger too, takes great glee in trying to run the family. Given that he is essentially a house guest and incredibly whiny, his effectiveness is less than he would hope, but he often gets Steve to follow along with whatever crazy plan he’s got going each week. In Volume 4 Roger stages a Spring Break blowout at the Smith household after he was shocked at how lame some of MTV’s Spring Break parties looked, and gets disappointed when his 1600th birthday is being co-opted by Steve’s foray into puberty. He copes by ignoring everything except for trying to secure a clown for his party that becomes increasingly less likely to happen.
Roger is at center stage for one of Volume 4’s best episodes (“The One That Got Away”), as he tries to figure out who has been using his credit card to buy diamond rings. The episode breaks off into a Fight Club-esque question of multiple identities as Roger struggles to separate out his various identities. He needs them so he can go out into the world as an alien. One of these deceptive identities is a wholesome do-gooder who stands against Roger’s boozing ways.
In earlier seasons, Roger was clearly the hook to get viewers to pay attention to American Dad!’s supposedly salient points about the CIA and politics. Now that the show has dropped that (for the most part), he’s the left-field comedic touch for a show that can sometimes skirt by on old premises (he regularly makes out of date and random pop cultural references due to his excessive TV watching) .
The highlight of Volume 4 is the previously mentioned episode about Steve going through puberty, and Francine and Stan trying desperately to keep their baby young through chemical treatment. It’s a touching (and okay, sort of hokey) concept, but one that isn’t necessarily ripe for comedy, yet the episode hits all the right notes (parents being horrified at their kids growing up and kids not wanting the awkwardness that comes with puberty).
While American Dad! can’t compete with The Simpsons or King of the Hill during their late ‘90s primes, it’s carved out a nice niche for itself as the only reliably funny show during “Animation Domination”.