It’s all Family Guy‘s fault. Had that cult cartoon not been cancelled and proven its mantle by becoming a phenomenon on DVD, we wouldn’t be stuck with American Dad, its jaded jingoistic cousin. Conceived during the down time after Guy was given the axe, creative uberlord for both series, Seth MacFarlane, wanted to find a way to take on Bush’s baneful version of America. He immediately came up with an All in the Family like ideal (conservative dad, liberal daughter), began developing the ancillary characters (nerdy son, bimbo wife, talking goldfish and foppish extraterrestrial), and then passed it off to members of his staff for fleshing out. In the interim, Guy got a reprieve, and suddenly, MacFarlane had two shows to helm. It is obvious which one he finally favored.
This is not to say that American Dad is bad. On the contrary, it just reminds us of how little political comedy there currently is on the small screen. When you consider that The Daily Show and its acerbic cousin The Colbert Report basically do the same thing as Fox and CNN minus the obvious prepared punchlines it is clear that the ideological landscape of TV is virtually barren. Therefore, MacFarlane’s animated manifesto is instantly striking in its desire to engage and enrage. All throughout its depiction of right wing whack job Stan Smith (voiced by MacFarlane himself), the series, now available in a 15 episode Volume 1 DVD from Fox, sticks in obvious jabs to patriotism, the war on terror, the gun lobby, and the conservative agenda.
CIA agent Smith is a red-stater all the way, an unswerving and loyal servant of his bumbling bureaucratic government, and just so damn proud of it. In order to counter his freakish ferventness, Stan is given Francine (Wendy Schaal), a dumb blond wife whose consistently sunny and stupefied demeanor would make Phyllis Schlafly proud. Daughter Haley (Rachel MacFarlane) is a typical tree hugger, ethnocentric to a fault and arguing with her father over every facet of their personal and political life. When you add in the alien (MacFarlane again) from Area 51 who sounds like a way out of the closet Paul Lynde, and a talking fish (Dee Bradley Baker) with the transposed brain of a German skier (don’t ask), you’ve got more idiosyncrasies than in a dozen David Lynch films. About the only ‘normal’ character in the series is nerdy son Steve (Scott Grimes), and he, unfortunately, is a grandiose geek who fancies himself a smooth ladies man.
Granted, this collection of characters has potential. Though the non-human members of the Smith household really remind the viewer of MacFarlane’s favorite comedy device the use of unusual entities as a goofy Greek Chorus we are supposed to snicker at the back and forth banter between raw Reaganite Stan and his unshaved armpits anarchist daughter. It’s supposed to be funny when they challenge each other on environmental and ethical issues. We are intended to smile when they reach their ridiculous fever pitches, realizing that anything in extremes is outrageous and hilarious. We even have the constantly inebriated gay ET to remind us of this fact, and if it’s not around, the fish will fill us in. Indeed, one of the weakest elements of any MacFarlane project is the tendency to bash one over the head with the humor. Didn’t get a reference the first time? Don’t worry. Someone will reinforce it, and then another will come along and explain it further for good measure.
A prime example of this ideal comes in episode four, “Francine’s Flashback”. A head injury has Ms. Smith thinking that it’s 1985, and its bad hair and shoulder pads for 22 minutes. All throughout the narrative, we learn that Stan is a real jerk, taking his role as an agent far more seriously than his love for his wife. Over and over again, Stan is seen doing inconsiderate, regrettable things while the writers carry on with their spoofs on the Greed decade’s more memorable symbols. Unlike the typical sitcom, which usually handles such happenstance amnesia with a carefully controlled build-up, American Dad just keeps tossing out the thoughtlessness. Francine finally comes around because of something so silly it hardly bears mentioning (it has to do with Burning Man, and vomit).
Even worse, American Dad also doesn’t know when it has a good idea on its hands. Everyone’s favorite French starship captain, Patrick Stewart, is on hand for a few episodes as Stan’s flippant boss Avery Bullock. In “Bullocks to Stan”, Agent Smith is bucking for promotion and hopes that his didactic daughter Haley won’t ruin the annual CIA carnival. Sure enough, she and Avery get in a heated argument, and Stan is convinced he’s blown the job. Hoping to brown nose a little, he turns up at Bullock’s home, only to discover his 18-year-old offspring there, basking in a post-coital glow. Now, if properly fleshed out, this would make for an interesting installment. How does a Dad handle his Hellion child sleeping with his boss, especially when the guy is about to determine the fate of his career? Sure, it seems formulaic, but MacFarlane and his crew could come up with something ingenious.
Instead, they simply let the affair peter out, reducing it to a “test” of Stan’s ethics (after a long and pointless fistfight). It would have been better to keep Bullock and Haley together, giving Stan even more fuel for his irrational ire, raising the stakes of the series all around. But American Dad is not interested in pushing the envelope. It would rather just make its preachy pronouncements, and then fold them neatly in the packet and mail it to People for the American Way. While some may see the politics here as evenly divided down the line, Stan is the definite ideological loser overall. When the family finds themselves in Saudi Arabia (Smith has been transferred after another debacle at the office), they aren’t very happy with the Muslim culture shock. That is except for Stan. He ADORES it. He sings a song in praise of the nation’s conservative principles and sees no problems with inviting a second wife into his home as a kind of personal ‘slave’.
Naturally, the rest of the family rebels, leading to a showdown between father and his flock. But instead of taking the high road, or even the middle lane, American Dad goes for the gratuitous. Francine, sick and tired of being considered a Western whore, does a show tune about her genitalia, and soon the whole family finds themselves preparing to be stoned. In a more or less meaningless nod to the man who inspired the show, President Bush flies in, Rambo style, to rescue the Smiths. It’s dumb, and completely derivative of how the series handles its plotlines. Have a scene without an ending? Let the fish or the alien toss in a one liner. Out of ideas on how to move on to the next narrative point? Get a character to flashback to a previous point in time so a non-sequitor gag can play out). Even when trying to stay within the family dynamic (“Stan Knows Best”‘s father/daughter dilemma, Stan’s battle with smug bastard neighbor Chuck White in “Deacon Stan, Jesus Man”), it can’t find a happy medium between realism and ridiculousness. Granted when you have a spaceman using his skin squeezings as “dressing” for a block party potato salad, it’s hard to expect authenticity. But political wit demands a sort of subliminal seriousness, something that American Dad can never achieve.
And this is perhaps the most damning statement about the show. It really has no consistent comic tone. Sometimes it wants to be witty. At other times it wants to be bawdy and in very bad taste. It trades in humors conceptual, slapstick, and cerebral, traipsing into the toilet and the tacky along the way, as well. It will employ spoof, deadpan, and outrageousness sometimes in the same moment (as in the terrorist-oriented episode “Homeland Security”) and never once consider it an act of narrative desperation. Oddly enough, the only type of cleverness the series seems to avoid is one based in individual personalities. Instead of fleshing out the family, MacFarlane and his staff substitute characteristics for characterization, leaving all characters one-dimensional and dense. But this is understandable, since all throughout the commentary tracks (included on the DVDs), the writers discuss the particular idea and jokes they created. They barely mention the pretend people populating the show.
In it’s defense, American Dad has potential. The only problem is, it seems locked in its desire to emulate the Family Guy feel and comic sensibility. Finding its own voice one fostered in the events of the day mirrored through a fractious family set-up could really help matters. Stan is a brick-jawed journeymen who could be turned into a real calling card for conservative craziness. He seems to symbolize everything the Republican Party stands for in his beefy Caucasian iconography. Dump the inhuman co-stars, or merely make them occasional commentators on important elements of the show, and turn the children back into believable youngsters. In essence, remove the facets that force the laughs instead of letting them flow freely. With the dearth of politically-oriented comedy on the airwaves, it seems a shame that American Dad can’t get its parameters straight. Without them, it will have even more in common with the first version of Family Guy and a DVD release may not be enough to resurrect it.