One gift you can give yourself this holiday season is the gift of watching American Dad. The adult animated series from Seth MacFarlane and Family Guy writers Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman has 20 seasons, 15ish of which are firing on all cylinders, and almost all of which are streaming on Hulu. I can’t prove this scientifically, but I believe with a high degree of confidence that I may be American Dad’s biggest fan. I would love to share the joy it’s given me with you, my dear readers.
Perhaps you have long written off American Dad as just another Family Guy clone, hardly worth your time. If so, I am happy to tell you that the story of the Smith family—Stan, Francine, Hayley, Steve, their alien tenant Roger and their pet fish Klaus—is very different than its predecessor. It has its own distinct sense of humor, less driven by randomness or edginess, more grounded in character and story. Unlike my other favorite animated series The Simpsons and Futurama, the show’s teen seasons avoid a reliance on guest stars or topical commentary, sticking to its core relationships and gaining a much more timeless feel (for me, at least) that lends itself to endless rewatchability.
Today, for the uninitiated, I would like to recommend five episodes that exemplify what American Dad is all about. If you feel like dipping your toes in, these are great places to start.
S4E9, “Stan Time”
One of American Dad’s most reliable story engines is “the guys at the CIA cook up some crazy technology for Stan to use,” which is exactly what happens here. Stan, overwhelmed with the demands of running a household, starts taking a pill that eliminates his need to sleep, using his nights to get some much-needed time to himself (playing a video game called “Beet Man”). When Francine finds out what he’s up to, she starts taking the pill too and quickly becomes an accomplished marine biologist—a career that threatens to take her far away from her marriage and family. What I love about this episode is how the sci-fi elements open up a very simple emotional story: by journeying deeper into their own passions, Stan and Francine discover just how much they mean to each other.
S5E9, "Rapture’s Delight"
American Dad traditionally uses its Christmas episodes for high-concept romps, like a multi-season rivalry between Santa and the Smiths, or season 15’s riff on Edge of Tomorrow, where Stan relives the same disastrous tree lighting ceremony over and over. In “Rapture’s Delight,” the Rapture hits on Christmas morning, leaving Stan, Francine, and Roger behind. Smash cut to seven years later and the world’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland ravaged by war. Stan, who abandoned Francine immediately after the Rapture, teams up with Jesus to save her from the Antichrist; they get an assist from Roger, who's stuck on earth after his spaceship broke. I’m not sure if this beats out season three’s “The Most Adequate Christmas Ever” for my favorite American Dad Christmas episode—in that one, Stan dies, goes to heaven, and tries to kill God in an attempt to get back to his family—but I’m including it here because it’s more of a showcase for the whole ensemble, where the other is pretty much The Stan Show.
S8E18, "Lost in Space"
A rare single-story episode, this one’s part of a multi-season arc that begins with Roger summoning his people to take him home, then shoving Jeff in their ship’s tractor beam in his place. Here we find Jeff stranded in a sort of interstellar mall, condemned to spend the rest of his life serving an alien emperor’s shopping addiction. As it turns out, the emperor offers freedom to anyone who can prove they’ve been separated from their true love, which Jeff attempts in a marvelous sequence involving a grotesque tentacled creature, an Elton John-looking alien, and the Wax Fang earworm “Majestic.” This episode is a great flex of American Dad’s sci-fi bonafides, but also its ability to give a peripheral character a genuinely interesting, emotionally compelling story eight seasons in. Also it basically features a spaceship full of Rogers.
To be a little reductive about it, “Familyland” is American Dad’s “Itchy and Scratchy Land,” an episode about a theme park vacation gone horribly wrong. In this case, the park’s Walt Disney-like creator returns from a sort of cryostasis to lock it down, trapping everyone inside. Weeks pass and the park’s surviving patrons divide into warring tribes, each one led by their own Smith. This episode’s another great showcase for each family member, with some excellent material from Patrick Stewart as Stan’s horny, murderous CIA boss Avery Bullock. (Oh, right: did I mention Patrick Stewart has been playing a horny, murderous CIA boss on American Dad for the last 18 years?)
S13E13, "Persona Assistant"
Probably one of my favorite American Dad episodes overall, “Persona Assistant” finds Roger working himself to exhaustion as he tends to the various characters he plays all over town. (This might call for some explanation: basically Roger is constantly dressing up in wacky personas, many of which turn out to have full lives and careers and families, and it’s consistently one of the funniest things in the whole show; maybe next year I’ll do another list of the best episodes centered around his alter egos.) Stan agrees to step in and play Roger’s characters while his friend rests; because he doesn’t take the work seriously, however, he quickly gives up and the town falls into chaos. “Persona Assistant” pulls off the impressive feat of delivering a classic episode 13 seasons in, finding fresh terrain in one of the show’s most familiar conventions. I love it.
-I haven’t seen anyone else on the Internet mention this: a few weeks ago, Far Side creator Gary Larson posted nine new cartoons on his website.
-Check out Dad & Step-Dad—a very funny microbudget film directed by Tynan Delong, starring Anthony Oberbeck, Colin Burgess, and Brian Fiddyment—on NoBudge (subscription required).
-From all of us at Humorism headquarters, please have a happy and safe holiday.