Sometimes a television show gets so big, so universally beloved and insanely over quoted, that it can no longer satisfy the vampiric hunger of the public by itself. The people demand more than their allotted dosage, and the crooked doctor that is the network television prescribes them all they can handle. When an hour of CSI wasn’t enough for the depressing geriatrics that enjoy it, the show branched out to other cities. When Law and Order couldn’t round up enough sobbing, obvious criminals in its time slot, it split into three peaceful factions. Now the Fox program Family Guy has joined those shows in scraping off a chunk of its immense popularity and reforming it into something that appears adequately new. The product of this mitosis is the pseudo-political animated comedy American Dad, which features the same writing and producing staff as the show that spawned it. So if you were shivering like a Chihuahua at the prospect of dealing with original characters and humor, don’t worry. This series falls so close to the tree that it’s technically still a part of it. And it’s on right after, so you don’t have to flip over to VH-1 to kill the time.
Creator Seth MacFarlane, a cult hero to the Adult Swim generation that prefers its jokes without context, puts together (along with co-producers Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman) a series in American Dad that seeks to move beyond the mothership shadow of Family Guy. Unfortunately, it attempts this by simply installing mirror characters in a new town and placing a political spin on everything by making the father an ultra-conservative CIA agent.
Anyone who has seen both shows knows what I mean when I say “mirror characters.” Agent Stan Smith (voiced by MacFarlane) is just another well-intentioned buffoon, but this time he hates Arabs and Al Gore. His wife Francine (Wendy Shaal) is an attractive, loyal housewife who has infinite patience when it comes to cleaning up after her husband’s shenanigans. But as you can tell, she’s a blonde. The family has two teenage children: a boy and a girl who don’t get along. Son Steve (Scott Grimes) is a socially awkward nerd who can’t talk to girls (but has glasses), and daughter Haley (Rachel MacFarlane) is a liberal wag who is supposed to act as a foil for her father, but just ends up fading into the background, as the daughter of the other series did. The family “weirdos” are also present. Roger (MacFarlane) is an alien that not only talks, but also has a keen handle on celebrity culture. We are meant to laugh at the humor of his being an alien and yet doing wacky human things. I can’t help what that might be like if he was a baby instead. And then, for absolutely no reason at all, there is a goldfish that has the brain of an evil German dictator named Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker) implanted in it. He is an animal that also talks, but is not meant to be as silly as Roger. And, he is in love with Stan’s wife Francine. Goddamn, they’re not even trying.
Speaking of not trying, the punchlines are nothing new either. In both programs, there is the same limited variety of humor. Even though some of the material is really funny, the feeling creeps up on being trapped in a Country Kitchen. Sure, there’s good stuff there, but the lack of selection will soon begin to wear you down. The American Dad/Family Guy bit is assuredly one of four flavors: the self-referential inside joke, the in-your-face shocker, the throwaway pop-culture quip, or the nonsensical sequence that takes way too long. After enough watching, the viewer should be able to sense the pattern, and we all know there is nothing funny about a pattern. That's why quilting is so boring. But credit should still go to the writers of American Dad. Not for creativity, of course, but for acting in the same vein as a proud chef from the aforementioned Country Kitchen. Though they must put out the same old reheated crap, they manage to do it with flair.
This particular installment of the series, 'American Dad, Vol. 2' (a three-disc set) comprises the last half (ten episodes) of Season One and the first half (nine episodes) of Season Two, and follows the Smith family through a host of unrelated situations. The first episode, entitled “Stannie Get Your Gun,” is a classic Colbert turnaround on Republican values. Stan argues with Haley over gun control, and ends up being accidentally shot and paralyzed by her. Instead of changing his stance, he uses his disability to promote guns. The political views of the show’s producers are made well-known throughout the series, and this episode certainly starts the ball rolling. Also, a rather cheesy ending foretells a future of sappy conclusions to come.
The remainder of Season One’s haul is spotted with some interesting, experimental stuff that does its best to separate from 'Family Guy'. Everything the series has to offer is a pop-culture reference in some way, but it’s cool to see episodes begin with stuff like a film noir voiceover ("Star Trek") or a Terminator 2 car chase ("Camp Refoogee") instead of something more sitcom-ey. 'American Dad' is sort of a parody of sitcoms, and these things help make that premise funnier. Season One’s highlights come near the end, with two episodes that stood out as the most entertaining and clever.
In “Finances With Wolves,” some zany circumstances cause Steve to think that he is a werewolf. Meanwhile, a lonely Roger, who must be kept secret from the outside world, finds a real timberwolf to be his friend. This is the only time in the series where I was not angered to the point of cutting myself by Roger’s annoying shtick. In this case he is an alien is used in a purely non-Stewie way, as he fails to realize that wolves are dangerous creatures. In addition, the most ingenious line in the entire series is uttered here. Stan, in response to his wife opening her own business, says: “What kind of businesswoman forgets to make dinner for her husband? That’s bad business. And bad womaning.” If you don’t think misogyny is funny at all, this show is not for you. But I’m sure there’s a poetry slam going on somewhere.
Also worth noting is the season finale, “Tears of a Clooney” which finds Francine on her 39th birthday trying to get revenge on George Clooney for derailing her acting career. Stan aids her in a hilariously elaborate plan to seduce Clooney and then dump him, thus doing what no one else could ever do: break his heart. If George had lent a voice to this episode, it would’ve been unbelievable. Namely because the whole thing is just one long joke about why George Clooney is a douchebag. Even without the real guy in it, this is the class of the season. I don’t think Clooney is really that bad, but I love it when someone is singled out for an unprovoked attack that causes everyone to question why they like that person. In a related story, I hate Rachel Ray.
The meat of Season Two comes right away, making Disc 2 of the set the most chock-full of good stuff. The opener is “Camp Refoogee” in which Stan’s zeal to help his son grow up the right way leads him to send Steve to a refugee camp in Africa. Instead of correcting the mistake, Stan joins him and helps turn the place into Meatballs or Heavyweights, depending on how young you are. Like with all the jokes in American Dad, it could be better if the movies the episode parodies aren’t mentioned. But so powerful is the writers’ need to spew pop culture knowledge from every orifice that Stan makes direct reference to them several times. Hey kids! I remember Short Circuit! Isn’t that hysterical?
The best of the season is early, in an episode entitled “The American Dad After-School Special.” Steve’s new girlfriend is fat, and Stan hates that so much that he becomes anorexic. The device that the writers use to display Stan’s problem is very cool, and honestly surprising. In the best sight gag of the series, Roger hides out in Steve’s closet to watch him and his portly mistress make out. He grabs a camera to take pictures, and the scene switches to camera-eye view just as Roger is selecting the “mountain” icon that captures a panoramic shot. She’s fat, and that’s funny. Or, you can attend that poetry slam… At the end of the episode the best of the throwaway celebrity quips is made, when Stan says he doesn’t mind who Steve dates, even if she has “Kirsten Dunst teeth.”
The rest of Season Two is plodding, irritating, and sticks well to the joke formula I alluded to earlier. In “Irregarding Steve,” the entire plot of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is recounted by squirrels. It is useless, stupid, and done simply to show off. And the worst offense of all: It’s not funny. Also, in the same episode, Steve and Roger imitate Midnight Cowboy. So we have two extended movie references? Wow. The same thing happens in “The Best Christmas Story Never” where we get Klute, Back to the Future, A Christmas Story, and Scarface. If the humor found in American Dad, Vol. 2 is any indication, it seems that the new “comedy revolution” may not have jokes in it at all. It’ll just be a neverending nostalgic mixtape of crap from the eighties, with some nonsense humor thrown in now and then. And you people will continue to eat it up. Well, I’ve got to end this review with a cunning witticism, so here it is: Remember that part in Hudson Hawk where Bruce Willis cuts the butler-guy's head off, and says: "I guess he won't be going to that hat convention?" Man, that was funny.
The three-disc DVD of American Dad, Vol. 2 has a few little tidbits on it that one would most certainly enjoy if he/she enjoys the series. Each episode has commentary from the writers involved, and as anyone could guess, the mostly male staff spends their time throwing inside jokes around like shrapnel. I suppose you’re always funny if you’re laughing at your own material. There are also Spanish and English subtitles, because maybe the idea of a German goldfish is actually innovative to our neighbors down south.
The rest of the features can be found on Disc 3 of the set, and are mildly entertaining. There are a ton of deleted scenes, pages and pages of them, from every episode. It doesn’t take too long to scroll through them all (I did not ignore a single thing for this review), as they are no more than five seconds long apiece. Since television is very strict about time, I can see why these snippets were left out. None of them are too important, but viewed all together, they kill the time well.
There is an animation featurette, entitled “Drawing Roger” which consists of one of the animators-get this-drawing Roger. So if you want to draw Roger, check this one out. You’ll be thanking this DVD when Roger has been drawn.
Another prominent featurette is “An American Dad Like No Other,” which chronicles the special animation done for an episode called “Dungeons and Wagons” which takes place in a World of Warcraft-type universe, and follows the characters as their digitized selves. For all the congratulatory back-patting that the writers and animators do in this documentary account, I wonder if this concept pre-dated the one done in South Park. In this one, the computer characters are still drawn, not actually computer-animated. Also, it has fewer laughs in it than South Park had. What I’m saying is, this one better have been first.
Finally, there is a “Favorite Episodes” feature that plays like a behind-the-scenes would for a film DVD. Each of the producers and writers talk about which of the DVD episodes make them laugh and why, and they were prohibited from choosing their own. What we learn from this segment is that working on a network comedy show like American Dad is probably really fun, full of pranks and fake-punches. It hardly matters if your product is that good.
This series’ DVD is at times brilliant, but mostly tiresome and frustrating. If you’re willing to ignore the joke formula, it can make for a good days’ viewing. For me, finding the laughter here is like getting juice out of an orange. For every solid punchline, there is a stupid musical number (which, for some reason, Seth MacFarlane loves) or a needless Patrick Stewart cameo (as Stan’s boss) that seems forced. American Dad, Vol. 2 likely will have a shelf life shorter than that of most breads, due to the constant barrage of pop-culture references and anti-Bush in-jokes. When the Great Final War ends and the Earth is littered with the glowing nuclear skeletons of the dead, those who survive will not be able to recount who George Stephenopoulos was, or why a Fast and the Furious-themed episode is funny. Unfortunately, save for a few golden moments, that is all this DVD can offer.