As a member of the liberal media, Judge Geoffrey Miller is sure he wouldn't get along well with Stan Smith.
Our reviews of American Dad! Volume 4 (published May 6th, 2009), American Dad! Volume 5 (published July 9th, 2010), American Dad! Volume 6 (published May 3rd, 2011), and American Dad! Volume 7 (published May 25th, 2012) are also available.
Hayley: "We're going to see the new Michael Moore documentary."
Sometime between Family Guy's cancellation and its improbable revival, creator Seth MacFarlane teamed up with two of the show's former scribes, Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, to create a new series. Inspired by (and frustrated with) the current political climate, they decided they wanted to make a more topical show. The result, American Dad!, mixes up the trangressive humor and pop culture gags of Family Guy with the political friction of All In The Family. The episodes collected on American Dad! Volume 1 document a rocky start, but as the show slowly finds its voice, it matures into a smart, irreverent, and gut-bustingly funny animated sitcom.
Facts of the Case
The Smiths are an average American family living in Langley Falls, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Father Stan (Seth MacFarlane) is a weapons expert with the CIA (and a dedicated Republican). His wife Francine (Wendy Schaal) is a perky blonde who retired from her party-hardy lifestyle to settle down with Stan. They have two children: Son Steve (Scott Grimes) is a 13-year-old obnoxious nerd desperate to "get some boob," and daughter Hayley (Seth's sister Rachael MacFarlane) is an 18-year-old diehard liberal attending community college. Roger (Seth MacFarlane), an alien that Stan saved from the CIA labs (who can't leave the Smiths' house for fear of being discovered), also lives with the family, as does Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker), a goldfish that received the brain of a German Olympic skier in another CIA experiment gone awry.
American Dad! Volume 1 features 13 episodes on three discs.
When the pilot for American Dad! premiered after the Super Bowl last year. It was a fumble, to put it kindly. It came off sloppy and rough, a lazy throwaway. If it resembled anything, it was a faded Xerox of Family Guy—add a little political edge, cut back on the cutaway gags, and call it a day. Did Seth MacFarlane abandon it as soon as production on new episodes of Family Guy was given the greenlight? Truth be told, if American Dad! didn't end up at the time slot right after the revived Family Guy, I may very well have never given it another shot. (I guess Fox occasionally does make good scheduling decisions!) At first, I just stuck around out of convenience and curiosity, but as the weeks wore on, something miraculous happened: As it became increasingly obvious that new episodes of Family Guy were hit-and-miss affairs, American Dad! steadily improved and, eventually, won me over.
At first blush, American Dad! is nearly identical to Family Guy. It has the same patriarchal, suburban family structure: There's a 40-something married couple with two teenage offspring and two additional "weird" characters living along with them. (Replacing maniacal baby genius Stewie and talking dog Brian are sarcastic, cantankerous alien Roger and talking goldfish Klaus.) The animation between the two shows is almost exactly the same: MacFarlane's bright, Hanna-Barbera-influenced art is unmistakable.
It's only when you delve a bit deeper that you can see how American Dad! distinguishes itself. The non sequitur cutaway gags that are Family Guy's bread and butter are only used sparingly, and when they are it's almost always to advance the plot. In early episodes, especially the pilot, the more traditional story structures feel awkward and empty, like Family Guy minus its manic, short-attention-span energy. As the characters congeal and the writers gain confidence, however, American Dad! takes shape as a twisted mutation of the average family sitcom. Epsiodes evolve to incorporate surprisingly complex narratives, often with three or more plot lines that cleverly intertwine, going far beyond tired sitcom conventions. The characters are also deeper and more fleshed out: Despite all their differences and quirks, the Smiths truly feel like a family, not just a collection of funny characters that happen to live to together.
American Dad!'s other defining characteristic, hinted at by its title, is its emphasis on the United States' political landscape and the vast divide between Red and Blue. Given Seth MacFarlane's numerous disparaging comments about the Bush administration during interviews, it should be no surprise where the writing staff's allegiances lie. But American Dad! isn't out to make statements or be an "issue of the week" show à la South Park. It uses hot-button topics and the clash of ideologies as a backdrop for stories that are primarily character-driven. While it quite obviously slants towards a liberal point of view, it isn't so biased that it should turn off more conservative viewers. Then again, maybe I'm "misunderestimating" the potential offensiveness of Karl Rove being portrayed as a cloaked, demonic apparition or George Bush, dressed as Rambo, "spreading freedom" in Saudi Arabia to the strains of Andrew W.K's "It's Time To Party." Hey, it's all in good fun!
The first glimmer of greatness comes in the fourth episode, "Francine's Flashback." When Stan forgets his wedding anniversary, he takes Francine to the CIA labs to erase the past 20 hours of her memory. But a mistake causes 20 years of her memory to be erased instead, sending her back to the days when she was a partying rock chick in the '80s. Meanwhile, Hayley's boyfriend Jeff is trying to convince her to go to the Burning Man festival. Frustrated that Hayley isn't interested, Jeff takes the newly wild Francine instead. Hayley and Stan, who don't usually get along (thanks to their diametrically opposed political beliefs), are forced to work together to get back Francine (and get back at Jeff). "Francine's Flashback" is a fine display of American Dad!'s strengths, showing off its smart writing and strong sense of character development; plus, it's abso-freaking-lutely hilarious.
From then on, nearly every episode is a winner. "Homeland Insecurity" takes on discrimination against Arabs, parodies the Howard Dean "scream" speech, and introduces the phrase "nobody-got-shot sex" to the lexicon. "A Smith In The Hand" is quite possibly the best sitcom episode about masturbation since Seinfeld's "The Contest." Stan's conservative upbringing kept him from ever "finding himself," but after an accidental groin injury he needs to rub ointment cream down there. All of his repressed feelings come out, and he becomes obsessed with "cleaning his rifle." In the ambitious two-parter "Stan of Arabia," which closes out the set, the Smith family relocates to Saudi Arabia after Stan offends his boss, Deputy Director Bullock. After initial trepidation, Stan comes to love the Saudi way of living, where women are subservient to men, but his family isn't so happy when they run into the Police of Vice and Virtue.
Peerless transfer aside—one thing Fox knows how to do is TV on DVD—there's commentary on every episode (with the exception of "Threat Levels") and a bevy of bonuses. The commentaries are full of cool nuggets of info, although there's a bit too much dead space—sometimes up to several minutes of silence. Tons of deleted scenes feature plenty of great material cut for time; several featurettes offer a behind-the-scenes look at the show's creative process. One thing I am disappointed at, though, is that there are only 13 episodes on the set. There are six more episodes that already aired months ago not on here. This seems to be in line with an unfortunate trend started with the latest Family Guy DVD set, which also was limited to 13 episodes.
It might be a little unfair to continually compare American Dad! to Family Guy, but the two shows have so much in common that it's inevitable. The truth is that the more American Dad! differentiates itself from Family Guy, the better it gets. While Family Guy inches closer to jumping the shark with every flashback to a semi-obscure '80s cartoon, American Dad! just keeps growing stronger. Watching its progress over the course of the episodes on this set, I can't help but be impressed.
After being briefly detained in accordance with the Patriot Act, American Dad! Volume 1 has been cleared of all charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary from cast and crew (all episodes except "Threat Levels")
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