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American Dad’s move from flimsy satire to animated greatness in 10 steps

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

When the first promotional images for American Dad! emerged, they made the animated comedy look completely unnecessary. Fox had already revived co-creator Seth MacFarlane’s previous show, Family Guy, and introductions to the Smiths of Langley Falls made them look nothing more than an off-brand version of the Griffins of Quahog. There was a working husband, a stay-at-home mom, a teenage daughter, a younger teenage son, and a talking pet. That voluble goldfish, Klaus, looked like this show’s version of the Griffins’ matricidal infant, Stewie; meanwhile, the roles of “boozy roommate” and “member of the household with an oddly shaped head” went to the Smiths’ live-in extraterrestrial, Roger. With American Dad! appearing so redundant, one had to wonder how the show could possibly make any impact.

Politics initially set American Dad! apart from its predecessor. Conceived in the wake of post-9/11 panic, Stan Smith was a staunch conservative who also worked for the CIA, and his beliefs lined up with the average Bush supporter at the time. While the show’s satire was often adept, it was crucially lacking in depth and characterization. Stan was such a broad caricature of xenophobia and toxic masculinity that it was hard to root for him. Even if we’re not supposed to agree with our protagonist, we should at least be able to sympathize with him. (Call it The Archie Bunker Principle.)

So American Dad! got off to a rough start, and viewers couldn’t be blamed for abandoning it after the first few episodes. Luckily, the show was able to fix its early flaws, and it grew into one of the most clever, interesting, and reliably hilarious animated shows on television. The writers figured out how to depict Stan’s conservatism without compromising his likability, all the while fleshing out the other characters. Roger went from merely sipping wine and delivering catty one-liners to becoming the show’s most fully realized presence, as his endless array of personas meant he was essentially dozens of characters all in one.

Perhaps most importantly, this new focus on characters and absurd situations downplayed the show’s political-satire roots. Stan was still a right-winger, but the show talked about it less and less. Ironically, American Dad! finally reached its full potential when it abandoned its original concept. To illustrate that, here are 10 episodes that mark the show’s considerable growth after its rocky beginning.

1. “Homeland Insecurity” (season one, episode six)

Fox

For the most part, this is a typical first-season episode of American Dad!, focusing on Stan’s aggressive xenophobia. When an Iranian-American family moves in next door, he assumes them to be terrorists and blames them for a gazebo burning down. (It was actually accidentally burned down by dweeby Smith son Steve.) Stan eventually turns his backyard into a Guantanamo-style prison camp and sends the entire neighborhood there. It’s over-the-top and probably not the show’s best work. However, one scene stands out: Toward the end of the episode, while leaving an electrical station, Roger craps out a golden turd. A worker at the station finds it, beats his co-worker to death with it, and plans to start a new life. Then he calls his wife to tell her the good news and finds out she’s cheating on him. The scene ends with him crying in agony while the turd glows in the background. It’s completely separate from the rest of the episode and given a far more cinematic presentation than everything else. The show’s willingness to experiment like this was the first sign that it could be more than a satire of “war on terror” conservatism. Every ambitious thing American Dad! would try later on can ultimately be traced back to that stunning, unexpected scene.

2. “Stannie Get Your Gun” (season two, episode seven)

Fox

Of all the very early political episodes, this one stands out as the best. It takes a look at Stan’s love of guns as well as how that love has alienated him from his left-wing daughter, Hayley, who becomes furious with Stan after he takes her to a gun-themed amusement park. Stan attempts to convince her otherwise by staging a fake robbery and having Hayley foil it. When Hayley finds out it was all a ruse, she’s understandably upset. Firing what she believes to the blanks into the air, one turns out to be a real bullet, and it paralyzes Stan. Somehow, this still isn’t enough to turn Stan against guns, so he becomes a pro-gun activist, and Hayley joins him, feeling too guilty to say anything. This leads to the immortal number “I Want A Gun For Christmas.” More importantly, Stan finally has an epiphany when he realizes that Hayley would never intentionally hurt him—so it must have been the gun. Of course, he ends up changing his mind again when another bullet dislodges the previous one and allows him to walk again, reasoning that guns heal the sick. Still, “Stannie Get Your Gun” is a strong blend of satire and catharsis, and it showed that American Dad! was capable of doing politics without ignoring its characters.

3. “Star Trek” (season two, episode eight)

Fox

This episode is particularly important in the show’s evolution because it was the first time American Dad! realized that an episode didn’t necessarily have to focus on Stan’s beliefs—and that the rest of the family could be explored as well. Up until this point, there wasn’t much to Steve’s character beyond being a geek who couldn’t talk to girls. In “Star Trek,” however, we find out that he’s also an extremely gifted writer, rising to fame after writing a short story about Roger and his drunken antics. Roger is rightfully upset with him and vows revenge, but the rest of the family starts taking advantage of his newfound success, demanding more and more. He gets sick of it, and decides that neither his friends nor family really love him. His run as a big-time author ends when Roger accidentally kills a child actor impersonating Steve at his mansion. The episode is also notable for its unique presentation, an homage to Sunset Boulevard that starts at the ending (with a corpse floating in a pool of Jell-O) and has Steve narrating the action in noir-style voice-over. In “Star Trek,” Steve finally evolved beyond being a mere punchline, and the show engaged in its most ambitious storytelling yet.

4. “Lincoln Lover” (season three, episode four)

Fox

The show’s evolution meant dealing with one of Stan’s lousiest character traits: his homophobia. In this hilarious episode, he learns to accept homosexuality after writing a play about Abraham Lincoln with extremely homoerotic undertones that he was inexplicably unaware of (“I was his bodyguard. He was my everything.”). This leads to him joining the Log Cabin Republicans without knowing the group’s members are gay. Once there, he makes fast friends and sheds his bigotry now that his fear of the unknown no longer exists. Beyond the hilarious play scenes, there’s also the delightful musical number “We’re Red And We’re Gay,” which more or less acts as the Log Cabin Republicans’ theme song. Stan’s questionable views on homosexuality would be examined again a year later with “Surro-gate,” which challenged his notions about gay adoption. This episode, however, was essential for setting the precedent that Stan’s right-wing status was flexible and that the character was (to a certain extent) capable of evolving with the times.

5. “A.T. The Abusive Terrestrial” (season three, episode 12)

Fox

As surprising as it sounds, there was an episode of a Seth MacFarlane-related show that looked at domestic abuse in a thoughtful, intelligent manner. No, seriously. Of course, it might help that in this instance, the relationship does not involve a man and a woman, but rather a boy and his alien. Feeling neglected by Steve, who is more interested in trying to get girls than hanging with his alien buddy, Roger runs away and moves in with a 9-year-old named Henry, who lavishes attention on him. Unfortunately, he also proves to be extremely controlling and, at one point, becomes physically abusive. This episode works because the viewer understands why Roger stays in the relationship despite the abuse; Henry is nice to him most of the time, and he offers something that Steve can no longer give him. Additionally, Henry isn’t necessarily portrayed as a monster, but more of an entitled brat who can be seemingly nice, but goes ballistic when he doesn’t get his way. Five years later, Family Guy tried taking its own look at domestic violence with “Screams In Silence: The Story Of Brenda Q,” an episode that featured none of the subtlety or insight we see here. In that episode, Quagmire’s sister is dating a caricature of an abusive man who beats her constantly. We see no explanation as to why Brenda would excuse his abuse, and the episode somewhat implies that it’s Brenda’s fault for staying in the relationship. When watching that episode, it was hard not to think about how much better American Dad! had handled the same topic years earlier. This episode showed that despite American Dad’s penchant for dark humor, it’s nonetheless capable of handling a serious subject with grace and sensitivity.

6. “Black Mystery Month” (season three, episode 13)

Fox

Much like “Star Trek,” this episode thrives on storytelling ingenuity. With a plot based on The Da Vinci Code, Steve discovers a conspiracy related to the pyramid design he notices on every single brand of peanut butter. He finds that this is the symbol of a secretive group called the Illuminutty, which fabricated the notion that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter because they believed that if people thought such a delicious treat had been invented by a black man, it would ease racial tensions after the Civil War. While the absurdity of this concept earns the episode some points, what really makes it work is the interplay between Stan and Steve, who are notoriously distant. Here they are forced to work together, and it’s a nice break from Stan’s usual cruelty. Of course, Stan is only doing this because he’s part of the Illuminutty, but somehow that doesn’t detract from their bonding as much as it logically should. Stan doesn’t really get along with either of his children, so any episode that can break free from that trend can’t help but be a pleasant surprise.

7. “The One That Got Away” (season five, episode two)

Fox

American Dad! didn’t really start to take off until the writers understood what a great character Roger could be. At first, he was just the snarky alien who lived in the attic. Over time, however, he gained additional dimensions, mostly by gaining several other personalities through his endless supply of disguises. In this episode, one of Roger’s alter egos separates from him and seemingly takes on a life of its own. Sidney Huffman is a Jimmy Stewart type who is the complete opposite of Roger: a devout, straitlaced teetotaler who reads books about proper etiquette. Sidney becomes less friendly, however, when Roger—thinking him an identity thief—takes revenge and burns down his house. Sidney takes a hit out on Roger, which is a bit tricky because, well, he is Roger. Roger and Sidney have to work together to call off the hit, and it makes for quite a suspenseful conclusion. As American Dad! moved forward, Roger became more and more of a focal point—arguably replacing Stan as the show’s most essential character—and the show realized its full comedic potential as a result.

8. “Moon Over Isla Island” (season six, episode two)

The question “Does Stan actually care about Roger, or is he just an inconvenience?” has been explored in several episodes (“You Debt Your Life,” “Frannie 911”), but never quite as hilariously as it is here. Throughout the episode, Stan appears to be doing nice things for Roger, but it’s purely for his own gain. This reaches its culmination when, after accidentally killing a South American dictator, he asks Roger to impersonate him then stage his assassination. Instead, Roger decides to actually rule the island, renaming it Bananarama and making “Venus” the national anthem. (He also paints the streets yellow and forces his bodyguards to wear Abercrombie & Fitch shirts.) Naturally, this gets to be a bit much for the citizens of the island, so they stage a coup against him. Stan, realizing he really does care about Roger, comes in at the last moment and saves him from certain death. This episode is important for how it showcases the relationship between Stan and Roger as well as its examination of Stan’s selfishness. More importantly, though, it’s just a really funny episode that features Roger at his wonderfully eccentric best.

9. “My Morning Straitjacket” (season six, episode seven)

Stan’s stodginess hadn’t been entirely forgotten by the end of the George W. Bush administration, and here, it led to one of the show’s best and most cathartic episodes. After attempting to prevent Hayley from seeing a My Morning Jacket concert, Stan hears the soaring vocals of Jim James for the first time, and his life is changed forever. The musical obsession that most people experience as teenagers hits Stan at the age of 42. He spends all of his time listening to MMJ and even shames Hayley for having the nerve to listen to other bands. Anyone who has ever uttered the phrase, “This band is my life!” can understand what Stan is going through here, and the idea of experiencing a musical epiphany of this sort as a middle-aged man is novel. When James points out that it would be impossible for him to have actually been thinking about Stan when he wrote, say “Wordless Chorus,” it’s hard not to feel Stan’s pain. For the first time in his life, he knows what it means to love a band, and it nearly destroys him. Yes, there are previous episodes that show Stan enjoying rock music, but this show has never been a stickler for continuity, and in this case, it works for the better.

10. “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” (season nine, episode 10)

Easily the best late-period American Dad! episode, this one stands out for both its original concept and how well it’s executed. Presented as a stage play, and narrated by Patrick Stewart, “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” is essentially a Shakespearean tragedy focusing on Stan’s distant relationship with his father. It’s Stan’s birthday, and his parents both show up, but Stan still never understands why his father left. He becomes convinced that it’s his mom’s fault, believing that she was having an affair with the clown at his birthday party when he was a child. As it turns out, the clown actually was Stan’s father, who had previously used the costume to shoplift in order to feed the family. Unfortunately, Stan also invited a local police officer to the party, and he figures out that Jack is the culprit, forcing him to go on the run. Crushed by guilt over inadvertently breaking up his family, Stan uses the gun Steve gave him as a birthday present to commit suicide, transferring the guilt to Steve. Despite being entirely non-canonical, this episode still delivered a gut punch of “Jurassic Bark” proportions (the subplot involving Avery Bullock and Roger is equally horrifying). This was an incredibly innovative episode, and it also provided a worthwhile alternate universe explanation of Stan’s damaged relationship with his father. Even in its ninth season, American Dad! was still pushing boundaries, and continuing to explore the history of its characters.

And if you like those, try these: Every Christmas episode, “Joint Custody” (season three, episode 19), “Tearjerker” (season four, episode 10), “Delorean Story-an” (season five, episode 16), “In Country... Club” (season six, episode one), “Man In The Moonbounce” (season six, episode five), “Ricky Spanish” (season eight, episode 17), “The Missing Kink” (season nine, episode 15), “Lost In Space” (season nine, episode 18), “The Shrink” (season 12, episode 12)

Availability: The first nine seasons of the show are available to stream on Hulu; seasons one through 10 are streaming on Netflix. Seasons one through 12 are available for purchase from iTunes and Amazon.