You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, the five Christmas episodes of American Dad.
Subversion doesn’t have much of a place in holiday entertainment, particularly in the realm of the family sitcom. Oh sure, lots of shows will take their characters on various journeys through loneliness, poverty, family strife, and other such seasonally induced obstacles, but more often than not, Christmas episodes circle back around to warm and fuzzy by the end, reaffirming the strength of the family unit and wallowing in the coziness of the holiday spirit. Which is why it’s remarkable that American Dad has made a habit—no, a mission—out of regularly turning in seasonal episodes that throw snow in the face of the idea that Christmas is an unimpeachable, fundamentally good holiday that brings out the best in people.
Admittedly, the American Dad! Christmas episodes do usually end with the Smith family in “God bless us, every one” formation, but not before putting its members through trials and tribulations so deranged and destructive that the wholesome capper functions more as a knowing wink at convention than as an acceptance thereof. Over six years and five episodes—soon to be six, with this Sunday’s promisingly titled “Minstrel Krampus”—the Smiths have celebrated Christmas by going back in time to kill Jane Fonda, dying and going to Limbo, riding out the apocalypse, killing and going to war with Santa, and accidentally adopting the Antichrist. It’s death and destruction that brings this family together, not love and good cheer.
The American Dad Christmas episodes all revolve around Smith family patriarch Stan. Stan is not the series’ most reliably interesting or fun character; that would be the drunken, bisexual alien who lives with the family, Roger, or possibly nerdy son Steve. But Stan’s staunch traditionalism, conservatism, and religious faith, which are so often storytelling liabilities on American Dad, provide perfect fodder for tweaking holiday convention.
Like most buffoonish TV dads, Stan possesses an innate conviction that his way is the only way, coupled with a complete disregard for the feelings of others—at least, until he inevitably learns his lesson, only to forget it the next time it becomes convenient to a plot. The difference between American Dad and, say, Family Guy or The Simpsons, is that the effects of Stan’s Christmastime assholery tend to have massive, universe-shifting repercussions that are eventually pasted over with wrapping paper and tied up in a big shiny bow. This could be interpreted as lazy storytelling to those unfamiliar with American Dad’s M.O. of embracing sitcom convention with one arm while shanking it with the other. But those who assume American Dad is a cutaway-laden Family Guy clone more concerned with cramming in pop-culture gags than telling good stories are missing the point. Yes, there is a high gag-per-minute quota, but the writers mostly eschew cutaways in favor of bizarre jokes born of even more bizarre circumstances. And the circumstances on American Dad are never more bizarre than in its Christmas episodes.
The first of these, season two’s “The Best Christmas Story Never Told,” is the most beholden to American Dad’s initial fixation on Stan as a Fox News-loving ultra-conservative, something the show has thankfully backed away from somewhat over time. “The Best Christmas Story,” however, takes its anemic premise—Stan is incensed by politically correct liberals’ insistence on saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”—in a much more audacious direction. After Stan becomes enraged and cancels Christmas, Christmas-special staple The Ghost Of Christmas Past (voiced by Lisa Kudrow) takes Stan back to visit his childhood in 1970. Fairly standard stuff… until Stan goes rogue, breaking away from her so he can kill Jane Fonda—whose visit to North Vietnam revitalized the flagging hippie movement that evolved into modern, Christmas-hating liberalism—and thus save Christmas.
All of a sudden, American Dad is deep into a time-travel story too convoluted to outline here; suffice to say, it culminates in Stan having to go back in time again and make an assassination attempt on his hero, Ronald Reagan. Oh, there’s also a B-plot where Roger invents disco. This is ostensibly a Christmas episode, mind you. By the time Stan reinstates Christmas in the Smith household and the family gathers around the tree, it’s almost an afterthought, a perfunctory acknowledgement of the holiday spirit the episode spent most of its time ignoring.
Season three’s “The Most Adequate Christmas Ever” stays a little more on topic, but just barely, as Stan, who’s obsessed with having The Perfect Christmas, is killed while trying to obtain the ideal tree from high atop a snowy cliff. After being sent to Limbo—which is an ice-cream parlor stocked with every flavor imaginable, except the one he wants, vanilla—he demands a second chance, which leads to a trial where he’s represented by the most incompetent lawyer in heaven (voiced by Paget Brewster and, oddly, sharing a name with Kudrow’s Ghost Of Christmas Past character, Michelle). But just as “Best Christmas Story” introduced A Christmas Carol just to shove it away and run in a different direction, “Most Adequate” uses the It’s A Wonderful Life premise to reaffirm Stan’s horribleness, prompting him to take Michelle hostage using a Heaven Gun (“Why do we have those again?”) and take his case straight to The Big Guy himself. Stan eventually learns the humility necessary to get reinstated into the realm of the living, but not before he points a gun at God’s head and threatens to shoot. (Says God of Stan’s hubris: “Stan, you’re holding a gun to God’s head. I can’t even think of a metaphor that’s better than this.”)
“Most Adequate” gets a fair amount of mileage out of its religious underpinnings—especially Brewster’s character, who’s a highlight—but it’s not the strongest American Dad Christmas episode, due to its laser focus on Stan at the expense of the rest of the family. But the series upped the ante considerably with season four’s “Rapture’s Delight,” and, consequently, turned in not only its best Christmas episode, but one of its best episodes, period.
American Dad’s predilection for taking its Christmas in fantastical, decidedly un-Christmassy directions reaches its apex in “Rapture’s Delight,” in which Stan and Francine miss the Rapture because they’re having sex in a closet during Christmas Mass. While the Smith children are Raptured up into their own personal heavens (resulting in one of my favorite American Dad gags ever), Stan and his wife Francine are left behind, which Stan blames Francine for, prompting her to leave him for another man: Jesus, come to earth for the seven years of the Great Tribulation.
The episode then flashes into the future for an excellent pastiche of post-apocalyptic movies, in which grizzled, hook-handed mercenary Stan strikes up a deal with the machine-gun-toting Jesus, who promises to belatedly Rapture Stan if he helps to rescue Francine from the Antichrist, portrayed here as a campy supervillain who’s the opposite of Jesus in every way. (“Condemn them mother, for they know exactly what they do!”) The resulting action-movie shootout has the effect of reconciling Stan and Francine and also killing Stan, who ascends into his own “personal heaven” (presided over by Michelle, the heaven-lawyer-turned-angel), which provides both the episode’s Christmas-mandated conclusion, as well as a hell of a twist. Stan’s “personal heaven,” the afterlife his heart most desires, turns out to be the warm family Christmas scene that kicked off the episode—minus the family’s much-hated pet goldfish, Klaus, who’s mounted on the wall—suggesting that American Dad’s new reality takes place in a post-apocalyptic paradise of Stan’s own devising. If that’s not a huge middle finger pointed straight at the idea of a holiday happy ending, what is?
The last two American Dad Christmas episodes, “For Whom The Sleigh Bell Tolls” and “Season’s Beatings,” have both tried to top “Rapture’s Delight” in terms of audacity, but neither has managed to reach the same heights. The former substitutes Santa for Jesus in the role of sacred cow, when Steve accidentally shoots ol’ Kringle with the gun Stan gives him for Christmas, prompting a bloody war between the Smiths and the reincarnated Santa’s North Pole army. “Season’s Beatings,” meanwhile, returns to taunting Christianity by having Stan get excommunicated from the church after he beats up Jesus—or rather, Roger dressed as Jesus for a holiday pageant—just as his daughter Hayley and her husband Jeff accidentally adopt the Antichrist (who this time assumes the more customary guise of an evil moppet).
Both of these are more “traditional” Christmas stories in that they at least remain in the same time and plane of existence, unlike their predecessors, but they still feature copious amounts of offensive humor and epic violence. The bloody battle with the North Pole in “Sleigh Bell,” in particular, is clearly seeking to top “Rapture’s Delight” in terms of cinematic grandiosity, and if seeing Santa’s elves gunned down by automatic rifles is your idea of holiday cheer, American Dad has your specific, weird needs covered. But there’s nothing even approaching reverence for the holiday in any of these episodes; if anything, American Dad seems to see Christmas as an excuse to be even more outlandish and offensive than it normally is.
And really, that has its place in the holiday season, too. Even the most festive soul can get a little burned out from time to time on the metric shit-ton of good cheer and glad tidings that are foisted on us come December (not to mention the attendant gross consumerism). In that case, watching the American Dad Christmas episodes can serve as something like a pressure-release valve, a reminder that the holiday doesn’t have to be so fraught with significance and reverence; sometimes, it doesn’t have to be anything more than an excuse to make a dumb joke about a cheeseburger-pooping unicorn.
American Dad mocks the idea of the holiday as something sacred by taking the traditional framework of Christmas episodes and then cramming it full of whatever the hell its writers feel like, outsized stories that aren’t even beholden to reality, much less holiday convention. It may not have much in the way of heart or soul, but it does have a good amount of guts, of both the figurative and literal variety.
Tomorrow: The greatest Christmas album ever recorded.