American Dad: “American Stepdad”
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American Dad: “American Stepdad”

American Dad pulled off something legitimately shocking tonight—it crafted a story between Stan and Roger that was legitimately, straightforwardly sweet. The two bonded as stepson and stepfather, and when all was said and done, Roger’s underlying sociopathic ulterior motive was actually just to become part of Stan’s family. Oh sure, it turns out that Stan’s mother was out to kill her new husband, and Roger and Stan acknowledge during their final hug that all will reset next week, so that their familial connection is safely forgotten. But the fact remains that the show essentially plays straight the bonding between Stan and Roger’s latest persona, yoga instructor and classic car expert Tom Yabo. Considering the season kicked off with the utter, transgressive depravity of “Love, AD Style”, the sweetness of “American Stepdad” seems all the more shocking.

Of course, I shouldn’t go overboard with this. Lest anyone mistake the episode for an American Dad exercise in sentimentality, there’s the opening sequence, in which Stan’s stepfather Hercules is dispatched in a wave of silly visual gags, bad Greek jokes, and a John Stamos shout-out. It’s not an especially strong sequence, aside from Francine’s random declaration that the funeral was straight baller, but it’s an economical way of reestablishing Stan’s fractured relationships with his various father figures. Stan’s decision to move Betty into the attic and kick Roger down to the basement seems like the perfect setup for one of Roger’s psychotic vengeance plots, which seems to be immediately confirmed when Stan returns to find Betty and “Tom Yabo” married. But after Tom helps Stan with his lawnmower and invites him to help fix up a vintage Dodge Challenger, Stan is won over—just in time for the newlyweds to head off to Niagara Falls, and for Stan to discover that Roger seemingly plans to kill Betty during the honeymoon.

Stan’s troubled childhood and issues with his father are two aspects of his character that most closely resemble honest-to-goodness personality traits, and the latter has driven some surprisingly solid emotional stories—at least, by American Dad standards—going all the way back to the first season’s “Con Heir.” In tonight’s episode, Stan’s father issues drive all his scenes with Tom Yabo, so much so that Roger essentially disappears for the entire middle portion of the episode. This is the rare instance where Roger assumes the role of a guest character and plays it exactly as a normal character would. Up to the end of the episode, there’s no narrative necessity that Tom Yabo and Roger are one and the same, beyond allowing for the general meta-joke that Stan is finally bonding with his stepfather, and that stepfather just happens to be Roger.

It’s only in their final scene together that it becomes clear why Roger had to be Tom Yabo, and once again the underlying reason is shockingly nice, even heartwarming. Stan hurt Roger when he kicked him out of the attic on the grounds that family came first, so Roger’s scheme was built entirely around becoming part of Stan’s family. Sure, he didn’t marry Betty because he loves her, but he does love Stan, and considering Betty is kind of a murderous nutcase, it doesn’t seem like an especially big deal that Roger used her like he did. Indeed, it’s hard to feel much of anything for Betty, as “American Stepdad” keeps her largely on the periphery for the entire episode. There’s the glimmer of a story for her and Stan when she talks about his refusal to let her be independent and how it drives her to murder. But Stan is far too busy bonding with his stepfather to worry about his mother’s problems, which I suspect is exactly the point.

Honestly, I still can’t quite believe the other shoe never dropped with Roger’s scheming, particularly since this season has often seen American Dad at its nastiest and most subversive. After all, it was only three episodes ago that Roger wore Jeff’s skin, and two episodes back in “Killer Vacation” that Roger was left to wonder why he can’t just leave it at nice when it comes to his persona. Well, “American Stepdad” is definitely nice, although it’s not one of American Dad’s funniest outings. Submerging Roger so fully in the Tom Yabo persona robs the episode of a lot of potential one-liners, and Francine—who often gets a lot of the best lines when she’s playing a strictly supporting role—is also largely absent from the proceedings.

A lot of the episode’s comedy leans strongly towards the conceptual side. Again, it’s amusing in an abstract sort of way that all of Stan and Tom’s bonding is really between Stan and Roger, but the scenes are relatively light on jokes. And what gags there are, such as Tom’s ability to wrap around the frame or the photographs that show the present and the future, are some nice bits of conceptual weirdness, but they aren’t exactly hilarious. This isn’t a criticism, exactly, as the emotional journey shared between Stan and Roger is strong enough to compensate for the relative lack of gags. But it does add to the general feeling that “American Stepdad” is an experimental episode for the show. While most shows’ experimental episodes are an opportunity to be as out there as possibly, American Dad delivers a largely normal half-hour of television, and it’s kind of freaking me out.

The b-plot, in which Steve and his friends discover the script for The Fast And The Furious 7 among the wreckage of a downed plane, feels more like vintage American Dad. Considering the massive gap between when the episode was produced and tonight’s airing, I’m actually not sure whether the making of “American Stepdad” predates or postdates Fast Five, otherwise known as the greatest work in the English language since Hamlet (also, Fast Five totally kicks Hamlet’s ass). Either way, the franchise’s contempt for physics, unabashedly fratty worldview, and omnipresent homosexual subtext will always be ripe for parody as far as I’m concerned, even if the parody only manages to be fractionally more ridiculous than Fast Five itself is. Even in this subplot, “American Stepdad” feels like a kinder, gentler version of the standard American Dad, insofar as Steve and his buddies escape the episode free of any lasting physical or psychological harm, and the only people that meet horrible, painful deaths do so off-screen before the story even starts. Seriously, when did American Dad go so soft on us? Whatever happened to that scruffy, irrepressible psychopath of a show that won our hearts in the first place? I’m happy to roll with this sweetness—or, at least, non-nastiness—for an episode, but Stan and Roger’s closing declaration that everything will go back to normal damn well better mean we’ll be back to wallowing in the cesspool next time around.

Stray observations:

  • Kevin will be back when the show returns on December 2. Thanks for letting me chat with you about one of my newest animated favorites.
  • “This just became the best bike ride we’ve had where we didn’t see homeless people having sex.” “So… number six.” Now that’s some of the American Dad repulsiveness I’m talking about!
  • “Interior: Crazy awesome mansion. A crazy hot girl feeds caviar to the Russian bad guy. There’s like a bear or something chained up by the pool.”
  • Let there be no doubt: Tucson, Arizona got Dadded. They got Dadded hard.

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