A few weeks ago, American Dad had an episode where the A-plot resembled a stage play, confining the Smiths to their home as they struggled to keep Lenten promises. A week later Family Guy devoted an episode to Brian’s fledgling playwriting career, which turned out to be the best episode that show has done in years. Now American Dad has a real stage play episode to round it out at three, another gem to go with season standout “Ad-ventures in Hayleysitting.” Where that episode was chock full of laughs at a breakneck pace, “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” uses a great framing device and strict adherence to stage style in order to create a wry homage to August: Osage County, an audacious and thoroughly successful experiment that never takes a major misstep.
The episode fully commits to the stage format, from the curtains at the beginning and end of each act, to the sound design that incorporates the reverb and room tone of an actual theatre space, to members of the audience gasping or crying out, “Oh no!” when plot twists come to light. Patrick Stewart provides the bumpers as though this is any old presentation of a theatre production—I can remember watching a DVD of The Man Who Came To Dinner with Nathan Lane where Liam Neeson provided the interstitial commentary—and just as his voice work as Avery is faultless, so is his Patrick Stewart persona, akin to his memorable guest role in Extras, though more restrained here.
The story on the surface is simple: Francine throws Stan a surprise birthday party, with Roger acting as Edna the Maid. Stan hates birthday parties, going back to the party where he vividly remembers his father leaving home for good. The story splits here into parallel narratives that don’t intertwine. Avery sees Hayley and references their past relationship, but after being rejected, he goes for Roger dressed as Edna instead. In keeping with this genre of theatre, there are plenty of twists along the way, from catching parents having sex to secret babies, to clown outfits, mistaken identity, and Stan’s ultimate realization that he is the cause of his fractured family. And just like the other epic stage tragedies, this one builds up so much pompous, self-aggrandizing seriousness that when the hammer finally drops, it’s a brutal finale that both adheres to genre tropes while gently mocking them.
Though the primary inspiration for this tongue-in-cheek sendup of family dramas is August: Osage County—well timed considering the film version comes out this year—I also thought of Clifford Odetts’ tragedy Paradise Lost, which depicts the financial spiral of a family during the depression, twisting the lives of an extended family together. This is an infamous genre in which to examine large, interconnected dysfunctional families, and the countless ways the episode pushes the buttons of theatre clichés in such a loving way is brilliant.
In terms of insider stage humor, this hits essentially every note, from the audience interaction to the lighting cues to the sound design to the way characters run back to their places when flashbacks end. The guy carrying his taxi prop onstage, everyone wiping their brow at the same time when referencing how hot it’s supposed to be, or the tiny detail of the sound of stage lights coming up on the soundtrack—these are all meticulously included, all in order to put these characters into crisscrossing melodrama ripped from some of the greatest plays ever written. It’s a difficult task to lovingly chide a genre for effectively using similar story beats over and over, but this episode manages to give off a level of respect while also poking fun at the kinds of tragic moments inherent to this genre.
The Avery/Hayley subplot goes all the way back to the first season of American Dad, and since Jeff isn’t around for this episode, we can assume the continuity fluctuates with the framing device that this episode is one of twelve produced during a giant cocaine binge by the playwright. The baby discovery, the romantic reunion with Hayley, and then the jaw-dropping (if predictable) final scene in the B-plot all fit perfectly in extreme tragic drama, mining personal relationships for that one glimmer of hope amidst sadness, before subjecting the characters to even darker depths of despair. It’s hard to do that effectively, and even harder to do that while also achieving a lighthearted, playful tone with regard to the framework humor.
There aren’t as many characters or subplots in this episode as August or Paradise Lost, but with a drastically compacted runtime, that’s no surprise. It’s actually more impressive that American Dad fits in the complete emotional arc of a play in just over 20 minutes, revealing more information about Stan’s birthday, emphasizing the cycle of grief with Steve’s strained relationship with his father, and the condensed romantic tragedy between Hayley, Avery, and Roger/Edna.
This isn’t the funniest episode of American Dad this season, but its ambition and nearly flawless execution makes it one of the best. It’s good to know a show like this can operate in different gears: going all-out for joke after joke, slowing down and taking stylistic chances, and going for genuine emotion. “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” is a calmer, more introspective episode, sort of like the tone “Virtual Systems Analysis” strikes in Community. It may not have wall-to-wall jokes, but it packs an emotional wallop inside technical mastery, which can at times be more impressive.
- The original production of August: Osage County won 5 Tonys, including for scenic design. Todd Rosenthal, a professor at Northwestern, created the incredibly distinct three-level house that plays such a large role in the story. This episode attempts to mimic that, but the Smith house has never been as important of a symbol.
- “Francine, get my fender sponges! I hit another dog coming home.”
- “Please don’t go down that road. Not on those tires.”
- Patrick Stewart didn’t fall asleep because he’s that great of an actor.