I can’t count the number of new television episodes I’ve watched since the current broadcast network season began last fall. It’s somewhere in the hundreds, but I honestly have no clue. Along with that, there’s a very low percentage of specific, discrete episodes of individual shows I can recall with total accuracy. Sometimes an episode becomes memorable because a show reaches a creative peak; other times it’s because a show hits its nadir. And then there’s the third category: the inexplicably memorable, something that doesn’t strike me as particularly strong, but for reasons I can’t quite explain it manages to get lodged in my brain.
Amid all the strange things that have happened during this season of American Dad—from Stan’s misguided Thanksgiving rampage to the delayed Krampus episode to the Smiths dividing up faux-Disneyland into post-apocalyptic kingdoms—I find myself returning to Steve raising two deer to maturation in “Buck, Wild.” It’s a solid episode that made me laugh a lot, which is why it got the grade it did, but I can’t really elabortate on why I vividly remember parts of that episode more than other episodes that I would rank above it from this season.
I bring this up because the premise for “I Ain’t No Holodeck Boy” hinges on Stan’s insistence that Steve and his videogame obsessed friends—they play a Four Swords-ish game they’ve coded themselves with a story of time-travelers fighting Hitler’s pregnant mother to prevent the monster’s birth—won’t just go outside. It’s a typical Stan “back in my day” bravado to strap on the rose-colored glasses and wax poetic about inventing rock fighting and breathing the air—as opposed to Steve and his lazy friends who only play games and can’t interact with anyone face to face. But when an episode from earlier in the season depicts Steve surviving on his own in the wild for around a year and helping forest animals to defeat Stan’s coworkers and their technology-dependent super-RVs, the reversal appears tenuous.
I’m not asking for American Dad to do what Rick & Morty did last week and use what could’ve been a throwaway surreal moment of facing down death as the foundation for a touching speech from younger brother to older sister. But like plenty of other animated sitcoms before it, American Dad does have a selective memory about what it chooses to treat like a serialized plot element and what resets back to zero at the end of each episode. Jeff’s intergalactic exile remains a permanent fixture, forming one of last season’s highlights, and if upcoming episode titles are accurate, he’ll show up again sometime in the next year to complete that plot. But pretty much every other plot resets, leading to a lot of repetitive Stan/Francine episodes where they try to spice up the marriage. Sometimes this fluidity can be played for a nice joke, but other times it hinders a moment that doesn’t have to be burdened with the knowledge that a previous episode contradicts certain dialogue.
This is all a big tangent, but that moment—Francine’s line “Steve can’t handle the woods. He wears Velcro laces,” specifically— stuck in my craw for a while. Aside from a few minor quibbles, “Holodeck Boy” is an all-around fun episode of American Dad, with two worthwhile plots that pit family members against each other with plenty of laughs. Stan has used CIA technology to affect his kids’ lives before, and using the new holodeck to test Steve and his friends in an outdoor survival scenario.
What makes the Steve/Stan plot stand out is how it doesn’t give in to one way for the episode to go and then never deviate. The outcome of the plot changes by the minute with new discoveries, and thankfully neither Stan nor Steve and his friends remain oblivious to the surreal predicament they’re in for very long. At each turn, the episode could finally get on a typical track and stay on course to a predictable finish. Steve and his friends could never discover they’re inside a holodeck. Or Stan could never realize his son has taken control and turned the tables on him, leading to an act full of Stan’s nostalgia or horror that his childhood memories aren’t what he really believed them to be. Instead, with each shift every few minutes, “Holodeck” keeps moving in order to avoid predictability, at least until it becomes clear that father and son have to work together (with the help of some Master Chief armor) to defeat a zombie skeleton carrying a baby Hitler.
As for Roger and Hayley, I’m always a fan of when other characters mess with Roger. Sure, he’s always going to get even and then take things too far in revenge, but it’s worth it to see him fume over something as insignificant as caring that Hayley purchase his solar system’s sun for a star registry on Earth. Hayley’s desire to do something that’s at least charitable on the surface like donate a goat to a family in Africa doesn’t merit the retaliation of bringing that goat back, threatening it, and then butchering it to serve to the Smiths at dinner. But that’s just Roger being Roger, and if that kind of cut-to-black revenge kicker that only inflicts the emotional pain of despicable prank defeat on Hayley is the price to pay for some precious Roger-not-getting-his-way time, I’m all for it.
- The events of “Independent Movie” have also remained etched in my mind. I suspect that one, more than any other episode this season, deserves another re-watch and potentially a grade bump.
- Avery once again gets a handful of stellar scene-stealing moments, first with a memory from his all-male boarding school days, and then what appears to be a tentacle porn fantasy in the holodeck.
- Perhaps Barry’s wisest moment on American Dad: “I remember a time when we didn’t need a nostalgia filter. Those were the days.” Then again, the kid does have sex with a tree just in case so he doesn’t die a virgin.