After having reviewed each of the Fox animated shows for most of last season, and American Dad for this one, I’ve started seeing some clear trends in how I react to the shows as a critic and not necessarily as a viewer. Namely, I notice more and more how the cartoons frontload the comedy, putting the best jokes in the first act.
Tonight’s American Dad is no exception, with a wild start where Stan’s rivalry with Roger gets him excommunicated from Christianity, and Jeff and Hayley adopt a child. This is the kind of thing that’s perfect for American Dad, since it allows absurd levels of transgression and emoting. But once the setup is complete and the premise well-established—that the adopted boy is the Antichrist that Stan has to kill—then the episode simply moves through the plot. There are jokes, sure, but it’s nothing like the first act.
As I mentioned, this is pretty common, and I think there are a couple of reasons why. First of all, it’s sort of traditional. Since The Simpsons, animated sitcoms have generally started with a random, bizarre premise which ends up leading to the main plot. For example, Homer faking his own death sets off a bizarre chain of events leading the primary storyline of his mother appearing. The MacFarlane comedies, since they’re less effective at telling stories than The Simpsons, typically fall down here, getting the absurdity right but failing to make that cohere enough for a full episode. American Dad is the best of the three at not having this happen, mostly because it’s happy to maintain its absurdity beyond the premise. Well, usually. It’s not so effective here, turning into a silly American Dad parody of The Omen with a lengthy action sequence.
It doesn’t hurt that frontloaded comedy also makes the episode possibly seem better overall than jokes at the end. “I laughed right away” buys a lot more goodwill than “I didn’t really laugh until the end” even if there are only, say, only two or three good jokes in those sequences. Which is not to say that “Season’s Beatings” was that weak, as the jokes it did have were pretty great. Roger is the clear MVP of the episode, with a boozy Christmas uncle-type persona who drinks dangerously spiked egg nog from his pimp cup.
It’s also the first episode focused on Hayley and Jeff since they moved back in with the Smiths, what, a year ago? I know both of them aren’t exactly fan favorites and they haven’t been missed, but I think “Season’s Beatings” did a good job of playing to their strengths. Jeff’s impulsiveness and insecurity leads to the adoption of the child, while Hayley may have the best bit in the episode, when she describes how she has animalistic instincts before acting those out.
So in the end we have an episode that’s about half-great, half-middling. The turning point probably came at the death of guest star Martin Mull as Father Donovan. His horny, absent-minded priest character was typical American Dad guest fare, but done well. It also signaled the turning point for the adoptee, Nemo, who went from adorably silent child who caused entertaining reactions in those around him into, well, evil. And a jab against Sarah Palin at the end, well, American Dad’s hot streak had to cool off eventually.
- “You can’t be Jesus. But I got something even better.” “Fireman Jesus?!?”
- “Jefffff!!!” “Whaaaatttt!”