With a Wall Street Journal excerpt sensationally titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” it’s easy to see why many who read Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother missed the intended irony of a self-deprecating memoir. Mrs. Yoshida is a stereotypical disciplinarian with embellished violent tendencies, hitting her son when he doesn’t perform a violin piece with acceptable mastery, and hiring a maid to vacuum out his rear to eliminate the need for bathroom breaks. But instead of softening that strict image, “Spelling Bee My Baby” chooses to turn Francine into that kind of overzealous helicopter parent before reining her back in, leaving Mrs. Yoshida a one-note caricature that doesn’t change for the better, only growing more fantastical as the episode goes on.
Initially, Francine ignores Mrs. Yoshida’s parenting taunts, content that Steve can be happy. But once Greg and Terry openly laugh at her while touting their French-speaking, fencing baby daughter, Francine kicks into a tiger mom disciplinarian, hell-bent on pushing Steve as much as possible to ensure he goes to a good school. This is where the episode feels a little light, as it seems a lot of overbearing mother material didn’t make it in. With Steve being so endearingly unexceptional, that seems like a good place to rest and dig for more humor than a montage, but that shortcut to the spelling bee did showcase Steve’s talent at making (or just procuring) incredibly convincing Steve Smith masks.
So Francine pushes Steve until they find the one thing he’s good at, spelling, and only changes when she discovers Steve’s budding relationship with Akiko. Then, she kicks into overdrive, kidnapping Akiko and keeping her in a see-through Hannibal-esque basement cell, just as some insurance for Steve’s victory. Spelling bees are incredibly boring—but the first bee does yield a great aside when Principal Lewis recites the opening of Romeo And Juliet. “Shakespeare, bitches!” The only thing worse would be a montage of spelling bees, but that’s exactly where American Dad goes to the episode’s most inspired bit of meta-humor. Those pictures and title cards, directly addressing the viewer and helping to cut directly to the national bee
Steve and Akiko—who began the series much younger, but has been aged up to high school to fit in with Toshi and the rest of the gang—have shown affection for each other before, but never have their feelings been forbidden, and thus consummation confirmed. And though Steve and his friends talk about sex, masturbation, erections, et al, after the parental hovering and interference dies down, American Dad reaffirms the connection between Akiko and Steve with the funniest sequence of the episode. The increasingly ridiculous misspelling of the final word, the indignant announcer who needs to get to a date, the string of Tyler Perry movies attached to a word—it all works, and redeems the whole Crouching Tiger fight scene in the lobby between Francine and Mrs. Yoshida.
When Roger pushed Jeff into the tractor beam of the spaceship intended for Roger, I assumed it was a one-off episodic plot that would never come up again. But the B-plot sticks with that continuity, as Jeff is still in alien clutches, if he’s not already dead. Hayley still plans for his imminent return, but Stan and Roger aim to speed up her grief process, because they’re in dire need of a badminton line judge and the Shuttlecock Ring is on the line.
It’s good that Hayley realizes that Roger is to blame for Jeff being gone, and her father’s as well for going along with Roger’s actions as though he did nothing wrong. But other than Hayley beating up Roger, and Roger’s 15-second romp through the five stages of grief, not much worked. Roger’s only disguise for the episode barely counts despite being hilarious, as he decides to dress up and play the ukulele cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to accompany a slideshow of Jeff and Hayley pictures.
Hayley accepts Jeff’s prolonged absence, but if future episode titles are any indication, this plot line will return again at least once until Jeff is back on his home planet. Right now it works as a B-plot, running shorter and parallel to an episode’s main plot, sprinkled over multiple episodes. It’ll probably become the main focus of the rescue/return episode, but for now the joke-filled background is where this plot belongs.
- “Do you mean bologna?” Principal Lewis continues to be the most underrated supporting character in American Dad’s arsenal.
- “Think of grandma in the shower.”