A few months ago, I asked whether American Dad could, given its anything-for-a-laugh model, create something with an emotional core. It didn’t entirely work then, but this time, with “Stan’s Best Friend,” the show manages to find a mechanism that does work. Its focus is on euthanasia, for a pet in the episode, but most of the arguments could just as easily be made about humans—in fact, the show shies away from making pet-explicit arguments.
The Smith family gets a puppy who gets critically injured, just after Stan falls in love with it. But Stan had a traumatic past experience where he had to put down his beloved dog for no good reason, so he’s not ready to have that happen again, even though the dog clearly has no reason to be kept alive.
“Stan’s Best Friend” works a lot better than “The Unbrave One” at reaching that emotional core because it goes all out. The emotion and the jokes take their turns, instead of being done at the same time. Of course, the show’s aware of this—Stan tells the tragic story of his first pet, and finishes by saying that it’s so sad he can’t even undercut it with a joke.
This veering between comedy and pathos is a solid for dealing with an irony-soaked culture, which is a set of people that probably includes most A.V. Club readers and most American Dad viewers. The emotion is strong enough to build the tension, and the humor breaks the tension enough that viewers don't have to in such a way that they lose their connection to what’s going on. This is excellent when it works, and is part of the reason I enjoy Joss Whedon shows or Misfits. Those are tonally different from “Stan’s Best Friend”—they’re dramas with strong comic impulses, where AD is a comedy that has some dramatic power in this episode—but there’s similar structure here.
It also helps that the jokes consistently land. Although it doesn’t have any huge winners like Bob’s Burgers did earlier last night, it’s pretty much funny from beginning to end. Roger telling Klaus “You can’t be a pet unless someone loves you” works well enough even without the sad music cues that follow. And even as the puppy, Kisses, comes back horrifyingly when Stan oversteps, the alternative pet doctor is still making entertainingly awkward jokes like “Softball mitt. Know what I mean?”
“Stan’s Best Friend” comes down pretty hard on the side of euthanasia, with the episode taking the form of Stan coming to terms with his first dog Freddy’s death. As a polemic, it’s a little bit too straightforward to really be effective. There’s never really any doubt that Kisses either should be allowed to die, or that he’s going to die. So it becomes more a matter of Stan’s emotional journey than a Very Special Episode. And using the lens of the character instead of the issue makes it much more palatable.
There’s also a B-story, as Haley and Jeff confront their own mortality after Kisses’ accident. Their drawing of a will leads to the revelation that Jeff owns the rights to Blues Traveler’s first album, but he’s given it away. It doesn’t resolve in terribly exciting fashion, but it does give Jeff and Haley a story of their own that’s both interesting and amusing. It isn’t saying much to suggest that it’s the best storyline they’ve had as a couple since they got married, but it’s till worth saying. Something can be done with these characters.
At the end of the episode, a picture of a dog dedicates the episode to a Freddy, presumably the now-dead dog of the episode’s writer, Jonathan Fener. This makes the emotion of the episode make sense—here’s a man who writes for a comedy show and is therefore probably used to joking about everything, but also dealing with a difficult loss. It’s that touch of the personal that makes “Stan’s Best Friend” work better than it should, even if it does involve an awesome balloon filled with pirate cats saying “Me-arrrgh!”
- American Dad gets meta when Francine tries to remind Stan that the family has had dogs before. “Francine, those were obviously dreams. I refuse to discuss your dreams in the daytime.”
- “I think the dude who lives in your parents’ attic has a crush on me. Makes me uncomfortable.” I think we need more Jeff and Roger.