At the very least, “Independent Movie” is a riff that lampoon hacks Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer will never come close to touching, since it’s a parody of a genre that doesn’t make a lot of money at the box office. But for a broad Fox comedy that begins with foundational animated sitcom elements and spins out more surreal elements, the danger here is that in making fun of hackneyed, cookie-cutter films, it could unwisely take aim at good movies that fall into this genre.
Good then, that what makes “Independent Movie” work is that the episode both engages with and makes fun of the tropes associated with low-budget independent American filmmaking. In the abstract, the episode is a spoof of generic, voiceover-heavy films about physical journeys mirroring emotional ones, but—however unintentionally—it’s also about how people (especially kids who consume a lot of media) internalize tropes and unwisely apply them to life expectations.
Steve, Snot, Barry, and Toshi are just putting the finishing touches on their four life-size Lego sculptures of the Four Stages Of Ron Howard (film director with and without hat!) when Snot smells a deli tray and learns that his absent father has died. Snot doesn’t really react, but Steve is so intent on emotional catharsis for his friend that he sends them into an indie movie road trip across the country to the funeral in Stockton, California, complete with a grainier film look, a sepia-toned color palette, and a music supervisor-approved soundtrack (Delta Spirit’s “California”).
Because of the timing of the episode, I kept thinking of it as an extended Alexander Payne riff. I like most of Payne’s movies, but four road trip movies with emotional underpinnings in a row (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska) isn’t just a pattern, it’s a crutch. But Steve isn’t really drawing from specific films, he’s just going full-generic with extensive voiceovers out loud, which annoy Snot, or picking up a meth addict hitchhiker only to stop the car and send everyone exploring the woods.
Steve is so hooked on using independent movie tropes to force Snot into dealing with his father’s death that he tries too hard. The group loses Toshi, who chooses to stay behind in a cornfield, Barry beats up a mud representation of Snot’s father in frustration, and Snot plays up the requisite moment of friends yelling at each other. (“I’m not going to pretend to have a big theatrical reaction to this just to make you happy!”) By commenting on the tropes even as the episode employs them within the plot, “Independent Film” recalls Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, as genre elements begin to overtake the story.
But Snot’s breakdown in the motel is both a commentary on the “little moment” crystalizing the big picture—a bag of knockoff Cheetos with the tagline “Always There For You” gets stuck in a vending machine—and a nod to the “magic minority” character, as a maid gives Snot the mundane advice that he has to move out of her way, which he takes as a command to move on from his father’s death by attending the funeral.
If there’s one element that pushes the joke to the breaking point, it’s the introduction of Zooey Deschanel voicing a nameless girl who Steve literally calls his “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” The point here is to point out Steve’s glaring insensitivity to Snot, abandoning his friend and the plot he set in motion to hang out with a quirky stranger in a hot tub. But American Dad then commits to the murky, ambiguous ending that’s so common in these films, courtesy of a random trucker and a lack of reconciliation. This is writer Judah Miller’s first episode of American Dad (he previously worked on Clone High and now writes for Axe Cop), and it’s an above average parody without pushing too far over the edge.
The B-plot consists of exactly three scenes, boiling down what could be an episode of hilarious business intrigue and inventor/investor squabble into the bare comedy essentials. The opening scene of the episode places Stan, Francine, and Roger at a party hosted by Toshi’s father Hideki. A shrewd investor who always follows his gut—like destroying one of two remaining Etruscan urns to make the other priceless—Roger and Stan took their Male Stripper Shoes idea to Hideki in last season’s “National Treasure 4.” This time, a lackluster experience watching cake being cut at the party inspires the “Piece Of Cake” cake slicer, perfect for the Home Shopping Network and presumably the Sky Mall catalog.
If only for the wacky scene of Stan, Roger, and Hidecki rubbing together grumbling stomachs and the Mexican standoff that closes the episode, it’s a worthy runner, but it actually ties into the main plot in a perfectly “indie movie” way. The guy at the front desk of the motel the boys stay at watches the Home Shopping Network introduction of the product, a bizarre bit of color that fits well in the establishing moments of a new location. I'm always a big fan of the two (or three) plots dovetailing in subtle ways, and it's kind of impressive that it worked into the road trip in a way that made total sense for where Steve, Snot, and Barry ended up at that moment.
- Thing I just learned: Reggie Lee (Sgt. Wu on Grimm, who also appeared in The Dark Knight Rises) voices Hideki Yoshida. Mind sufficiently blown.
- I don’t think using a Dawes (!!!) song as the second bit of "indie flavor" on the soundtrack was a sly nod at The A.V. Club, but I’m just going to interpret it like that because it’s significantly funnier that way.
- Francine’s great one-liner contribution to the episode: “That’s the bitch who gave all my ideas to Michael Crichton.”
- Many apologies for this review appearing late, the Thanksgiving weekend and Fox’s confusing holiday schedule caused this episode to fall through the cracks. Everything will be back to normal for next week’s Breaking Bad-aping episode and the delayed Christmas special the week after.