Through some strange confluence of winter holiday television synergy, this weekend I’ve reviewed both a Christmas episode of a supernatural procedural centered on Krampus and a musical special. I’ve said that my favorite Christmas episodes are the ones that find a way to conduct a normal episode while weaving holiday themes into the character arcs. But sometimes none of that matters, and a rollicking good time is just as good. “Minstrel Krampus” more than delivers on a year of anticipation, and it’s another strong installment in the annual American Dad anti-Christmas Christmas episode tradition.
Last year, in the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Fox wisely delayed this episode for a year, meaning that there will presumably be one less Christmas special in the show’s run when it inevitably concludes. For the first two-thirds of the episode, I didn’t quite understand why, but then that Santa and Stan-led assault on Krampus’ Bavarian castle happens, and it’s immediately clear why this shouldn’t have aired in the aftermath of a mass shooting. This is another violent bloodbath of an episode that destroys elves and other magical entities, shedding blood where there should be no blood, and once again obliterating the idea that everything needs to be snuggly and cute for this holiday season. It was a smart decision to delay this, but I'm incredibly glad it could just slide right into another season without disrupting anything.
Steve’s maturity relative to his age is mutable, which is how throughout this season he’s already fluctuated from proving himself a man to shopping with his mother to going on a cross-country emotional road trip with his friends. So here he’s a petulant child behaving badly but still expecting to get all of his toys because it’s Christmas and that’s just what parents do. He even gets an extended—and hilarious—boy band song to go along with his bad boy behavior, which only infuriates Stan and Francine when they have no way to control Steve.
So Stan turns to his incarcerated father, Jack, to scare Steve into cleaning up his act. But Jack simply reveals that kids don’t have to suffer the consequences of bad behavior at Christmas because years ago, when growing up in Bavaria, he trapped Krampus the Christmas Demon inside a copper pot that now conveniently rests in Stan’s garage. With no choice left after Steve continues his uncontrollable holiday tantrum—smashing toy cars before he’s supposed to open them and berating Francine about getting the correct towel—Stan releases the demon, who promptly turns on Stan, kidnaps Steve, and demands Jack as ransom. This was a moment I kept trying to place in the timeline of last season before “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven,” but there’s really no point to that with the Christmas episodes of American Dad. They exist outside any kind of continuity, bringing back elements of previous specials like the Smith rivalry with Claus himself, and luckily (or perhaps retroactively) not showing Jeff at all despite being produced before he was launched into space last season.
“Krampus” moves along at a fast clip through the second act, as Stan interacts with Roger the bartender, travels to the North Pole (with the help of Roger’s water polo boys, who build a water sled) to reconcile into a tenuous alliance with Santa Claus, and travels to Bavaria. At the same time, Jack is fleeing for Jamaica and runs into Hayley, working at the airport to buy one of those popcorn tins with caramel, butter, and cheese-coated popcorn for her family, as it is surely the most luxurious item. And best of all, Steve and Krampus grow to understand each other, and the characterization of Krampus as a soulful, wounded guy who still pines for the girl who ditched him in downtown Baltimore is so out of the typical supernatural back-story that it’s perfect. The songs in this episode are far more memorable and funny than anything the Psych special cooked up.
As far as direct inspirations go, “The Best Christmas Story Ever Told” uses A Christmas Carol as its time-traveling jumping-off point, and “The Most Adequate Christmas Ever” uses It’s A Wonderful Life, and “Rapture’s Delight” has a bevy of post-apocalyptic references. “Krampus” cribs in small but important ways from Disney’s Beauty And The Beast, but bends toward darkness instead of a fairytale ending. Instead of a candelabra and a wind-up clock, Steve is visited in his cell by various bathroom accouterments, like a toilet and plunger (that makes “homemade chocolate”). And once the pools of Jack and Krampus’ blood have mixed, there’s a blatant reference to the Beast being transformed into the prince, only here, Jack is resurrected as Krampus, destined to continue on the legacy of punishing naughty children the world over.
I loved pretty much every part of this. The Hayley plot provides enough simple laughs before basically trailing off into nothing. Francine has very little to do outside of getting verbally abused by Steve. But Stan’s interactions with his father and Santa, and mostly Steve growing into the Belle role and Krampus as a soulful, James Brown-esque Beast was the best part of this Christmas special. It’s not my favorite that the show has ever done, but it’s yet another example that American Dad knows how to do Christmas episodes that stand out during the season more than any other program on television.
- The best touch in Steve’s boy-band song: the backup singers/dancers wearing Jabbawockeez masks at one point.
- Some great play with visual gags as Stan and Roger climb the giant ice wall protecting Santa’s lair at the North Pole.
- “Shush now, frownyhorns.”
- “Is that true?” “Is any of this?”