So here's the deal, Fox animation fans. Every week, I come in here, and I try to explain just why I did or didn't like the episodes of these shows, then grade them on a curve weighted against their recent seasons. (This means, roughly, that I grade the shows against the last five or so seasons, which often unfairly raises the grade for The Simpsons, which is having a good year, unexpectedly, and often hurts Family Guy, which still has some of its best seasons eligible. There's more explanation for why I do this here, and I know you're just thrilled to read all about it.) Every week, you guys complain about my grading, so I'll ask you this week: Would you rather I grade these shows against the rest of television? I think it's clear that I don't think an A-episode of The Simpsons is anywhere near the level of an A-episode of Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but maybe it's not clear. At the same time, does anyone really want to read me saying, "I laughed a few times at this Cleveland Show, but it was no Treme!" week after week? I aim to please, but I also aim to keep things lively.
I say this because I thought tonight was a pretty strong lineup for the shows in question, and that means they'll all get scores in the B-range. But, again, that pretty much just means they all made me laugh often enough and had stories that mostly hung together. You may consider these things such rudimentary elements for a show to have that the mere possession of them shouldn't warrant anything approaching praise. And I'd say that, outside of American Dad, these shows just HAVING those elements HAS been something to praise in the last three seasons or so.
Anyway, on with the grading!
The Simpsons: I may be giving this one a few too many points for paying homage to the movie A Letter to Three Wives, a very enjoyable Joseph L. Mankiewicz film that has been mostly forgotten by the general populace. To be honest, it strains credulity quite a bit that Moe is going to be the guy who seduces these women away from their husbands (or to think that the husbands would be at all worried about this), but I thought the show had quite a bit of fun with the idea that he was suddenly an omniscient narrator who could see into these women's private lives just because he was a bartender. The series has been having fun with tossing together unexpected character pairings this season, which is one of the reasons it's been a pretty good year of a show that can really only attain pretty good anymore. I'm not sure that Reverend Lovejoy, Homer, and Apu make a terribly convincing trio to be hanging out together, but the show wrung a surprising amount of humor out of the weird nature of their bonding. There are quite a few sloppy elements here - Weasel Island is little more than a plot convenience - and the final message of "Be good to your wives" is basically laid on with a sledgehammer. But the core of the episode is solid, and Moe makes a very funny narrator. Grade: B
The Cleveland Show: I have no idea why The Cleveland Show delayed a Black History Month episode from February to May, but I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that this is probably the best episode the show has produced so far, and the network wanted to make sure it landed in May sweeps and not up against the Winter Olympics. It's not a terrific episode of television by any means, but it really does feel like the show is slowly finding its voice and figuring out what makes it something other than just a Family Guy spinoff. In particular, I enjoyed Rallo discovering just what has befallen African Americans over the course of American history, and I thought that Cleveland's sudden realization that Lester was a racist was well-done. Now, the climax skewed a little too heavily toward the kind of action-adventure climaxes they are able to pull off on American Dad but not here, and I wasn't too fond of the stupid way the Rallo and Kendra storyline ended, but I'd say that I laughed at this Cleveland Show more than any other episode the show has done so far and more than any other episode of a Fox animated show tonight. This is a good step in the right direction. Grade: B+
Family Guy: I feel a little bad about last week's write-up for Family Guy, where I don't think I adequately explained why I thought the "Brian and Stewie" episode was interesting but not necessarily good. It's a hard thing to describe an episode that does a lot of the things you say you want a show to do but still fails at them, and I probably could have done a better job. On the other hand, this episode contained about 60 percent of the best of Family Guy and about 40 percent of the worst. In general, I really enjoy storylines where Brian is taken down several pegs, and his eagerness to go to the Web animation seminar and the utter lack of interest anyone else in his life had in it was very amusing. Furthermore, the show mostly stayed on the right line of making sure the revelation that Quagmire's dad was going to become a woman was seen as a source of mockery for the characters, but not the show itself. (However, the scenes where the mockery seemed a little too mean-spirited were definitely out of the show's worst sections of its toolkit.) Honestly, the scenes where Quagmire and his dad talked out this decision by dad were surprisingly well-done for a character who has been something of a one-joke character for quite a while now. I'd almost call them heartwarming, as a matter of fact. Now, I was less enamored of the scenes where Brian hooked up with Ida and then was so disgusted by it that he threw up for 30 seconds (though I liked the animation of Stewie slowly backing away from the pool of vomit), which seemed to rather fly in the face of the message of the rest of the episode, even as they were simultaneously scenes that poked holes in Brian's smug sense of superiority. In particular, I didn't get why Brian was so eager to mock Ida before he knew anything about her other than being Quagmire's dad (though I suppose it could have something to do with his antipathy for Quagmire in general). I do give the show points for pulling off the tricky move of tying both of these storylines together in a fun way at the end, so I'll give this one a Grade: B-.
American Dad: Just when I was wondering why this episode of American Dad was more meander-y than usual, the episode revealed that it was all an extended fantasy sequence that Stan was having while trying to decide whether to cannonball from the diving board or not. Now, the episode tried to make some funny jokes out of the revelation that this was, basically, all a dream, but it couldn't help the fact that "It was all a dream" is a pretty weak ending, even if you poke fun at how stupid of an idea it is in the first place. I mostly liked the episode up until Stan launched his bizarre plan to get everyone's mind off of how he had pooped in the pool by getting the President to do the same thing, but at that point, everything kind of went off the rails. Political satire was never American Dad's strong suit, and outside of a funny scene where Stan couldn't believe that world opinion of the U.S. had cratered under Bush, it wasn't the strong suit of this episode either. Still, I liked almost everything from Stan's attempts to get the family ready for the party through their attempts to find new places to live (especially that silent shot of the Peruvian rainforest burning down), so this was a good two-thirds of an episode in search of an ending that made more sense. Grade: B
- "I moved here because on a calculator, the ZIP Code spells 'Boobs.'"
- "You have so much in common with them. Non-stop chatter during drive-time."
- "This ominscient point of view has some bonuses."
- "I make more than you can possibly imagine. And I'm making it right now." "Where are you?"
- "The stationary's legit. It's got the Moe watermark."
- "Most of our cargo is explosives."
- "Go ugly up someone else's house, you penis-curling she devils."
- "We got caught in the rain because someone wouldn't use international short-form rules."
- "What am I? Blind and noseless?"
- "Think of it as a wake-up call from a man with nothin' but a blow-up doll. And even she left me. Shouldn't have used helium."
- "The audacity of Hot Wheels!"
- "If Rutherford B. Hayes wasn't a brother, I don't know what's up?"
- "His father was a black bear, his mother a kangaroo. So call him what you will."
- "Violence is never the answer. Unless the question is 'What is never the answer?'"
- "You keep your weird son away from my weird son."
- "My Rascal is my legs. And my arms!"
- "Keep naming sides."
- "Stay tuned for an all-new, all-white Family Guy."
- "The fact that your last name is Griffin is a pleasantry extended to you by the family, not a legality."
- "No one dances like Lt. Col. Dan Quagmire."
- "Remember when we met him the other day, and he danced for a while?"
- "It's gotta be a trainwreck down there. Just an absolute casserole of nonsense."
- "You made me feel like a fool for building a professional runway in my living room."
- "One's true value is determined only through the eyes of others. That's from Genesis. Their first album, I think."
- "Hello, y'all! I'm Stan Smith's brother, Applebee McFriday's!"
- "For the life of me, Chairman Meow, I can't remember what it was that guy did."
- "Extended fantasy sequence Obama made me realize that."