"O, Brother, Where Bart Thou?"/"A Cleveland Brown Christmas"/"Business Guy"/"Rapture's Delight"

"O, Brother, Where Bart Thou?"/"A Cleveland Brown Christmas"/"Business Guy"/"Rapture's Delight"

It's a night of festive Christmas cheer from the Fox animated shows, which isn't really true but is definitely how they sold it. In the interest of this, The Simpsons took place entirely in a wintry setting, while The Cleveland Show and American Dad both used Christmas as a key plot point before veering into tales of fathers abandoning their children and the apocalypse respectively. Only Family Guy was impervious to all of the Christmas cheer, mostly just making a lot of Hugh Laurie gags and having him turn up as House from House for the ... novelty, I guess? Regardless, I'm a big softy for this time of the year, so that means it's time for some rampant grade inflation all around!

The Simpsons: One of the better things I read last week (and I read a lot of things) was Daniel Fienberg's defense of placing the show on his top 31 shows of the decade, something few TV critics would cop to. Fienberg's argument is that The Simpsons is still good - genius at times, even - and that the fact that it's not what it was ten years ago can't really be held against it. I don't wholly agree with his thesis - I think some of the seasons of The Simpsons this decade were downright painful - but I think that the show has actually become a little underrated in these recent seasons. It's not the world-beater it once was, but it manages to throw together a coherent storyline with at least a few funny gags every week, and that's not nothing. It's also got one of the best stables of characters in the history of the medium, which means that even when the story doesn't click, it can fall back on some interesting relationship or another. A good case in point is tonight's episode, which continues my general pleasure with this season with another fine outing, this time centered on the strong bond between Lisa and Maggie (which, what?) that makes Bart long for a little brother to call his own. There was a lot of stuff that was not the best in the episode -like how the main storyline just ended - but I laughed a whole bunch, particularly at all of the scenes during the blizzard that opened the episode, and I found the character dynamics well-built. That final scene with Bart and Homer chowing down in the movie theater? It was kind of a nothing as an ending, but it still worked in spite of itself. Why? Because it has all of this show's rich history to trade in on. The Simpsons isn't my favorite show on TV or my favorite show of the decade by a long shot, but it's still a worthwhile stop on my TV dial, and as it enters its fourth decade on the air, it's sometimes nice to remember that. (OK, yeah, only one episode aired in the '80s. But still.) Grade: B+

The Cleveland Show: Here is where the "Todd VanDerWerff cannot be reliably trusted to review anything with a Christmas storyline" thing I keep trying (and failing) to make happen really comes into play. I can't reliably tell you just why I enjoyed this Cleveland Show outing more than some others recently, but I did. It's possible it was the lack of homophobic jokes. It's possible it was the lack of vomit jokes. It's possible it was the Christmas spirit. But for as much as I've written about how I respect what this show is doing about making these characters' struggles as they attempt to blend this family realistic, I also like that it's figuring out ways to work with the family history of the Tubbs family. Cleveland's a fundamentally decent guy, so it's always nice to see him do the right thing, and while I wouldn't say that his quest to get Rallo and his dad reunited for the holiday tugged at my heartstrings or anything, it was probably the best-told story of the night, starting quietly, building into a kind of insanity and then ending with a moment that was sorta funny and sorta heartfelt. I sometimes feel like The Cleveland Show still doesn't quite know what it is, but I'm finding its growing pains fascinating to watch. Grade: B

Family Guy: I can't keep lamenting how Family Guy never has a story for the rest of time, so from now on, I think I'll just grade the show on how often it makes me laugh. This will make it a lot harder for it to pull off an A grade (which would essentially be non-stop laughter), but it should score more B grades because I laugh at least once or twice most episodes. Here's a good case in point. The Hugh Laurie as House runner was definitely the sort of thing that felt like something Fox wanted the show to do so they had something to promote, but I laughed at it a few times, particularly when he turned out to be the swamp monster. (I'm a sucker for a Scooby Doo parody, apparently.) And I laughed for quite a while at Brian's inspirational poster on the wall of his office. The main plot was, as always, just an excuse for some jokes, and it examined one of the show's less interesting relationships (Peter's relationship to his father-in-law), but, hell, it made me laugh at least three times, so that shall earn it a Grade: B-

American Dad: And then after I was pretty well convinced that nothing could top The Simpsons, this came along and was one of the best American Dad episodes I've ever seen. It's entirely possible this is just because the show hit my sweet spot - I spent a lot of my childhood brooding over various apocalyptic fantasies advanced in the church I attended - but the way the show started out as a fairly standard American Dad episode and then just gradually went more and more batshit insane was definitely worth it. American Dad has become, essentially, the weirdest show on network television, something like a watered-down version of adult swim for the masses, and that's increasingly what I love about it. What other show would reconcile the marital rift between its two main characters by turning to an elaborate parody of every post-apocalyptic film ever made blended with a very literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation? What other show would conclude with the suggestion that everything happening in any one of its future episodes is occurring in the afterlife? And what other show would offer up such a pitch-perfect satire of Christian kids videos as that whole thing with the raptor about what to do after the rapture? I don't know that I've been as impressed with an episode of American Dad as I have been with this one, and I'm truly, truly pleased that any network has the balls to air something as strange as this. Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • "And I don't have to tell girls how their body works 'cuz I don't know."
  • "Mine do it once a year on the magical day when the prison and the insane asylum have their mixer."
  • "Dad said I was one Uday who didn't need a Qusay."
  • "How could you not see me? My arms are like hams! HAMS!"
  • "Did somebody say Naked Bacon?"
  • "How'm I gonna get out of this one? Find out after these loud and off-putting messages."
  • "A bad day, indeed, for pretend cake figurine baseball."
  • "Oh my word. Some type of warlock has cursed Christmas."
  • "Course I did. It's my damn show."
  • "I'm having a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack. You oughtta know by now!"
  • "House." "Roadhouse." "That too."
  • "Go get it. Go get it, boy."
  • "I hope I haven't missed the part where the three Chinese guys give perfume to the star baby. It's like the diaries of a madman!"
  • "I guess I just picked a whole bouquet of oopsie-daisies."
  • "Merry Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Jesus."