I was actually rather surprised to learn that the animation domination shows were all new this evening. Sitting out the Sunday after Thanksgiving is a grand TV tradition, and even though most of the other networks were new, I kind of thought Fox would take a breather. Instead, it looks like they're putting that off until next week, which means I got to rush to Reno to watch all of them on a terrible hotel room TV with tinny sound. If I messed up any of the quotes below, blame the TV, not myself.
On the other hand, these were some of the best episodes of these shows thus far this season. Maybe it's just the post-Thanksgiving haze coloring my judgment, but I genuinely enjoyed all four shows this evening, and I thought this was the best Simpsons in quite some time, maybe since a couple of seasons ago. When even Family Guy isn't pissing me off, you know that I've either let my critical standards slip horribly in the wake of too much tryptophan or the shows were enjoyable.
On to the grading!
The Simpsons: As mentioned, I really enjoyed this episode of The Simpsons. Trying to cram way too many plots into one episode has been a Simpsons trademark since probably the second or third season of the show (the first season was very subdued in this regard), but it's rare that all of those plots hang together in a mostly logical fashion. Here, the story of the Simpsons trying to get home from their ski weekend dovetailed nicely with the story of Cletus and Brandine taking them in after their car disappeared beneath the ice, which dovetailed nicely with the story of Homer and his hillbilly pals embarking on an extended Sideways parody that was actually funny because it a.) arose naturally from the story and b.) was all about moonshine, which is never not funny. The tale of how Lisa fell in with a bunch of Wiccans wasn't as well-integrated, but once it got going and got past the "Here are some things the increasingly old and cranky Simpsons writers have read about in the paper" nature of the storyline, it, too, was quite amusing, especially as it led into Springfield holding its first witch trial in centuries. There was even an attempt to tie both of the main storylines together at the end, and while it was strained, the attempt was appreciated. All in all, this episode was probably so good because it played to two of the less-explored facets of Homer and Lisa's characters - Homer's propensity to be kind of a savant at random tasks (particularly food or alcohol related ones) and Lisa's occasional gullibility. Also, I laughed at the country bear jamboree gag for a solid 30 seconds, which is the most this show has made me laugh in ... God, I don't know how long. Grade: A-
The Cleveland Show: At just over a third of the way into this first season, The Cleveland Show has already calmed down a lot. There are still a few requisite cutaway gags in every episode, but there are far fewer than in the first three or four episodes. The series has also shown a certain dedication to really nailing down its characters and how they interact with each other. There's an emotional core to storylines like that of Rallo being upset by how Cleveland has moved in and taken his place as "man of the house" that reflect some of the things King of the Hill used to do, and while this show doesn't seem to have the stuff to ever be as good as that show, I appreciate that it's mapping out just how Cleveland's arrival in these characters' lives has shaken those lives up. I also quite enjoyed the field trip subplot because it again got at some of the issues of blending a family (with Cleveland Jr. and Roberta trying to deal with each other) and shone a spotlight on the bears, Tim and Arianna. Arianna Huffington is maybe not the greatest voice actor in the world, but Seth McFarlane is doing some of his best work as Tim, creating a character who's both very funny and about as believable as a bear living in suburbia could possibly be. I doubt The Cleveland Show has the sheer insanity at its center to ever be as good as American Dad, nor does it have the pop cultural strand in its DNA that might make it as big of a mainstream hit as Family Guy, but it's good to see the show is carving out that identity. On the other hand, that's two weeks in a row where characters have thrown up at being aroused by a man they thought was a woman, which is not the greatest streak in the world. Grade: B-
Family Guy: I'm rather enjoying the Brian-centric turn this season is taking. Brian has always been the show's best character and its most developed one. He seems to be fairly similar to McFarlane in just about every way (except for, well, the fact that he's a dog), but he manages to be somehow both pretty sympathetic and a target for the show's best jokes about how pretentious he is. Because Brian is actually defined as a character beyond a few, simple adjectives, he ends up being the best possible foil for every other character on the show, particularly Stewie. Also, this season of Family Guy seems intent on telling stories that are more than just a way to hang a bunch of pop culture gags on a rickety old story spine. A good case in point is this episode, which started out poking fun at Brian's awful novel (the title of which is still one of the series' better gags) and then quickly turned into a parody of every suspense film ever before taking a hard left into a storyline where Brian realizes that no one cares that he killed a fellow dog. I have no idea if McFarlane even cares about animal rights (I suspect not), but having Brian get suddenly interested in PETA and dragging Peter along with him was well done. The only thing the storyline was missing was an ending that didn't just sort of peter out. On the other hand, the whole Peter/PETA gag that pointed out that Lois pronounces both the same way was pretty cheap but quite funny, and I'll always award bonus points for a solid Family Circus gag that even features a well-integrated callback. Grade: B
American Dad: Now comes the part of the review where I give American Dad a B+, do a poor job of rationalizing the case for that grade because I'm tired of writing about McFarlane's shows after three of them in a row and get lambasted in comments for liking something that's "not funny." Maybe the next time all four shows are on, I'll review them in reverse order or something, but I thought this was another solid episode of a solidly funny show. Some of the things I like best about the show - Roger's many disguises, Steve's interactions with his friends, Stan's relationship with his kids - were on full display here, and while the storyline where Stan tried to get a bunch of strippers interested in dry cleaning only to become a stripper himself was a little undercooked and eminently predictable, I liked how it was built on the relationship he has with Haley, which is one of the relationships the show could do more work with. American Dad is never going to be the favorite show of a lot of people - it's probably too damn weird at its core - and it's actually a pretty poor fit with Family Guy (though I have no idea what other time slot would work for it), but if you can get on its wavelength, there's nothing quite like it. Grade: B+
- What's up with The Simpsons and the weirdly misplaced holiday-themed couch gags? Why not swap the Thanksgiving and Christmas ones to fit better? Why am I even thinking about this this much?
- Please link to any news stories where Wiccans are offended by their portrayal on The Simpsons in comments. It wasn't exactly flattering, but, then, The Simpsons' portrayal of just about everything in America isn't exactly flattering. On the other hand, the time when people got offended by things The Simpsons did passed ages ago.
- "I hate traffic. The band and the phenomenon!"
- "Why do my actions have consequences?"
- "Let the possum work its magic."
- "I never make a final decision in the middle of a forest at night."
- "More spelling bees. Less spells on bees."
- "My real name is Stacy Deathsatan."
- "Are you sure? Because we've brought you a lot of flimsy cases. Like that goat we accused of income tax evasion."
- "What's wrong with you?" "My loins ache."
- "You know what, father from Family Circus? All you do is judge people."
- "The C in CIA doesn't stand for crestfallen. But what if it stood for cat?"
- "Oh, we just avoided a funny misunderstanding. I almost cut your hands off!"
- "Ladies, six of the ten richest men in America made their fortunes off of dry cleaning or other businesses."
- "I could have been born with bashful testicles. You tell the bank to think about that."
- "Nothing cheers you up like being in a pawn shop. Because chances are, you're going to see a Flintstones alarm clock."