"Take My Life, Please"/"What Happens At The National Propane Gas Convention In Memphis Stays At The National Propane Gas Convention In Memphis"/"Oceans Three And A Half"/"Family Affair"

"Take My Life, Please"/"What Happens At The National Propane Gas Convention In Memphis Stays At The National Propane Gas Convention In Memphis"/"Oceans Three And A Half"/"Family Affair"

And we're back! Not since November have all four shows aired as one mighty, mighty block. It's nice to have everyone back, but the enjoyment is fleeting—as has been happening a lot this season for some reason, there will be yet another break in new episodes until the beginning of March (for the Oscars, I would imagine).

Perhaps it's the fact that I haven't watched these shows back-to-back in so long, but every episode tonight seemed so, well, average. Now, average for The Simpsons or American Dad is certainly better for—oh, I dunno, here's a crazy example—Heroes. It's just that, while watching, I had the thought that in this new age of animated television, mediocrity is becoming more and more the norm. The one exception, for me, is American Dad, which as of recently has been by far the leader of the pack.

But first, a brand new Simpsons, now in HD. The lines… so crisp! The story… so bland! Homer is stunned to learn that Vance, his rival in a student council president election in high school, is being inducted into the Springfield Hall of Fame—all due to the election, in Homer's mind. But, after doing some digging, it turns out the principal actually rigged the election. Homer is furious until he learns that, actually, a bunch of jocks had gotten together and voted for Homer en masse; after he won, they were planning on tormenting him forever more. But hold on there, killer, because actually, it turns out that, had Homer won, his life would be much better! See, he sees this alternate future while at an Italian restaurant, where the resident sauce maker has developed a prophetic recipe that's one part tomato sauce, one part ominous visions, and a pinch of salt.

If it seems like there's a lot going on, that's because there is. The episode could have easily been just one thing—Homer deals with his Vance inferiority complex, or he sets out to discover the truth of the election from the former principal, or it could have been entirely a flashback episode. But instead, The Simpsons tries to do all three, one for each commercial break (then even more, due to that pesky, wholly annoying "magic" fourth commercial break. The show has been around for 20 years; I would imagine that there would be plenty to mine from digging deep into a simpler story line for 19 minutes. Instead, "Take My Life, Please" crushes under the weight of its bloated plot—not to mention that the overexplanation of jokes (specifically the whole "Lord's Day" bit where Homer feels to need to say that the Lord and God are different people, hence the misunderstanding and impending hilarity) wasn't helping matters.

King Of The Hill, the master of simplicity, once again presented a relatively enjoyable story, if not super interesting at every moment. It's hall of fame time again (another advantage of having all four shows air in the same night is seeing the many crossovers I'd imagine are mostly accidental), and Hank's boss, Mr. Strickland himself, is being honored at the National Propane Gas Convention in Memphis. Upon arriving at said shindig, though, Strickland learns that, in fact, there's another Strickland in business—someone who just so happens to be his long lost bastard son, who is looking to reunite, like, now. That means booze, women of "questionable moral character," and hookers. Problem is, Hank needs to keep Stricky in line.

Overall, the episode was, I guess, solid. It let each of its characters have their moments (I liked Peggy's desperation to get in with the queens of propane, and Dale saying just about anything), and brought the story to a nice close. Strickland lets Hank down, who gets drunk himself and embarrasses his boss at the awards presentation; then Strickland bribes the punishment council into letting Hank keep his job. But not much of the episode stood out—King Of The Hill has always been a show that dabbles in drama, but never one to let it escalate to any out-of-control point, where much comedy can be mined. The show just seems to blow from one moment to the next, and keep the mood relatively level. For an episode like this, I would have loved to see a bit of the action fly off the handle.

But Family Guy, of course, is the complete opposite—even seemingly innocuous situations often get blown way out of proportion, and hopefully there's some humor to be found. Tonight's episode starts with Bonnie finally giving birth (guess that'll stop all those references to her years of pregnancy), which kick-starts two things. One, Joe needs money for the hospital bills, and winds up in trouble with a loan shark in the process. And two, Stewie falls madly in love with the new baby, and is determined to do whatever he can to woo her. Peter decides to help Joe out, first by selling spiked lemonade to little kids, then by going to Lois's dad and asking for the dough. When that fails, he and the crew plan a heist to steal the money directly from the source. Stewie, on the other hand, takes a less-direct approach with his mission, and proceeds to sit back and write songs/edit together a music video for his beloved.

Two memorable scenes come from these two storylines, one from each. The first is a version of the Christian Bale rant including Peter as the lighting guy. (Side note: This episode raised serious questions about the timeliness of when they're shot and written; obviously this scene had to be a last-minute addition, but what's with the Hannity and Colmes reference? Definitely dated, and definitely a less-funny use of Droopy Dog than The Daily Show did back when people still made fun of Lieberman.) The second is the screening of Stewie's music video, complete with Brian's forced "novel"-like line of questioning. Both are funny for a while, but go on way too long, plus raise the point again that many jokes on Family Guy are simply references, with minor tweaks to include show characters. The episode was fine—and included some pretty imaginative (sigh… here it comes) Quagmire penis gags—but those two scenes literally ate up seven to eight minutes of screen time that probably could have served the show better.

And now, an apology. When I started writing this column in the fall, I admitted I hadn't seen American Dad in a long time—and the first episode of the year wasn't a great one. So, I started lamenting the fact that this show was still around, and even went so far as to call it something of watered-down Family Guy knock-off. Many of you rushed to the show's defense, and it's taken me till now to truly understand what you were all saying. This show is, by far, the most consistently funny of the four; in fact, I'd go so far as to say Roger is my favorite character right now on any of the shows, with Steve clocking in at a close second. No matter what I say in this column, I enjoy all these shows and come each week hopeful they will succeed; that said, I'm finding myself really looking forward to American Dad lately.

As is the case with a lot of the late greats, tonight's American Dad focused on Roger-caliber shenanigans. The Smiths haven't been seeing a lot of Roger lately, due to his demanding rehearsal schedule for an upcoming play. So they decide to surprise the guy and show up to opening night. Well, the theater where the show is supposedly going down is all boarded up, and Stan smells something fishy (besides Klaus—hey-o!). A mysterious text leads them to Pizza Overlord, where they discover Roger hanging out with another family. Actually, he does this a lot, and it's not just one, but multiple other families who all think he's their own special little guy. This behavior traces back to the first family who ditched Roger—at a gas station, how cliché—and he decides to confront them so he can move on with his life.

What I like about American Dad is, even though the characters are simple enough, the writers know who they are. Roger is always doing something outlandish, but never seems to think anything strange of it—and constantly has to backpedal his reasoning to the rest of the family. Stan is sometimes detached and cold, but remains fiercely loyal—the scene where he struggles to restrain his joy in welcoming Roger back into the family is a great example. Steve, perhaps the savviest of them all, is the most upset that Roger would betray the family's love and/or call him by the wrong name—a name, at first, he loved. American Dad has given itself plenty of room to play, without resorting to over-the-top caricaturizations or reliance on countless supporting characters to bring in the funny. Keep on keepin' on, dudes.

Grades:
The Simpsons "Take My Life, Please": C+
King Of The Hill "What Happens At The National Propane Gas Convention In Memphis Stays At The National Propane Gas Convention In Memphis": B-
Family Guy "Oceans Three And A Half": B-
American Dad "Family Affair": B+

Stray observations:

  • Don't remember the exact quote, but it was something like "I'm gonna tell that principal I know what he did last summer. 22 years ago. In winter."
  • What did you guys think of the new Simpsons opening credits?
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