Making a joke about domestic abuse is difficult, especially a layered joke that on the surface appears to condone the violence and deter anyone from speaking up about it. Dressing Francine up in a man suit, complete with a voice modulator and a fart machine (to make other men feel calm and at ease) in order to spend more time with Stan doesn’t last as a joke for an entire episode. But in the third act things take a turn to dramatic irony, as we know it’s actually Francine in the suit when Stan starts beating Frank up. When Frank/Francine invokes her name, it sends Stan into a frenzy; when he calls Francine and a phone in Frank’s pocket rings, he’s even more disturbed; when he scalps Frank and discovers it’s actually Francine, he’s confused, completing a tremendously uncomfortable comic rule of three.
It’s actually a nice demonstration of the difference between dramatic and verbal irony. Clearly the Jon Hamm bit at the end is facetious and meant to condemn anyone who wants to sweep domestic violence under the rug, and that’s the kind of construction Seth MacFarlane’s shows are known for on touchy subjects for humor. I’ve been extremely critical of how Family Guy approaches misogynistic and racist humor, but for once, American Dad actually had the structure to pull this off.
For a joke like that to be successful, it can’t hurt if the episode is full of other funny material to buoy the potentially sharp descent. And in that regard “Can I Be Frank?” skates by without incident thanks to a seemingly misplaced B-plot that builds to one hilarious gag before ending on a similar down note.
The episode makes the married-couple-as-best-friends adage both the butt of a joke (one directed at any married men in the audience named Dave) and the central piece of the main plot. Francine wants to be able to have the calmer, friendlier interactions with her husband in addition to the structured domesticity of cooking dinner for when Stan gets home. Sure, Stan says Francine is his best friend while beating Frank in the face, but he doesn’t really do anything with Francine that constitutes that label. This is the tacit misogyny that brings the episode down just a tad.
It doesn’t help that American Dad already did the “disguised attempt to hang out with a family member” story last year in “Virtual In-Stanity,” a much funnier and better-plotted episode. And the vacation episode a few weeks ago also dealt with Stan not spending enough time with Francine focused on her, which also felt like a retread of previous vacation episode that worked better. It’s understandable that animated shows like this have to recycle plot structures, but when it’s so incredibly easy to recall better similar episodes, it’s a problem.
The B-plot—where Steve and his friends form a boy band named Boy Bomb, then get recruited by Snot’s uncle and linked together with two other boy bands (Boy Jam and Boyz With Mouthz) to form super-boy-band Boyz 12—is basically a lot of setup to get to one big payoff. But that one scene, the music video for B12’s music video, is so ridiculous and spot-on in its parody of boy band marketing that it completely justifies the plot’s existence.
These episodes have been in the can so long that it’s hard to tell whether this is a shot at One Direction and the resurgence of boy bands or just some slightly late timing, but almost everything lands. First the video breaks down the members by number—B11 is in love with B7—which is how the puppet masters behind this kind of gimmick probably view the group. Then they get a name-check sequence, but an easily marketable, segmented identity accompanies each member’s name, which is how the groups are pitched to the targeted demographic. There’s an already defined type of boy for everyone.
Looking at those two plots together doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and thinking about it post-airing makes me think the transitions gave me whiplash, but during the episode it didn’t really matter. Only the final scenes—where the Stan/Francine plot takes a turn into violence and Snot’s uncle shoots himself after hearing about Boyz 13—emphasize the odd plot pairing. And even then, the well-constructed final extended joke adding to the litany of funny lines throughout the episode shows that American Dad either has much better luck—or more likely, more skill—when dealing with difficult material.
- Not a lot of Roger in the episode, but while he’s used sparingly he has some of the best lines of the night.
- “I feel like talking to Klaus, that’s how bored I am.” Roger and Klaus have also apparently fooled around 10 times or so, but who’s keeping track.
- “You can’t pretend to be a runaway teen for one second? After all I’ve done for you!”