Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

American Dad: “Poltergasm”

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My favorite show of the fall, and perhaps the only new show for the rest of the year with a solid shot to make a significant dent in my year-end ballot, is Masters Of Sex. It's not just superbly acted, but also engaging with material rarely dealt with in any mainstream visual medium from an academic or progressive perspective. But damn if I wasn’t surprised to see an episode of American Dad digging into midlife sexual dysfunction between married partners timed to air so accidentally perfectly with the start of that Showtime series.

American Dad is obviously not as nuanced as a show by its very premise picking into long-held prudish cultural treatment of sexual topics. But what this show can do is bring up sex within a certain set of sitcom parameters and pull at the edges, making it surreal enough to fit and serve the character-based comedy. There’s a reason why American Dad can largely get away with episodes that only feature two speaking parts outside the main family—the characters are likable despite their flaws and don’t require much outside their zany interaction to inspire comedy.

Since this is a formulaic half-hour show, the sex-related premise sticks to the demure, unsatisfied woman remaining quiet to protect her vain and unaware husband. Stan believes his businesslike approach to sex with Francine consistently leads her to “Satisfaction Avenue,” but for a few years, Francine has felt unfulfilled and fears expressing her feelings would hurt Stan’s self-esteem and confidence. Her silence creates a spectral force of sexual desire that manifests as a poltergeist to wreck the Smith house unless Stan can reverse his selfishness in the bedroom and give Francine pleasure.

It’s a familiar and simple approach to the difficulty of broaching when physical needs aren’t being met, but building up to the ghost contains a bunch of laughs. Before Roger’s transformation into his character of the week, he and Steve play Operation—and take a crack at NBC’s comedy lineup—and observe a perfect upside-down execution of the board game Mouse Trap (which never worked right). That’s a distinctly American Dad way of integrating nostalgic references into the plot.

Francine’s frustration with her sex life leads her to spy on Hayley and her new non-friend with benefits Mauricio is creepy—and it presages the direct involvement the Smith children will have in solving their parents’ difficulties. It’s also important that American Dad doesn’t just mock Stan or use this further dip in his awareness of Francine’s feelings to emasculate him. It treats Francine’s physical needs—and Stan’s inadequacy and ignorance to how his routine leaves his wife wanting—as so important it threatens to tear the family home apart at the seams if left unsettled.

Roger’s character shows up a spiritual medium ripped straight from Poltergeist—named after Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina Barrons in the film series—with an emphasis on trademarking some sex-and-ghost portmanteau like the episode’s title (already taken) or “sexorcism.” Stan’s reaction to Roger’s new appearance is perfect, as is Steve’s response: “Are we really gonna do this?” “Do you have a medium character?”


Zelda’s investigations consist mostly of getting Francine to be honest about her frustrations. Stan’s hurt outrage ensues, as he enlists his daughter as his sex coach—since the poltergeist nabbed her boy toy Mauricio into some gooey supernatural void—where he learns the rote basics of foreplay, proper breast handling, and hitting the “G” signs at a carnival water gun game. The resolution hits after a false ending, as Francine finally tells Stan what he’s been doing wrong—not taking the time to do the things she likes—and he listens accordingly, solving the poltergeist problem. That’s a simple key to unlock heightened problem—that takes a supernatural turn because this is a surreal animated sitcom—but it ends with Stan getting it correct and listening to what satisfies his wife, and wanting to do it because that makes him happy as well.

As for the Klaus side plot: being mostly trapped in a fishbowl—though he is mobile enough to move around on his own in a dish—is punishment enough already. Getting trapped in a hotel room with a back injury and the default hotel information channel boilerplate greeting repeating in the background is just torturous. The situation only calls for three short beats and a credits tag, and they wrung a few extra laughs out of that time-filling but otherwise unnecessary tangent.


Stray observations:

  • The episode was originally titled “The Legend Of Zelda Rubinstein” when footage debuted at Comic-Con back in July. I have no idea why the title changed, but then again, I would hope for more of a video game/horror crossover from what that title connotes.
  • “I’ve performed this very operation far drunker and on real people.”
  • “Is she eating mozzarella like it’s an apple?”
  • “I’m the opposite of Snickers!”
  • “I don’t want that cup. Why would I want a non-mint condition Grimace cup?”
  • “I didn’t say Thurston Howell, I said the Monopoly guy!”
  • “As if a pizza guy has ever been murdered here and buried under the foundation…but nobody’s calling the cops right?”
  • Poor Jeff, wandering around in space for his way home, hopefully listening to more Wax Fang, but light years away from Hayley as she moves on with her life attached to other dudes.