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"Thursdays with Abie"/"Field of Streams"/"Big Man on Hippocampus"/"Don't Look a Smith Horse in the Mouth"

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I almost missed the return of the Fox animated bloc tonight because who programs the Sunday after New Year's? Isn't this the time when networks burn off shows and pretend that no one is watching them? Maybe this is why Fox chose what ended up being a pretty weak slate of episodes to kick off the new year, four shows that never came together, with two of them being actively pretty bad. I enjoyed The Simpsons and American Dad to varying degrees, but The Cleveland Show and Family Guy both had their moments while still never coming together to make satisfying episodes. It's a new year, and whether Fox just burned these episodes off or whatever, it's time to take them to task! Or talk generally about their disappointments and the histories of each shows, as it were.

The Simpsons: Most of the core relationships on The Simpsons have hung on to their ability to move us. Most Homer and Lisa episodes are still touching on some level, while most Bart and Lisa episodes play off the two's easy camaraderie. One of the exceptions to this rule is the relationship between Homer and his dad. The two had some great episodes in the show's early going, as the series examined the way that Abe's inability to be a good single parent reverberated down through the years (in a much, much funnier way than that sounds). Episodes like "Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy" and "Mother Simpson" focused in on the way the seeming hatred Homer had for his dad was driven by something deeper, and they were weirdly emotionally resonant. But over the years, some of the spark has gone out of this relationship, as the show has mostly just turned to storylines where Homer realizes how lucky he is to have his dad. This was another one of those, as Grampa told some of his rambling stories to a newspaper columnist and ended up almost getting killed by the guy, only to be saved by Homer at the last minute. The fact that The Simpsons endlessly resets itself doesn't really hurt the relationships between the parents and their kids or between the siblings because those are the kinds of relationships that are always, essentially, resetting themselves, until adolescence starts to firm them up. That Homer and his dad can't come to any sort of movement forward feels forced, I think, and means these kinds of stories have to get more and more out there. On the other hand, I liked the Bart and Lisa B-plot, as the two tried to rescue the stuffed lamb Bart had brought home from school for the weekend (even if its resolution was too quickly glossed over), and I laughed a handful of times, so let's go with a Grade: C+

The Cleveland Show: Then there's this, which I've sort of been making excuses for for a while now because the show was in its first 13 episodes and I figured it was lurching toward a tone - one where the stories of a family attempting to blend together would trump the often lame cutaway gags - that I would eventually come to appreciate. Instead, the show seems to take one or two steps forward and then many more steps back. So while I more or less enjoyed the Christmas episode, there was something I found boring about this one. Worse, I only laughed at it a few times (mostly during the opening segment set during 1984 with all of the rampant 1984 references followed by Cleveland saying, "It was 1984"). Theoretically, I should be enjoying something like Cleveland trying to bond with his son, but this storyline was so predictable and one note that I couldn't even be amused by Cleveland, Jr., who's my favorite character, except when he was pretending to fly around like a butterfly. There are some good jokes around the edges of this episode, but overall, it's gotta be considered a dud. Grade: C-

Family Guy: This one, I thought, started out pretty promisingly. The Family Feud riff was nicely elaborate and full of some nice little jokes (I liked Meg's suggestion of razors and a note being turned into "Sundries" on the big board), even if the Richard Dawson stuff was all about the easiest possible series of Richard Dawson jokes one could make. I even enjoyed the [adult swim] bumper cards runner that closed out the first act with the show mocking itself for doing an amnesia plotline. But from there, the episode just devolved into a fairly typical amnesia storyline, with Peter losing his memory and then getting it back and having to relearn being a family guy (tee hee) along the way. Naturally, this being Family Guy, he decided that being a bachelor was more fun, then had to save his wife from having sex with Quagmire. And the episode ended with Quagmire trying to use electroshock paddles to stimulate his penis. I mean, I get that Family Guy is never going to have storylines that are surprising in the least, but if all the show is going to do is use those storylines as a thin spine to hang jokes on, then the jokes should be funnier. They weren't tonight, and this was mostly a waste of a half hour, even as I think this season, overall, had been pretty good. Grade: D

American Dad: Here's the opposite problem of Family Guy. I found the first two-thirds of this episode fairly listless, as the show wandered into commentary on the recession by showing how the Smiths were trying to cut back but Stan was still running his gas guzzling SUV. All of this led to Stan buying a horse but blowing way too much of the family's savings on it, leading to Francine hating the horse and, also, just a little bit, Stan. Meanwhile, Steve and pals were trying to get a fat guy off of his bed, only to have one of them disappear beneath the fat guy. But the last third of the episode - featuring Klaus' anger at not being put back into a human and Stan becoming a horse and horse-brain-Stan being the solution to Steve's problems - was actually quite funny, packing the most laughs of anything in the bloc for the evening. You often hear in articles about TV writers rooms about a big white board where possible plotlines are written down, just in case the writers run out of ideas for new episodes. I kind of wonder just how long "Stan becomes a horse" was written on the American Dad board, but there was something goofily charming about the way this all played out - much less the way that everything tied together in the end - that made the episode end on a high enough note for me to give it a Grade: B

Stray observations:

Next week is the big Simpsons anniversary thing. Naturally, I'll write up the new episodes, but do you guys want coverage of the documentary special? I come to serve, as the Elven Rangers used to say in Warcraft II.
"They'll cheer a dancing octopus, but not an old man complaining about everything."
"Bart is in danger of failing NONE of his courses. Please call me, BART'S BIGGEST FAN. Edna Karbappel."
"You don't get a beating like this riding in a plane."
"Ah! Sewer cats!"
"He learned the lesson he learned 25 years ago: Mess with me, and you're gonna pee on your thigh and pocket contents."
"Well, I'll be a son of a bitch." "What is it, dad?" "It's a HORSE, and it's racing today."
"If you don't stop doing that, I'm gonna come to your house and kick your mom to death while you watch."
"It's not perfect for me, Steve!"
"Why are we holding hands?" "How else will people know we're gay?"