American Dad! is a strange show – and it’s been treated equally strangely over its history.
While every episode but four of its 10 season run aired during Fox’s Animation Domination, it struggled to pull the numbers of air-mates The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Cleveland Show or even Bob’s Burgers.
From my straw polls amongst friends and online, it seems that American Dad! is seen as Family Guy‘s bastard cousin: less funny, less good, and too political (people are entitled to opinions even if it is of things that they know nothing about).
Making that comparison is like comparing Family Guy to Johnny Bravo; sure Seth Macfarlane had a hand in it, but they’re nothing alike when you look at the humour and construction of the shows.
It is the least Seth Macfarlane of any Seth Macfarlane creation – with the exception ofCosmos – and his voice is pretty much the only thing he’s lent to the show since the end of the first season (or midway through the second).
The scheduling of American Dad! has been odd throughout its Fox lifespan. Season one officially had seven episodes, ending with “Deacon Stan Jesus Man”, while the production run ended with “It’s Good To Be Queen” – the 12th episode of the second season.
I always felt the first season ended with “Stan of Arabia Part 2″, which isn’t based on anything in particular, although it does feel like the show really got going after that point. And the DVD box sets don’t give any answers at all (which is why DVD is a dying format).
If Wikipedia is to be trusted, American Dad! has a pretty substantial backlog of episodes. It’s also hard to associate episodes with a particular season, as their production order and airing order rarely matches up. And, even in cartoon terms, there’s very little growth or developments for the characters; story arcs are rare and continuity seems largely unimportant.
There are, of course, ways you can tell that a particular arc is in place: Jeff and Hayley are on the run, or Jeff is in space. You can also tell when the show is in a ‘tonal season’, where the voice or quality is quite consistent, such as season one or season five – the first season with the new opening, and my personal favourite.
American Dad! is a dark and surreal show, and this has played both to its favour and its detriment. It has less broad appeal than Family Guy (think of that statement what you will) meaning many initial viewers were turned off when they weren’t given more of the same, but that same brand of humour also won it a substantial cult following.
It isn’t afraid to be very dark and shocking – but in an intelligent or interesting way, as opposed to shock for shock’s sake because outrage is good publicity. It also takes stylistic risks, with episodes serving as homages or parodies to the apocalypse, James Bond, indie cinema, and plays to name a few.
In case you hadn’t already heard, American Dad! also moved to TBS in the fall. Its last episodes on Fox were buried in preseason in a fitting testament to how they treated the show in its life there. Animation Domination is dead, and Fox is trying to make way for newer (read: more profitable; better viewing figures) shows.
Cable to the rescue!
The move should be the biggest change to the show, but it is the departure of co-creator Mike Barker that will probably have the largest impact on the future of American Dad!
The official line is that he left over creative differences at the beginning of the 11th season’s production, though I can’t really see a huge change in the creative direction of the show since its TBS airing, which may be to do with the huge backlog of already-produced episodes.
TBS have been actively promoting American Dad! and have given the show bigger creative balls, even if this only amounts to letting them say shit and tits. The renewed 12th season is also the longest in the shows history, at 22 episodes.
It seems TBS cares about the show in ways Fox never did. Granted, it probably gives TBS solid ratings compared to its other original programming, but the renewal is a huge vote of confidence, especially for a show going into its 200th episode.
This is hopefully the chance for American Dad! to reach new creative heights, with freedom that just isn’t possible on network TV. The animation and overall quality doesn’t seem to have dipped or changed too much so far – at least when compared to the last two or so seasons on Fox – and by physically distancing itself from the Macfarlane machine, it may finally find its right audience.