American Dad is probably the MacFarlane shows that does the least amount of hand-holding, and this was evident at the start of tonight's episode. Focused on Stan's work at his C.I.A. Office, it has a shaky-cam and testimonial form that's eventually, but clearly, an Office parody. Nobody ever says “THIS IS AN OFFICE PARODY.” It just takes place in an office and is done in that form. Which is not to say that it's effective or even all that good. Just that it doesn't involve any hand-holding.
Francine gets a job – based on her breasts making an impression on Raunchy Patrick Stewart – at the C.I.A. office. This puts Stan's excessive flirting on hold, briefly, until Francine says it's all right, because she wants to do it herself. Which is all well and good, until Stan and others get jealous enough that she loses her face. Meanwhile, Roger and Steve get into a birdhouse business, until Roger blows it all on coke and, well, Rogerness.
This episode is remarkably resistant to criticism. In some respects, its reliance on horrific violence and awkward humor make it seem more like Family Guy than American Dad at its best. A conversation between Steve and an apparently-clean Roger that seems like a reference to a movie just outside of my memory exemplifies this – it's awkward, but it's a reference, so it's okay? I'm not sure about this episode of American Dad, but I know what I hate, and I didn't hate that. C+
The Simpsons: Two-for-one in the opening animation of The Simpsons tonight. Not only do we get a correction for Kristen Schaal's misspelled name last week, but we also get a Hank Scorpio reference (Top 10 episode? Top 5? I'll go Top 10). Beyond that, it's also a fine premise for a Simpsons episode: the family discovers a massive pile of keys, which lead to four different adventures. Bart tries to get into mischief with his key, but fails miserably. Homer and Barney bust into the Duff factory, and a prank puts Homer in the Duff Blimp. Marge and Maggie chase down a key-operated, fart-based wind-up toy. And in the main plot of the night, Lisa discovers a mysterious secret classroom beneath Springfield Elementary.
This is all good stuff, and it generally comes together elegantly in the finale to the episode (something of a rarity in this Simpsons fourth act business). But it never comes near great stuff. There are some good visual gags, like Homer putting Maggie's head into his mouth, or a police blimp chasing Homer's runaway blimp – and on those grounds, by North By Northwest's sexual imagery template, there were some REALLY disturbing images tonight – and some clever lines. But overall, this was an amusing but disposable episode. B
Bob's Burgers: Back in the first few weeks of the show, I consistently hit upon Bob's Burgers' reliance on a quickly-tired trope of liberal stereotypes cramping Bob's style. The pilot had Hugo the Health Inspector as the epitome of this concept, abusing his governmental power in order to gain personal power over Bob and Linda. Bob's Burgers has grown beyond this concept, happily, into a consistently good and often great show. “Lobsterfest” may represent that structural transformation, as Hugo moves from governmental straw man into recurring, entertaining character.
Hugo did show up last week, though it was basically a pair of cameos. He's a much more important character this time, as Bob fights a neighborhood Lobsterfest by throwing a party in the middle of hurricane. Hugo, as the Grand Marshal of Lobsterfest, represents the public that Bob is chasing and trying to prevent from deserting Bob's Burgers for Lobsterfest. Initially it's successful, when Bob throws a massive party and hooks Hugo up with his wife's annoying friend Gretchen. Later less so, when Bob attempts to sabotage Lobsterfest by putting his foot in the butter. Hugo temporarily saves Bob, but when Gretchen breaks up with him, it turns into a surprise inspection.
I don't necessarily want to say that this is an entirely Hugo-based episode – it's not – but Hugo represents a joke character being turned into a more interesting real character. This is the kind of world-building that comedy series like the early Simpsons succeeded at. I like seeing these initially simple characters turn into parts of the Bob's Burgers world. It's doing what it needs to do to be a good series in the future, and it's certainly a good series now. B
Family Guy: The typical knock on Family Guy is that it's just a pop culture reference machine. Like the Movie movies, it takes something that's moderately famous, and churns it back out in a vaguely comic form. That's not always fair, and at times Family Guy deliberately fights that perception. The key mechanism in that concept, though, is the cutaway gag, which is easily dismissed as a reference/cheap joke generator. Tonight, Family Guy actually institutionalized the cutaway, having Peter teach a class on history, where he mentioned vaguely famous events followed by cutaways. And then he said something like “And the modern era has many important events, such as 1985, which had the gayest music video ever.”
This would be typical Family Guy, except that they proceeded to show the video itself. Not, like, an animated version of the video. Just the music video itself. For three minutes. There's Family Guy anti-humor, and there's reference humor, and then there's this bizarre, Frankenstein's monster-esque convergence of the two. What does it mean? Why did it happen? Did Family Guy's writers only just now discover YouTube? Is this the height of laziness, or do you think they're actually going to explain this as some bizarre kind of meta-joke that you're just not meta or jokey enough to understand?
The episode as a whole was so trifling that it's difficult to separate it out from the massive video in the center. Lois and Bonnie go to Paris, leaving Peter alone with the kids. I'm not sure Stewie says anything, and Brian only has a line or two telling Peter that “goat flu” is a scare tactic. Still, Peter gets scared enough to pull the kids out of school and home school them. This plot yields some comedy, like when they go out into the desert (what desert??) to do peyote. The less said about Bonnie and Lois in Paris, the better, as it may as well have not happened for the jokes it led to – a gag with Quagmire taped to Joe's back was about as good as it got, and that's not good. Not good at all. D+
The Cleveland Show: It says something about The Cleveland Show that it can't even pander properly. Is that something good? Something bad? Something downright irrelevant and pathetic? I'm leaning towards the latter, since it's not like this was a terrible episode of Cleveland, but it certainly wasn't a good one.
Cleveland writes a comic book and decides to sell it at Comic-Con, bringing the whole family. Donna discovers that a Blaxspoitation film she did when she was younger is still being shown among the nerds, and tries to prevent Cleveland from seeing it. Meanwhile, Cleveland Jr. gets frustrated a the commercialization of Comic-Con and leads a rebellion of nerds. There's not much to say about it – it's nerdy wankery, filled with references, and devoid of comedy.
The Donna and Cleveland storyline, with guest star Robert Rodriguez, does a little better. Hell, in a certain sense, it's downright cute – Cleveland's comic, “Wader-Man” is based around an origin story of him failing rescue Donna from a shallow-water fountain when they were younger, which of course their adventures give him a chance to revisit for redemption. Cleveland, theoretically, has a kind of sweetness which the other MacFarlane shows often lack. I don't often agree with that, but it does bear some fruit here, preventing this from being a total waste of an episode. C
- The C.I.A. has equal opportunity sexual harassment. Good?
- “Look who made a speedy recover…noooooo.”
- “That's why I wasn't surprised to read in the papers that he OD'd not 10 seconds later.”
- “Go ahead. Try it, soft-shoulders.”
- “Hey, crater-butt.” “Hey, ass-face.”
- SUICIDAL MORON PASS
- “…and the day before that….” Tough gag to make work. On the intercom? Worked.
- “Work is what you do that you get paid for….they say they're going to!” Ah, Skinner, you're like a freelance writer. *Note: The A.V. Club pays on time.
- “You mean your wind-up hate crime?”
- “You're my naked fairy god-boy!”
- I would play Blimp Assassin 3. But not for very long.
- “Looking for these?” “Yes! My car keys.”
- “We did plan for the wedding cake.”
- “No primping for anything!”
- “I watched the hockey game at a lesbian bar.”
- “We're all gonna die because of you!” A somewhat Louise-light episode, but the lines she had? Golden.
- “Keep talking….” Tina is prepared to breed to save humanity.
- “We should be out there in the wind and rain. Looting!”
- “It'll do…in a pinch!”
- Chalkboard jokes were pretty funny first time around, but that they were still on the board the next day? Also golden.
- “Joe hates to fly cause they put him down with the dogs.”
- “There will be no pretense in this class.”
- Family Guy says that Joe, walking, was the inspiration for American Dad. One of those meta-jokes that, well, probably doesn't work in the way that they think it does. Weakens Family Guy, weakens American Dad. Oops.
- Quagmire tied to Joe's back, on the other hand, was probably the best joke of the night on Family Guy.
- Speaking of visual gags, Cleveland, Jr. as Darth Maul? Fantastic.
- “Worst. Cameo. Ever.” Right on so many levels, Cleveland. Sigh.
- “Speak. English.”
- “Somebody's wading for a hero?”