Presumed dead. Really dead. Not really dead. Almost dead.
So went tonight's shows, in what I can only assume was FOX's traumatic parental death week. A few weeks ago I brought up the subject of The Simpsons' changing attitude toward death and trauma in later seasons; this week, we got a neatly parallel comparison of all four shows' approaches, as The Simpsons, King Of The Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad all dealt in some way with the death—supposed, attempted, or actual—of a parent.
In yet another ho-hum Simpsons episode, Milhouse's newly re-married parents go missing at sea during their honeymoon, turning him from a mollycoddled mama's boy into a brooding loner, a development that makes him instantly popular, much to former coolest-kid Bart's dismay. In the secondary, completely unrelated, B-story, Homer struggles to remember the color of Marge's eyes, resulting in an unnecessary musical number. After a very Homer-centric season thus far, it was good to have a Bart story, I guess. But did it have to be via Milhouse? In the words of Mr. Largo, "Nobody likes Milhouse!"
What was really disappointing about this episode was that there was the potential for some sweetness: Milhouse was mourning his parents and Bart was mourning his popularity (and his best friend). There was plenty of opportunity for heart, but instead we got Marge krumping with Bart, Uncle Zach/Norbert playing Indiana Jones, and a last-minute cop-out where—wait for it—the hot-air balloon carrying Milhouse and Bart somehow manages to collide with the marooned Van Houtens as they attempt to escape a desert island on a homemade hang-glider. During the last 30 seconds. Sigh. Such is the modern Simpsons.
After that, I steeled myself for a similar fake-out on King Of The Hill, despite the expository episode title and the fact that the entire episode revolved around Hank's denial of his dad's impending death. And up until the last five minutes, it looked like that's what was going to happen, albeit in a much less wacky—yet somehow funnier—way. Of COURSE Cotton knew how to slow his heartbeat enough so that ToJo would stop torturing him back in Dubya-Dubya-Two—that's perfectly logical, in the KOTH universe anyway. After two pretend deaths, though, I began to worry—how could Cotton beat death after faking it twice without it seeming condescending?
Well, he couldn't. And he didn't. He died. For real. And it was a significant and realistic—yes, realistic—death. Despite my shock and dismay—Cotton was second only to Kahn as my favorite KOTH guest star—this was probably one of the best episodes in recent memory. There was a perfect blend of hijinks (Dale blowing up Hank's shed as a tribute to Cotton, Luanne and Lucky playing parents) and heart (Peggy and Cotton's final showdown, Peggy comforting Hank). It was a perfect example of the subtle absurdity that KOTH does so well.
From subtle absurdity to frying-pan-to-the-forehead absurdity, we move on to the conclusion to last week's "Stewie Kills Lois" episode with "Lois Kills Stewie." Not that anyone would expect otherwise—a fact Stewie himself pointed out in the episode's conclusion—but neither death was real, but rather part of a simulation Stewie ran to see what would happen if he killed Lois and took over the world. Not quite "it was all a dream," but close enough. But, of course, it's never about the ends with Family Guy, it's about cramming in as many gags as possible, and there were more successful gags (Stewie demanding praise for his macaroni picture of an owl) this week than unsuccessful (Lois' salvation via merman).
Last week I mentioned the oddness of returning to the homicidal baby thing after several seasons of relegating it to the background; this week, Stewie apparently remembered that he once intended to take over the world as well. While his ascension to president of Earth provided for some good Brian/Stewie moments and an American Dad cameo—how DID they manage that?—in the end it was really just an excuse for one of the extended, highly choreographed fight sequences that the show's writers seem to love so much. (Was anyone else expecting a cutaway to Peter fighting the chicken during Stewie and Lois' fight?) Despite the action-packed build-up and and slo-mo deaths, I don't think anyone at any point would believe that either Lois or Stewie's (or Cleveland's) deaths were anything more than a one-note joke. That's just how the show works, like it or not.
From make-believe matricide to botched patricide, American Dad featured a typically twisted storyline this week, as Stan triggered a sleeper CIA agent—his daughter, Haylie—only to have her turn on him, resulting in, you guessed it, an extended, highly choreographed fight sequence. Despite a bullet to the face (that's two in one night), Stan managed to cheat death as well tonight. It was a solid story, bolstered by a silly B-story featuring Roger and Steve trying to form a crime-solving team suitable for a prime-time network slot.
But while American Dad once again outdid its big brother in terms of plot, it didn't bring the laughs enough tonight to outshine Family Guy. Both shows revel in a certain gauche humor, but while Family Guy's balls-to-the-wall sensibility is proudly established, American Dad still can't seem to decide whether it wants to be full-on camp or something more substantial. Tonight's episode felt confused in that sense, playing with bigger themes of father/daughter tension and free will, but ultimately falling back on slapstick.
The Simpsons, "Little Orphan Millie": C
King Of The Hill, "Death Picks Cotton": A
Family Guy, "Lois Kills Stewie": B
American Dad, "Haylias": B-
—Based on Family Guy last week and The Simpsons this week, I am never setting foot on a cruise ship, ever. The opportunity for death (and boredom) is just too great.
—"Spider burps"—truly terrifying.
—Oh, so Luanne is still pregnant? I was beginning to wonder. Finally….
—It probably would have disrupted the pace of the episode, but I would've liked to see Bobby's reaction to his grandpa's death, especially since the rest of the family worked so hard to keep it from him.
—Between Adam West on Family Guy and Patrick Stewart on American Dad, Seth MacFarlane has recruited a couple of pretty awesome ringers; both consistently pull out some of the best moments of both shows.