American Dad Volume 1 Review
Contrary to the court cases brought against its publisher by the then government, all that Spycatcher had to teach us was that the life of a spy was as dull as any other job within a large corporation. More so if Peter Wright's grumbling over his pension was anything to go by, thereby chasing the ghost of Fleming's Bond out of any semblance to real life that it may ever have had and into such realms of fantasy undreamt of even by Brocolli and Saltzman.
Seth MacFarlane's American Dad! takes a route that is as far from that of Spycatcher as is possible whilst still remaining on this Earth. Never is there the dusty corridors of MI5 nor the rumblings of discontented civil servants here, more an endless series of opportunities for assassinations, kidnappings and the secretion of various obstacles to success (and celebrities). And an alien. And a talking goldfish with the mind of a German ski-jumper.
Developed by MacFarlane after the success and then cancellation of his Family Guy, American Dad! bears a certain similarly to that earlier show, something that MacFarlane has admitted to. With its domestic setting, American Dad! made it easy for its writers to move between shows but Stan Smith is no Joe Swanson, being a red, white and blue-blooded member of the CIA, positioned on the front line in defence of American freedom. Of course, these freedoms don't extend to the American people and therein lies much of the comedy - how this all-American guy kidnaps, tortures and, uh, 'removes' ordinary citizens in pursuit of his goals...or those of his family. A forgotten anniversary? Kidnap Whitney Houston and dangle a bag of cocaine in front of her until she warbles Francine's favourite song, The Greatest Love of All. Steve not popular with the girls at school, not like his ladies' man of a father? Like you did for Dubya, fix the election. And if you have an alien in the attic? Well...such is what happens when Stan Smith, as patriotic as he is, has his life saved at Area 51.
With that sense of the surreal, American Dad! mixes a homespun comedy with moments of the surreal to good effect. Hence an episode like All About Steve, in which Stan worries about his son's geek friends and their playing of Dungeons & Dragons before finding that their knowledge of Elvish helps him crack a code from a terrorist. Similarly, every parent's worries about a teenage daughter are confirmed in the Smith household when Hayley gets a job as a stripper but that, underneath her wig, she's actually bald - "Ugh...that's the one place where you want them to have hair!", offers one punter - means that her employment will be short lived. Indeed, it's that episode that summarises the best of American Dad! with Stan attempting to resolve the situation in his own, woefully ineffective style - kickboxing the other strippers, distracting them with dollar bills, whilst attempting to make good an escape with Hayley - before Francine suggests that, against his better judgment, he should encourage her, figuring that parenting classes were made for a moment such as this.
And yet, for all the comedy within the family, it's Roger who is the most memorable of characters. With his voice based on that of Paul Lynde, thereby carrying on a Hanna Barbera tradition, Roger is sarcastic, surly and prone to secreting odd substances at embarrassing times and, given his nature and his species, must be kept hidden at all times in the attic. He makes it his mission in life to get drunk, eat junk food and to attempt the occasional escape from the Smith home but it is often to no avail, making his already frustrated life cripplingly so. With the freedom afforded by writing for Roger, the producers of American Dad! have a character to compare life with the Smiths to being in prison, "...but without the thrill of a daily cavity search! Uh...did I say thrill...I meant fear." Almost as good is Klaus, a goldfish transplanted with the brain of an East German ski-jumper - a CIA experiment from a past Olympics - who's deeply in love with Francine and still talks of the day that she went without knickers and straddled his bowl. Amongst the best moments in the series is the sight of Klaus in the washing machine eagerly awaiting the moment when Steve puts in his mother's basket of used underwear. "Ja! Ja! The sweaty, sweaty sports bra!"
And how it compares to Family Guy? Well, aside from the obvious setting of the comedy within a family and the similarities between characters - Francine and Lois are both the voice of reason in their respective shows - American Dad! is less concerned with moments of utter nonsense than in remaining on the rails of the plot. Unfortunately, it's not been greeted quite as warmly but one can't help but think that the reaction to it is similar to how Futuruma was welcomed after The Simpsons, warmly but not so enthusiastically as to threaten the main show. With both Family Guy and American Dad! running in the US and, until recently, side by side on the BBC, Seth MacFarlane has managed a resurrection that would have put a phoenix to shame. Though this will, more than likely, remain the less-well-loved of the two, there's no shame in not quite being the equal of Family Guy. Funny, sometimes very odd and politically astute - even to a spoof of the Abu Gharib photographs with Stan cast as the anonymous, underpants-wearing Iraqi being pointed at by Lynndie England - American Dad! is a welcome sitcom, perfectly in tune to a time when the international freedoms of the state is taking priority to the freedom of the individual. Something, no doubt, that Stan Smith, not to mention those quick to accuse the grumbling Wright of treason, would entirely agree with.
American Dad (Pilot): When Francine puts Roger on a diet, he bargains with Steve and Hayley for advice on dating and for writing up her term papers but the resulting sugar rush leaves him crashing. Trying to figure out a better way to get girls, Stan rigs the school election to have his son elected president but power goes to Steve's head.
Threat Levels: As the terror level is reduced to blue, the government gives the CIA a half day off, which Stan celebrates by drinking Cream of Death and being quarantined for a day. As Francine forgets this by taking a job in real estate, Stan's CIA colleagues tell him that letting his wife work is but one step away from being gay so Stan takes to the ring in a bumfight to reclaim his manhood.
Stan Knows Best: Hayley comes home with her hair dyed green - Roger asks, "The carpet match the curtains?" - but when Stan cuts it off during the night, she leaves home to get a job as a stripper. Back home, Steve figures that girls love feeling sorry for guys and has Roger pose as Hayley...a badly disfigured Hayley. But too much rouge can make a guy do crazy things.
Francine's Flashback: Steve finally gets a date...but it's on the condition that he can get her really ugly friend one too. Sometimes it pays to have an alien in the house! Meanwhile, Stan forgets his wedding anniversary - he gets it confused with a huge fight that he and Francine had on the same day last year...oh! - but he uses secret CIA technology to wipe her memory of the last 20 hours. Except they get the dials mixed up...
Roger Codger: Roger is in trouble at work when another CIA agent bests him in a beat-the-terrorists role play with a pithier one-liner and invites his boss home for dinner. But when Roger falls into a coma that night, Stan throws him into a landfill, from where he's got to get home the next morning. Taking in a visit to the White House and after picking up a racist sidekick, Roger ends up on the run from the CIA with only Stan to protect him...or his own reputation. Either's good.
Homeland Security: Things aren't going so well in the Smith household - Stan thinks Steve is soft and Francine is tired of her husband's paranoia. Putting Steve into the Rangers, Stan grins and bears a block party that he and Francine throw for the neighbours but is shocked to find his new neighbours are - "Holy Ayatollah!" - Iranian.
Deacon Stan, Jesus Man: Roger's entering his reproductive cycle...various body organs are shifting position and a thick, milky-white substance is spurting from his nipples. That might sound irrelevant but Stan's up against Chuck White for the position of deacon in his church and Francine's made potato salad for the pre-election party. But then Roger eats it all and so has to mix up a bowl of it quick. Except he's all out of mayo...
Bullocks To Stan: After a colleague leaves through ill-health, Stan goes after his job - everyone else heads for the hole punch, ammunition and medicinal marijuana - but it needs a strong show of family unity at the CIA barbecue to secure it. But does Hayley go too far when she sleeps with Stan's boss? Meanwhile, Steve finds Dick Cheney's Blackberry and he and Roger have some fun with it..."India, this is Pakistan!"
A Smith In The Hand: Steve is now 14 and needs to get a permission slip signed so that he can take sex education classes at school. But Stan thinks he can divert Steve's wandering mind - and hands - with a film showing the evils of masturbation...and a good hobby. Now wood burning, Steve injures his father in a very sensitive place, who then develops an addiction to the application of ointment.
All About Steve: The security of the USA is indeed in safe hand's...though not Stan's. When the CIA receive a threat in a strange language they're unable to decipher, Stan and his department go practice for the CIA father/son softball game instead, though he's horrified to see Steve dressed, like his friends, in Star Trek uniforms. If only his geeky interest in D&D would prove useful...
Con Heir: To relieve the boredom in the office, Bullock comes in with a new assignment...a very dangerous work behind enemy lines. Like any good agent, Stan is first in line but Bullock stands him down saying the mission to too dangerous for a family man like Stan. Disappointed, Francine tries to convince him that he should appreciate the great family that he has. But, like this couldn't get any worse, his father visits...and dies!
Stan of Arabia (2x Parts): It's the time of Bullock's anniversary roast and with Francine appearing in a play on the same night, Stan must attend alone. Taking offence at a couple of gags cracked backstage by compere Jay Leno - "Jay Leno has come down with a case of...uh, broken neck" - Stan stands in but does a terrible job. Demoted and posted to Saudi Arabia, Stan is distraught but then figures the place isn't so bad after all. After all, Saudi men wouldn't attend an anniversary roast alone but then Francine, as she did in Langley, ruins Stan's good thing with an ill-advised musical number...
All episodes come in at just short of twenty-two minutes give or take ten seconds or so and occasionally, as with Stan of Arabia, Part 1, the main titles are left out when there's too much story.
Whilst, at first, looking good, American Dad! isn't that impressive for although colours are good and the image is sharp, there are jagged lines that are noticeable on the gentler curves of Francine's hair and on clothing. Though not noticeable on a smaller screen, where they tend to blend together, these are much more noticeable on a bigger screen and stand out for only appearing in one or two places at a time, never, for example, on Stan but always on Francine. Never particularly annoying, they're just noticeable and as with any flaw in the picture, tend to draw one's attention over the length of an episode.
The audio track - Dolby 5.1 - isn't bad but it's hard to tell if there's really that much happening in the rear channels other than ambient effects. There is no dialogue in the surround speakers - at least none that I could hear - and although there's the occasional passing car or gunshot, they otherwise remain silent. Finally, there are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Audio Commentaries: Included on twelve of the thirteen episodes here - the only one not to get a commentary is Threat Levels - these recordings are the main extra on the discs and are typically a pretty good listen. Seth MacFarlane comes and goes but his co-creators, Barker and Weitzman, are there throughout, inviting a mix of writers, actors and directors to contribute.
At only twenty minutes and with such a number of the cast and crew to get through, there's very little that's carried over between commentaries nor are behind-the-scenes stories allowed to develop, simply, like the show, a rapid-fire series of observations, asides, in-jokes and gags. These are funny if not always that interesting - there's the feeling that those in the recording booth may be having a better time than you at home - but are worth dipping into during favourite episodes or gags.
All in the Family (20m33s): Subtitled Creating American Dad!, this is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show, concentrating on Seth MacFarlane, Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman as well as the main characters and their voice talent.
How's Your Aspen (25m46s): The voice cast are all in here for a live reading of A Smith In The Hand at the 2006 US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Beginning with Scott Grimes (Steve) and Seth MacFarlane arriving at the venue, this hands over to the live readthrough of the episode in front of an audience about 1m45s in. Of course, rather than watch the cast reading scripts, which also features a narrator to explain the action, we get them intercut with the final episode.
Secrets of the Glass Booth (5m31s): Here's an extra typical of an animated show - footage of the voice actors in the recording booth set aside their thoughts on their characters. There's some overlap here with All in the Family but enough new material to make it worth watching.
American Animatics (14m12s): Again, an extra that's typical of an animated show on DVD - a comparison between the final episode and the animatics or storyboards. Comparisons are made with scenes from all thirteen episodes, presented in order from the Pilot through to Stan of Arabia, Part 2.
Threat Levels Table Read (39m28s): Beginning with the cast and crew sitting around a table - complete with an introduction, which you wouldn't think they'd need - this is a readthrough of the script from the season's second episode that's intercut with footage from the animatics and from the final episode. During those moments, the viewer can select any one of the three audio streams - readthrough, animatic and broadcast show, the latter two of which are not that different other than the use of sound effects - although there is no multi-angle option available to view these options fullscreen.
Deleted Scenes (17m35s): Almost a whole other episode is included here and as the menu screen says, "Seriously you should consider Play All!" With forty-two scenes, these look to have been cut for no reason other than to bring an episode in on time with many of the gags - and these are mostly gags - just as good as those that made it into the finished episodes.
The New CIA (3m08s): Stan Smith presents this look at the new CIA - no Guantanamo, instead there's female masseuses who exchange happy finishes for news of terrorist training camps - before his propaganda film is ruined by his family and the appearance of Roger.
There are two trailers, one for the Superbowl Pre-Game Promo (1m35s) of American Dad! and the other for Family Guy (33s). Finally, there is a bonus DVD of Family Guy - Off The Cutting Room Floor, which contains 24 Deleted Scenes, an inside-the-recording-booth feature, storyboards and guest star interviews.
Volume 1...or Season 1? When the second part of Stan of Arabia was broadcast on November 13 2005, it was followed a week later by Stannie Get Your Gun, which means this is either only half of the full season or that Fox simply bumped one season against another in the schedule. Barely worth a mention when considering how Family Guy was treated but still odd.
That said, knowing that the rest will be along in some months, this is a fine release of the show on DVD with a very complete set of extras, better than the Region 2 released in the same week. If you have to have The New CIA then the Region 1 release is the release to get, almost worth it to see Stan shock Hayley with a tazer, leaving her twitching on the ground. "Um...she's dreaming of chasing a rabbit across an open field!"