Tuesday, December 1, 2009

American Dad wins again

I don't know the inner workings of Fox and so can't comment on the competition between all the animated shows on Sunday nights--I imagine the Simpsons stand a bit outside the ring, if Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show are all in it. And I claim no authority on any of the shows except American Dad. I just don't have time to watch hit-or-miss TV, which is what most of it is. So what I offer here is a love letter, plain and simple.

Why is American Dad an exception to my tendency to ignore TV? Because it is more obsessed with American culture than it is obsessed with scatological humor, cynical send-ups, or itself as a show.

When I say the show is obsessed with American culture, let me be clear. I think Family Guy is also obsessed with our culture, but it is mostly obsessed with doing reversals of obvious values. Reversals, or jokes that rely on shock value, don't actually make real comment on culture. They simply reveal what is already there. It is wacky and shocking to have Peter wear S&M gear! But why? All that does is remind me that most Americans think S&M is weird, scary, and so, even with its minimal exposure nod as a joke, it stays taboo. American Dad, in general, is asking more difficult questions of obvious values. It does this through plotlines that, like the Simpsons once did, consistently return to real emotional concerns about family relationships and the way American families interact with issues of class, race, and gender. And it does this hilariously, by applying liberal coats of pitch-perfect absurdity.

In a recent episode called "My Morning Straight Jacket," Stan Smith becomes obsessed with My Morning Jacket's frontman Jim James. Through each season of AmDad the issue of Stan's inability to feel real feelings has surfaced as a barrier to his being close to, well, anyone, and is often the basis for great jokes. In this episode, the table gets turned. Stan feels so many feelings listening to MMJ he becomes a narcisistic, self-involved fan, who ignores his family (who are drowning, falling down the stairs, etc.) to live in his little solipsistic world with Jim James.

Francine, who at first is exasperated and wants the old Stan back, finally becomes his means to meeting Jim, as she flashes her breasts, crotch, and latent lesbianism at every level of security at a MMJ show. Of course it's funny that the sweet mom can become a trashy groupie, but what's especially wonderful is the moment when Stan, without any compunction, gets on his knees and thanks Francine's body for helping him. This is a revolutionary moment. The cliche goes: the husband becomes jealous of other men's eyes on his property, even as he benefits from the objectification of his wife. Here, the objectification still occurs, but Francine does not suffer for it, and Stan responds only with gratitude to her. Even more subtly, he responds to her body directly, thanking the "girls," (her breasts) and "ma'am" (her vagina) separately. This is a moment that suspends itself above familiar arguments about gender and sexuality and offers real hope in the potential for lovers to be conscious of the systems they are in, transcend or participate in those systems, and build intimacy with each other regardless. That kind of hope seeps through the show in nearly every episode, which is great anodyne to the cynical, heartless, jaded style of humor that is so ubiquitous now.

When Stan finally meets Jim James, the sweet moral we thought we were in for gets upended. Jim claims he's just another guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time, then backflips into a set of dungarees held by two flying llamas. The point is, who cares if Jim James is a god, a hippie, or my cousin? Stan has to learn to take the sense of excitement and joy he finds in the music of MMJ and use it to better his actual life, to deepen his relationship with his wife, not to devise bullshit fairy tales about his shared brain with his idol. American Dad isn't afraid to actually HAVE a moral to their story, which is something else I admire about the show.

That my humor tends to the surreal/absurd means that I love the packaging of AmDad's heart, and I will eventually write much more about its textural experiments with meta-fiction, with ahistoricity, and with pastische. For now I'm satisfied to know that snark hasn't totally won the battle for the airwaves.

Watch AmDad on Hulu!