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American Dad‘s Next Evolution: Moving to TBS


The American (Dad) revolution isn’t over… it’s just moving from Fox to TBS.

Last night on Fox, an entire era of television quietly came to an end as the Seth MacFarlane-produced animated series American Dad ended its eleventh season (a “microseason” of four previously-unaired episodes having begun the week prior). With it, the show concluded its time on Fox itself: the series is moving to cable’s TBS for a twelfth season. It’s an unconventional shift for one of the strangest shows ever to not only debut but survive on modern TV.

The series has had a singularly odd evolution: Begun as a project by Family Guy creator MacFarlane and associates Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, the original idea (hatched in the wake of 2000 presidential election) was for an over-the-top, politically-charged animated series paying deliberate homage to All in The Family. It would center on the relationship between a hardcore conservative Republican CIA agent and his rebellious liberal teenage daughter. The show was eventually picked up by Fox as a replacement for the (at the time) cancelled Family Guy, to which the initial series bore a fairly strong resemblance.

But between Dad’s pickup and airdate, Guy’s mega-popularity on DVD and in syndication had led Fox to give MacFarlane’s original show a second chance — suddenly stranding The Smith Family (aforementioned CIA agent dad Stan and daughter Hayley, doting wife Francine, nerdy son Steve, talking goldfish Klaus and attic-dwelling alien friend Roger) in the spotlight as more arch, less familiar also-ran siblings of the victoriously-returning Griffins.

Early episodes (the entire first season and most of the second, if we’re being honest) suffered from the comparison. Though MacFarlane continued to executive-produce the series and provide voices for Stan and Roger, control of the series was left almost-entirely in Barker and Weitzman’s hands — the better to establish a separate identity for American Dad. Still, those early episodes showed signs of then-likely to go unused Family Guy elements being cannibalized for a new show: In particular Klaus the goldfish’s (in actuality an East German Olympic skiing champion whose brain has been transferred into the body of a fish) barely-veiled romantic fixation on Francine being an all-but direct lift of the early Brian/Lois dynamic.

But the series corrected course over time, becoming a distinct entity not only from Family Guy but from almost every other series on TV animated or otherwise. Blending a strong sense of continuity with an absurd “anything can happen” approach to genre and a near-complete lack of cutaways or “imaginary story” rationales for the added weirdness. The result: A family-sitcom where the dumb-dumb dad is also a hyper-competent CIA killing-machine, nearly every character has exhibited some variation on outright sociopathy, and time-travel, alien incursions, brainwashing and leaps in to/out of the Afterlife are part of the functioning mythology. The Smiths will deal with family misunderstandings one week and find themselves in a shooting-war with Santa Claus the next. On the rare occasion that the series does indulge in an “all a dream” episode, the “dream” will likely come in the form of a tangent-timeline or virtual-simulation — thus remaining part of the “real” story.

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The characters, all of whom began as sitcom stock-types with one or two “curveball” affectations (“dumb dad, but also James Bond,” “hot blonde wife, but also the adopted Caucasian child of Chinese immigrant parents,” “nerd son, but also randomly lapses into R&B slang”) gradually built up extra-strange personas based on the show’s apparent policy of sticking with every little random on-off gag rather than resetting to zero at the end of each episode.

Few benefitted from this more than Stan himself, whose one-joke role of voicing socially/politically toxic opinions to be knocked down by the rest of the cast burned-out fairly quickly only to be replaced by the grab-bag of quirks and psychological hangups that he’d picked up along the way. A devoutly-religious globe-trotting spy with a serious daddy-issues (he joined the CIA based on the mistaken belief that his father had been absent because he was a secret-agent instead of a deadbeat criminal) who was a virgin until marrying the (much more experienced) Francine and secretly dreamed of being a figure-skater. Over the course of the series, Stan has taken on armies of elves, battled his own half-robotic future self, deposed third-world dictators and produced a Broadway play about Abraham Lincoln that became an unintended smash-hit in the gay community.

The idea of Hayley as Stan’s primary foil among the main cast (and vice-versa) has long since been similarly abandoned, with greater mileage coming from her own inability to live up to her exaggerated feminist/environmentalist/etc ideals and the all too human foibles of her romantic and professional life (or lack thereof). A recent stretch across several seasons shifted her to a sub-storyline involving her dating and marrying stoner boyfriend Jeff Fischer, a character who has (for now) departed the series to adventure in outer-space with the ghost of (not actually deceased) 90s stand-up comedy fixture Sinbad.

Steve, too, tends to seemingly live in his own separate series much of the time: His adventures with his trio of fellow nerd best friends often feel beamed-in from a different show entirely, parodying 80s teen sex-comedies and occasionally movies like The Warriors.

But no one benefited more from the change in direction than Roger the alien, who went from being the show’s most conspicuously Family Guy-reminiscent fixture (a mashup of Brian’s drunken pretense and Stewie’s sci-fi story-additives) to its most original creation when his main gimmick evolved to be using costumes and voices to interact with the human world in a variety of personas — some of whom have lived on Earth for decades starting families, business, crimewaves etc. Instead of becoming an old joke, it’s become the series’ genius solution to needing one-off characters for specific storylines: Why risk making new characters who’re duds (as a joke, the series spent its 100th episode killing off forgettable side-characters from over the years) when a previously-unseen Roger Persona can fill the same purpose with hilarity almost guaranteed?

And yet, though well-rated enough to endure for over a decade, the series has continued to be seen largely as Family Guy’s weird younger sibling. It’s a comparison not helped by the fact that both on Fox and in syndication the shows are often aired together or interchangeably. Will the change of venue to TBS (and the departure of Mike Barker as co-showrunner, leaving Matt Weitzman as the chief creative voice) allow American Dad to finally stand out in its own right? We’ll see — after all this time, it certainly deserves to.


About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.