When ‘American Dad’ Transformed Into a Piece of Live Theater

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‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.

“Damn this baby! Damn this heat!”

While American Dad has quietly flown under the general public’s radar for the better part of a decade, those who have been tuning in have been witnessing a show that isn’t afraid to experiment. As the show has slowly been honing its voice and rising above the ranks of Seth MacFarlane’s other creations, it’s been attempting things like long-form segmented storytelling, well-planted runners, or devoting two minutes and 37 seconds to an impeccably choreographed set piece to Wax Fang’s “The Majestic.”

American Dad has broken the fourth wall several times to acknowledge that it isn’t a cartoon, but rather a sitcom being performed by actors. We hear about the actors’ summer vacation plans, other projects, and in one of the craziest examples, Steve’s actor injures himself during filming only for the character to wear a cast for the rest of the episode. Again, this is not because the character is injured, but rather the actor.

Accordingly, American Dad has made a lot of deep cuts through its tenure on television, but choosing to do an episode that’s an homage of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County (before the movie was even out, mind you), is incredibly ambitious, even for this show. I dare say it’s something that flat-out shouldn’t work, and yet somehow this bewildering experiment is pulled off, likely due to it staunchly sticking to its regimented new structure.

Tracy Letts, Osage County’s writer, tends to peddle in dour, depressing introspective subversions of the family archetype. His work is full of people wallowing in depravity of both the emotional and physical variety. While American Dad might not be an animated cesspool every week, these people (particularly Roger) are still known to go to some dark places. The Smiths are an assuredly unconventional family in any sense of the word and a pretty perfect cartoon approximation of Letts’ work.

Right from the start of this episode, which pompously titles itself “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven”, things feel different. A live-action Patrick Stewart sets up the premise and the fake prestigious playwright that they’re honoring. The episode’s intention isn’t for you to discover that all of this is a play. It announces it immediately and never lets up.

The introduction that starts off this spectacle and introduces its framework is really a distillation of beauty that deserves to be recounted in its entirety:

Hello, I’m Patrick Stewart, theater genius. Late last year I found unsuccessful New York playwright, Chester Winkle, dead in his extended-stay hotel room. Among his belongings were a hot plate, a stack of Baby Gap catalogues, and twelve American Dad episodes he had written for the stage in one cocaine-fueled night. They were literally the finest collection of words ever put to paper. And now, we’re proud to present the only one of Mr. Winkle’s plays that I didn’t eat out of sheer jealousy, ‘Blood Crieth Unto Heaven.’

Immediately “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” wants you to understand what it’s going for. It’s pretty incredible that even gestures like sitting down in chairs feel different as theater-like acoustics are even subtly seeing incorporation in the episode’s sound design. My favorite joke in the entire episode revolves around an audience member quasi freaking out over the realization of a plot point faster than everyone else. It’s a joke that’s so simply done, and yet a gag that intrinsically can’t work in a normal episode of this series. There have been other episodes of sitcoms that have turned themselves into stage plays too – Children’s Hospital’s “Childrens Hospital: A Play in Three Acts” comes to mind right away – but never have I seen a show be as thorough as “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven.” Even Roger’s usual costume obsession is subverted in a logical, brilliant way.

Characters here are also often delivering monologues and soliloquies as a means of gaining insight into their respective characters. All of this is heavily melodramatic and would be sloppy writing in any other episode, but here it actually strengthens the episode’s style. “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” has a field day with this verbose, overly grandiose way of speaking, with characters having lines like, “It was the best day of my life. Until it was not that. At all.” Or arguments being reduced to hyperbolizations such as, “I was eight!” “I just ate!” When this new structure has you dealing with gems like, “We talked and we talked. If talking were a pot-bellied pig we could have entered this one in the county fair. But life isn’t fair. And I won’t count-y on my father ever again,” how can you really object?

Further along, the episode is built like a play too, with typical transitions seeing transformation into pieces of scene work and opportunities for the stage itself to shine. Seeing cliché theater devices routinely get servicing here is a delight, whether you understand the larger trappings that are being referenced or not. Even the show’s large supporting cast is turned to in order to fulfill casting decisions as accurately as possible. A wide net is cast here, with the added baggage of the actual characters (like Hailey and Bullock, for instance) bleeding through their characters’ performances, but revealing this with zero extraneous dialogue. It’s all subtext and expression work.

Just watching how different characters invest in the theater setup itself is a satisfying exercise. Steve, for instance, completely embraces it, with his Dickensian pomp almost going too far in the process. Similarly impressive is the warped aesthetic that the scenery has during Stan’s “flashback.” The stage play achieves the “fuzzy, warbled” feeling of a flashback, without doing any edits at all. Perhaps the most effective example of this is the scene where Stan is driving, where a mess of lights, audio, and prop work consume the stage in order to sell the illusion. It’s incredible that something as simple as Stan driving can turn into a deeply layered joke in order to compliment the episode’s structure.

When looking to this piece of melodrama’s plot, it involves a birthday being thrown for Stan, who staunchly hates birthdays due to a reason that will inevitably be revealed by the time those curtains close. This birthday hatred turns into daddy issues, a deep-seated clown phobia, and enough hidden romance to shock a reality TV show. As epiphanies are had across the board we see the drama between this extended family breaking out. Angst that spreads through their entire family tree is felt. There’s a heavy surprise that informs this piece of theater’s conclusion (much like in Letts’ play) but the episode completely sticks the landing. It uses most of the devices that it’s spent the episode establishing in a clever way that has all of this culminate together.

Even if you’re not a fan of theater, it’s hard to not be into this episode. It insults the medium of theater just as much as it respects it, and the results are absolutely one of the more unusual stylistic departures for a MacFarlane cartoon to take. Patrick Stewart might be asleep by the time the curtains close, but this is a wonderful instance where the lowest common denominator of a sitcom adopts the essence of high culture.