A Standing Ovation for American Dad

As a theatre critic, I am not in the habit of reviewing TV shows, although I love television to the point where I consider it a hobby. In particular, my favorite shows are animated sitcoms because of the way they can use the medium to create anything in the human imagination. American Dad, in particular, is a show in which some of its best episodes are non-canonical outings in which the writers and animators truly threw off the shackles of continuity and realism.

In contrast, theatre must work within the physical limitations of using a defined space, a budget, and actors who are merely human. That is why it was such a delight to watch the January 27 episode of American Dad, “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven,” in which the show aims for realism as thoroughly as it had previously aimed for the fantastical.

The episode, in which Stan Smith learns the truth about why his father abandoned the family during his 8th birthday party, is a parody of over-wrought stage dramas about large, dysfunctional families (particularly August: Osage County by Tracy Letts). As is appropriate for the material, the episode is presented entirely as a stage play, with an audience and the curtain closing between “acts.”

Other sitcoms have done theatrical episodes, including Children’s Hospital’s parody of Our Town, “Children’s Hospital:  A Play in Three Acts,” but none of them can compare with American Dad’s level of commitment to the physical realities of staging a play. Actors run into place and take deep breaths during a blackout. The lights whir as they turn on to produce the effect of headlights shining in through the window, with a hint of light peaking over the top of the set’s walls. One audience member cries out, “Oh, G-d, NO!” as he anticipates the revelation of a tragic twist. Even sparkling effects were done with “flutter”—a type of glitter made with large pieces to make it easier to clean off of a stage and reuse.

In temporarily shedding animation’s limitless possibilities, the episode shows an appreciation for the theatre—both the work it takes to make a play come to life, and why we continue to attend the theatre in spite of the slickness and technical mastery of other forms of entertainment. Sometimes, we WANT to see the effort playing out in front of us, a communal agreement that something tangible can turn into magic.

You can now watch “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” on Hulu.

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