Schtick. Schtick has become a common ingredient with most comedy series nowadays, maybe even more so than with classic live-action sitcoms. After one or two cutting edge seasons with a show that's gaining popularity, the writers begin to see what elements work for each character -- what's funny and not, what mannerisms for which character suit them, etcetera. In effect, they see the material that works, and then exploit the funny to a point where it becomes hit-and-miss. It certainly happened with Seth MacFarlane's other creation, "Family Guy", and it's happened with "American Dad" -- clearly evident in this 4th Volume of the show's DVD run. Granted, the show is still rather funny, but there's an air around each character's antics that's starting to feel both forced, repetitive, and oddly similar to its sister show about the Griffin family.
As with "Family Guy" and most other animated cartoon sitcoms, nothing really changes plotwise in the Smith universe. Stan Smith goes to work every day as a CIA agent with his uber-conversative values always noticeably powering his demeanor, while Francine sticks around as a bird-brained housewife, their tree-hugger, anti-government daughter Haley flounders back and forth between activist diatribe and societal leeching, while their dweeby, pubescent son Steve constantly crashes and burns at just about everything involved with being a teenager. Along with their everyday antics, they also have to deal with the goofiness spilling out from Roger, their slightly effeminate stay-in alien, and Claus, their German-accented talking fish.
"American Dad"'s first few seasons are superbly riotous with a certain critical edge. Clearly an off-shoot from the mind of Seth MacFarlane to fix his comedic crosshairs on political and societal satire, something that gets lost in the current of low-brow chuckles and trippy flashbacks in "Family Guy", everything from gun ownership ("Guns make holes in your body, through which you can't potty") and sex education in schools ("Oh, this is the morally upright class?") to a broad array of pokes and prods at secret service shenanigans receive the treatment. However, it's clear that the creators have hit their stride and discovered what gets chuckle-worthy kicks from the audience -- slight battiness from Francine, drunken semi-homosexuality from Roger, and the likes. Because of that, they've taken them from being secondary fixtures in the series up to prominent and, arguably, more awkwardly annoying levels, which has also dulled the edge on some of the show's core satire.
Instead, the creators used a mechanic with several of the episodes that gives them a different flavor. They've turned each one into a mini-cinematic show, turning the 23-minute span into an enjoyably overblown narrative resembling movie dynamics. Some are obvious, like the lukewarm James Bond spoof "Tearjerker", but others simply take the show's rhythm and make it into an arcing plotline -- like Roger's battle with a credit card thief in "The One Who Got Away". It's something they used in previous seasons, first one coming to mind is Francine's revenge-seeking episode against George Clooney, but now helps in making the similarities between it and "Family Guy" space out a bit. That's a good thing, because some of the same repetitive gags and dialogue are really starting to comingle. Some might see the combination of styles as a good thing, while others -- even fans of both series -- appreciate the two staying somewhat separate.
It shouldn't, however, be suggested that "American Dad" has lost its humor -- even though this volume has a few duds in its roster. Stan ends up taking less of a testosterone-driven pathway than he's used to, becoming a guy who worries whether his wife still finds him desirable ("Spring Break-Up") and whether she made the right decision about who she should marry ("Choosy Wives Choose Smith"), but it manages to work with his character's personality to non-obnoxious degrees. He still has his moments though, like his reaction to his family's Christmas decorations ("The Most Adequate Christmas Ever"). Roger's silliness gets pushed too far on several occasions, but a sense of peculiar humor still inks through his stupidity. Oddly enough, the ginger-haired son Steve's antics manage to be the most reliably funny, from his revenge exploits in a pseudo-Kill Bill spoof ("Escape from Pearl Bailey") to his strange relationship with a sadistic cat and his puberty-fueled floundering between girlfriends.
Volume 4 also carries a few gems that make it notable for fans of the show. The first that comes to mind is "Spring Break-Up", a thoroughly entertaining romp through the Smith's backyard Spring Break party -- thrown by Roger himself, potentially the new "King of Spring Break". It's a little on the goofy side considering that, essentially, Roger brings a Cancun-sized party to the Smith's backyard, but it tickles the funny bone on a few different levels than "American Dad" has done previously. "Escape from Pearl Bailey" and "The One That Got Away" both deliver laughs as well, along with offering bizarrely compelling stories in their compact time.
"American Dad", Vol. 4, however, simply isn't as sharp as the other volumes. It suffers from backing itself into the "schtick" corner and overplaying its strengths, while taking away from some of the edginess that made the first few satirically-fueled seasons so appealing. However, from the creative flow coming from Seth MacFarlane's mind, it still delivers entertainment from its characters. Stan's still a nutjob CIA stooge, Francine's still a loopy blonde housewife, Roger still hasn't left the house for his home planet and Claus hasn't jumped out of his bowl yet -- well, to his death at least. It may have steered further away from its double-edged humor and zeroed in on its top layer of typecast lunacy, but there's still plenty of laughs to be had in the Smith household.
Fox's copy of "American Dad", Volume 4 comes packaged a little differently than the other seasons, arriving in a clear, standard three-disc package for slim design. The chapter listing appears on both sides of the interior case, while the only insert available is a miniature product leaflet for other Fox TV-on-DVD products. Interestingly, the introduction animation shifts at the halfway point in the volume, from an older design to a stiffer version that makes certain to emphasize Roger.
Video and Audio:
One positive that can be shelled out to this volume of "American Dad" is that the 1.33:1 full-frame image quite possibly bests the rest of Fox's MacFarlane transfers to date, containing a clean and very rarely aliased image. That's always one of the biggest issues with this animation style, as they typically contain tons of jagged edges and such across many of the episodes -- more prevalent in earlier seasons, of course. Volume 4 surprises on this front with its stability, though instances can still be pin-pointed here and there. But, overall, the depth of color and solidity of animation during movement are both handled nicely, never really jumping out with any glaring hiccups.
Reaching to the back channels on only on a handful of scenarios, the Dolby Digital track accompanying several, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track boasts plenty of clarity without a whole lot in the dynamics department. Vocals, however, are robust and audible, while mild sound effects like the buzzing of a bee, the screech of a cat, and the shot coming from a stun gun all breeze through with plenty of clarity. Subtitles are available in optional English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese languages.
Audio Commentary on All Episodes:
Commentary tracks have been made available on each disc, all usually featuring five or six members of the cast and crew -- producers, directors, writers, etc. Most of them are fun, cute tracks with wildly varying degrees of focus, though some of them take off on goofy tangents that aren't all that much fun to listen to. Maybe each episode shouldn't have had a commentary, instead saving up steam for a few select ones.
Tearjerker: And Then They Will Cry (15:46):
In this featurette, the creators delve into the difficulties building the James Bond spoof that starts out the volume. It discusses the extensiveness of the character's new models and the multiple, elaborate backdrops, all of which took roughly three times the normal length of an average "American Dad" episode from conceptualization to final product.
Also available are nearly 40 minutes of Deleted Scenes -- most of which feel like wise edits or alternate versions of scenes that feel a little wrong -- all available in a string on the last disc of the set, a featurette on the live-in alien entitled Roger: Master of Disguise (11:09) that discusses the reasoning behind giving him so many costumes per episode, and the footage from Comic Con 2008 (39:59) from their Q & A that includes a fantastic full-length table read of "Pulling Double Booty" with the cast.
Even considering its waning novelty and mounting silliness, "American Dad" still continues to follow through with button-pushing, groan-worthy laughs surrounding the Smith family -- and this 4th Volume, though showing some signs of an identity crisis, delivers more of the same. Having seen some of the episodes that'll trickle over into Volume 5, it's clear that the writers and producers have ironed out a few wrinkles and found a suitable rhythm for the characters. It's good to look at Volume 4 as a mildly Recommended buffer zone for completists, a space of time where the writers test the scripting waters to find out how to transition Stan Smith and Co. from its initial comedic timing to a series that continues to putt along with the rest of the pack. Even at its weakest, "American Dad" still tosses out witty bites at society while spilling at its seams with MacFarlane's signature humor.