“It’s time for me to do what I do best—which is whatever I want, all the time!”
Christmas episodes have not only always been a tradition on American Dad, but also an opportunity for the show to assemble some of its sharpest writing ever to skewer the typical tropes that we see around this time in the Christmas episodes of our favorite shows. American Dad has slowly and casually turned their Christmas episodes into “event television” for the season, going as far as throwing Armageddon at the Smiths, or pitting them against the mythical Christmas monster, Krampus. Season six’s “Rapture’s Delight” is probably my favorite episode the series has ever done (it’s a revolving favorite), and often looked at in the fan community with equal praise. So in spite of wanting to go into this Christmas episode (and every Christmas episode) with as little baggage and as neutral of expectations as possible, the pressure was certainly on for this one.
The episode begins conventionally with Stan attempting to go the thrifty, streamlined approach to gift giving, with inspired ideas like Steve and Hailey splitting a grip strengthener (that’s still going to mostly be used by Stan) and getting Francine the same sweater he always does. Francine on the other hand has the much more sensible perspective that you should buy people gifts that they’re actually want, showing that you generally care about them, advice that Stan has no time for.
While trying to ignore his family, Stan runs into Principal Lewis and can’t help but admire the freedom he has from being single. Not in terms of the copious women he could bed, but how he’s able to do whatever he wants without reporting to anyone else, something that becomes increasingly appealing to Stan as he’s caught up in the minutiae of holiday errands and throwing a Christmas party. Francine comes off pretty shrill through all of this, where just being ignorant and dopey would maybe have been a more consistent, interesting character choice, but it’s moved past quickly.
The show’s fascination with Principal Lewis has been another growing trend through the later seasons, with him being so present some years that he even feels like a main character. I am very much on board with this. Principal Lewis is a wonderful, unusual character whose increased presence surprisingly hasn’t worn out his welcome. That being said, he’s sometimes mishandled or pushed too far, but thankfully we’re getting the best version of Lewis here, and the episode spends much more time with Stan than him anyway.
With Stan becoming so envious of what Lewis has, going as far as wishing for his life, it becomes pretty clear that we’re heading towards an It’s a Wonderful Life homage, that seems to be initiated by a mysterious angel ornament that Stan adorns the tree with. It’s a Wonderful Life riffs have been done to death, and so it’s wise of this show to almost immediately undercut it by addressing that Stan needs to learn a lesson to get his old life back, as it namedrops It’s a Wonderful Life, Big, Ted, and The Care Bears Big Wish Movie, the latter being the only one of these that Stan has seen.
He finds himself removed from his family, left only with Roger (through the osmosis of a “butt wish,” apparently?), which is an always consistent pairing. It’s refreshing to simply see Stan and Roger living it up in their Kathy Ireland poster covered bachelor pad, as they get decked out in dandy pirate regalia, and race babes to the beach in their white Porsche. No time is spent lamenting their lost family. Instead they just ride the high of being single and invincible. Nothing can knock them down. Unlike the bikini babes they’re racing to the beach, who most certainly die.
That is of course until Stan realizes that he didn’t just get Principal Lewis’ life, but that Lewis got his, complete with his family. There’s some really great stuff done with this idea, like the subtly brilliant character design work done on a half African-American Steve and Hailey, or the wimpy “married” voice that now accompanies Lewis. Or even the idea that Stan didn’t just get Lewis’ single life, but that he’s also the principal now, as if bachelorhood and the principal profession were intrinsically tied together.
This all plays out pretty satisfyingly, as a panicked Stan kidnaps “his” family and builds some new, twisted holiday traditions with them, like holding them at gunpoint as he forces them to sing Christmas carols, pretending to be the happy family that he insists they are. It takes a few darker turns, including a family-less Stan committing suicide, but not before getting riddled with bullets by the CIA and double-killed, so to speak.
I was more than ready for this to be a by-the-books, slightly above average role reversal episode, but the best thing the episode does is wrap up all of this Lewis stuff before the final act, which sees an angel (in a missed opportunity for them to have brought back Paget Brewster’s Michelle the lawyer-angel) telling Stan that he’s learned his lesson and will be reunited with his family.
His real family.
And we then see Stan transported into Christmas bliss with a family of people we’ve never seen before in a beautiful “what the fuck!” moment.
Apparently Francine, Steve, and Hailey weren’t Stan’s “real” family but actually a terrible, “cautionary” family he was given for interim time. After proving himself to this angel who is not Michelle, he’s earned his proper family, a bunch of perfect people, complete with a non-talking fish. This is a pretty big bombshell of a revelation, and while alternate reality detours can often get quite sloppy, this one is surprisingly smart as the episode plays with its own Christmas wish logic that it’s previously established. There’s some really intelligent work done with how Stan has to effectively act like a bad husband so he can get his “good” wife to use her one Christmas wish to get out of being married to Stan, causing him to get knocked back down to the tier of his original family.
It’s complicated, rushed, and passes by all too quickly, but it’s this sort of manic chaos and forays into alternate realities that American Dad Christmas episodes are made of. While this one is certainly not their strongest, it’s incredibly ambitious, packs a lot into its runtime, and I found myself enjoying it slightly more than last year’s Krampus entry.
It’s an encouraging sign that this episode more than foots the landing, and with TBS having recently renewed the show for another season, I’m even more excited to see what they’ll pull out for their next Christmas entry.