This American Dad! review contains spoilers.
American Dad! Season 14 Episode 8
“I’ve got to say, all of this talk about a Dinner Party Killer has me nervous about a Dinner Party Killer…”
I’m a big fan of when comedies go down the whole murder mystery route and get to flex their detective muscles a little. It’s fun to see characters get thrown into an exaggerated situation and turn into wannabe Poirots and Columbos. At Home With Amy Sedaris pulled off an exceptional example of this in last year’s “Murdercide” episode, but it’s turned into a somewhat niche area to lampoon in more recent years. Thankfully, American Dad! not only rises to the challenge here, but also finds a creative spin for the well-worn genre.
An episode that’s all about murder mysteries that involves a murderer who is specifically drawn to murder mystery parties is the perfect sort of meta parody of Agatha Christie and murder mystery tropes that Community would have had a field day with back in the day. There’s a deep degree of self-awareness with this story that certainly isn’t foreign to American Dad!, but it’s not always this precise. This is a very strong storyline, as ridiculous as it may be, and it keeps this installment moving and it never strikes out.
The stage is set here with Francine set to throw a lavish dinner party for the Smith’s closest friends. The family is well aware of the rampant Dinner Party Killer and urge Francine to cancel the affair, but Francine barrels ahead with an unflappable level of dedication here. She’s determined to finally have a dinner party that doesn’t end in disaster. Francine’s been planning this current one for months and even has a seating chart and aged cheeses for the event, so you know it’s serious.
“Death by Dinner Party” really doesn’t waste any time in getting to the action, but even the calmer moments during the beginning of the episode are a lot of fun. Francine appoints Klaus as chef, which allows him to stay out of a lot of the murder mystery business, but honestly he’s stressed enough with his inability in the kitchen. Getting murdered would actually make things easier for him at the moment.
Francine’s party guests include a lot of the usual suspects like Greg, Bullock, Principal Lewis, Jeff, Tuttle, and of course, Uncle Colonel Withersby (who has always been a part of the show and is a longstanding fan favorite character, so just run with it, okay?). In all honesty though, the Colonel is an extremely heightened caricature, but it’s great to see the Smiths so blindly take his side. He’s the obvious outlier in this equation, but the character fits in very well and makes for a great addition. He’s the sort of wildcard that this dinner party needs, especially since Roger is supposed to be on his best behavior.
On that note, Francine is considerably excited for her dinner party, but she’s also concerned that Roger’s constant prankery will ruin all of her hard work. Francine is desperate for a reprieve from Roger’s gags and he humbly agrees to play it cool for the evening. Of course, what he actually does is a lot different than what he says he’ll do, but that’s to be expected for Roger. The point is that he’s not the main source of conflict this time around.
However, when shortly into the dinner party Jeff mysteriously disappears, everyone naturally suspects that Roger’s responsible and that Jeff’s not in danger. Everyone, especially Francine, is outraged over this news, but Roger quickly confesses to his mischief when the actual Dinner Party Killer strikes and Tuttle, then later Greg, go missing for real.
The party still is somewhat skeptical to Roger, but he uses this opportunity to take it upon himself to attempt to solve these disappearances before they turn into murders. What’s interesting here is that Roger doesn’t “become” a detective or completely change his persona, but rather, he just takes the lead. This “minimalist” approach works better than turning Roger up to 11 and there’s more than enough going on that it doesn’t need this extra layer on top of everything else.
As the dinner party continues and the group fails to get anywhere with their suspicions, the episode moves into familiar territory for this kind of story. The guests of the party all devolve into accusing one another of being the murderer and eventually everyone decides to split up into pairs to expedite the killer hunt.
The development leads to some excellent exchanges between the respective pairs. The series also doesn’t waste this opportunity and it assembles more unusual pairs like Roger and Bullock or Stan and Principal Lewis. These all exhibit strong chemistry and get to show off some entertaining banter throughout the episode. There’s a lot to love here, but oblivious Steve paired off with Colonel Withersby is just too good.
With murder mystery and its many clichés as the episode’s focus, it’s encouraging to see the installment play around with so many of the genre’s tropes like flickering lights or the use of first-person perspective from the killer’s point of view (complete with innocuous, “Oh, what are you doing here” style comments). The episode gets some particularly good gags out of characters constantly finding themselves caught in incriminating murder-like situations, but of course everyone has perfect explanations for their unfortunate poses.
“Death by Dinner Party” has a strong narrative that also benefits from how it never tries to slow down. The story and characters are all on point, but there are just a lot of highlights that make this chaotic episode work. There’s more of Steve’s glorious singing voice when he gets paired up with the Colonel, plus Roger’s “Guess Who”-esque process of elimination for killer suspects is also a great gag. Francine might not be the MVP of the episode, but she’s definitely close. Her continued investment in the success of the dinner party, even though everyone else has so clearly moved on to more important murder matters, is wonderfully in character.
However, newcomer Colonel Withersby really steals the show. It’s fantastic to see that this never-before-seen character is so clearly the murderer and the episode pushes it in the audience’s face so hard right from the moment he appears. What’s even better is when the episode then flips this resolution on its head and manages to turn out a surprise in its final moments. The way in which the episode controls the narrative is absolutely the right approach here and it’s arguably funnier than if the murderer was just a Roger persona, per se.
“Death by Dinner Party” turns out to be one of the season’s strongest episodes so far. It’s relentless in its comedy, but can still be surprising. Perhaps the most successful part of the episode is its elaborate ending that genuinely keeps the audience guessing. I was set to believe that this episode exists outside of the show’s canon (there’s even a stylized title sequence in the same vein as “Hot Water” or “Tearjerker”) when characters like Bullock and Francine started to pop up “dead.”
The whole operation has actually been months in the making and all for the express purpose of teaching Roger a lesson. The best thing about this is that the message is totally lost on Roger and he only becomes more vindictive and vows to bring a stronger vengeance down upon everyone next time. It’s a scary, foreboding conclusion, but hey, that’s the cost of entertaining guests.
Oh, and Toshi’s running a pretty twisted fake doctor scheme that even gives Roger a run for his money.