This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 15 Episode 1
“Now that Santa’s dead, we can finally celebrate Christmas again!”
December marks a promising time for many television shows as they get to embrace the festivities of the season. Holiday installments are a fun change of pace for programs, but American Dad in particular gets a lot of mileage out of their yearly Christmas offerings. In fact, “Rapture’s Delight” is still likely the best episode of the entire series and it quickly sets the benchmark for every upcoming holiday special.
American Dad’s previous Christmas installment, “Ninety North, Zero West,” wasn’t one of the series’ finest endeavors, but it makes this year’s “Santa, Schmanta” look like an all-time classic in comparison. Unfortunately fans of the series have to put up with some coal in their stockings this season because this latest episode is a surprisingly painful experience. This is even an episode that’s 90% Roger and it still gets buried under an avalanche of mediocrity.
American Dad leans into its seasonal canon especially hard this year and the episode even kicks off with a fitting, “Last Christmas on American Dad!” refresher. The issue here is that the series has done many Christmas episodes at this point, but surprisingly the show has never shifted its focus to Hanukkah before. Roger is surprised to see himself bond with Snot, his de facto connection to Judaism, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that before Snot can even light the first candle on the menorah that Roger has already gone all-in on the Jewish celebration. The unscrupulous alien finds himself deep into attempts on how to co-opt the Jewish tradition for his own selfish needs. That’s our Roger.
Roger finds himself eager for attention when he realizes that everyone is too occupied with seasonal tidings to humor him and his swanky new dance. Desperation grabs ahold of Roger and he winds up with Snot, with the hopes that the Lonstein household (yes, that’s Snot’s last name) and their lack of interest in Christmas will allow him to once more be the center of attention. “Santa, Schmanta” organizes itself as it breaks down the episode into the eight nights of Hanukkah. This also happens to mirror Roger’s commitment to Judaism, which does not relent. Roger fast tracks his obsession with all things Hebrew and it doesn’t take much to get Snot to join Roger in his mission to reclaim the holiday and give Hanukkah the necessary shot in the arm to overtake the Christian celebration.
This episode plays with a tricky balance where Roger is simultaneously fascinated by and ignorant towards Judaism, but “Santa, Schmanta” finds the right tone and does well with Roger’s journey of religious discovery. This is territory that could easily fall apart or skew too far in the other direction without the right tone in place, but the installment succeeds. The episode never feels too much like a lesson in religion, but the careful jokes towards the history of Jewish people happen to land (like Roger’s complete obliviousness towards the Holocaust).
In order to prove his supremacy over Christmas, Roger drudges up Santa’s corpse from the North Pole in order to prove to everyone that Christmas’ mascot is dead. Roger escalates the situation and puts on Santa’s suit, which inexplicably turns him into the new Santa. This doesn’t exactly make sense—nor does the episode try to explain it—but it’s a necessary angle for the holiday offering. Roger’s Jewish Santa, who’s dubbed Schmanta, basically uses his seasonal powers to Hanukkah-ify Langley Falls. This more or less amounts to repeated instances where Roger transforms the usual red and green holiday décor to the blue and white pattern that’s associated with Judaism. Not to mention that Schmanta doesn’t expect milk and cookies, but rather lox and bagels (and that the people that he visits give their mothers a call). This also feels a little lazy on the episode’s part. With the chaotic magic that’s been present in past Christmas episodes, it feels like this installment could have had a better excuse for Roger’s Hanukkah metamorphosis.
Furthermore, “Santa, Schmanta” provides a few musical numbers, such as riffs on “Jingle Bells” and the “Dreidel Song,” but neither feels essential. That being said, it’s still nice to get some music in this holiday episode. Admittedly, some of this material still lands. The gag that Schmanta’s headquarters are at the South Pole (Miami, specifically) is pretty funny, as is Roger’s oil-heavy focus on Hanukkah. Steve also momentarily croons some Christmas carols and it’s never a bad thing to get more of Steve Smith’s singing voice.
This episode is all about Roger’s religious recklessness and as a result the Smiths take an unexpected backseat in this one. Everyone else really does feel like bit players who simply get to occasionally weigh in on Roger’s antics. There are brief glimpses of Stan’s frustration over Roger’s takeover of Christmas, but they come and go so quickly that they barely register. “Santa, Schmanta” feels like it would work a lot better if Stan had a larger role as the episode’s “antagonist.” Some basic idea like how Stan also acquires some of Santa’s suit and develops holiday power would do the entry a lot of good. A crazy religious magic showdown between the two of them would actually generate some excitement.
As it stands, the only real obstacle through the bulk of the episode is the public’s ignorance towards Hanukkah, which isn’t even accurate. The kernel of the idea here isn’t inherently flawed, but so much of this episode just feels backwards or that it literally could be some lost episode from over a decade ago. The people in this installment might be uninformed when it comes to Hanukkah, but that doesn’t mean that the general public is also this ignorant. Hanukkah’s not some new trend, which is often the angle that “Santa, Schmanta” adopts. At one point Francine even says, “Is Jewish even a language?” It’s kind of shocking how tone-deaf this all is. Additionally, the episode’s balance feels off due to the Smith’s minimal role this time around.
It doesn’t take very long for Snot to get upset that Roger’s version of Hanukkah just focuses on commercialization and fun while it strips the fundamentals from the holiday. The solution to all of this involves Snot’s resurrection of Santa, which is something that he’s able to pull off due to the teachings of the Torah and what it has to say in regard to golems. It’s all pretty messy, but hey, it brings Santa back to life and “saves” Christmas in the process. Of course, Saint Nick is temporarily a brain dead zombie of a figure, but it’s a minor complication before he’s back to his old, jolly self.
The most distressing thing about “Santa, Schmanta” is how off the episode’s message feels. The final story beat should allow Christmas and Hanukkah to both thrive, rather than the position that one is “better” than the other. Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish and that I celebrate Hanukkah, but this all left me rather embarrassed and actually rooting for Christmas to “win” in the end, which is a little surreal.
Perhaps this episode’s dissonance is because American Dad’s Christmas episodes are usually such highlights of the season, but these usually high expectations make “Santa, Schmanta’s” misfires all the more significant. The episode certainly feels like a low for the series, but at the same time, it’s just also nice to have American Dad back and to get this surprise treat of an episode. An occasional dud is understandable—especially when a show is fourteen seasons in—but just so long as this entry doesn’t represent the overall quality of the upcoming season. Here’s hoping that when the season resumes in February that the usual dysfunctional family dynamics and eccentric storylines will be back in full force. Santa might be on life support as a mindless zombie, but that doesn’t mean that American Dad needs to be, too.