This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 15 Episode 11
Sometimes in order to tell an effective American Dad story it involves finding a situation that incorporates the entire Smith family. Episodes of American Dad will often function by splitting its cast into two or three different storylines. This is just an effective way to structure an episode of television, but it’s always satisfying when the show can slightly skirt these rules and find a piece of insanity that ropes in the whole Smith family. The very best of these stories remind the audience how infectious the Smiths are on each other, especially when something supremely stupid is at the core of it all. In fact, the Smith family are at their finest when they have something inane to squabble over and it doesn’t get much more inane than the family building a giant waterslide in their backyard.
“My Purity Ball and Chain” is one of those American Dad episodes where the less central, more ridiculous plot is the one that’s ultimately more engaging. So let’s jump into this water slide madness! There’s a gratuitous vanity sequence where Roger, Hayley, Jeff, and Klaus all experience pure bliss on the waterslide at a waterpark. The scene is meant to showcase just how happy the Smiths are when caught in the joys of a waterslide and it more than achieves that with long, lazy shots that fetishize the act. Rather than let this happiness turn into an ever-fading memory, they all opt to build their own slide so they can have this happiness at their disposal 24/7 and never again feel sadness in their lives.
This storyline gets just enough screen time here, but every single moment of it is cringe-worthy gold. In spite of the group’s intense passion, it’s very clear that none of them are qualified to build a waterslide (let alone in a cramped backyard). It’s difficult to watch the gruesome consequences that follow, but the real crowning achievement here is that the plot’s final act turns into a pseudo-sequel to one of the series’ all-time best episodes, “Chimdale.” Detective Turlington shows up to investigate the curious circumstances around the Smith’s waterslide and the disappearance of Kyle. This all plays out rather quickly, but frankly it’s just wonderful to have Turlington back in the picture and suspicious of Roger and Hayley again. He also apparently reads aloud his stage directions from the episode’s script, which is a total power play, for your information.
Waterslide fever doesn’t quite consume all of the Smiths. Stan and Steve find themselves in a much more personal situation, even though both of them would surely rather be dealing with waterslides at the moment. Stan orchestrates some grade-A parenting by finding a way around having the typical “birds and the bees” sex talk with Steve by pointing him in the direction of a chastity cult. However, the decision to allow an individuality-squashing cult-like organization to do a father’s heavy lifting is unfortunately far too snug of a fit here.
It’s actually interesting to see here that for once Francine isn’t completely oblivious and that she actually helps set this whole story in motion. Francine expresses concern over Steve’s school pushing an agenda of abstinence rather than education over safe sex, which makes her want to bring Stan in as an intermediary. Francine at least recognizes the problem, whereas Stan doesn’t even realize that there’s a situation to fix in the first place.
Stan is often one to try and ditch responsibility whenever possible, but he at least has some kind of reason this time. Yes, his desire to avoid having “the talk” with Steve has plenty to do with laziness, but he also believes that Steve is too young for such a conversation and he wants to appreciate those remaining years of innocence while he still can (newsflash Stan, Steve is far from pure). Stan’s also concerned that he might botch this formative moment for his son and that he’ll irrevocably warp his son’s sexual compass, much like his own father did to him (the motion work on Young Stan’s pupils during the flashback scene is some very subtle brilliance, by the way).
“My Purity Ball and Chain” finds humor in each new development of this situation and it’s definitely a rich topic for the show rather than a flimsy idea that they need to pad out. Steve’s hormone-fueled actions are all very amusing, especially his “practice session” with a broom (who’s actually the dom in the relationship). The pitch perfect representation of high school abstinence presentations also hits hard and its gradual effect on Steve is a lot of fun. The way in which Principal Lewis also encourages the sex-based bullying of Steve is another highlight. His economical assessment of his role in this ecosystem, “I’m the straw that stirs the drink, bitch” is maybe the best line from the entire episode.
It also makes a lot of sense that the main reason that Shannon from the purity group is attracted to Steve is because of his passive nature. This is a relationship that’s built entirely on inaction, but Steve is just desperate for any sort of connection. If there happens to be a female at the other side, then all the better. So even though Steve mocks everything that Shannon and her friends preach, Steve winds up in their purity group fairly quickly because morals mean nothing when the possibility of sex is put on the table. That’s also the sad irony of this situation. Steve selling out his values for the possibility of sex is nothing new, but what makes that struggle work so well this time is that Steve is in a situation where sex can’t happen. Steve loves that he’s getting closer to Shannon, but it’s also a situation where he inherently can’t get what he really wants.
“My Purity Ball and Chain” then gains even more points when it avoids going down the typical route with Steve and Shannon’s storyline. It’s appreciated to see this episode highlight some of the emptier reasons that people join abstinence groups (which isn’t to say that there isn’t any merit to them) and that Shannon and Steve both get pushed to the uncomfortable territory where they now want to have sex more than ever. It’s also a really perfect detail that one of the main things that Steve and Shannon bond over is the violent, twisted history of the DC Comics anti-hero, Slade Wilson AKA Deathstroke. It’s beautiful to see something so graphic act as a genuine bonding moment for this couple simply because other topics like sex are forced to be swept under the carpet.
One of the reasons that this episode really succeeds is because it continues to slightly shift its focus on this rich topic. If the entire entry was about Steve’s compromised ideals in the purity group then it would still work, but it’d be a much more hollow episode. What’s so entertaining about this is that Steve finds himself in a very complicated situation when he’s ready to give up on the group halfway through the episode until Stan falls in love with the concept and makes sure he stays involved.
“My Purity Ball and Chain” taps into some more biting territory when it digs deeper into the creepy father/daughter dynamic of purity groups, which Stan oddly embraces. Stan feels that the perfect way to keep Steve safe is to “date his son” and suddenly Steve’s sexual barometer gets thrown even more off course. What’s even better is when Stan then begins to actually get jealous over Steve and Shannon’s connection and he attempts to turn her into the third wheel rather than help out his confused son.
In spite of all of the aggravation that he experiences, Steve does see some benefits to his recent changes, like how the degree of bullying that he experiences gets cut down because of respect for “the group.” Stan also couldn’t be more excited about his new sword (which seems as important to him as Steve’s innocence) and it’s surprising to see just how many uses Stan finds for it here. His incorporation of his sword into a golf putter is a particularly great touch.
When the whole abstinence angle gets out of hand with Steve and almost beyond Stan’s control, he just doubles down on all of his “parenting” and decides to move Steve into sex aversion therapy camp. It’s an insane development, but it’s great to see this episode take such big swings and still find an emotional beat to anchor to each of them. The big riff on A Clockwork Orange’s Ludovico Technique that plays out in the therapy center is also actually upsetting. A+ for creating something that would likely actually traumatize people on the topic of sex.
The conclusion to all of this sees Stan reunite with his “fixed” son, only for him to realize that he hates what he’s become and how he barely recognizes who his boy is anymore. It’s a predictable conclusion that Stan eventually reaches, but the fact that he needs to sword fight, dismember, and murder dozens of dads to get through to his son is an unconventional way of going about it all. There’s actually a really sweet story hiding in this episode and it’s crushing to see Steve’s genuine, budding relationship get destroyed because of the insecurity of parents.
The waterslide material on the other side of the episode is American Dad at its irresponsible best, but it would have been nice to get Francine involved in there, too. She weighs in as the counterpart to Stan in Steve’s storyline, but her presence is so minimal there that it wouldn’t have been difficult to also have her getting weird with the rest of the family. Otherwise, “My Purity Ball and Chain” is the perfect balance of absurd and endearing with a story that’s developed enough to go to many surprising places. The scope of this episode could have been half the size, but the entry’s exaggerated nature is part of why it works as well as it does and is also a testament to Stan’s astounding absentee parenting. This might be an episode that banks on familiar relationships, but it still manages to takes it all to fresh places and prove that this series is still far from out of ideas.
Oh, and if you really want to set Stan off then just bring up his journal.