This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 15 Episode 7
“My dad is always so proud of me up there because all we do is win!”
“Jeez Steve, you’re starting to make me wish that my dad wasn’t dead.”
“Well you’re REALLY going to wish your dad wasn’t dead when you hear this!”
“The Legend of Old Ulysses” is a sufficiently strange episode of American Dad and I really don’t know what to think of it. This is always a weird show on some level, but this is an episode that casually features freaking sea monsters, a talking, sentient sun, two lengthy rom-com spoofs, and a major corporation getting “Dadded” in a serious way. In some respects, this almost feels like an episode of American Dad that has more of a Family Guy sensibility to it, but it never goes too far to that extreme and “The Legend of Old Ulysses” does a fairly good job at keeping all of this disparate chaos corralled, but boy is it a weird one.
The episode immediately begins with a curious introduction that properly establishes the infamy of the titular Old Ulysses, a giant sea creature who’s the king of the fish and allegedly the offspring of a “demon whale and a drunken Kong” that was also born in a volcano. The many seemingly impossible details about Old Ulysses’ past are not as important as the big takeaway about this creature: he’ll kill anyone and everyone that threatens him.
This is certainly a creative way to kick off the episode and it gives it a folksy vibe, but this atmosphere is pretty quickly dropped. This introduction would be more appropriate if the episode carried on with this old-fashioned folk tale atmosphere, but because it doesn’t it feels a little out of place. It’s an impressive sequence, but it almost seems like the kind of thing that would fit better in an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. I’m not sure if it warrants replacing the episode’s standard title sequence to make this feel like a special installment when it’s very much a standard outing for the show. This isn’t “Tearjerker” or “Hot Water.” Even though this intro makes it seem like this episode will be all about Old Ulysses, after this he recedes into the background, only to return during the episode’s big finish.
This episode may be full of fantastical elements, but at its core there’s a very human problem at stake. Right from the top of the episode Stan comes in hot and decides to put Steve in his crosshairs. It’s kind of incredible that even though Stan has attacked Steve’s gentle tendencies well over 50 times in this series that it can still garner results and get laughs. Stan’s tirade over how someone has taken his “Baller’s Blend” Monster energy drink (which he planned to use for fuel to make prank phone calls all night) as Steve and Snot try to have a relaxing tea party is more akin to how an older brother would treat their younger sibling than how a father should treat his son. I didn’t know I needed to hear Stan call Steve a “cuck,” but it’s so stupidly perfect. In spite of this abuse, this episode is actually about how strong of a team Stan and Steve are, which gets put to the test during the father-son competition at Possum Lake.
Even though the activities at Possum Lake are strictly father and son-based, the entire Smith family comes along, which helps make this episode feel a little more populated rather than it focusing purely on Stan and Steve. Francine and Hayley don’t contribute much here other than a runner that involves the two of them sun tanning to an unhealthy degree. It doesn’t amount to much, but their “star tanning” proposal and how they temporarily go insane from dehydration is entertaining stuff.
Meanwhile, Roger struggles as he attempts to learn how to ride a bike. There’s not much substance to this plot, although Roger’s various injuries make for some laughs. This storyline kind of just peters out at the end when everyone realizes how terrible Roger is and it doesn’t feel like there’s a real conclusion to it, even though Roger does learn how to ride a bike. The best part of this is that the person that Roger renders unconscious, Schwinn Shavecrotch, actually has a better name than his biking persona, Wheelie Pedalaton, which is a solid gag, but doesn’t say much for the rest of the story. In my opinion, Francine and Hayley’s tanning fiasco actually works better than this.
Looking past these mediocre supporting storylines, the Possum Lake setting allows the show to create some especially gorgeous exterior shots of the lake and the woods during different times of the day that really stand out. On that note, the sequence where Francine and Hayley snap from too much sun features some highly creative solid color backgrounds to compliment their madness. Between this, the episode’s introduction, and the copious shots of the sunset over the lake, this is without a doubt one of the most visually interesting episodes of American Dad in some time.
While on the topic of the entire family heading up to Possum Lake, I know that we haven’t seen the last of Rogu, Roger’s homunculus child from the previous episode, because an upcoming installment is titled “The Hand the Rocks the Rogu,” but the fact that he doesn’t join the family to Possum Lake is deeply distressing. I hope that this is just a case of episodes airing out of production order rather than baby Rogu being forgotten, but then again, Jeff also isn’t present. Maybe the two of them are both enjoying the blue stuff back at the Smith household.
“The Legend of Old Ulysses” moves in an interesting direction and the conflict doesn’t come from any problems between Steve and Stan during the competition, but instead from the new powerhouse of a team that poses a challenge. Steve’s praises over Possum Lake to Snot actually convince the fatherless boy to find a dad so he can also take part in the festivities. It’s a farfetched premise, but the fact that Snot and Tuttle come in contact with each other through a lengthy Sleepless in Seattle parody pushes things to such a crazy place that it all actually works. As much fun as it is to see Stan and Steve working together in a healthy manner, it’s perhaps even more endearing to watch Snot and Tuttle slowly find their groove and learn how to help one another.
As Stan and Steve get deeper into the proceedings, Steve becomes especially fired up by the flames of competition. Stan is just happy to have some time away from work and to try his best here, but Steve is determined to not lose the first place trophy to Snot and Tuttle. For a moment it seems like Steve may flip on Stan since he appears to be the weak link in their dynamic, but he instead turns to a much more sinister solution. Since Snot and Tuttle are such strong competition, Steve resolves to break the two of them up—robbing his best friend of the happiness and positive male role model that he’s so sorely lacked—so that he and Stan can still come out on top.
The move that Steve pulls on Snot here is arguably one of the worst things that he’s done on the show. The episode dresses this betrayal up in yet another lengthy rom-com parody (this time You’ve Got Mail) and uses Snot and Tuttle’s love of the genre to break them up. Steve’s plan works, but it’s such a drastic change in character for him that Stan is taken aback and decides to not compete with him out of shame. At this point Steve is so set on taking home the gold that he quickly pivots and teams up with Tuttle, leaving both his father and his best friend in his wake.
Steve’s moral crisis is interrupted when Old Ulysses crashes the party, which causes Steve to realize that family and friends are more important than winning. I don’t think anyone was entertaining the idea that Steve would let his father die to win a boat race that would obviously be cancelled due to the murderous sea monster that arrives, but he still finds his way by the end. Once Steve and Stan are reunited, “Baller’s Blend” Monster energy drink saves the day in a very “Popeye and his spinach” kind of way. This is just as outlandish as anything else in the episode, but at least “The Legend of Old Ulysses” plants the seed for “Baller’s Blend” early on so it actually feels somewhat earned. The final beats of the episode feature a bloody showdown with Old Ulysses that’s simultaneously gruesome and innocent, which is kind of Stan and Steve’s relationship in a nutshell. With the gigantic corpse of a killer sea monster before them, their understanding and love for each other has never been stronger.
“The Legend of Old Ulysses” tells a personal story in an extremely unconventional way. It’s an episode that’s not going to be for everyone, but one that certainly doesn’t shy away from taking risks. I mean, there’s an extensive “ad” for Haliburton that inexplicably takes place in this episode, but still fits with American Dad’s branding. The gag is aided by the fact that apparently if you go up against Haliburton, they’ll turn you into a talking bird, which is some weird, wonderful stuff. I didn’t even question when towards the end of the episode Francine and Hayley begin to ascend as Star Gods. This is revealed to just be part of their severe delusion, but with all of the other absurd decisions and logic breaks that take place here, I was ready for the ladies of the Smith family to become Celestials. That’s the energy that “The Legend of Old Ulysses” conjures, which is either going to work for you or will just be too out there. Whether you like it or not, the episode deserves respect for making the old trope of the father-son tournament be anything but predictable.
Also, I need Hayley’s feature film adaptation of “Hungry, Hungry Hippos” to happen. Badly.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.