This American Dad! review contains spoilers.
American Dad! Season 15 Episode 19
“It was a technicality that changed his reality and now Steve goes to the school.”
Spin-offs are fascinating artifacts from television because they highlight just how dangerously popular a show can become and the hubris that follows. Gambits like Better Call Saul or Frasier can actually enrich and expand upon their original source material, but other spin-offs are much clearer cash grabs. Young Sheldon is absolutely not a story that needs to be told, but it acts as a way to prolong and milk more from a property.
With the amount of time that American Dad! has been on television, it’s not an unreasonable question to wonder if the series could pull off such a maneuver. If The Cleveland Show can get a handful of seasons, then why not some vehicle that focuses on a member of the Smith family?
“Top of the Steve” operates as a stealth spin-off to American Dad! that centers around Steve and Roger, in what’s a rather complex, intelligent deconstruction of sitcoms. The only problem here is that in spite of the smart ideas that this post-modern installment brings forward, it doesn’t always rise to the occasion. “Top of the Steve” has a sterling foundation and does many things right, but it’s a messier product that spoils what could have been an all-time classic episode.
Steve begins this episode feeling a little frustrated and tormented as he tries to get through his day. Stan selfishly proves that he’s the big dog in the household and that he can continue to ruin science experiments and confuse rain gages with yard-garita glasses because no one’s going to do anything about it. Steve decides to not only call Stan’s bluff on the matter, but also proposes that because he’s had to answer to Stan his whole life he’s actually been held back from his full potential and greatness. Enter the Pendlingtonton Academy boarding school and the start of a very different version of Steve.
Steve begins his tenure at Pendlingtonton filled with optimism. He hopes to make lasting connections with like-minded individuals and genuinely better himself as he throws himself at the Academy’s extracurriculars, only for the enthusiastic boy to learn that he and Roger are stuck living at a girl’s school.
Much like the execution of the episode’s initial premise, “Top of the Steve” wastes no time to reveal the problematic situation that Steve and Roger have got themselves in. The credits of the actual episode are still rolling when the fake credits for Steve and Roger’s new “Bosom Buddies meets Saved by the Bell” zany sitcom-esque life begins. This episode’s electric pace helps it stand out and get the most out of this hackneyed sitcom parody.
This is all a lot of fun, but it’s a little surprising that “Top of the Steve” doesn’t push this idea even further. Narration jests that “Top of the Steve” is filmed in front of a live studio audience, but that’s the end of the joke. There absolutely should have been a laugh track over all of the Pendlingtonton scenes. It would have made the silly jokes land harder, punctuate the more dramatic moments, and it’d help further make this storyline feel distinct from the madness at the Smith house.
Additionally, the episode prepares the audience for canned laughter and characters are straight up slipping on udon and meatballs for crying out loud. Throw a dumb laugh track over that ridiculousness. What’s even more maddening about this is that “Top of the Steve” strangely does feature “audience” reactions, but just in two brief drama-based instances that consecutively happen more than halfway through the episode. The decision to just feature this device once, rather than frequently or not at all, is very unusual.
Most of Steve’s time at Pendlingtonton Academy sees him worried over whether the technicality that let him into this girls’ school will get amended and he’ll be pushed out, courtesy of the old curmudgeon of a headmistress. There’s some fun to be had here, like the discovery that this technicality has a clause, and that clause has an addendum, as well as other contrived developments that force Steve to jump through absurd hoops in order to stay at the school.
“Top of the Steve” does a successful enough job at lampooning the tropes of this genre, but all of the machinations at Pendlingtonton feel very cyclical. It’s clear why he needs to remain at Pendlingtonton for this episode to work, but he has to do so much here that it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t just quit and go back home. Maybe if Steve had some kind of campus romance going on he’d have a noticeable motivation to stay, in spite of Headmistress Mahoney’s harsh treatment of him.
Steve’s agitation at the headmistress and his time with Spitz and “The Babe,” his cliché dorm partners, really clicks. If anything I wish this episode had more of Steve just getting into dorm hijinks with Spitz and The Babe. Even though they’re stereotypes, I still could have gotten to see more of their characters. This episode also attempts to link Steve’s stress and aggressive attitude at Pendlingtonton to how Stan treated him back at home, but it’s a rather tenuous connection. Steve has every reason to be stressed and acting somewhat self-centered—he’s about to be expelled because of spite-based logic! This is not him just being the alpha in the dorm because he’s male or feels entitled.
“Top of the Steve’s” final act rises to some satisfying meta levels that help make up for some of the earlier sloppiness. Roger concludes that Steve’s good fortune at Pendlingtonton is because he’s unwittingly migrated over to an American Dad! spin-off series. The episode proposes that this entire entry is in fact the pilot of “Top of the Steve.” This is actually a rather brilliant conceit, especially with how long it waits to reveal this fact. Even though the episode rubs this twist in the audience’s face from the beginning, it’s still a strong turn that brings everything together. Steve is finally the big dog (ruff ruff) of his own series now.
While Steve and Roger are caught in this metaphorical sitcom of a situation, the Smith household also generates the same kind of energy that takes a nod towards hokey comedies and acts as the complimentary half of this derivative spin-off. And what happens when characters leave the prime series for a spin-off? There’s an introduction of a cavalcade of wacky new replacements to fill the void!
Stan may still be the undisputed big dog (ruff ruff), but he immediately notices Steve’s absence and misses his son’s company. Before Stan even has a chance to properly weigh his options, a bevy of elaborate guests such as Spunky Rooster or British dandy John Michael Heaton all temporarily move into the Smith house in attempts to replace Steve.
None of these new faces make a positive impression on Stan and they all qualifying as ’nnoying in his book. Nevertheless, Steve doesn’t know how clunky these possible replacements are, so his final struggle sees him try to tank his own spin-off so he can return to his family before he gets replaced. This hectic process requires Steve to vigorously ignore any possible attempts where a storyline may try to grab a hold of him give this spin-off life.
The revelation that this spin-off shoots in Vancouver leads to Roger and Steve to force their life/sitcom to go over budget (via Beatles music, no less) so it will get cancelled, which is an insane joke that’s maybe too smart for this episode. At the apex of all of this, “Top of the Steve” resembles something from out of a Charlie Kaufman film, which makes it frustrating that the episode feels like a half-successful take on a great idea.
I’ve discussed during the last few episodes how these most recent installments have taken some progressively weird swings, but “Top of the Steve” continues that trend. The culmination of one gag involves an army of tiny “puppy” Tuttles that respond to their master. It’s an extremely ridiculous joke—even by American Dad! standards—but it also seems to act as proof that the tail-end of this season is allowing itself to get even weirder.
I’m personally a little weary about this is if it is in fact the direction that the show is going with its comedy. These extremely broad jokes from the past few installments have felt very much like humor from within Family Guy‘s wheelhouse, which is absolutely a path that American Dad! fans don’t want to see this show follow. This show can be weird and unhinged, but in a way where there are still consequences and it connect to the show’s universe. This may seem like an extremely critical take on a handful of playful jokes, but it’s more so a cautionary concern that this could mark the slippery slope into a less precise version of the show. We’ll see how the next few episodes play out.
“Top of the Steve” tries hard, but it’s also held back by some more superficial reasons as well. This is three Steve-centric episodes in a row now (and two where he gets to sing), which is kind of overload. I adore Steve, but that’s a lot and it’s hard not to feel like each of these past few episodes might have had a little more impact if they were spread out and not aired in succession. It’s also a little noticeable that Rachael MacFarlane voices like four significant characters in this episode. Spreading that female voice talent a little more would have helped out, but it’s perhaps a situation that couldn’t be avoided.
“Top of the Steve” is an episode that pokes fun at the laziness of sitcoms and the contrived nature that so often pushes the stories forward in shows from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it often ends up feeling lazy in its own execution. This is a difficult line to tow and even though there’s plenty to enjoy and laugh at in “Top of the Steve,” at its simplest moments it becomes the very kind of show that it’s mocking.
The fact that this episode actually has something to say and attempts to go further than a simple takedown of the genre is crucial to its success, but it’s easy to picture a version of this idea that’s even more polished. In the end, “Top of the Steve” comes across as a spin-off that would actually work—in spite of its stupidity, or perhaps because of it—which is perhaps the biggest compliment this episode can receive.
Although I’d still rather watch a spin-off focused on John Michael Heaton. That’s where the money is.
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.