This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 15 Episode 3
“Really? You’re not going to sing the census song? Aren’t you excited about the census?”
American Dad works hard to successfully compartmentalize Stan into two extremes. In one sense, he’s a wild, responsibility-free ball of id that barrels first into action. In another, he’s a meticulous dweeb who gets worked up over when the CIA adds a new question to a form or incorporates a new color of pen at the office.
Stan loves his job and his country, but that passion displays itself in both a bold as well as a more reserved manner. This means that Stan’s blind oath to his nation sometimes results in the CIA pulling off a tense, bloody sniper mission and at other times Stan’s gleefully a guinea pig for the newest stage of paperwork.
“The Census of the Lambs” is an episode that plays into the nerdy version of Stan that gets far too excited over bureaucratic paperwork and government boilerplate. It’s been a while since American Dad has told a “nerdy Stan” type of story, which makes the character’s ten-year wait to help with the census turn into a momentous occasion for Stan. Much like Stan’s erratic demeanor, American Dad itself often plays into extremes with the variety of stories that it tells. Stan’s attempts to fill out his family’s census form might seem like a relatively low stakes installment, but the episode doesn’t struggle in the least to turn all of this into one of the more memorable outings over the past few seasons.
While Stan cannot contain his excitement for the census’ arrival, it’s equally hilarious to see how irrelevant it is to the rest of his family. Everyone tries to deflect Stan and his enthusiasm to another family member as if Stan’s diatribe about the joys of government applications is a well-known annoyance. There’s a lot of fun to be had here when Stan is forced to ricochet through his house and unable to find anyone to echo his passion. Not only does no one care, but Stan’s family barely has a basic understanding of what the census even is. Francine’s aside where she refers to the government process as the “Stencus” is particularly inspired. As is a surreal moment where a census-heavy scene turns into a pop quiz on American Dad knowledge in a blissfully idiotic fashion.
On that note, there are some especially weird jokes in this installment. Stan’s constant ribbing of Jim at the census training becomes so aggressive that it turns into quite the funny gag by the end of the episode. Stan’s meeting with Wilbur Kentucky, an individual who may or may not be Roger is also a strange highlight. However, what’s more satisfying than all of this is the giant Law & Order convention that kicks off the episode. Not only is it a hilarious gag, but I’m also surprised that these don’t happen more in real life. The Smith family shows up entirely in series-spanning authentic cosplay and Stan even has a dun dun sound effect generator to punctuate each of their strongest “Law & Order Fest” memories. Frankly, an entire episode that’s set within such a ridiculous backdrop would make for an excellent installment of the series, but instead “The Census of the Lambs” lets these exceptional Dick Wolf-fueled jokes bookend the episode.
Stan’s census love culminates in his proud acceptance of the role of enumerator. Hayley also becomes interested in such a position, but not because she has any interest in the census process, but rather because it looks like an easy gig that she can make some fast cash at. Stan hits a hard truth when he learns that the rest of the enumerators that have been enlisted are not the “hard-charging broncos” that he anticipated, but rather doughy losers that would make the Statue of Liberty vomit in disgust into the East River. None of these people are the select heroes that are qualified to count America.
Stan gets ready to count the entire country himself and crank some numbers to the extreme. It’s at this point that Hayley shows up with the same gung-ho attitude—if only to spite Stan at his own game—and he finally has someone that understands the seriousness of the census game. This pairing of Stan and Hayley together on the census job might be a little predictable in nature and even tie back to the show’s earliest mission statement and character tropes. Accordingly, this competition between Stan and Hayley might induce some eye rolls, but it’s frankly more interesting of an angle than if Stan’s partner were Roger or Steve. It’s possible that Francine might have proven to be a more dynamic pairing for Stan here, but there have also been an abundance of Stan and Francine installments lately. The angle that “The Census of the Lambs” runs with ultimately feels like the best choice.
Once Stan and Hayley have a proper rivalry brewing in the census game, the episode decides to drop Roger into the mix to unnecessary effect. Roger’s presence definitely feels like an afterthought and he’s more of a distraction than he’s worth here. It’s amusing to see that Stan can’t figure out if Roger’s sad sack persona is trying to conjure a Rain Man or a Lovely Bones sort of thing, but it mostly amounts to a strange distraction. Stan’s excitement for the census is entertaining enough that the episode doesn’t need to fall back on its usual Roger shenanigans. It feels like the character is present to help pad out the third act, but then he doesn’t even accompany Hayley when she attempts to rescue Stan. It wouldn’t be difficult to figure out a way to better integrate Roger into the story or simply find more for Stan and Hayley to do with their enumeration task.
“The Census of the Lambs” plays Stan’s no-nonsense enumeration technique against Hayley’s more relaxed method, but they both seem to do well at the job. When Stan begins to feel the pressure from Hayley’s unconventional methods, he starts to rush his performance and throw caution to the wayside. This results in one of the houses that Stan visits turning out to be a murder house and suddenly Stan becomes the newest prey for the deranged owner that lives inside. While Stan finds himself the hostage of a lunatic, Andy Daly steps in to provide some reliable voice work as one of the fellow victims that’s stuck in the psycho homeowner’s pit along with Stan. Daly’s misplaced optimism fits in well here and helps become a beacon for Stan while he spends the final act hopeless and despondent until Hayley can rescue him.
Beyond all of the super exciting census-o-rama action, Klaus is once again given the privilege to swoop in and fill the episode’s B-story with something entertaining and ridiculous. The Smith family’s fish has turned into quite the shutterbug after he inherits an impressive vintage camera from his dead uncle. Klaus’ fresh visual perspective finds Steve (and his attention-hungry friends) as his muse and it’s not long before they’re all wrapped up in a weird, just-uncomfortable-enough modeling storyline. There might have originally been some potential with this story idea, but “The Census of the Lambs” never really sticks the landing with it. Barry steps up as Klaus’ true inspiration and he begins to explore some misguided Anne Geddes-inspired photos. None of this amounts to much in the end, even when Geddes herself enters the scene and becomes the lynchpin to this bizarre storyline.
“The Census of the Lambs” is an episode of American Dad with a strong point of view and structure to fall back on, which does the installment all sorts of favors. Admittedly, the episode loses a tiny bit of its momentum in the second act when it digs deeper into the training portion of the census. However, this quickly gets corrected with the bonkers murder-riffic direction that the final act takes. Everything comes down to Hayley’s ability to put all of her Law & Order knowledge to use so she’s able to overturn a missing persons ring and save her father. This resolution also ties the episode together in an impressive way that makes this entry a whole lot smarter than anyone would expect it to be. Dick Wolf would be proud.
Oh, and if the Law & Order theme suddenly sounds like it’s missing a clarinet from its ensemble, don’t blame Stan Smith.