This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 16 Episode 1
“Now that I’m not trying to make my dad proud anymore, I’m doing baseball the ‘Steve way.’”
Well it’s been a long, agonizing wait of seven days since the end of American Dad’s last season and the start of this brand new one, but the series has gloriously decided to barrel on ahead with new episodes since TBS’ commitment to this show isn’t in any danger at the moment. This season premiere even airs at a timely point on the calendar since the start of baseball season was only a few weeks back.
There are many episodes of the series where Stan and Steve are at odds, which allows a contrast of personalities and interests, but “Fantasy Baseball” lets their passions overlap in a satisfying way. Steve even briefly becomes the perfect son that Stan’s always dreamed about (not that he isn’t passionate about Steve, but as Hank Hill would say, “The boy ain’t right”).
Whats so fun about this episode is that it’s basically just baseball versus Dungeons & Dragons! However, this does slowly morph into a larger discussion about the schism between fathers and sons and the decline of American sportsmanship. “Fantasy Baseball” features an especially brilliant premise wherein Steve puts together a baseball-centric version of Dungeons & Dragons in order to unite with his father over their disparate interests.
When I saw that Tim Saccardo was the writer for this one, I nodded in approval. This is exactly his sort of jam and it’s such a fun, loving installment that brings together its characters in a very creative way, which is reminiscent of Saccardo’s past work on Community. The episode gets some amusement out of just how fantastic of a Dungeon Master Steve is with his friends as he takes them through his “Dark Kingdom of Smithernia” expansion, so the idea of him adapting his DM skills to cater to the field of baseball is actually quite plausible.
Steve’s tabletop version of the sport isn’t exactly a success with his father, but Steve does find a place in baseball, as an umpire, yet his role in the game still involves him applying his D&D talents to America’s favorite pastime. The circumstances around how Steve gets the opportunity to be an umpire in the first place are also laugh out loud funny and vintage American Dad. Steve’s Dungeon Master approach to umpiring is a complete success, but the larger problem becomes that Stan latches on too hard and can’t provide some distance when Steve’s skills begin to take off. Stan’s unfamiliar with this kind of athletic pride toward Steve, so it’s a new experience for him that comes out in a very messy way.
Steve’s unconventional take to baseball becomes a viral sensation among the younger generation, and it looks like he’ll become the figure that can bring together the disparate age demographics for the sport. This charisma takes Steve and his act to the big leagues and Stan hopes that he’ll normalize his routine now that he’s on such a larger stage. The baseball commissioner wants Steve to go “Full Steve,” and thus run wild with this opportunity, which inevitably puts Stan and Steve at odds again, even though Stan’s proud of his son’s success. This turns into a broader argument between tradition and innovation, which ends up saying some thoughtful things about sports in the process. Steve’s elaborate new rules for the sport should obviously not actually be employed in baseball, but the spirit of what he’s doing is important.
This new power goes straight to Steve’s head, and it’s not long before he completely dismantles baseball. This sort of aggressive, spontaneous approach to gameplay is perfect for something that’s fluid like Dungeons & Dragons, but Steve’s new changes to the World Series, or as he’s renamed it, “Lemony Snicket’s World Series of Unfortunate Events,” but greatly endangers lives in the process of real sports. (Although I would totally attend this wacked out version of the great game!)
Steve’s facelift to baseball achieves some unexpected madness and even though Francine and Roger’s antics keep them mostly confined to their home, they also reach a rather extreme place. “Sex Hospital,” Roger and Francine’s favorite soapy medical drama, gets cancelled and the two feel aimless and hunger for soap opera theatrics. Roger decides to step in and become the new source of melodrama within the Smith household. This all amounts to some light distractions from Steve’s storyline and these situations never become as heightened as Roger hopes. He insists that his crimes handiwork should be entertaining since he actually messes with people’s lives, but Francine remains bored with it all, even when Roger goes to extensive lengths to prank Klaus.
Each of Roger’s progressively elaborate attempts to impress Francine with his “scripted drama” get better than the last, and there’s still some closure at the end. Even though there aren’t many emotional stakes with this storyline, Francine’s ability to turn it into a meta critique of American Dad itself is refreshing. It’s also a nice touch how all of this exaggerated material with the Smiths features a very soap opera-like score to go even further with the parody.
“Fantasy Baseball” largely has Stan and Steve at odds with each other, but it’s still surprisingly touching to see the two of them really get to bond throughout this episode too. It’s also a pretty incredible moment when Stan shows a tender side of himself and opens up to Francine over the death of his favorite pastime, only for Roger to completely steal Francine away for “real, scripted drama” that’s more important. It’s the perfect collision point for the episode’s two storylines.
The plots in this episode are strong purely in a story sense, but “Fantasy Baseball” also contains winning dialogue, whether it’s in its humor or just compelling snippets of conversation like when Steve and friends wax on about their relationship with their dads. The non sequitur digressions in this entry are also particularly entertaining, like the father who’s been searching for his missing son for three decades, the saga of fake David Ortiz, or the two swarthy dopplegangers of Stan and Steve that are out there.
“Fantasy Baseball” turns out be an exceptional installment of American Dad that finds a way to simultaneously play into Steve’s biggest clichés as well as deliciously use him against type. The decision to filter all of Steve’s progress and changes through Stan is also the smartest way to tell this story and leads to the biggest growth between these characters. “Fantasy Baseball” may go to some deeply weird places, but it’s still an emotional entry that comes down to character and speaks to how there is still plenty of new ground for the Smiths to cover.
Oh, and the recent explosion of Tuttle appearances continues. Guy’s gonna be running Langley by the end of the series…
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.