This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 16 Episode 4
“Welcome, Nitehawk. We’ve been expecting you…”
I was very apprehensive about this episode of American Dad! when I initially heard that its storyline entails Stan getting trapped inside a world within his television. However, rather than a broad, channel-hopping story, “Rabbit Ears” tells a haunting mystery where the episode’s tone is the major selling point. More than anything else, this feels like the show doing an episode of the Twilight Zone, and in that respect, it’s actually a rather creative success, even if it does go to a place that’s unquestionably weird for American Dad!.
“Rabbit Ears” begins on Big Trash Eve, the days where “the streets are lined with gold.”Most of Stan’s “street treasures” amount to literal trash, but the one item that sticks around is a giant, deep television. Roger’s search is much more fruitless, but his finds made me audibly moan in disgust, which deserves some points. Stan’s whole excited presentation over his trash feels very appropriate for his character and the ways in which these new possessions wreck their home is very funny. It’s also rather amusing that Stan’s major fascination with this television is that it’s now the biggest item in the household, which carries a certain opulence in his eyes.
As Stan gets some alone time with this new television, he stumbles across “Nitehawk’s Hideaway,” an old fashioned program that’s hosted by Alistair Covax and features the hottest spot for sophisticates and jazz musicians alike. Stan’s not exactly a fan of the show, but its existence confounds him, especially when he learns that there’s no record of “Nitehawk’s Hideaway” ever existing. When Stan goes to a newspaper editor for answers, he’s told much of the same thing, but gets pointed towards the Ukrainian Cultural Center for help.
It turns out that there’s only one other person who’s experienced this “Nitehawk’s” phenomenon that Stan can turn to for support and who do you think it is? That’s right, Tuttle. Tuttle’s fine for an ally here, but can we seriously discuss how he’s being crammed down our throats? It’s almost become a running joke at this point. I’m starting to believe that Richard Kind just lives in the recording studio and so the writers have become forced to incorporate him because he’s not going anywhere.
Rather than team up with Tuttle, Stan responds how the audience would and abandons him in favor of tackling all of this on his own. Stan may turn his back on Tuttle, but when he sees a suave version of him pop up in “Nitehawk’s Hideaway,” his interest in this television leaps to new heights. “Rabbit Ears” taps into a bit of a Shining energy with the haunting atmosphere that this television generates. The way in which it takes ahold of Stan is really well done and the best thing about this episode. There’s a lot of repeated footage of soothing jazz being played on the piano and it honestly gives the installment a hypnotic effect, which mirrors Stan’s dilemma. There’s even a little bit of a Body Snatchers vibe to this mystery with how everyone who gets sucked into “Nitehawk’s Hideaway” has the same giant television set. It’s fascinating to see Stan throw himself into every detail of “Nitehawk’s Hideaway” as he tries to crack this mystery. At the same time, his growing bed bug infestation is a nice physical manifestation of his unhealthy obsession.
Now, the second act of “Rabbit Ears” to an incredibly crazy place that may lose some viewers. Some people may prefer if this had all been some hallucination that Stan experienced when the television originally falls on him rather than a fantastical trip where Stan gets trapped in a haunted television show, but the episode’s Serling-esque atmosphere is what holds this together. It never plays this as broad and instead embraces the fear in it. Besides, this is a show where there were sentient alien jeans only a few weeks back, so this is hardly a blip on the radar.
There are some really original ideas that are brought to the table with this premise, like the concept of how “Nitehawk’s Hideaway” continually rerunning slowly ruins the memories of its prisoners. The grim fate that plays out every time the show goes to commercial is also a horrifying depiction of being trapped in a TV. The key to all of this is in Alistair Covax, who simply wants his “show’ to run smoothly and will eliminate anyone who gets in the way of that. To address The Twilight Zone again here, Alistair Covax and his inability to understand why anyone would want to leave his perfect paradise feels very much like Anthony Fremont from “It’s A Good Life.” It causes Covax to become increasingly intimidating as Stan’s desire to escape intensifies.
Stan and Tuttle are able to outsmart the cyclical nature of “Nitehawk’s Hideaway,” but as they search for an exit back to the real world the larger concern becomes their vanishing memories. “Rabbit Ears” keeps their return home exciting and more difficult than you’d expect. There are some surprising turns where what looks like victory is really just more of this labyrinthine television world. The episode also brings Stan’s predicament full circle when it’s memories of his beloved street trash that pull him out of Covax’s hold.
The supporting storyline in this episode is rather interesting as its main goal is to keep the rest of the Smiths occupied during Stan’s trouble. Roger, perhaps inspired by the ravaged crib that he finds, decides to embrace a baby persona. Roger makes for an adorable baby and that’s the really the extent of this. The Smith family, minus Stan, is completely enamored with this cute new character in their home. Baby Roger steals everyone’s focus, which allows a disgruntled Stan to lose himself with his new prized possession. It’s entertaining to see this new baby bring the family to odds over the correct parenting style for Roger (Hayley’s microdosing suggestion is wonderful) as this routine carries on. This injection of cuteness makes for a fair counterpoint to Stan’s physics-breaking adventure.
The black and white aesthetic to the second half of the episode, as well as the bombastic jazz score that accompanies it, is very satisfying. If Stan was trapped in a different era and variety of television program, I don’t think this structure would work as well as it does here. There’s also a really clever and visually impressive sequence where Stan and Tuttle attempt to drive from “Nitehawk’s Hideaway” to Langley Falls and the color gradually shifts from greyscale to muted colors, to eventually the show’s regular, vibrant palette. Another set piece involves static spilling into and flooding Covax’s world and it’s admirable just how much unique mileage the episode gets out of this television universe.
“Rabbit Ears” deserves” credit for how much it commits and the result makes for one of the show’s most unusual episodes. There’s a hypnotic quality here that’s just not present in any other entry. It’s an episode that may not be for everyone and maybe it would be more pleasing if it was billed as some sort of Halloween installment, but it’s an ambitious, intelligent episode that deviates from the norm. The ending leans especially hard into The Twilight Zone angle, but it goes so over the top that it all works. There’s a very fun, weird story that plays out through “Rabbit Ears” and even if Stan’s exploits completely fall flat for you, it’s hard to deny the charms of baby Roger. He’s the perfect failsafe.
Hopefully next week is a Fondine-centric episode.
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.