This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 16 Episode 7
“You’re afraid of sharks? That’s ridiculous!”
I think we’re gonna’ need a bigger party boat.
Roger and his many personas have become one of American Dad’s greatest assets and a bottomless source of comedy gold. These costumes and personalities may have started in a relatively grounded ALF-esque context, but over the years Roger has curated some absolutely bonkers personas.
There’s Horse Renoir, bounty hunter; General Juanito Pequeño, a bloodthirsty dictator; Laura Van Der Booben, the walking sexual harassment suit; Reaganomics Lamborghini, the jacuzzi salesman who smokes crack out of a Rubix Cube…And that’s to say nothing of Roy Rogers McFreely, Chex LeMeneux, or Calypso Banana Puffy-Sleeves (okay, at this point I’m just looking for excuses to list Roger’s absurd character names).
As crazy as some of Roger’s alter egos have become, “Shark?!” wades into exciting new territory because it features Roger’s first real animal persona, and it’s a ferocious shark of all things. It’s a big move for the series, but one that works so well that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Roger take a stab at other animals in the future (as long as it doesn’t become a regular thing).
Before the episode dives into its shark-filled glory, there’s a lot to love simply over Stan’s enthusiasm for the beach. His joyous arrival to the beach and his following enchantment over how perfect his life could be if he had water rocket boots is a very strong way to start things off and there are a surprising amount of laugh out loud moments before the credits even roll.
Stan’s excitement over the beach also beautifully clashes with Steve’s reclusive strategy to avoid as much of the outdoors as possible. Steve’s excessive hypochondriac behavior turns out to stem from a rampant fear of sharks, which Stan assures his son is something he’ll never have to worry about. Stan tries to use this opportunity to teach Steve a lesson about how to be a free man and not enslaved by arbitrary phobias. “Fear is a prison of the mind,” he tells his son, while he goes on to chug sand in order to prove his point.
Since Steve is unwilling to take a leap of faith on his own, Stan’s concerns begin to grow and he decides to recruit Roger’s help to extinguish this problem. He’s the one that prompts Roger to adopt this shark persona as a “scared straight” kind of tactic to cure his son of this fear. “Shark?!” works well because as soon as it begins to feel like it’s falling into a formula, it goes against those expectations.
Stan’s orchestrated lesson for his son easily could take up the entire episode, but Steve seemingly conquers his fear within a matter of minutes. At this point, Steve’s hubris towards his ability to best a shark goes a little too far and when Roger’s shark pride can’t stand to hear this slander he decides to attack Steve in an extremely gruesome manner.
American Dad has provided glimpses of Roger playing around as a dog or horse in the past, but these side gigs as animals still featured a lot of his personality instead of him fully committing to the part. On top of that, they’ve always amounted to tiny gags in an episode, whereas in “Shark?!” Roger’s persona is the catalyst for Steve’s transformation. This definitely gives the installment a unique atmosphere that really works for it.
The show is obviously no stranger to more stylized entries that exist outside of canon, like “Hot Water” or “Tearjerker,” so I’m curious if they ever considered making this a full-fledged Jaws parody instead of something that just features a shark. “Shark?!” doesn’t need to lean on the iconography of Jaws in order to work and it’s probably better that it remains its own thing, but I’m still intrigued what that episode might look like with Roger in the iconic role.
Another reason that the progression of “Shark?!” works so well is that a lot of it depends on Stan’s misguided attempts to help his family. He always goes incredibly overboard in these efforts and his work here goes from bad to worse at an alarming speed. The abuse that Steve takes here may seem severe, but Stan’s obtrusive actions always come from a place of intense love. It’s genuinely touching that this entire series of events is inspired by Stan’s simple desire to play around with his son in water rocket boots. That’s what makes the episode’s turn such a satisfying payoff.
Rather than Steve’s traumatic event making him even more paralyzed with fear, it wakes him up and pushes him in the opposite direction where he becomes a thrill-seeking daredevil who’s a junkie for danger. For a while Stan enjoys this more adventurous version of Steve, even if his son’s life is constantly put on the line.
Roger has to be the voice of the reason here, which is saying a lot since he’s the one that devours Steve’s arm in the first place. Steve’s behavior becomes so reckless that Stan is once more unable to do anything with his son, but now he’s even worse off than when things began. It’s difficult for Stan, but he finally sees the harm in Steve’s unhealthy conduct, even if his actions have to go too far for him to reach this realization.
The episode’s final act has Steve go all Captain Ahab as he arms himself with the truth and a harpoon with the desire to take out a shark for real so he can finally put these feelings to rest. This conclusion features a fair amount of forceful shark carnage, but it also pushes an important lesson where both Stan and Steve understand that fear can be a healthy thing in life and a strong motivator. It’s not necessary to conquer every fear, especially when you have people in your life that will help you fight them.
Outside of the crippling phobias and vicious dismemberment, the supporting story in “Shark?!” paints a flawed romance. Hayley’s friend, Danuta, encounters Klaus for the first time and she’s rather taken by him. Hayley and Francine both try to discourage Danuta on the idea, but the heart wants what it wants.
It’s entertaining enough to see how the various lonely and desperate details about Klaus’ life only further entice Danuta, but the real highlight of this dalliance is Klaus’ abject awkwardness towards everything. He talks a big game, but he’s petrified of rejection almost as much as Steve is afraid of sharks. It’s not a smooth experience for Klaus, but it makes for a fun and lighter incident that effectively helps balance the darker places that Steve goes in this episode.
Veteran writers Jordan Blum and Parker Deay deliver another episode of American Dad that’s incredibly dense with jokes. They really understand the characters and how to get the best use out of them. Most of what everyone says in this episode is solid gold, particularly what comes out of Roger and Stan, but even characters that mostly stay in the background in this one, like Francine, still get some winning banter. It’s also just a lot of fun to see an aggressive version of Steve that’s able to make both Roger and Stan nervous.
As accomplished as the episode’s dialogue is, there are also some incredible visual gags that punctuate this installment. Roger and Rogu performed a synchronized vomit maneuver that shows off the complicated nature of their digestive systems. The whole sequence where Shark Roger severs Steve’s arm and the bloodbath that follows instantly becomes an all-time great moment from the series. The blood smile that Stan paints on Steve’s face at the end is a brilliantly twisted capper for it all. This episode has Francine suffer from Steve Buscemi-centric hallucinations and Klaus innocently kills dozens of people and they’re not even the weirdest things that happen here.
“Shark?!” is a prime case where everything properly comes together and there are no weak links. It’s absolutely ridiculous that this newest season is on track to be one of the show’s strongest seasons ever. It’s an episode that takes a number of surprising turns, goes to some highly exaggerated places (I’m still laughing at the fact that Steve’s sea captain partner literally comes from True Blood), but still boils down to a human story about overcoming your fears. American Dad is often at its best when its life lessons come in a bloody and nonsensical fashion and “Shark?!” nails that.
It’s an episode that easily could have been an awkward failure, but the strength of it speaks to the fact that as long as the characters are authentic and there’s heart at the center of the story then you can turn people into sharks, sever limbs, and it still feels like an average day in Langley Falls.
And R.I.P. Dr. Penguin. You were one of the good ones.
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.