American Dad! is the other Seth MacFarlane animated series. No, not the one with the fat dumb dad and the talking dog. And no, not the one with the black family that got picked up for a second season before one episode aired. It's the one about the CIA employee, Stan Smith, dealing with the problems caused by his hippie daughter Haley, his nerdy son Steve, his ditsy reformed prisoner wife Francine, the alien leading hundreds of other lives Roger, and the goldfish with the mind of a German Olympic skiier Klaus. Yes, that does sound like the husband/daughter/son/twisted eccentric/talking animal formula from Family Guy. It's used completely different here. Maybe an example would help things out. The season premiere that aired last night was a parody of Little Shop of Horrors with guest star Cee-Lo Green. He played the voice of a living hot tub that wanted Stan and Francine to do nothing but party with him. He sang seductive songs, tore the family apart, and drowned them to their dooms. It was sharp, funny, exceptionally dry, and filled with double entendres and puns. American Dad! is about the intersection between concept, wordplay, and absurdity. It takes contemporary issues and spins them into bizarre and unrecognizable forms. Where else with the gay marriage debate result in the abduction of three children on a nationwide chase to a state that will gladly put them up for adoption because they don't recognize any homosexual rights? Nowhere else.
The problem American Dad! faced was a decidedly weak first season. Series creator Seth MacFarlane was so obsessed with creating his political animated sitcom that he pushed character development and joy to the side. Sure, there were funny moments, but the series didn't hit any of the tones that define it now until many viewers had turned out. The show--like King of the Hill and Futurama before it--has bounced between being heavily advertised by Fox and being on the brink of cancellation.
As far as I'm concerned, American Dad! is the finest linear animated sitcom on television right now. Sure, there are silly little asides that don't actually bear on the plot of the show. The series does phenomenal Christmas specials every year that usually see one or more family members killed or destroying all of society; it's not canon and they even comment on that in the episode. But overall, ideas, characters, and story concepts actually build over time.
The best example is Roger. There are three fantastic episodes that deal with the evolution of his alternate personas issue. The first is an early episode. Roger is depressed that he's not allowed to leave the house, so Haley agrees to find a way to get him some social interaction. They wind up at a science fiction convention that sees Roger recognized by a man he may have abducted some years back. This is why Roger has to assume aliases; he's messed up in front of too many people.
The second episode is about the ramifications of Roger's crazy lifestyle. The Smith family discovers that Roger isn't just assuming other personalities; he's ingratiated himself into dozens of other families. He has a pillowcase filled with cellphones that he uses to mock the Smiths when they get upset. The episode ends shortly after Roger gets high on visiting Disney World with a never-ending series of families.
The third episode is one of the sharpest hued and clearest representations of American Dad!'s strengths. Roger discovers that his credit card has been maxed out. Someone forced his way onto the account and Roger decides to take revenge. He systematically destroys that man's life only to discover that he is the other man. His need for social interaction and alternative lives has forced him to have a psychological break from himself. It's one of the strangest and funniest things I've ever seen on TV.
American Dad! is not such a deep show that you can't just hop in at anytime. The continuity involves building an elaborate community of believable characters that frequently pop in to stir up action at the Smith house. From anchor-partners Greg and Terry who used Francine as a surrogate for their baby to CIA operative Reggie--a koala bear with the mind of a homeless man--to Commander Bullock--Patrick Stewart's masterful performance as the leader of Washington D.C.'s CIA office, which is more like an elementary school (complete with show and tell and demerit points) than a government office--the show has no problem building an expansive universe. The characters change over time, but you don't necessarily need to know where they've come from to appreciate what they are doing in the present. Older plots are occasionally referenced, but are not essential to understanding the new story.
I suggest giving American Dad! a shot as soon as the newest episode is available to stream on Hulu or holding out until the new episode airs on Sunday. Thoughts on the show?