A few weeks ago, American Dad had an episode where the A-plot resembled a stage play, confining the Smiths to their home as they struggled to keep Lenten promises. A week later Family Guy devoted an episode to Brian’s fledgling playwriting career, which turned out to be the best episode that show has done in years. Now American Dad has a real stage play episode to round it out at three, another gem to go with season standout “Ad-ventures in Hayleysitting.” Where that episode was chock full of laughs at a breakneck pace, “Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” uses a great framing device and strict adherence to stage style in order to create a wry homage to August: Osage County, an audacious and thoroughly successful experiment that never takes a major misstep.
The episode fully commits to the stage format, from the curtains at the beginning and end of each act, to the sound design that incorporates the reverb and room tone of an actual theatre space, to members of the audience gasping or crying out, “Oh no!” when plot twists come to light. Patrick Stewart provides the bumpers as though this is any old presentation of a theatre production-I can remember watching a DVD of The Man Who Came To Dinner with Nathan Lane where Liam Neeson provided the interstitial commentary-and just as his voice work as Avery is faultless, so is his Patrick Stewart persona, akin to his memorable guest role in Extras, though more restrained here.
The story on the surface is simple: Francine throws Stan a surprise birthday party, with Roger acting as Edna the Maid. Stan hates birthday parties, going back to the party where he vividly remembers his father leaving home for good. The story splits here into parallel narratives that don’t intertwine. Avery sees Hayley and references their past relationship, but after being rejected, he goes for Roger dressed as Edna instead. In keeping with this genre of theatre, there are plenty of twists along the way, from catching parents having sex to secret babies, to clown outfits, mistaken identity, and Stan’s ultimate realization that he is the cause of his fractured family. And just like the other epic stage tragedies, this one builds up so much pompous, self-aggrandizing seriousness that when the hammer finally drops, it’s a brutal finale that both adheres to genre tropes while gently mocking them.
Though the primary inspiration for this tongue-in-cheek sendup of family dramas is August: Osage County-well timed considering the film version comes out this year-I also thought of Clifford Odetts’ tragedy Paradise Lost, which depicts the financial spiral of a family during the depression, twisting the lives of an extended family together. This is an infamous genre in which to examine large, interconnected dysfunctional families, and the countless ways the episode pushes the buttons of theatre clich?s in such a loving way is brilliant.