The idea behind "American Dad" is provocative enough. "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane's new animated sitcom goofs on our national fear -- some might call it our paranoia -- of terrorist activities in the United States. The cartoon dad in question is a knuckleheaded CIA agent named Stan Smith, who thinks Osama bin Laden is lurking in every innocent suburban hedge. Even kitchen appliances are suspect, and, during breakfast with his nuclear family, Stan frantically shoots his toaster when the white bread pops up.
In the process of ridiculing Stan and his impossibly square jaw, "American Dad" lampoons George Bush, Karl Rove, post-9/11 nationalism, and, with a little less venom, the lefties who don't like them. It's built on the kind of pan-political irony that scores big time with fans of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," the spoofing, absurdist tone that in the future may be emblematic of this moment in pop culture. While Stewart is sending up the balance-conscious straight news, "American Dad" is subverting socially unaware sitcoms such as "According to Jim."
But the actuality of the show, which premieres tomorrow at about 10:30 p.m. on Channel 25-- after both the Super Bowl and "The Simpsons" -- isn't as good as its concept. And that's too bad. It's just not that much fun to watch "American Dad." MacFarlane, whose superior "Family Guy" has enjoyed enough post-cancellation love to go back into production, works too hard at irreverence to be inspired here. The racy humor in "American Dad" doesn't flow; it's too obvious and repetitive -- Stan's college nickname of "penis," for instance, or the pet goldfish named Klaus, who does nothing but lust after Stan's wife, Francine. "I love the way you rule with an iron fist," he mutters in a German accent. He's a one-joke aquatic wonder.
The Smith family -- named to be the American Everyfamily -- isn't as likable or dimensional as the Griffins of "Family Guy." They have no chemistry or originality. The romantic connection between Stan and Francine, a vaguely conceived "wifey" character who is more liberal that Stan, is hard to believe. The generational tension between Stan and his peacenik 18-year-old daughter, Hayley, is old hat --a flat, tepid updating of Archie Bunker and Gloria. And 13-year-old son Steve is a geeky high-school loser -- hey, there's a fresh idea for a teen character. The Smith family unit also includes an alien named Roger whose gimmick is he's a junk-food addict. He'll do anything for a few Little Debbies -- a joke that's almost funny the first of 10 times it's made.
It's hard to picture what MacFarlane will do with these limited characters after the first episode, except for running them through the same bits over and over again. The beauty of animation is that it can stretch as far as the imagination, and controversial jokes that usually get edited out of live-action shows can sneak in behind the kiddie-show surface. "The Simpsons" is a model of the great potential of the form. But "American Dad," which won't return to prime time until May 1, doesn't promise to provide much of anything, except a haven for a family of stick figures.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.