Day 4: “Rapture’s Delight,” American Dad! (2009)

On the fourth day of Christmas Philip (that’s, uh…me…) gives to us…

I sincerely dislike Seth MacFarlane…and yet I love American Dad! It’s seemingly a contradiction, I know, and as much as I’d like to do so, I’m not sure I can explain it.

It’s not that the man is entirely without talent. I liked the first few seasons of Family Guy. You know, before it devolved into humorless recreations of other people’s work, and when its jokes came from characterization rather than relentless cruelty. And he is a genuinely funny — if not especially versatile — voice actor.

My issue, perhaps, is that he seems to gravitate toward laziness. If Family Guy or The Cleveland Show can resort to a cheap gag, it will. They don’t seem to have any incentive to work harder, to find something more clever, opting instead for a shrug and a wink at the camera that says to the audience, “We know this is stupid. But we’re doing it deliberately, and that’s enough.”

American Dad! resorts to cheap shots as well. And it also spins its wheels by extending moments that, strictly speaking, should not be extended. But the difference is that I understand these people to be characters. They’re not just gag delivery systems; they’re silly, and rarely realistic, but they’re characters all the same, with sturdy traits, consistent hopes, and perceptible dreams. American Dad! gets away with the sillier stuff in a way that its sister shows do not because it’s always operating on a rigidly constructed framework, and when it wants to do a truly bizarre episode, it does so with its characters and logic intact. It doesn’t abandon them, and it wouldn’t dare; it’s much more interesting to see the madness through a familiar lens.

“Rapture’s Delight” is absolutely one of the strangest episodes of American Dad!, and I also feel it’s among the most successful.

Its plot begins with a typical run through standard territory, but quickly takes a turn for the strange. Stan is a punctual and God-fearing Christian, and he becomes flustered — and cruel — when Francine makes him late for church. That’s bad enough, but when they arrive he can’t even find a parking spot, due to all of the “lesser” Christians clogging it up around Christmas. By the time he finally does get inside, he’s found that the service has already started, and there’s nowhere for him to sit.

Seeing Stan’s distress, Francine decides she’ll give him his Christmas gift early, and seduces him in the janitor’s cupboard. When they emerge, the church is silent; The Rapture has occurred, and Stan missed the ascent into Heaven.

It’s exactly the kind of absurdity American Dad! does best. It begins in a rooted, logical place, and spirals rapidly out of control without ever sacrificing that rooted logic. Even something as outlandish as The Rapture makes perfect, rational sense in Stan’s mind. Francine may dismiss it and Roger may ridicule it, but on this cold Sunday morning, Stan looks into the sky to find his neighbors ascending without him, and they realize he was right all along.

Stan himself doesn’t need to realize this, because there was never any doubt in his mind. When he believes something, he takes it with him to the grave, no matter how many times reality should cause him to question it. In this case his bull-headedness just happened to lead him in exactly the right dogmatic direction. And — tragedy of tragedies — he missed his chance for it to do him any good.

The Christmas episodes of American Dad! are always a treat, as the writers go out of their way to embrace science fiction and horror as a means of celebrating — rather than simply mocking — the holiday season. It’s another seeming contradiction, as festivities give way to mind-bending time travel, afterlife legal troubles and, in this case, the nightmarish hellscape the Earth has become following The Rapture.

The second act break in “Rapture’s Delight” is one of the most shocking the show has ever done. Before the commercial we’re laughing at Stan still trying to get to Heaven and Roger trying to rebuild his spaceship. Then the advertisements end, and we’re seven years in the future. Global war has decimated civilization, Stan is a lone and wounder warrior of the streets, and Francine has run off with Jesus.

The animation in this sequence is brilliant, as it manages to be gruesome and genuinely scary, even while remaining true to the crisp and simple American Dad! style. But what’s really great about it is just how clever the religious jokes are.

Another seeming contradiction, perhaps, as we’d expect the jokes to be scathing. Religious humor, after all, tends to be cruel. We’re wired to laugh at religion, rather than at clever jokes about religion. What’s more, we expect any jokes about religion that aren’t outright cruel to be…well…just not that funny.

“Rapture’s Delight” hits the sweet spot perfectly, and while I’m sure there are many who found it offensive simply because Jesus was in it and there were jokes about him, anyone willing to see past the superficial fact of that statement will find some genuinely strong humor here, and it’s humor that manages — remarkably — to be respectful of its source material.

When Stan slaps Jesus, Jesus literally — and coolly — turns the other cheek. When Stan slaps that as well, Jesus grabs his face and shouts, “Ow! My other cheek!”

That’s sincerely brilliant.

And when the gang manages to track down The Antichrist, we find that he’s Jesus’s opposite in every way…most amusingly when his death machine falls apart and he feels obligated to explain that Jesus was a carpenter, therefore The Antichrist, as his opposite, isn’t really very handy at all.

It’s just good writing. I’m not one to get offended at religious humor, but I do routinely get offended at lazy humor…and religious humor often is. If this were Family Guy I’d expect Jesus to get a diarrhea attack or something…or perhaps fight a giant chicken for a tedious 6 minutes or so. But American Dad! looks for a more rewarding avenue to explore, and so we have Jesus clumsily donning sunglasses and attempting to coin action-movie worthy catch phrases, simply in order to live up to his own image.

It’s gentler, but it’s also funnier. And, what’s more, it leaves room for the episode to pull in a more emotional direction.

Because, at the end of the day, this is still a Christmas special. And so while the first major part of the episode plays with the ridiculousness of the Left Behind mythology and the second strands us seven years forward in the midst of holy war, the episode still has to end. We’ve had our fun, but next week the Smith family needs to go on an unrelated adventure, and so, somehow, this will all have to be undone.

Of course, an episode like this can always just excuse itself. The Simpsons does it annually as well, only they do it on Halloween. Nobody wonders why Groundskeeper Willie still appears on the show even though we’ve seen him get his spine severed (three times), because when an episode deviates that far from normalcy, we’re willing to view it as an isolated moment, separate from the main flow of episodes. It’s an experiment, a way for the writers and audience to blow off steam, one night a year that we don’t have to take seriously.

“Rapture’s Delight,” however, doesn’t take the easy way out. Stan sacrifices himself in the lair of The Antichrist so that Jesus and Francine may live on. His selfish obsession with being left behind is what caused Francine to leave him for The Lamb of God in the first place, but as he lay dying, Francine sees that he’s kept their wedding rings on a necklace for the entire seven years. He lost his wife and everything else he ever had, but he always wore their rings beside his heart.

He dies, and is shown to his own private Heaven…an eternity designed to his own subconscious expectations. And he walks through the door to find…

…the beginning of the episode. Francine has just finished getting ready, and he’s still late for church, but he’s just happy to be with her again. In fact, it’s literally Heaven to him.

It’s a sweet ending, and holiday appropriate, but also an extremely loaded one. This single scene both provided the episode with its decidedly tangential moral and wrapped it back into the main flow of American Dad! stories, but it also tells us that Stan is dead…that the show, though it still marches on, now takes place in the main character’s afterlife.

When we see Stan get shot through the heart by The Antichrist we know — know — he won’t die. How can he? The show’s not over.

And yet, he does die. American Dad! doesn’t brush it aside, and it wasn’t done for the purpose of a joke. This really happened. The Rapture did occur. The Earth was razed in a postmillenial firestorm. And the main character was shot to death.

That all happened. And here we are, back at home. But it’s not because the reset button has been pressed…it’s because Stan’s Heaven is just life as it’s always been. For better, or for worse. In sickness, and in health. This is what Stan wants, and after fighting the good fight for seven grueling years, this is what he’s earned: exactly what he already had.

Very few shows would have the guts to do this. Even fewer would make it canon. And only one would do it on Christmas. Thank God for American Dad!.

Tomorrow: The unlikely appeal of the aluminum pole.

19 thoughts on “Day 4: “Rapture’s Delight,” American Dad! (2009)”

  1. I’ll admit it. You’re getting me interested in a show I long, long ago wrote off as a more bearable but less original (!) clone of Family Guy.

    1. I’m tempted to write a 10 episode guide to getting into American Dad now…a lot of people write it off as an FG clone, and I don’t blame them. I did too. Boy was I gloriously, gloriously wrong.

      1. “I’m tempted to write a 10 episode guide to getting into American Dad now”.. I’d be very interested to read it!

  2. It is certainly superior to FG. Perhaps some seasons have descended to “only a bit superior” but it has also slid back up to “far superior” on many occasions. I wouldn’t have been able to say EXACTLY why until I had read this, but now, without a doubt the CHARACTERS are what does it. Peter Griffin is only ever anything for as long as the (plot? story? no…) JOKE needs him to be. Stan is Stan. Hayley is Hayley. Steve is… you get the idea. The most changeable characters are Roger (and that’s kinda his thing) and Klaus, but he’s a talking fish, and there’s always a clawing centre to him anyway, even if he does veer wildly from Best Friend to “Evil Because He’s German” from time to time.

    1. Agreed…Roger’s pliability is build right into the character, and handled exceptionally well. He can be both sweet and terrifying, often both within the same episode. It’s remarkable how well they pull that off. Klaus on the other hand…yeah, they never really got a handle on him. I think it’s telling that in many episodes he’s either not there at all, or just gets some offhand joke about how he has nothing to do with the plot.

      1. Over a year late to this reply. XD

        There’s some footage of a table read I saw where the cast of American Dad were reading out their scripts, and D Bradley Baker (the guy who does Klaus’ voice) had a TONNE of lines that are all throwaway jokes. Asides, basically, in the midst of the conversation. But the episode the read was from contains almost none of them. I’m guessing that Klaus is loved by the writers of the show, but he gets edited out heavily because their scripts are often too long.

        This is of course the opposite problem to ALF, as we’re finding out from your delicious review series.

  3. I’ve largely lost interest in Family Guy and never quite got interested in The Cleveland Show in the first place, but over its first season American Dad! turned into something very interesting.

    The American Dad After School Special and Dungeons & Wagons are fantastic.

  4. Actually, the episode did get a lot wrong about the whole Left Behind storyline. For one thing, why does Stan even believe in the Rapture? It’s not like all, or even most, Christians follow it, and the Anglicans reject it as a false teaching. Stan is an Anglican, so shouldn’t believe in the Rapture anyway.

    Also, the Rapture is not folloeed by a Seven Year War between the forces of God and Satan even for those who accept it. In fact, Jesus’ Second Comming according to Dispensationalism happens after the Seven Year Reign of the AntiChrist, not at its start. There’s supposed to be three and a half years of peace brokered by “Anti”,then the world gears up to attack Israek, which results in Jesus coming back, beating them in short order, then establishing his Kingdom in Jerusalem for 1000 years. The Apocalypse in the Episode really didn’t get the Rapture right at all.

    I also have to ask why you think we’re hardwired to mock Religion.

    1. I don’t think it got anything “wrong” so much as it “wasn’t an adaptation of the dozens of novels, films and video games that constitute the Left Behind series.” It’s a 22-minute cartoon that takes place in a different reality, and the Left Behind stuff is largely confined to about half of that runtime. Since it’s a parody and not a retelling, I’m impressed by how many of the source material’s plot-points and minor details made it into the episode.

      There’s also the (admittedly very minor!) fact that the Rapture hasn’t actually happened and certainly never will, so any fussing about timelines and sequences of events — particularly when filtered through a deliberately absurd episode of a deliberately absurd caroon — is pretty moot. IMHO anyway.

      Also, you may want to re-read that bit, as I never say — and don’t believe — that we’re hardwired to mock religion. (If that were the case, we wouldn’t have religion.) I do, however, say that jokes about religion tend to be at religion’s expense, and I enjoyed the fact that that was so rarely the case here.

      Merry Xmas!

      1. I wasn’t reffering to the “Left Behind” series, but to actual Dispensational Echseology. The Fispensational Model, which includes the Rspture and Seven Year Tribulation, actually go back to 1830 with John Neilson Darby, and it never contains a Seven Year long War between The Snti-Christ and Jesus. In fact, the only model that has Jesus returning to Earth right after The Raprure is the Post Tribulation Raprure Theory, but that would mean that those Raptured would already be returning to Earth alongside Jesus for the final battle, not for years on end.

        Regardless of if you believe in the Rapture or not, the fact is, if you place the Rapture before the aTribulation, you follow that up with the Anti-Christ assuming global political, then Religious power and actually brokering a peace deal that lasts 3 and 1/2years, not in Jesus returning to Earth to fight him for the entire period. In fact, the purpose of the Tribulation is to let Satan have total controle of the World in preparation for Finsl Judgement.

        Its not just a retelling, its one thats the product of someone who didnt understand the Rspture before he wrote it.

        Heck, if he did he’d not have had sn Anglican like Stan believe in it anyway as its not an Anglican teaching.

        1. I don’t think anyone on the writing staff would argue that they DID understand the Rapture before writing the episode. I would think, however, that a faithful and exhaustive chronicle of Dispensationalist mumbo-jumbo was low on their list of things they wanted to achieve by writing it.

          The Anglicanism is definitely a valid point, but Stan’s religion has always been handled in the same was as his politics: he believes without ever understanding what he believes, and without questioning it. Early on this character trait was the engine that drove almost every story the show told…and while that’s certainly eased up a bit in later years it’s still at the heart of the character.

          It’s easy enough to believe that Stan’s concern about the Rapture was not brought about by anything he learned in church, but by something that he encountered in some other medium and then immediately clung to as essential dogma. Stan’s reactionary, unbending and short-sighted, and I’d say that the conceit is absolutely true to that if not to his particular flavor of Christianity.

          1. I do have to wonder why Christian beliefs in general have to be viewed as silly or irrational these days. You even said that Rogers outsider views were accurate. I disagree, as Roger Smith did not voice an outsider view at all, he voiced the mstsndard lines we’ve hheard militant Atheists use since the 19th Century, and its unlikly that an Alien would have arrived at those arguments all on his own since they are emergent in Western Cultural contexts he’d not have been part of. Besides, he doesn’t mock other Religions, and Christianity is more of a target for critisism than others. Instead, while I am not offended by the Rpisode, and Roger’s critisisms proved to be wrong, I do think thst both the writers of the Show and you should learn to look past the “freethought” paradigm that views Christians as following an irrational belief system for no valid reason. While I grew up in the Churches Of Christ, and thus never even knew what the Rapture was supposed to be until I was in High School, my suspicion is that youd still see the Churches Of Chrisy as silly and ignorant.

            I dont think of peoples Religions as stupid, nor them as stupid for following them. I’ve met too many intelligent people who could Rationally defend their beliefs to acceot the narrative of Religion, and Christianity in particular, as being nonsense. I also no longer see some people as nonreligious. Really all Religion is is our beliefs about the world we live in, and even the Humanism and Secularism promoted by Atheists like Dawkins is nothing more than a godless Religion.

            That’s why I have a different take on this episode. You think its OK to call someone elses beliefs mumbo jumbo or to assert woth certainty that they arent True, and think that Religion and Reason do not go togather. I know that Religion and Reason often do go togather, and dont think that belittling things I dont agree with is OK. I also think that before you try to write about a topic, you should seek to understand it first. McFarlane and you both seem to think that the stereotypes and critisisms of Christianity, as well as some vauge personal awareness of what Christians believes, makes you qualified precicely because its silly nonsense. But what if your not quiet right about it? Wgat if it has more to 8ffer than Genocide and bad folk music?

            To me, this episode illustrates how McFarlane tends to think. He has a very shallow understanding of Christianity, in the same way that he does Conservatism. He has heard bits and pieces of things like the Rapture and gas, of course, akso learned critisisks of Christianity from “Atheists”, qnd has aconstructed image in his mind in which he places all Christians. As Christianity is approached as a self evident fairy tale, he doesnt bother really studying what people believe, and instead thinks he knows from cultural osmosis amd from the ridicule. Its kind of like how many modern Christians in America talj about Islam as if all Muslims have exactly the same beliefs, and they usually get them wrong too.

            Like I said, I was not offended by this Episode, but the attitude that you can csll someones beliefs stupid when its clear you didnt even take the Time to really understsnd them, pall based on the hype of other critics is really not helpful in society.

            1. I know this comment is a year old, but ignoring your rant on the supposed proper interpretation of these events that have never happened and never will, I find it frustrating that you credit the inaccuracy of the episodes take on religion to MacFarlane when he does not, nor has not (except for a credit in the pilot episode) ever written for this show. Right when this show was in production on its first season, Family Guy was resurrected by FOX, pretty much immediately requiring all of MacFarlanes attention, and as he has admitted himself plenty of times he left the creative direction of the show entirely up to co-creators and co-showrunners Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman and let his role on the show be limited to only voice work.

              Furthermore when you talk about “MacFarlane”, you are almost assuredly talking about the style and content associsted with the post-cancellation, aka crappy years of Family Guy (season 4 onwaed, especially important in this convo because before season 4 the show never had episodes revolving around MacFarlanes lopsided, pedestrian politics), has no bearing on American Dad, as no writers from Family Guy season 4-now (Steve Callaghan and Rich Appell did exec. produce for a season each on AD but that’s it) have ever written for American Dad. If anything place your blame on Matt and Chris McKenna (the latter you may know of Community fame, as he wrote “Remediel Chaos Theory”, “Conspiracy Theory and Interior Design” and “Paradigms Of Human Memory”, three of the shows highly acclaimed episodes), the pair who actually wrote the episode and unlike Seth actually wrote on the show since day one, or of course the many other staff writers who certainly contributed to the episode. It’s insulting to these talented writers who helped define the shows own unique brand of comedy seperate from MacFarlanes – and really have nothing in common with MacFarlane other than the fact that they worked on a show he helped create (but at this point had changed almost to the point where the original premise was moot) -and just assume MacFarlane was behind the episode because it was not 100% accurate in its religious exposition is pretty ignorant on your part. It’s an annoying thing I see people throw around far too often when trying to criticize this great show when it’s just not based in actual fact, but rather seemingly fabricated from this false notion of “because I see his name and dislike some of his other work work I’ll just blame him for what I don’t like here” without actually looking into who’s responsible for the writing of the show.

          2. I think you’re somehow — though I genuinely can’t figure out why — confusing an episode of a silly cartoon with a sermon. It’s not the writers’ responsibility to deeply immerse themselves in scripture study and PMD connect the dots before they use it as a framework for their episode…especially since they’re satirizing Left Behind in that regard and they’re at least three steps away from the source material. Neither Roger’s nor Stan’s views have to be outlined with a comprehensive hour-long diatribe; there’s a story to tell, and it’s a story about these characters…not about the spiritual beliefs or misunderstandings behind them. (The fact is also that Dispensationalism is split into so many groups and subgroups anyway that there’s literally nothing the episode COULD have done without at least someone standing up and saying, “Weeeeeell ACTUALLY Jesus is supposed to come back in April, not late March.”

            And, for the record, it is okay to believe that somebody’s faith is mumbo jumbo and that it isn’t true. I don’t think that it’s okay…it is factually, unquestionably okay. Just as it’s, y’know, okay for someone to believe that their faith is true. We each have our right to choose, the history of human civilization is the history of picking up and laying down dogmas. Some of them stick around longer than others, but not one of them has achieved universal support. Until that happens — and it won’t, nor should it — there will be folks that don’t believe in the things other people believe.

            It’s my right to say here what it is that I believe, just as it’s anybody’s right to say in their own space what it is they believe. I don’t kick down church doors to shout about how wrong I think they are. I’d technically have the right to do that…but who would that help? We all believe different things, and we all have an equal right to express them. If we go around hunting down those who express beliefs in opposition to our own so we can rant back at them and question their use to society, then I think that says more about the ranter than anybody else.

            What I do find interesting is that this is at least the third time you’ve misquoted me in order to register your disgust. I’ve never said relgion was “stupid.” I don’t agree with it, and I don’t need to agree with it. I don’t understand Dispensationalism, but it doesn’t seem like anybody really does…so why would I?

            But I’ve never referred to religion as stupid, and I’ve engaged you civilly and respectfully. The least you could do in return is respond to the things I actually say.

          3. I have nothing as erudite or eloquent to add to this conversation, but I do think the “victimization” of Christianity espoused here is somewhat baffling.

            “I do have to wonder why Christian beliefs in general have to be viewed as silly or irrational these days.”

            In my personal experience, while I do see Christian beliefs as ridiculously silly, fundamentally flawed and disproven time-and-time-again, I don’t think they’re any MORE silly or irrational as I’m sure most of these Christian believers see the Norse Gods, or the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon, or the Greek and Roman Gods. If I wrote out a brand new set of religious texts and put them on a shelf next to the Bible and the Koran (which I’m sure I’ve misspelled) and the Torah (again… spelling…) and said I wanted them to be taken as seriously as those other books, I would be laughed at and told to leave. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Pagans would find my “spiritual texts” ridiculous. But just because I find ALL of those books to be… well, fiction… including “yours” (not YOURS yours, I mean, yours “religious person whose book I’m discussing”) I’m suddenly a monster. If I believed in My Little Pony’s specific universe and social structure as “the truth” you would find my views “silly or irrational”.

            Major religions make themselves a target for such ridicule, also, by trying to control the lives of those outside of their sphere of influence. If a huge jerk of a guy started making loud noises about how you should live your life, and how society should run, based on the works of JRR Tolkien, trying to have cities, states, countries, THE WORLD changed in order to reflect the lessons espoused in The Silmarillion, he would be derided from the mountaintops and lampooned beyond belief. And you would be one of those deriding him. “How are we expected to live our lives based on a book that has Elves and Dragons in it. What an idiot! He actually believes that stuff happened!” And so would I! Because anyone who tries to make themselves out to be higher, better, more saintly than those around them is kidding themselves.

            Check out Nelson Mandela. He wasn’t holding a book and saying “Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s ass.” He was saying “Dude, treating blacks like they ain’t humans is whack, yo.” (I may have misquoted him but the idea is there) His “lessons” and his changes that he wanted to bring to the world were born out of his own experience. Now, he might have been religious. Most people born in the times he was are. But that wasn’t where he was coming from. Now, how many folks think Nelson Mandela was “silly or irrational”? Not many. Ok, some White South Africans, but still, not many. And he was always, ALWAYS focused on the people around him, not STOPPING them from living their lives, but ALLOWING people to be just that. People. Not stepping into the lives of other people and telling them they were going to burn, or be hated by some invisible figure or anything like that.

            Figures, personalities, people in general, who try to tell you how to live your life from a position of non-authority on the subject will be derided. That is just the way it goes. If I tried to tell someone how to drive, or to fix their car, I would expect to be absolutely ridiculed because I don’t drive and I’ve never owned a car. I can have my own beliefs about how those things should be done. But trying to make a mechanic change his methods will open me up for being called “silly and irrational”.

            And plus, if you’re going to try to make up some story we’re supposed to believe, you might want to make it believable in the first place.

            So yes, while personally I believe Christian Beliefs are “silly and irrational” they’re no more so than the stories of Osiris and Set brotherly feud, or Thor’s competitions of strength, or of Izanagi and Izanami creating the islands of Japan, or the Rainbow Serpent creating the rivers and mountains of Australia. Most of those have a good lesson, a good moral to teach, but to believe that a Giant Snake carved out the land as it slid across the desert is absurd. The lesson of “nature being bigger than all of us and to respect it” is NOT absurd, however. The same can’t be said for the selective political “teachings” that get handed down to us from Leviticus and Exodus, making those beliefs “silly and irrational”.

            Wow. Okay. Rant mode off.

        2. Here’s why I think the rapture is fair game for ridicule: If you read the 4 gospels, the epistles, or the book of Revelation, it’s inescapably clear that all these cats believed Jesus’ return was going to happen soon, like, within a few years soon. (I mean if you really READ it and not take the word of some professional clergyman whose job is to tell you that it doesn’t say what it clearly says.) Now 2000 years later we’re still bickering over when it’s going to happen. The formation of Israel in 1948 was supposed to be the last straw… now it’s the election of Obama or whatnot. It’s never helpful to ridicule, I concede, but the longer people persist in this thinking, the more they subject themselves to the possibility of ridicule.

  5. hi. fascinating discussion. i’m actually just here because i’m hunting down this full episode.
    anyone know where i can watch it? thanks.

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