American Dad! is the criminally underrated sister show to Family Guy. Though both shows have moments of Seth MacFarlane's signature humor, American Dad! does a lot of things better than Family Guy. For one, American Dad! relies more on story-centric and contextual humor rather than the nonsensical cutaways of Family Guy.
There are plenty of great episodes about the Smith family: conservative CIA agent father Stan, his wife Francine, liberal daughter Hayley, nerdy son Steve, hidden alien (who is obsessed with playing characters) Roger, and talking fish Klaus. These are just ten of the best episodes of American Dad!.
10 "Buck, Wild"
Some of the best episodes of American Dad! are the ones that put an emphasis on how different Steve is from Stan. "Buck Wild" is a great example of their dynamic, showing that even though their attitudes and personalities couldn't be further from each other, Steve still wants nothing more than for Stan to be proud of him.
"Buck, Wild" finds Steve accompanying Stan on the CIA hunting trip, only to find that he and his pals have set up a high tech campsite that's about as far from "roughing it" as you can get. Steve's refusal to kill a deer ends up putting it down anyway (along with a host of other woodland creatures). Steve returns to the forest and raises the deer's children as its own, making for some wonderful gags on parenthood. Roger gets a funny little B story with Klaus as well. After missing his odometer turning over to all zeros, he drives another 100,000 miles... Only to miss it again.
9 "Ad-ventures in Hayleysitting"
What might be better than examining Steve's need for approval from Stan is seeing how much he needs to show up Hayley at any opportunity. After Hayley volunteers to babysit (to plenty of insults from Stan and Francine), she chides Steve and his friends for always playing it safe. Steve takes this as a challenge, and the kids end up embarking on a wild night.
This episode is particularly great not just because of its tight plotting and pacing, but also for a memorable guest appearance from Charlie Day, who plays a meth dealer who is also obsessed with keeping his receipts in order (could there ever be a better part for Day?). The episode ends with a hilarious twist that comes from a seemingly unconnected storyline, making "Ad-ventures in Hayleysitting" one of the most well-constructed of the bunch.
8 "Virtual In-stanity"
Even though Steve is constantly looking for approval from Stan, he's not the only one looking to connect. SZtan is constantly trying to figure out his son and guide him in what he thinks is the right direction. Stan's mission to do this goes to hilarious and disturbing lengths in the episode "Virtual In-stanity."
Stan realizes that Steve doesn't want to spend time with him, per se, but a secret CIA project allows Stan to utilize an avatar of a teenage girl (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) in order to get closer to his son. Of course, problems arise as Steve's teenage hormones kick in, and Stan must make a somewhat gross choice about how to proceed. The episode is hilarious and also features another Buffy alum, Alyson Hannigan.
7 "The Scarlett Getter"
Any episode of American Dad! that gives Roger more to do is welcome, and "The Scarlet Getter" is one that provides plenty of opportunities for Roger to be his best (worst) self. The episode finds Stan's CIA boot camp crush returning to Langley, which sends Stan into an awkward, trying-too-hard spiral of trying to win her over.
Francine figures this out and recruits Roger to sweep the agent off her feet as one of his signature characters, Dan Handsome. However, the real trouble starts when Stan and Francine discover that stan's crush is actually an alien hunter, and she has easily figured out Roger's identity, resulting in one of the more frightening scenes of the show: Roger, stripped of his skin and organs while tied to a bed (though it doesn't seem to bother him all that much).
6 "Finger Lenting Good"
Another great thing that the best episodes of American Dad! do is pitting the Smith family against one another. "Finger Lenting Good" does this very well, but it also does so within the confines of the Smith home, making for an episode that is small in scope but still packed with a lot of great jokes and story beats.
After everyone in the family realizes that they have broken their New Year's resolutions, they agree to give up the same things for lent after Francine convinces them during a massive Mardi Gras party thrown by Roger. What they don't realize until they wake up, however, is that Stan's boss Avery has agreed to cut off a finger from whoever breaks their promise first. The episode then devolves into the Smith family all trying to trick each other into breaking first, so the rest of them can be safe.
5 "Independent Movie"
Another thing that American Dad! does better than almost any other animated show out there is satirizing specific genres without falling into straight pastiche, something that Family Guy does all too often. This sort of storytelling tactic is done to great effect in the episode "Independent Film," which not only takes on the grainy film look of an independent movie but also hits similar types of story beats.
The episode is brilliantly structured, finding Steve and his friends going on a road trip to Snot's father's funeral, as well as a lego-building contest where they intend to enter figures of Ron Howard at three different ages. One of the best, most emotional scenes of the entire series takes place in this episode. Snot, trying to get the same snack he and his dad would eat together from a vending machine, breaks down when it becomes stuck, yelling "where were you?" The episode also features Zooey Deschanel in a guest role as Steve's manic pixie dream girl.
4 "Lost in Space"
One of the most entertaining side plots throughout American Dad! is Hayley's relationship with her stoner boyfriend, Jeff. In an earlier episode, Jeff is pushed into an alien tractor beam by Roger and flown away to a different galaxy. That story finally pays off in "Lost in Space," when we are rejoined with Jeff as he is taken to Roger's home planet.
This episode is fantastic, despite the fact that it does not feature any other members of the Smith family. The writers create an entirely new world on this alien planet, and even throw in a great musical number for good measure. Jeff eventually teams up with Sinbad (yes, that Sinbad, who is hilarious in the episode) to free themselves of the alien planet and return to Earth.
It's going to become obvious from the top entries on this list that American Dad! is really at its best when it is defying its own structure and creating episodes that focus on a singular story in a new way. Sure, the episodes where the Smiths deal with their everyday problems are good, but episodes like "Familyland" are great.
When the Smith family goes to the titular amusement park for the day, they all decide to split up, leaving Francine to lament the days when they would all be happy together. The founder of the park, Roy Family, comes back to life, only to be disgusted by what he sees in his park. He seals the exits and traps everyone inside, leaving each family member to become the ruler of their own section. Eventually, Roy pits everyone against each other in a battle royale, with only Francine left to try and save them.
2 "Blood Crieth Unto Heaven"
Another fantastic American Dad! episode that steps far outside of the animated show's usual boundaries is "Blood Crieth Unto Heaven," an episode structured like a stage play (with interstitial commentary from series regular and all-around awesome person, Patrick Stewart).
The highly stylized and overly dramatic story of the play revolves around Stan's birthday, a surprise party, Stan's father returning to see him, Avery and Hayley's former relationship, and Roger (playing the maid, Edna) wanting to be with Avery instead. The entire play ends in tragedy and mocks the heavy-handedness of other stage dramas, but it does so in a way that also tells a compelling story.
1 "Rapture's Delight"
All of American Dad!'s Christmas episodes have something about them that makes them great, but "Rapture's Delight" is by far the most ambitious out of all of them, taking what could have been just another average Christmas story and turning it into a post-apocalyptic thriller.
After the rapture occurs, Stan ditches Francine to get raptured himself when he is tricked by a fake Jesus. Francine meets the real Jesus and they begin a relationship. The episode flashes forward years later when the war between Heaven and Hell is raging on Earth. Stan has become a lone warrior. He is recruited by Jesus to find Francine after she is taken by the antichrist, in exchange for being raptured into heaven.
This episode is fantastic. It's packed with action, great characters, and a driving storyline that manages to do more in just two acts than most shows do in six.