It’s important to remember that The Simpsons’s popularity benefited from not only being genuinely funny, but also being on a burgeoning new network with some extremely interesting scheduling. The show had its origins on The Tracy Ullman Show and a wonky two seasons on FOX before it really hit its stride and purpose, becoming the hit that really kept the network churning. It was the perfect show that was literally at the right place at the right time. It pretty much grasped that perfect blend of adult humor, genuine pathos, and cartoony freedom. It understood itself. It understood its premise and characters and comedy, and especially, its heart. The Simpsons knew what it was aiming for, and for quite a while, consistently hit its mark.
It took a while, however, for creatives and executives to understand this. In the 90s, animation for adults was usually within the realm of underground artists and film-festival animators. (Most of the animators that went on to do TV shows were from that world – John K., Joe Murray, Matt Groening, Klasky-Csuepo, Mike Judge, and so on.) While Nickelodeon and MTV emphasized the weird in order to stand out in a unique way, CBS and ABC only saw animation as a “new” hit-making format (similar to all those questionable CGI movies that were released in the wake of Toy Story). Both networks rushed to produce their own adult animated shows, the former producing two of them.
In retrospect, the botched triad of Family Dog, Fish Police, and Capitol Critters is obvious and sad. The interesting thing is how and why each show failed, a lesson that paved the way (for better or worse) for the heavy-on-the-jokes type of animated comedies of Futurama, Family Guy, American Dad, and The Critic. Explicit humor was a must, de-emphasizing cartoon physics and focusing on verbal and visual quiet comic sensibilities. The jokes had to hit viewers in the gut, and Family Dog, Fish Police, and Capitol Critters certainly did not. It also doesn’t help that these three shows were generally boring, uninteresting, or blindly misguided – all in different ways. It’s fascinating to watch them again, and pin-point what doesn’t work, the few things that do work, and the aesthetics used to within that framework.
Fish Police – (1992)
Director: Rick Schneider
Starring: John Ritter, Megan Mullally, Ed Asner
Screenplay(s) by: Steve Moncuse, Jeanne Romano
Fish Police was based on a critically luke-warm comic series by Steve Moncuse that ran on-and-off from 1985 to 1991. It was an underwater noir of sorts, a semi-serious yet goofy comic starring talking fish, an idea you can get away with easily in the realm of comics and children cartoons. But taking that concept to prime-time network TV is clearly a product of desperation and insanity. It managed to do only six episodes before being unceremoniously canned.
Fish Police hosts, for some reason, a RIDICULOUSLY talented cast. John Ritter! Ed Asner! Megan Mullally! Tim Curry! Frank Welker! Buddy fucking Hackett! It’s clear all of CBS’s money went to casting, because it sure as hell didn’t go into animation or writing. Listening to such a cast half-ass their way through line-readings is heart-wrenching, knowing full well that everyone – especially Tim Curry – can do better. Hanna-Barbara’s animation is shaky and extremely unrefined; we’re talking Snorks level of wonky here. And the writing… well, it’s more like the show was ad-libbed around shitty, shitty plots.
John Ritter voices Gil, the lead detective that dresses like Dick Tracy but hardly has the balls to fit the man’s shoes. Gil is a nothing short of a whiny bitch, a flimsy excuse for what would pass as a policeman down in the brilliantly-named Fish City. Ritter is clearly in it for a paycheck. He has no enthusiasm or passion for his line-reads, and since he’s the lead, the entire show falls apart around him.
Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly called Fish Police an excuse to make fish humor. I WISH that’s what it was. In reality, Fish Police is about how everyone in the city has fucked or will have fucked the character of Angel (JoBeth Williams). This is it. Most plots and every joke is based on Angel being a slut. She loves to fuck, and boy, she will lavishly put her whore-dom on display. Everyone mentions how easy she is; yet, of course, Gil would never fuck her. They’re just friends. Wait a second – one episode implies they did fuck. No, says another episode, they did not. Who cares? Fish Police’s utter obsession on the fuckability of Angel is crass humor at its crassest. The first Angel-is-a-whore joke isn’t even kind of funny; the unrelenting running gag of it all is pure torture.
Fish humor and aquatic puns would at least be a welcome wink-and-a-nod to the show’s ridiculousness. Instead, it takes everything as serious as a show about aquatic animals as policemen and mobsters can possibly be, making it practically uncanny. Did people really watch The Simpsons and not understand its satirical, comic edge? Apparently. Fish Police rambles and shuffles its way through stories like a man on death row. It plays out like a show that was DOA since the beginning. When an episode portrays a local beauty pageant as the BIGGEST THING TO HIT A CITY, then there’s something seriously wrong here.
The worse thing is that Fish Police is just boring, and it’s boring in that lazy way Hanna-Barbara cartoons started to be before their Turner/Cartoon Network run of cartoons revived its energy. It’s kids humor masqueraded as adult humor. In Captain Caveman, a stupid pun is followed up with a facepalm, or an eye-roll, or a group of characters saying, in unison, the punchline. In Fish Police, a stupid sex or divorce joke is followed up with a facepalm, or an eye-roll, or a group of people saying, in unison, the punchline. Fish Police does little, content wise, to separate itself from its Saturday morning origins. I guarantee many of you probably would have swore watching this Saturday morning cartoon instead of airing in prime-time. Fish Police even has the audacity to include a cute creature as a sidekick; in this show’s case, it’s Gil’s badge – which is also a starfish.
Fish Police limps through its short 6-episode run with predictable, hackneyed writing, bad animation, grating voice-over work, and insulting humor. In other words, it ran 6-episodes too many, a sad, sad blot in the realm of animated TV. It was as bad as I’d imagine the world of Fish City to smell, just a boring, tedious maritime take on the hoariest of Law & Order plots. Thank god they put this out of its misery before they went and tackled something like fish rape.
Next week, I’ll be tackling Capitol Critters, so stay tuned.