If the mature-but-goofy comic book adaptation was the first attempt to make a different type adult cartoon, then the Don Bluth-esque animated series would be the second. It makes sense – An American Tail and The Secret of NIMH both won critical and commercial accolades for maintaining a more serious and darker take on the world of animated talking mice. Characters were killed. Blood in light amounts was shown. The subject matter was mature, allegorical, and satirical of adult matters – the former being a take on the Russian Jewish immigration experience to America; the latter being a harsh, mystical, personal approach on environmental destruction. So it’s no surprise that networks would consider a TV show designed around the sensibilities of those films, and Capitol Critters was it.
Capitol Critters – (1992)
Director: Robert Alvarez
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Charlie Adler, Patti Deutsch
Screenplay(s) by: Steven Bochco, Nat Mauldin, Michael Wagner
Capitol Critters aired on ABC in the late spring of 1992. It’s an odd show about talking mice, rats, roaches, and other small critters living in the underbelly of the White House. They have to hunt and scourge for food while dealing with the tense relationship between mice and roaches. They have to avoid the humans around them as well as the President’s vicious pet cats. Plus they have to deal with each other. You know – all that relationship stuff.
To paraphrase the overused line from The Dark Knight, Capitol Critters was, in some ways, the kind of show we needed, but not necessarily the show we deserved. It’s essentially the show that Don Bluth WISHED he made, before he fell apart with questionable films like Rock-a-Doodle and A Troll in Central Park. Capitol Critters sure as hell had no chance on prime-time network TV, but it’s not as if the logic behind its conception didn’t have merit; that being said, I doubt it could have succeeded any place else. It’s a TV show based on a film aesthetic that simply doesn’t exist any more. Perhaps it’s more representative of the changing entertainment audience than of the show itself, but at the time, the idea was sound.
Don’t get me wrong; Capitol Critters isn’t a good show. It’s not quite a bad show, either; the issues stem from being mostly misguided, tonally inconsistent, and culturally tone-deaf. All of that wouldn’t be a problem if the show was funny and self-aware; unfortunately, it doesn’t realize it’s a ridiculous show about “talking mice and bugs” until episode nine. Up until then, it’s all “humans are scum” and “guns are bad, mmmkay” and “say no to drugs” with the seriousness of a poorly done after school special.
The pilot begins in Secret of NIMH fashion, when Max (voiced by a pre-internet-glorified Neil Patrick Harris) returns home from food gathering to find his entire family being gassed to death by exterminators, an opening gambit that would make anyone uncomfortable, kids or adults. Oddly, his mother tells Max to run to his cousin Berkeley in Washington D.C. before she croaks. He does, where he reunites with her and starts to hang out with a rat named Jammett, who has a New York accent for some reason, and the two of them, along with various other characters, get into random mischief, but it’s okay, because its MATURE mischief.
Here were encounter two central problems to the show. First – why make Washington D.C. the setting? The writers make Washington to be some golden hotbed of debate and action, of serious issues that waft over everything that happens below. But The West Wing this ain’t. The writers treat politics with the care of an internet message board, tossing about flame-bait and strawman arguments, as well as Washington D.C. stereotypes as far as the eye can see. How many of the writers actually BEEN inside the White House? Where cats roam free and guns are left just lying around? Beyond that, it just makes the mice/roaches stories ham-fisted, hacky, and lazy, as they try to parallel them to the politics. The second episode, “Of Thee I Sting,” steals liberally the same plot from The Simpson’s classic “Lisa Goes to Washington” – in which Max overhears corrupt officials and loses faith in humanity (I guess – but why would he care? He’s a MOUSE.) – but has none of the humor. We’re supposed to take this seriously?
The second issue, and much more problematic in my eyes, is the idea that Max, who is from the idealized countryside of Nebraska, is inherently more innocent and wholesome than stupid city-rats like Jammet, what with their inherent racisms and sexisms and whatnot. Nebraska! There’s probably more racism, gun-lovers, and meth in Nebraska than Washington, but of course Capitol Critters suggests that our Midwest counterparts are inherently sweeter than us city-folk. (An issue I wrote about before.) “The Rat to Bear Arms,” the third episode, is cringeworthy, a lazy anti-gun tirade made even more ridiculous when one sees the hilarious, convoluted contraption created to actually fire the gun – and Max of course talks Jammet out of shooting the vicious cat. “Opie’s Choice” has Jammet dealing caffeine pills to a squirrel junkie – and Max of course is the voice of reason (who is forced to take a pill and almost dies). ” In “Hat and Mouse,” tensions rise between the roaches and the mice, paralleling racial conflict – but Max OF COURSE is the only one who is blind to race – or species – and treats everyone equal. It’s insulting and cliche and lazy, whether animated or live-action.
Usually, live-action TV gets into its groove by the fifth or sixth episode. Characters have been established, the formula has been tweaked, writers are more comfortable with the material (and each other), and the workflow is more efficient, creating a stronger show overall. Animation takes a longer time – somewhere between 9 and 12 episodes, mainly due to the stairs-like production schedule of animation. By the time that creatives discuss ideas for, let’s say, episode 10 or so, they would have watched a nearly completed episode of 1 or 2. They could then decide on changes – the unfortunate side being so many episodes already in production and practically impossible to fix.
So, by episode 11, “The Bug House,” the creatives begin to finally add a goofy, sillier aesthetic and sensibility to the show, practically dropping overt political nonsense and making their points in a slightly more clever, comical fashion. A fight breaks out in a not-so-friendly game of baseball, and the bugs arrest and try Jammet as inciting it. Instead of a tacky, poor-taste take on racial biases within the legal system, “The Bug House” maintains a tongue-in-cheek take on legal proceedings, parodying L.A. Law and using the large bug count to its comic advantages, giving Jammet dozens of roach lawyers and a double amount of them fill the jury box. Focusing on Jammet as he grows more and more guilty, “The Bug House” uses its character to comment on a questionable legal system (and the various people involved with making a legal system questionable in the first place – victims and participants alike), without being in your face.
“The Lady Doth Protect to Munch” and “If Lovin’ You is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Rat,” the final two episodes, ease up on the overt politics as well and focus on character motivations to spur the story along, improving the show considerably, but by then, it was too little, too late. (To be honest, adults weren’t going to watch talking mice and roaches do anything, even if one of them started to sell meth after a inexplicable cancer diagnosis.)
Capitol Critters boasts rich, charming animation. Not at the level of an animated film, but certainly strong enough to be rather impressive. The cast, which includes Charlie Adler and Bobcat Goldthwait, is fun and and talented, manage to keep the right amount of energy going. Everything around the show is impressive; too bad the content just isn’t up to snuff. Maybe if it had another year the network could have tooled it into an interesting and funny show – if that year was 2008 and the network was Cartoon Network.
Next week is the final installment of the series – Family Dog – and boy, that one is a DOOZY.