Who would have thought that, after watching a series about walking and talking mice and insects and a series about fish cops and robbers, the show that most closely resembling The Simpsons template was the worst one of them all. Family Dog broke me and left me a shallow form of my former self – it was only the adventurous and delightful Ducktales that helped me regain my senses. Family Dog left me ranting and screaming on Twitter, turning my mind into a mushy gooey as my synapses fired on all cylinders, trying desperately to make sense of the bland, empty scenes crossing my screen, and the writing contained with in. It seemed to decry everything that TV had tried to do. It was like… like anti-TV, a show that deconstructs the very structure of not only TV, but storytelling, direction, sound design, and animation. Oh, it’s not on purpose. This is bad fucking television right here, folks.
If I was a kinder man, I’d allow it because Family Dog is based on the animated short with the same name, a format that is usually known to break traditional conventions in storytelling. But with the sheer amount of talent involved here – Steven Spielberg, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, Paul Dini, Sherri Stoner, Martin Mull – there’s no possible way I can be kind. Family Dog is awful.
Family Dog – (1993)
Director: Klay Hall
Starring: Martin Mull, Molly Cheek, Danny Mann
Screenplay(s) by: J.D. Smith, Brad Bird
I should have known I was in serious trouble when it became clear that the dog in question had no name. Yes, the family in which this white, sharp-nosed, rat-like canine has been entrusted to failed to legally ascribe it a nomenclature, despite it having a collar and presumable getting its shots. They simply refer to him as “the dog,” which is dumb in so many ways, beyond logistics, but in a way, there’s a logic to it: the Binsfords failure of giving their pet dog a name is indicative of perhaps the worst family in the history of America.
Seriously. The Binsfords family – patriarch Skip, mother Bev, son Billy, and daughter Buffy – is horrific depiction of suburban sociopathy. There is an air of disgust and contempt among everyone in the family, a thin layer of murderous annoyance that makes watching the Binsfords an uncomfortable, slightly offensive affair. A lazy, good-for-nothing father mumbles bitterly about having to -actually- do stuff while the mother nags extensively to herself, a caricature of the caricatures of women that already dot the Lifetime Channel. Billy is clearly meant to mimic Bart Simpson but is nothing more than the kids from Problem Child and The Good Son combined into one holy hell of a demonic delinquent. And Buffy is something out of a science lab, a special school child that would be rejected from even the most special needs accommodations.
And suffering the brunt of this dysfunction is out titular dog, a nameless swath of white that is as useful or as as interesting as an animated depiction of an actual dog would be. I love dogs, but watching a show that depicts the world “through the dog’s eyes” is not as nearly interesting as it sounds. For one thing, dogs primarily are interested in eating, sleeping, surviving and breeding, which lends no narrative conflict other than expanding the contrived situations that would arise from the need to eat, sleep, survive, and breed. And so we follow this dog through his attempts to eat, sleep, survive, and breed while at the INSUFFERABLE mercy of what could be charitably called his owners.
I should mention that the CBS 10-episode run was based off three Family Dog shorts that were part of an Amazing Stories anthology series that aired on NBC between 1985 and 1987 – seven years prior. They were quite a hit, the most popular part of the anthology. I watched these shorts, and they weren’t too bad, perfect little shorts that made their point. There was nothing about them that demanded a TV series, though. The Binsfords were fairly cold here, bickering nonsensically and forcing their sadism and blame on the dog, but as a short, that WAS the gag, so you could easily look past it. It also helps that the shorts, with their limited running time, could get away with simple plots and not worry too much about rambling.
But a series, especially one with a family at the center, needs to make its characters sympathetic, and their motivations need to be clear. They don’t need to necessarily be likeable – the parents in Rugrats are one handgun away from a family massacre – but there’s always that sense that the family loves each other, especially the babies. Family Dog lacks any of this. It’s a cruel, sadistic take on suburban life, coupled by a minimal sense of community and location, and stories that are less stories, and more or less premises. The pilot, “Show Dog,” is representative of this. The father forces the dog – a dog that no one seems to like or care for – into a dog show? The dog doesn’t display any talent, but they just force him to attend this thing because – what, the father once was in a dog show before? Is this what human beings do?
It gets worse from there. “Doggone Girl is Mine” is a long and tenuous tale of watching the dog chase after another canine for love and “Call of the Mild” has the dog running with a pack of strays in an attempt to connect with his wild side. Both long-term premises require deft animation and action to keep the audience’s attention – something akin to Wile E. Coyote or Scrat-like. But there’s no exaggeration or development for comic affect. It’s moment after moment of stuff happening without displaying it in any interesting or comic fashion. What the shorts had were nifty visuals and interesting ways of depiction the scene. What the series had was a long, arduous showcase of tedium.
When the show tries to something like “character development,” it fails miserably, partly because there’s no sense of “character,” and partly because there are no strong plots to sustain itself throughout an episode that would trigger any development. So we’re forced to deal with awkward asides, dream sequences, and tedious, extended scenes that lead nowhere, all marred in the vileness of the family. “Eye on the Sparrow” is particularly egregious, in which Billy spends a full ten minutes torturing the dog, while the family nary bats an eye, only to turn his viciousness towards a sparrow. He hurts it and suddenly starts to feel bad, which is supposed to instill in the kid the idea of consequence, but comes off as a convenient character change for the (admittedly stupid) story. The ending is particularly stupid, in which the injured sparrow flies towards the window, so Billy BREAKS IT WITH A ROCK so it can be freed, and it’s so poorly done that it’s practically rage-inducing.
The show reveals in the treatment of its moronic, spiteful characters, like in “Dog Days of Summer,” where the family, for some reason, is harassed by a bunch of punk kids at the beach, because KIDS AMIRITE? The episode feels so bitter, but made stupider by the addition of a dream sequence/flashback to the purchase of the dog, mainly to fill time. The epitome of that bitterness comes to fruition in “Enemy Dog,” where the family unites, finally… in their utter hatred of their neighbors. This perfect family buys their own giant vicious canine and invites the Binsfords over for dinner so the dogs can play – AND THEY GO. After some of the worst, partially sexist dream sequences in all of TV.
Watch this episode if you can. Just watch it. It’s so mean, bitter, antagonistic, and boring. It’s cringe-worthy and embarrassing, and some sense are straight-the-fuck-up inexplicable (like the scene where Billy tries to goad the dog but the dog is completely indifferent – what’s the goddamn point?) Watching this is definitely a lesson in what-not-to-do in any film or TV endeavor.
Family Dog broke me and left me bitter and angry, just like the family in the center of all this. This show ran 10 episodes way too long. It’s represents the bottom of the barrel in a time-period where adult cartoons where trying to find its way, and wouldn’t be until 1994 when The Critic renewed audiences faith in the field that The Simpsons dominated (sure, The Critic only lasted two seasons, but everyone at this point knows that was a mistake.) Still, it’s a tenuous point in the history of adult cartoons: the triple failures of Fish Police, Capitol Critters, and Family Dog served as the dead corpses of which Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, and the entire Adult Swim lineup could flourish.