Early 2000 was a weird moment for television. It was before the critical consensus of our current “Golden Age of TV,” and no one knew what do with comedy (“cellphones ruined comedy” was the running commentary at the time). Seinfeld and Friends ended, and mainstream audiences seemed to want that again; at the same time, the quirky, alt, weird comedies were slowly coming out and making headway with niche audiences but could not make any real splash. This era had Family Guy, Futurama, Dilbert, Home Movies, The Oblongs, Arrested Development, Mission Hill, Clerks: The Animated Series, Clone High, and the Adult Swim lineup, and all but Adult Swim were cancelled. We seemed to want the next Simpsons (the winner of that line of succession was King of the Hill) or the next South Park (the winner of THAT succession was to be Family Guy upon its return). Or maybe we wanted a new Friends (which is currently Big Bang Theory), or the next Seinfeld (Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then Two and a Half Men, unlocked that achievement). The truth was that comedy audiences were splintering, other networks were stepping up their original programs, and it was a creative free-for-all.
Our expectations at the time was bizarre. Comedy wise, we wanted the same thing, but different. We seemed to be unable to judge things on its own merits. Everything was compared to the big four: South Park, The Simpsons, Friends, or Seinfeld. We just would not allow a show to stand on its own. The Oblongs were consistently compared to South Park and The Simpsons, but by now everyone knows how it’s really should’ve been acknowledged in its own right. And we’re all aware how cruelly The Critic was snatched from us – an occurrence we’re paying for today. And nothing represented this more than the fall of NBC’s Father of the Pride, a show doomed by everything by the critical and public thrashing of the aspects around it, and very little had to do with the content of the show itself. Almost ten years removed from that era, can the show stand on its own? A good question, but it’s important to take stock of those occurrences first. History, doomed, repeat it, etc.
Father of the Pride was destroyed by an onslaught of forces so random and problematic that it seemed God himself had issues with the show about a family of talking lions interspersed with the insanity of two eccentric showmen. At the time, it was the most expensive TV show to ever been produced. The marketing and early reputations emphasized its broad, mature jokes – sex and cursing, basically – something that just didn’t happen in a talking animal show. Critics were quick to point out the Dreamworks connection, bemoaning the inevitable movie tie-ins that were sure to come – hell, a lot of that was derived from the “Donkey from Shrek” guest appearance in episode “Donkey.” And, to make matters worse, the actual Roy from Siegfried and Roy was attacked by his own lions. The show made it to air, but after a critical thrashing and hemorrhaging viewers, the show was immediately cancelled.
I remember specifically not liking it at the time, so upon my rewatch of the series, I expected to be doubly embarrassed. To my surprise, I found myself quite liking it. It occurred to me, as the show passed through my retinas, that comedy, and our expectations of comedy, have changed, and all those original critical complaints that were levied at the show at the time became the norm. The emphasis of sex, gay, and crude jokes; the mindless pot-shots at celebrities; the nonsensical storylines and bizarre plot points – the things that we seemed to hate back then are so engrained in the current comedy climate and are part of the DNA of current critical favorites like The Venture Brothers and Community. And the Dreamworks connection (among other product placement)? Please. Product placement is so common now its to be expected, and crossovers/connections are in effect Adult Swim’s stock-in-trade, and soon to be Disney’s and FOX’s as well.
Father of the Pride isn’t a great show, but it decently funny and rather inspired at times. In some ways, the show is about three people – Larry, the father/husband, Kate, the mother/wife, and Sarmoti, her father – and their increasingly strained relationship to one another. Sierra and Hunter, the children, are really nonentities, points of interests only to serve as reflections of the turmoil between the adults. Among the crude gags – and really, they aren’t crude at all, just occasionally poorly timed – are rather deep and poignant conversations about marriage, love, family, legacy, passion, generational divides, and balancing it all.
The show doesn’t start off on the right foot. Being so egregiously caught up in its own “I can’t believe they’re getting away with this” hype, Father of the Pride’s first episode, “What’s Black and White and Depressed All Over” doubles down on the sex gags, beginning with Kate in heat and a horny Larry wanted to bone her, only to be interrupted by a distressed panda named Foo-Lin who’s alone and depressed with having no mate. So they play matchmaker to a new panda named Nelson, only for him to fall in love with Kate. It’s not exactly a well-plotted episode, and seems more concerned with getting away with talks of intercourse, virginity, and curse words, and it ends with a somewhat grim speech where Sarmoti tells the pandas that, essentially, they’re losers and alone, and they’re the best they’re gonna get. It works, but barely, and seems like a rushed ending to something that wasn’t quite right in the first place.
In relation to the entire show, however, it’s actually a sad speech that acts as a foil to Kate and Larry’s marriage. Early on, in the throes of his romantic/misguided crush, Nelson mentions how Larry doesn’t treat Kate with romantic affection and spontaneity. Kate admits that Nelson has a point, and to my surprise, this theme of a marriage that lost its luster is a constant and decently-handled concept that pervades the show. It’s not great, per se, but it’s there, and relatively consistent. It ends with a Larry trying his hand at singing a Billy Joel song to Kate, who promptly tells him to stop so they can fuck (there’s also a running gag of Larry’s obsession with Billy Joel songs and people telling him to stop singing). Kate is as shallow and flawed as Larry.
This becomes a lot more clearer in “Catnip and Trust,” where both Kate and Larry showcase their distrust and hypocrisy towards Sierra, accusing her of using catnip, only to inadvertently use it themselves. “Possession” is another surprisingly decent episode, where Larry randomly steals a TV from their hated tiger neighbors Blake and Victoria, and Kate covers for him. The thrill gives their marriage a spark – but it really doesn’t, it only makes the sex better. Adding to the complication is seeing Blake and Victoria’s free-wheeling and seemingly healthy marriage, the couple directly embracing and making out on the floor of their own party.
In fact, Blake and Victoria are particularly wonderful characters, over-the-top and melodramatic standouts despite the lack of screentime. Blake (voiced by John O’Hurley) is just an arrogant, attention-seeking wuss, clearly working his ways into the upper echelons of the compound hierarchy less because he cares about the community and more because he loves having an audience. There’s a gag where Blake dresses up chimps in drag while they play instruments. At the time, it was a weird, inexplicable gag, something that seemed to be weird for weird sake. But upon rewatch, it’s funny because it’s Blake – of COURSE he’d do something like this. It’s a dumb visual gag that was more for character than comedy. Hell, in “Larry’s Debut And Sweet Darryl Hannah Too,” Blake sabotages Larry’s show to become lead tiger, only because, as he mentions, just because he craves attention. Larry whoops his ass, but they remains acquaintances; like the Rick James caricature in The Chappelle Show, sometimes you have to physically put Blake in his place, but once there, he’s tolerable. And Victoria (voiced by Wendie Malick, who is a perfectly fine substitute for “old drunken, attention-seeking crone” when Jessica Walters is unavailable) introduces herself to Kate and the audience with the line, “Congratulations! You’re out of vermouth.” (Another attention to detail plot point – the characters leave their front doors open, so people can walk in and out randomly). The show implies they have an open and extremely kinky marriage, and it’s remarkably healthy, especially compared to Larry and Kate, and it’s a pretty remarkable development for a show on NBC.
And the suffering marriage is made worse by Larry’s crotchety father-in-law, Sarmoti, a character who stereotypical badassery is slowly given context over the course of the show, and whose relationships becomes a real source of little expressed tension. Sarmoti at first is a walking one-liner machine, criticizing Larry and the characters in randomly mean ways (“Are we still pretending that he’s not gay?” is a cringe-worthy line, considering its aimed at his grandson), but it becomes clear that Sarmoti was a terrible father to Kate (and budding to be a terrible grandfather to the kids) and is seeking round-about ways to rectify it, along with his fear of losing his manhood and influence. In “Road Trip,” he goes through a hell of time to reunite Larry with Kate, acknowledging how he lost his own wife in a similar way.
Two of my favorite episodes deal explicitly with the sour relationship between Kate and Sarmoti, and also speaks to the show’s strength and weaknesses. “Sarmoti Moves In” quickly sets up the quiet father/daughter rage when Kate, in a fit of unrestrained anger towards her father, rips up and destroyed Sarmoti’s prized possession – the pelt of his best zebra kill when he was living in Africa. In extreme desperation, and one of my favorite plot points of the show, Larry and Kate come dangerously close to killing an innocent zebra to replace it. It’s a great moment, especially hearing Larry and Kate discuss the murder with matter-of-fact dialogue straight-out of an American Dad episode, but it’s limiting because, for some reason, they restrain Kate’s involvement. Considering lionesses are the hunters, it’s a missed opportunity and reeks of networks notes demanding to represses Kate’s viciousness. Still, it opens up the wounds between Sarmoti and Kate, and it’s a dramatic delight to see them so vulnerable.
This happens again in “The Thanksgiving Episode,” when Kate, during PTA elections, casually comments that all turkeys look alike, which causes an social uproar. Here, Father of the Pride’s limits are used as an advantage, as it doesn’t overplay the racial parody hand, making Kate’s attempt to host the turkey’s anti-Pilgrim holiday both awkward and effective, neither overdoing the “racist” or “redemptive” angle. Kate also rails against Sarmoti for filling her head with such a derogatory attitude, at which Sarmoti scoffs; he still believes turkeys are a comically dumb combination of black and Native American stereotypes. The episode ends when a turkey is caught stealing Samorti’s watch, and it’s easy to assume this episode turns back on itself; however, it calls out the lions’ prejudices while also pointing out that turkeys ought to call out their worse members instead of misguided blind support.
This kind of detailed world building for a talking animal cartoon seems unheard of, and passed by most audiences radars, including mine, so it was quite a revelation to see that kind of detail in the show. And it even relates to the sillier portion of the show – the wacky, insane antics of the humans Siegfried and Roy. The more cartoony aspects occur with these two around, with their insane magic tricks and eccentric behavior and talking style. At the same time, they play comic dedication to long-term ideas, like Roy’s innate anger at his unseen father, and Siegfried’s indifference at his man-whorishness. The writers clearly have more comic fun with these guys, and they are funnier, but there’s nothing beyond that, which can be grating if you’re not quite used to that.
I also thought the early TV CGI animation wouldn’t hold up; considering that I watched an episode of Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness beforehand, I felt I could explicitly notice the difference. Honestly? It held up quite well. The colors were more muted, and the movements were stiffer and jerkier, but the facial expressions and mouth movements were fine, and after a while you get used to the animation on the whole. The only problematic things are any fast-paced scenes; CGI had yet to perfect the squash-or-stretch or blur movements, so the hit detections and body physics look like shit. But other than the decision to render fur, which kinda works but must have been a pain in the ass to do, the show looks fine and holds up relatively well. But then again, I’m fairly adaptable to different animation styles, so one’s mileage may vary.
In the end, though, Father of the Pride, along with the above-listed brethren, was taken from us before we were ready and willing to see it. I hesitate to say that it was before its time; that implies it has layers of brilliance that the world just did not understand. But in terms of basic tone, style, and sensibility, Father of the Pride was indeed one comic generation delayed, quite before we accepted those aesthetics as the norm. It, like those shows above, aren’t great, but they were a forbearing of things to come.
There is an unaired, unanimated episode called “The Lost Tale,” presented on the DVD and online in animatic form. It continues the show’s direction, with perhaps Siegfried and Roy’s most craziest tale – the sudden desire to build a Jessica Simpson robot – while looking into more of Larry and Kate’s marriage in their approach to their son’s birthday, as well as showing that Samoti’s biggest turn-on happens to be women who genuinely challenge him, like his ex-wife (it’s never made clear if she died or simply left). Perhaps the fan-fiction community can continue this tale, since the show was cancelled, but it’s good to know that, for all the crap leveled against this show, justified or not, it was definitely on the right track.