Posts Tagged animation
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.
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.
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.