Here's where I'm going to start to make good on my promise in last week's entry of Re-Animated. "The Simpsons" may not be the first animated television series, nor is it necessarily the greatest, but it is a watershed; a place to start the conversation.
If you follow TV at all you probably understand that there's a lot of following trends. "Game of Thrones" debuted to massive international success, and now every channel is trying to find their own "Game of Thrones": whether it be "The Bastard Executioner," "The Expanse," "The Last Kingdom" or whatever.
So imagine it's late 1989/early 1990 and you're a television executive. "The Simpsons" has literally created a genre out of thin air - the primetime adult-oriented (but child-friendly!) cartoon series. Not only has it done that, but it's blown the doors off of everything else that went before. Fox has gone from a joke of a channel to a major force in the media. Everyone seems to be wearing "Simpsons" t-shirts and spouting "Simpsons" catchphrases.
Oh, and let's talk about that for a minute. I don't know how to accurately portray this to someone who's fifteen or so today, but when Bart Simpson was saying "don't have a cow, man" or "eat my shorts" - bowdlerized versions of tame insults at best - it seemed like the adult authorities of the world were having a massive conniption fit. Schools were banning all "Simpsons" shirts, not just the "offensive" ones - which of course only made them more intriguing and popular.
Nothing boosts ratings like a good, old-fashioned moral panic. What the pearl-clutching throwbacks of the '80s did to "Dungeons and Dragons" they managed to re-create in the '90s with "The Simpsons." I know, it's hard to imagine a time when something as castrated and asinine as the modern "Simpsons" was seen as the downfall of Western civilization, but it was.
And what that meant for you, if you happened to be an exec at another network at the time, was a mad scramble to find "the next Simpsons." Then networks did end up having a few notable successes, mostly years later, but we'll talk about those in the next few entries. Today I want to talk about the dank, dismal failures, the ones barely worth bundling together for this blog entry, let alone giving them their own.
I have no meaningful recollection of "Fish Police" beyond the context of this article - it was one of the also-rans of the very early attempts to cash in on the popularity of "The Simpsons." CBS took a pitch from Hannah-Barbera - makers of Saturday morning tripe like "Wacky Races," "Huckleberry Hound," and "Scooby-Doo," most of which, to be quite frank, I probably won't be tackling in this blog series. "Fish Police" was based on a self-published comic which was later picked up by Dark Horse and appears, by all rights, to be massively superior to the show that came out.
The problem with "Fish Police" (as we'll see with the other two entries in varying degrees) is that it was neither fish (ha!) nor fowl. Kids weren't sucked in by the adult world of the mafia and adults found the cartoonishness too off-putting. What "The Simpsons" had nailed was appealing to both demographics without pandering to (or insulting) either. Homer's oafish antics were amusing to a child, but his concerns about paying for and presenting his family were relatable to adults. Similarly, Bart's behavioral problems were appealing to kids who wanted to see themselves as rebels and parents who were trying to raise their kids to be good citizens - but probably remembered their own years as hellions.
Which leads us to our next entry, "Family Dog."
"Family Dog" was another attempt by CBS to crack "The Simpsons" code and this time, to their credit, they struck somewhat closer to the mark. "Family Dog" had originated as an animated episode of the anthology series "Amazing Stories" in 1987, and a particularly well-received one at that. In fact, Brad Bird, who would go on to be responsible for "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles" developed the original "Family Dog" episode. In the sense that its pedigree (ha!) was as a well-remembered and well-liked short from the '80s adapted to full-length, "Family Dog" was already much closer to the "Simpsons" mark than "Fish Police." And coming with Steven Spielberg's imprimatur - which would or recently had rocketed Saturday morning cartoons like "Animaniacs," "Tiny Toons," and "Taz-Mania" to the dizzying heights of popularity - this was no doubt meant to be CBS's attempt at a prestige cartoon. A "Simpsons" clone that might benefit from not being considered crass, if you will.
I have memories of watching "Family Dog" and most of them consist of one thing: being incredibly bored. The birds-eye perspective of a dumb (literally) mutt may have been a good idea for a single, half-hour short, but at series length it quickly became exhausting. Perhaps if Spielberg and Co. had retained Brad Bird, it might have scintillated, but as it turned out, "Family Dog" was plagued with production issues and then just turned out to never be particularly good.
Let's close out with one final also-ran that I have a much more intimate knowledge of than half-baked, twenty-five year old memories like the other two: "Capitol Critters."
I watched "Capitol Critters" - or at least as much of it as aired - in its original run. In 1992 ABC put this up alongside its super-successful Tuesday night lineup, featuring such luminary entertainment as "Home Improvement." Unfortunately, "Capitol Critters" was another Hannah-Barbera production, which meant it was always doomed to be facile at best.
I recently got a wild hair up my ass to rewatch this show. As it's not available on DVD or streaming services, I shall not describe the lengths I went to in order to fulfill this passing fancy. But I can tell you that with a groan I realized what went wrong with a show that had seemed so attractive to my ten-year-old self when it came out.
First of all, "Capitol Critters" is off-puttingly racist. It's fairly common for cartoons to use species as a shorthand for race or nationality, but in this particular show mice represented average, Middle Americans, rats represented fast-talking city types, and cockroaches represented blacks. Doubtless the argument was made at some point, "Well, they're all different kinds of vermin anyway" but the whole "black people are shit-eating bugs who live segregated from the rest of society" was a bit of a hard pill for my adult self to swallow.
But in the interests of being fair, this was just kind of a symptom of the greater issues with the show. I have no proof of this, but I feel like it was developed as a kid's show and someone said, "Oh, it takes place in Washington, D.C.? Let's try to make it an adult issues show so we can compete with 'The Simpsons.'" Stripped of its (for the time) political themes, kids might have enjoyed it on Saturday mornings. Stuffed as it was with ham-fisted fumbling attempts to "solve" early '90s political errata, the creators probably saw it as having appeal to adult "Murphy Brown" watchers. And while it's aged about as well, it was never nearly as clever. It didn't help that every great political issue it addressed - including some we still deal with today - was readily solved by episode's end in the long tradition of episodic cartoons.
So, there you have it. Three flawed but ambitious attempts to cash in on "The Simpsons" phenomenon that have been relegated to being brought up once in a while on obscure blogs. So, what shows managed to finally break that early curse and break out? Tune in to the next entry of Re-Animated to find out.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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