Manuscripts Burn


"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."

Friday, January 29, 2016

Re-Animated #3: The Critic

"The Critic" is a queer duck by any standard.  It's also one of my all-time favorite shows, and it's a weirdly important piece in the paint-by-numbers portrait of animation I'm gradually building with the Re-Animated series.

Once again I want you to picture yourself as that poor, beleaguered (yeah, right) television network in the early '90s.  You watched "The Simpsons" turn from a fad to a weird juggernaut to a critical and popular darling.  By 1994 "The Simpsons" was in its Golden Age, producing seemingly nothing but instant classic episodes that were crushing the ratings.  All attempts to re-create or replicate that success had failed.  So what to do?  Throw in the towel?  Admit failure?

Or...go back to the source?

Al Jean and Mike Reiss were long-time writing partners and showrunners on "The Simpsons" for seasons 3 and 4.  (Long-time writing partners and former "Simpsons" showrunners will become a recurring theme during this space.)  They left the show that Matt Groening had created to develop their own baby for ABC: "The Critic."

Either by design or happenstance "The Critic" was weirdly diametrically opposed to "The Simpsons."  The action moved from Springfield, the stand-in for anywhere in middle America, to New York City.  And Jay Sherman, the show's star, was something of an anti-Homer, too.  Although both shared a girth problem (I guess fat jokes are just fun to make no matter the show) Jay was a successful, unhappy, highly intelligent bachelor standing in stark contrast to Homer's blue collar, blissfully dumb family man.

"The Critic" itself is a relic of a very particular time in the history of mass media.  I will spare you all an essay on "Gremlins II" (for now) but just as "Gremlins II" skewered such a weirdly specific point in the development of cable TV that it's hard to understand outside of its cultural context (well, unless you just like to watch little green monsters eat people, I guess) "The Critic" skewered a weirdly specific point in the development of movies.

Today, in 2016, I can know pretty much anything and everything about every movie coming out for the next few years, including entire plots (if I'm not averse to spoilers) and behind-the-scenes personality clashes (if that's the sort of thing I'm interested in.)  If you rewind to the Hollywood of the '80s and before, no one was really anticipating movies beyond maybe huge tentpoles more than six months in advance.  The inner workings of Hollywood were arcane, and studios got away with things like sham marriages to make Rock Hudson not seem gay.

The internet (and, I would also argue, a fair amount of self-satisfied hagiographies disguised as exposes coming from Hollywood types themselves) changed what the average person knew about how Hollywood works.  By the late '90s people were clued in to the movie system as never before.  By the late '00s you could watch any movie trailer you wanted on YouTube and learn anything about any damn film with a simple google search.

But the mid-90s!  Now there was an interesting era.  Jay Sherman represented the guy who, as an influential film critic, knew how Hollywood worked and was disgusted by it, yet couldn't seem to convince anyone else of the utter amorality of the whole damn thing.  Jay was an intellectual, and though there had always been smart jokes on "The Simpsons" none of the characters were ever really all that smart.  So "The Critic" was an opportunity to satirize both the froo-froo pretensions of the intelligentsia and the fact that they kind of had a point about how ignorant Joe Six-Pack was.

Jay was a Cassandra figure.  He didn't hate movies, he loved movies.  He loved good movies.  He hated the fact that what sold - and what it was his job to review - were bad movies.  Part of what makes "The Critic" such a relic is that so many of the movie satires that they ran have actually come to pass.  At the time, Hollywood was just beginning to dip its toes into nonsensical sequels and mash-ups.  Now it seems there's nothing but sequels and mash-ups.  Jay's disdain for "Jurassic Park II" seems quaint in the face of our knowledge that "Jurassic Park IV" was the biggest movie of all time (before it was eclipsed by "Star Wars VII," for Christ's sake.)

Marketing for the show relied heavily on the movie parodies, but really those were such a small aspect of "The Critic."  The world around Jay was a fascinating pastiche.  Played by Jon Lovitz, Jay is in appearance and mannerisms clearly meant to be Jewish.  His adoptive parents, though (Eleanor and Franklin...of course) are such upper crust old money that Eleanor at one point introduces a family friend whose blood is literally blue.  And in contrast to his parents, Jay's boss Duke Phillips (an obvious Ted Turner analogue) is so grotesquely nouveau-riche that he can easily afford a band of animatronic drunken hillbilly bears to be installed in his office to remind him of home in Atlanta.

"The Critic" got to have its cake and eat it too in a lot of ways.  It took potshots against intellectuals like Jay while simultaneously showing that his audience was just as dumb as he feared.  The Jewish experience in New York was sent up as often as the WASPy one.  Entrenched interests conflicted with interests trying to entrench themselves - and showing how pointlessly both of them aspired to power.  In one particularly fascinating episode Duke runs for president (because he's Duke, goddamnit) and brings on Jay's dad (the former governor of New York, as it turns out) as his running mate.  Neither seems to know what to do with power, but Franklin is so used to having it he doesn't care how daffy he comes off and Duke is so used to acquiring it he doesn't care how big of a jerk he comes off.

And in the middle of it all, observing, hating every side for its hypocrisy with equal vigor, is Jay.  Not an everyman by any stretch, but a frustrated idealist.

So what's so important about "The Critic?"  Well, to put it bluntly, it got a season 2.  After disappointing ratings on ABC during Wednesdays in the summer (right after Jim Henson's "Dinosaurs") "The Critic" moved to Fox, a more fitting home for it anyway.  And in just squeaking by and developing enough of an audience that people remembered it, "The Critic" finally proved that "The Simpsons" was not an unreproducible fluke of nature.  Instead, it was the beginning of an era.  The beginning of adult animation...

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