Dinosaurs, “Changing Nature”

Dinosaurs, “Changing Nature”

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

One of my oldest friends called me last week, to catch up on politics and popular culture, two subjects that have nearly always divided us, though never bitterly. At one point he was telling me about watching America’s Got Talent with his wife and kids, and how when NBC showed an ad for the upcoming series The Playboy Club, he was put in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain to his 8-year-old daughter what Playboy is. He said, “Y’know, I was in Afghanistan during the whole Janet Jackson Super Bowl controversy, and me and my buddies had a hard time understanding what all the fuss was about, over a half-second of boob. But now I get it.” “Well sure,” I said. “It’s all about expectations. When people sit down to watch a football game with their kids, they don’t expect to see a boob show.”

I’ve written before about my approach to picking television programs for my children, which is that I’d rather not do much, if at all. If I hear about something that sounds good—like the new My Little PonyI’ll record it for them, and if something seems too suspect, I’ll warn them away from it. But by and large, I prefer my kids enjoy popular culture in their own way, with minimal interference from me.

“Family entertainment,” though, is another matter. When you sit down with your children to watch something, you’re subtly—or perhaps even strongly—suggesting that what’s on TV is significant enough to merit their attention. Which is why many parents ask themselves: What makes a good family show? Is it just meant to be inoffensive and innocuously entertaining, with a lot of singing and dancing and corny jokes (with maybe just a smidgen of bathroom humor and double-entendres)? Or are there times when—figuratively speaking at least—you do want “a boob show,” if only to generate some conversation about important real-life/growing-up stuff?

For example, when you gather your clan to watch a sitcom starring big dinosaur puppets, is part of you hoping to see an episode where the main character’s environmental irresponsibility leads to the death of his entire species?

Jim Henson Television’s Dinosaurs debuted as part of ABC’s family-oriented Friday night lineup in the spring of 1991, in the same programming block as Family Matters and Step By Step. The show’s origins date back to the ’80s, whenJim Henson developed the concept of a sitcom that would comment on the typical, over-consuming American family via human-like dinosaurs who lived on Pangaea in 60 million B.C. Henson died a year before Dinosaurs made it to air, but his son Brian was one of the show’s executive producers, and some Henson stalwarts worked on it, including puppeteer Kevin Clash, best known for giving voice to Elmo on Sesame Street. Dinosaurs arrived two years after The Simpsons, when networks were throwing money at animators and other non-traditional television types, looking for another critically acclaimed comedy that could also be a potential marketing bonanza. (The Simpsons writers made fun of the similarities between their show and Dinosaurs, having Bart Simpson watch an episode and say, “It’s like they saw our lives and put it right up on screen.”) But Dinosaurs outlasted most of its competition in the post-Simpsons boom, in large part because it had a look and sensibility all its own. 

Granted, the show was kind of Simpsons-y, and beholden as well to The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, All In The Family, and dozens of other archetypal sitcoms. Dinosaurs features a gruff, working-class head-of-household, Earl Sinclair, who has a job knocking down trees for the Wesayso Corporation. He lives with his steadfast housewife Fran, their two teenage kids Robbie and Charlene, Fran’s cranky, elderly mother Ethyl, and a baby named Baby. The baby (voiced by Clash) is both cute and mischievous, and was positioned to be Dinosaurs’ breakout star. The show’s first episode dealt with Baby’s hatching, and the little tyke even had his own music video, for the profoundly irritating song “I’m The Baby, Gotta Love Me.”

But here’s what’s odd about Dinosaurs: For all its rounded-off edges and at-times-unseemly reach for commercial appeal, the show retained a core of “Henson-ness” that made it always just a little funky. In its delineation of a strange little community with its own rules and traditions, Dinosaurs resembled Fraggle Rock. And the show indulged in the kind of social messages that Henson productions were keen to impart from time to time. There were Dinosaurs episodes about mating rituals, aging, puberty, masturbation, religious fanaticism, sexual harassment, war, consumer frenzy, steroids, bureaucracy, immigration, racism, conformity, corporate malfeasance, youth rebellion, and vulgar entertainment. And then the coup de grace, on July 20, 1994: a series finale, “Changing Nature,” that delivered as blunt an environmental message as any major network TV broadcast since The Lorax.

The episode begins with the Sinclairs gathered in a park to watch the annual return of the Bunch Beetles, a natural wonder that sees the bugs race across the sky in a colorful display on their way to dine on the vines of the Cider Poppy and mate. As is the Sinclairs’ way, even while they’re outdoors they’re watching for the Beetles on a portable television, while Earl fiddles with a new grill and boasts about how eating a hunk of charred meat off his state-of-the-art cooker will be like “eating the future.”

Everyone chants along with the Bunch Beetle countdown on TV—everyone except Baby, who just shouts random numbers—but when they get to zero, nothing happens. The beetles don’t show up as they have, like clockwork, for generations before. Earl shrugs that it’s “just a bunch of bugs… what possible difference could it make?” But behind him we see the Cider Poppy vines encroaching. (Later, on the TV, we hear anchor Howard Handupme gravely say that anyone with any sense is asking what happened to the beetles, before a cut to Earl staring into his refrigerator muttering, “What happened to my beer?”)

Earl’s best friend Roy suggests that maybe the beetles are late because they got halfway to the swamp and then returned home to check and see if they left the stove on. And that’s exactly the excuse a Bunch Beetle named Stan gives when he dizzily flies into the Sinclair’s kitchen, looking for his comrades.

Charlene (voiced by Sally Struthers, tightening the show’s All In The Family connection) offers to guide the befuddled and lovestruck Stan to the swamp, but when they arrive, they find that the whole area has been drained and razed, replaced by a wax fruit factory. A foreman at Fruitco—a division of Wesayso—shoos Charlene and Stan away, saying that the factory is necessary because “wax fruit does not grow on trees.” Earl agrees, pointing out that “the ability to manufacture wax fruit is what separates us from the animals.”

Earl later interrupts Charlene’s interview with Howard Handupme and advocates for more progress over conservation. (“And I say keep your spotted owl! Give me a fax machine I can take to the beach!”) As a result, his bosses at Wesayso give him a job as their common-man spokesman for the business. 

They also put Earl in charge of a project to spray the planet with a defoliant that’s meant to kill the Cider Poppies. Charlene wonders why they can’t just trim back the vines and learn to live with a little inconvenience, but Earl is having none of it. Sure, Wesayso’s defoliant kills all forms of plant life on earth, but Earl waves the setback off, saying, “There are a wide variety of commercial snack foods with no natural ingredients.”

In fact, Wesayso is initially thrilled by what the environmental crisis does for their sales, as people flock to their stores to buy supplies, giving the company its biggest third quarter ever. Even after the corporation tries to generate rain by bombing volcanoes, Wesayso sniffs at reports that it’s blocked out the sun for the next 10,000 years, calling that “a fourth-quarter problem.”

Earl, though, finally sees that he may have been too gullible and short-sighted, and gathers his relatives in their living room while the Ice Age encroaches (just like a scene from Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin Of Our Teeth, but with big puppets). He tells his family that since dinosaurs have been around forever, surely they’ll continue to be around, right? Right? The final words of the episode—and the series—come from Howard Handupme, who answers Earl by saying that the forecast looks bleak, adding, “Goodnight… Goodbye.”

Harsh, yes? Especially coming at the end of 20 minutes—and three years, really—of goofy slapstick and bad puns. But too harsh for its intended audience? That’s a tougher question. Dinosaurs had depicted Earl and his family as ignorant and dangerous before, but never on this scale. As a one-off, I could see showing “Changing Nature” to a youngster, because it wouldn’t be too different from some of the more pointed Dr. Seuss books. But anyone under eight who’d watched the full three-season run of Dinosaurs would probably find the last episode awfully traumatic. (Which isn’t necessarily bad; “Changing Nature” is one of the best-remembered series finales among those who saw it originally, and that’s no minor accomplishment.)

Again, it all comes back to what we consider to be the goal when we watch TV with our children—or read a book, or go to a movie. Is it enough just to share some low-key together time, or does every single piece of entertainment also have to be a learning opportunity? I remember it was an adjustment for me when we first started taking our kids to the public library, to see that the books most prominently displayed in the children’s area tended to be the ones that deal with serious issues, like divorce or handicaps or racism. Even though I disagree with them, I understand why some parents feel like public institutions work too hard to push an agenda. What happened to the books about P.J. Funnybunny?

Those issue-oriented books do serve a valuable purpose though, as do shows like Dinosaurs, if only for the way they provide a way in to larger discussions about human behavior at its best and worst. But even parents who see the value in those teachable moments can’t help but feel a pang when they pop up. For a long time we try to create a safe little world for our children, where the lessons are more of the ABC variety, the monsters are all cute and fuzzy, and most mistakes can be remedied with a Band-Aid or wet wipe. And then reality intrudes, like a creeping chill.


Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Land Of The Lost, “Album”

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