“A Little Deb Will Do Ya” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 02/23/1994)
“A Little Deb Will Do Ya” may be one of the weakest and most dated episodes of The Critic but it at least has the class to apologize for itself. Jay ends "A Little Deb Will Do Ya" by breaking the fourth wall and asking audiences not to give away the episode’s big twist, or to share its James Coco fat joke, on account he's still kind of ashamed of that one. The Critic is heckling itself or at least delivering the animated equivalent of the, “I don’t like that stinker any more than you do” look Johnny Carson would flash when a joke bombed.
Jay is apologizing specifically for a joke about an underling driving James Coco home from a Texas chili cook-off but he could have been apologizing for the episode as a whole. “A Little Deb Will Do Ya” irrevocably carbon-dates itself as a product of 1994 by cross-pollinating two of the biggest phenomenon of the era: The Crying Game and Barney The Dinosaur.
But before the big twist can be revealed we first get to spend some quality time with the show’s weakest, blandest, least-developed character: Jay’s adopted sister Margo. From a storytelling standpoint, Margo fulfils an important role. She’s an audience surrogate for viewers who might find Jay too neurotic and his parents too WASP to identify with. In a cast of crazy characters, she's refreshingly normal. She grounds the show with her identifiable, relatable girlishness and she can be spunky and headstrong when the occasion calls for it.
The problem is that normal often passes for boring. Margo isn’t designed as a fully-formed character so much as she's conceived as her mother Eleanor’s foil. So even when Margo gets her own episode, as she ostensibly does here, she’s forced to share it with the titanic force that is her mother. “A Little Deb Will Do Ya” ultimately belongs to the steel-willed matriarch of the Sherman clan. Margo’s ultimately just a foil.
Early in the episode, Eleanor swooningly describes what Margo has to look forward to at her big debutante ball when she sells it as an opportunity to “starve yourself to fit into a dress, to dance with boys who feel you up, to drink so much that you fall into a well. It’s a magical night.” It’s not a magical night, of course. In fact, it sounds pretty dire, before, during and after the fact but it is a tradition and the lives of the Shermans and their progeny are ruled by tradition. Especially Eleanor's. She'll keep up respectable appearances even if she has to murder her entire family to do so.
Margo isn’t having it. She agrees with Jay’s Boyz N The Hood’s review that “Debutante balls are outdated, elitist and sexist” (needless to say, he was on a real tangent that day) and looks on in muted horror as her mother presents a sickly-looking prospective suitor whose blood is so blue, “he can only receive transfusions from George Plimpton and Mrs. Walter Cronkite.”
Eleanor isn’t easily discouraged. Or discouraged in the least. She threatens to kill Margo’s beloved horse unless Margo attends the big Debutante Ball. It’s not enough for Jay to review movies; as the writers and producers acknowledge on the commentary, he seems to live inside movies as well. In this clip, for example, Eleanor morphs slowly but surely from her evil patrician self into first Joan Crawford (of “No more wire hangers ever!” fame) and then into the evil witch from Snow White. It’s an example of how really gorgeous, elegant animation can enrich a joke. Heck, in this instance the animation doesn’t just enrich the joke; it makes it.
And that’s not even the darkest joke in the episode. This would be:
Yes, Eleanor has a rather ruthless conception of parenting. Thankfully Jay has a much less severe take on brotherhood, as we learn in this clip where Jay agrees to accompany Margo to the Debutante Ball but not before favoring her (and us) with an animated imaginary conversation between himself and what appears to be a wealthy dowager from the 1930s named Ethel who is apparently apoplectic that Jay won’t be taking her to see Skip Martin and his Orchestra at the Rainbow Room as previously planned.
I love the way the gag plays out, with Jay not just acting out both sides of an absurd conversation he’s staging solely for his own benefit (I doubt Margo is fooled) but doing so with hammy theatrical flair that doesn’t let up even after he’s hung up the phone. In moments like this, Jay seems more than a little insane.
In the B-story Jay faces down a formidable television rival in the form of a big dumb animal named Humphrey who has inspired Barney-like waves of mass adulation among the pre-school set. Barney was an easy target back in 1994: now the Humphrey stuff feels borderline embarrassing.
The two threads come together when Jay takes Margo to the Debutante Ball and for the third time in five episodes (I’m keeping a running count) a beautiful woman seeks Jay out for a no-strings-attached sexual relationship. Well, an almost no-strings-attached relationship. The first girl dumped Jay after he bashed her film; the second wanted to kill him. Jay lucks out this time. It turns out his mystery flame is merely his mortal enemy, AKA the beautiful woman who fills out the Humphrey suit.
It’s an ending at once groan-inducing and more than a little bit clever (especially for audiences primed to really respond to a climactic Crying Game gag) and it’s followed by a mostly unmerited apology. This may be one of the weaker episodes of The Critic but it should nevertheless be a source of pride, not shame to its creators, no matter how tongue-in-cheek that shame might be.
—“Margo, I’ve told you a thousand times. Don’t bring in the lawn gnome. Oh, it’s you.
—That line about using off-white only for the gloves of Margo’s debutante gown: pretty damn smutty, eh? Especially for a character designed as a paragon of virtue and dewy innocence
—“You’re mine! I own you! No more wire hangers!”
—“Calm down. Take some of those pills you got from Dr. Von Bulow!”—you gotta love a good Reversal Of Fortune reference
—“What are you doing with that gun?”
—“It’s called parenting!”
—“It’s amazing that a man so inadequate in bed could be so relaxed and unconcerned!”
—Museum of Natural History: We Take the Fun Out of Jurassic Park!
—“My philosophy is love and dance. Not hate and not dance.” A bit of foreshadowing there, eh? She wasn’t kidding about the loving or the dancing. Especially the loving.
—Next week I begin a running tally of pretentious references. There were a fuck-ton in today's episode.