Well, fellow fans of The Critic, we have officially reached the end of the first season of The Critic and with it the show’s run as a staggeringly ill-advised lead-in to Home Improvement. “A Pig Boy And His Dog” very well could have marked the bitter end of the Jay Sherman saga except that a plucky young network deeply indebted to James L. Brooks (Executive Producer of The Critic and The Simpsons and much else) and hungry for product named Fox was willing to take a chance on the show and ordered a second season.
The Fox pick-up came with a cost.
Where The Critic introduced Jay as a Pulitzer Prize-winning sophisticate who periodically hops into bed with beautiful women who turn out to be fickle and/or psychotic despite looking like a troll, Fox tried to reinvent Jay for a family audience. They gave Jay bigger eyes and pupils, a more rounded nose and a generally more appealing and Simpsons-like appearance. For extra adorableness, they even paired him with a plucky single mother love interest and her adorable daughter.
There were some changes afoot but they were generally of the cosmetic variety. Otherwise, the show retained its sharp wit and metropolitan sensibility. Some of my favorite episodes are from the second season, like “All The Duke’s Men”, “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice”, “Sherman Of Arabia” and “Frankie and Ellie Get Lost.” But it was all for naught. UPN was reportedly interested in picking up the show and nine scripts were commissioned for a proper third season but that fell apart and the show ended up limping to a close with a series of ten webisodes on Atom Films and Shockwave.com. The Critic enjoyed a glorious life as a television show and died a painful, undignified death as a web series.
“A Pig Boy And His Dog” marked the first of The Critic’s three deaths. It was the last show that aired on ABC, and, like last week’s “Uneasy Rider” betrays distinct signs of creative exhaustion. It’s also something of a passive-aggressive “fuck you” to ABC in general and Home Improvement in particular.
The Critic had the misfortune of being ahead of its time, as evidenced by an opening parody of Pinocchio that presages both the insane gumbo of incredibly distracting, poorly-dubbed big-name celebrity voices in Roberto Benigni’s unspeakable live-action botch of Pinocchio and the dramatic takeover of animation voice work by the massively famous over the past decade or so. In 1994 the prospect of the biggest, most iconic stars in the world whoring themselves out for a pop-culture-reference-crazed, cynical cartoon equally pitched at kids and adults was just barely a joke; today it’s a dispiriting reality.
My problem with a lot of the episode’s gags is that they’re far too enamored of the Madlibs-style reference-as-punchline aesthetic synonymous, rightly or wrongly, with Family Guy. When Pinocchio’s “Beige Fairy” turns out to be Robin Williams vamping his way through age-inappropriate jokes about Judy Garland and Tribbles in pants and quicksilver impressions of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Williams’ own beloved “sassy gay guy” archetype, for example, the joke is ostensibly on Williams’ bawdy, hacky, self-satisfied shtick but it also feels an awful lot like Williams’ actual Aladdin performance in a slightly different context while the gag of Arnold Schwarzenegger voicing Gepetto and Dylan voicing Pinocchio begins and ends with them repeating their catchphrases in incongruous contexts.
So while I found “A Pig Boy And His Dog” underwhelming on the whole it’s nevertheless littered with individual moments of warped genius, like the weird, gloriously unnecessary little verbal duet Jay performs for his sister Margo in which he pretends to be both a meaner, more violent and short-tempered version of himself and his fictitious, Margaret Dumont-like “assistant” Ethel. I love how gratuitously involved the charade is and how Jay whipsaws from Ethel admiring her own drollery to Jay losing his temper with Ethel to a frantic Ethel begging not to be hit.
“A Pig Boy And His Dog” is ultimately about the love-hate relationship between Jay and an older woman but the woman in question is instead Jay’s mother Eleanor, who is forced to reconsider her life when she maps out her daughter’s future, (“Margo, I’ve got it all planned. You’ll gain your polish at Hackensack U, lose your virginity in a parking lot after a Dave Brubeck concert and become a doting wife to a man who wears underwear on his head!”) and Margo reflects that she just described her own life.
“Oh, good Lord. What a complete waste it was,” Eleanor realizes to her sadness and mortification. When Eleanor quizzes her contemporaries on what they do for stimulation they all offer some variation on screwing an employee (or Wilford Brimley). Eleanor, however, is too repressed and oblivious to pick up that her hot-to-trot delivery boy is out to seduce her even after he loses his shirt and oils up his rippling pecs in a bit that exerts an awful lot of energy and time without much in the way of a comic payoff.
I was much more impressed with the exchange that immediately follows it. In an eloquent turn of phrase, Eleanor tells Franklin of the pervasive funk that has descended upon her existence, “Franklin, My life is an endless grey corridor” and Franklin replies with utterly inappropriate glee, “I’ve been there too. Usually there’s a midget there making googly eyes at me. I call him Mr. Piccolini!” The entire exchange is glorious but the ecstatic pronunciation of “Mr. Piccolini!” is especially delightful.
When Jay suggests that Eleanor channel her frustrations and ennui into writing a book she has the perfect idea: an etiquette book called Why The Poor Should Be Blasted Out Into Space. Jay dissuades her from publishing her provocative tome and is horrified to discover that she has followed it up with a children’s book called The Fat Little Pig with a main character very overtly modeled on Jay and his abundant pig-like qualities.
Jay is very publicly ostracized when The Fat Little Pig becomes a ubiquitous best seller and he is widely ridiculed for providing the model for the book’s corpulent protagonist. In the episode’s other plot thread, Jay adopts a stray puppy that quickly grows to become a Howard Huge-style monster (Howard Huge, incidentally, was a comic strip about a dog named Howard who was huge. Hilarity ensued).
There is a certain pleasing symmetry in both stories fundamentally being about cute ideas for self-actualization—adopting an adorable puppy and writing a children’s book to help stave off the looming specter of imminent death—growing monstrous and uncontainable but each ultimately leads to a lot of fat jokes and glib pop-culture references.
Jay’s anxiety over his puppy’s ever-increasing size, for example, morphs into spoofs of Jurassic Park and Jaws with the puppy as the monster while the Eleanor thread has Franklin heading next door to consult with his neighbor a la Tim Allen in Home Improvement and mistaking the calls of animals (a frog saying “Ribbet” which he mishears as “Rivet” and an owl crying out “Hoo” which he hears as Who?”) for neighborly advice.
There are moments I love throughout “A Pig Boy And His Dog” even if the whole left me somewhat cold, like when Duke is gleefully delineating between the different kinds of pigs he brought into the studio to play up the popularity of “Fat Little Pig” and boost ratings, (“That there’s an eating pig. There’s a snuggling pig and there’s a pig you bring home to mama”) or when Franklin mistakes a Fat Little Pig doll for Jay and tries to set him up on a date by advising him, “Good news, son. I found the perfect mate for you. Her name is Barbie and she’s from Malibu. Now, She has a boyfriend named Ken but he’s not much of a man. I checked. “ The pronunciation of “Malibu” as “Mally-Boo” is pure comic gold.
“A Pig Boy And His Dog” ends with an act of selflessness as Eleanor kills off her beloved literary creation because it causes her son pain. In appreciation, Jay gives his monster of a dog to Eleanor to help appease her loneliness. Eleanor is pleased, but not too pleased that she can’t sarcastically retort, “Thank you for the dog. And thank you for the glib, self-serving solution to my fragile emotional state.”
The season finale ends with a viciously meta joke that finds Jay once again breaking the fourth wall to wish, “Good night Critic fans and a special good night for those of you just tuning in for Home Improvement.” The bitterness is palpable as The Critic acknowledged, for the third time that evening alone, its ferociously mismatched but much more popular time-slot partner.
“A Pig Boy And His Dog” ends The Critic’s otherwise glorious ABC run with a whimper rather than a bang, though it’s only a disappointment by the show’s exceedingly high standards. By any other criteria it’s clever, funny and impressively highbrow at points. But by that point The Critic had established such a precedent for cerebral humor that it wasn’t enough to simply make an allusion to Salvador Dali and Luis Buenuel’s Un Chien Andalou just for the sake of making an allusion to Un Chien Andalou on an animated primetime sitcom.
So let us not end on a down note. The first season of The Critic is a triumph even if it does not end as strongly as it began. I came here to praise The Critic, not to bury it. The good that it did lives after it, while the bad has been interred with its bones. So while “A Pig Boy And His Dog” may not have been the best episode for the first season to end with there’s something poetically apt about a show that had been put to death by ABC (only to rise like a glorious phoenix on the wings of Fox’s desperation!) ending with Eleanor putting down her most beloved creation for the sake of familial peace.
In light of The Critic’s cancellation, there’s similarly something melancholy about the post-credits gag featuring the usher telling Jay that the movie was over and Jay, with real desperation in his voice, responding, “But I have nowhere to go.” Of course The Critic did ultimately have other places to go, namely Fox and Atom Films but that, friends, is a tale and a heartbreak for another time and another place.
- Oh how I love Charles Napier’s delivery when Duke yells, “Make ‘em squeal!”
- Though I wasn’t crazy about the Pinocchio parody, I thought the animation was gorgeous and I liked Jeremy’s (as Bogart the Roach) couplet, “When you make a real big blunder/Have a pint and then go chunder!”
- One of my Twitter followers pointed out that Napier was not included in the “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars. That is some fucking straight-up bullshit right there.
- “I just flew in from San Francisco and boy are my Judy Garland records tired!” sounds like an actual line from a Robin Williams routine. Come to think of it, it might just be.
- “There’s a reason there’s a banana in my ear. I’m trying to lure the monkey out of my head!” is a pretty great Franklinism
- I similarly wasn’t blown away by the Driving Miss Daisy parody though I liked the ruthlessness with which Hoke delivers the line, “When the revolution comes you will not be spared!”
- So, The Critic fans. What were your favorite episodes/moments in the show’s first season?