The Critic: “Dial ‘M’ For Mother”
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The Critic: “Dial ‘M’ For Mother”

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The Critic

“Dial ‘M’ For Mother”

Season 1, Episode 3

“Dial ‘M’ For Mother” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 02/09/1994)

An editor I worked with very early in my career once told me that the essence of comedy lies in incongruous juxtapositions, in combing the unlike in new and surprising ways. But these juxtapositions can’t be incongruous just for their own sake; otherwise they’re just empty silliness, random nonsense. No, the juxtaposition has to mean something; ideally it comments insightfully and hilariously on everything that’s being juxtaposed. The Critic’s Lorenzo’s Oil parody offers a master class in incongruous juxtaposition. Like a lot of parodies on the show, it begins in a fairly straightforward fashion, with Lou Gehrig delivering his famous “Luckiest Man” speech in front of a devastated crowd at Yankee Stadium.

You know the speech. It’s the one where he declares himself the luckiest man in the world despite his impending death from Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s the emotional cornerstone of the beloved Gehrig biopic The Pride Of The Yankees and perhaps the most famous speech in all of sports.

In The Critic version, Gehrig shuffles over to teammate Babe Ruth, who has an astonishing revelation: The Yankees have put their liquor-soaked heads together and come up with a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease called “Lou Gehrig’s Oil” that immediately restores Gehrig to the peak of health. It does more than that: it transforms him into a God who can smack a ball straight out of the ballpark.

In exuberant celebration a newsboy joyously announces that The Depression has ended and Bill Cosby has been born. “And thanks to you, Bambino, I’ll live to see his warm, un-threatening comedy” Gehrig confides in the big-hearted Ruth.

Most animated comedies would end with the clever and timely juxtaposition of Lorenzo’s Oil and Pride Of The Yankees. That would be enough for them. Not The Critic. No, The Critic uses a parody of a current film to comment insightfully on a number of trusty old tropes from half-forgotten films that clearly occupy a place of pride in the writer’s souls.

Above all else, the parody spoofs our need to fit even the most heartbreaking and tragic stories into happy, neat little boxes. It’s scathing in its take on how glossy Hollywood biopics twist and contort the truth to fit crowd-pleasing narratives. Biopics often blow up their subjects into Golden Gods so why not posit Gehrig not just as a hero but as a man who somehow brought about an end to the Depression and a beginning to Bill Cosby’s reign of whimsy and delight?

The opening Lorenzo’s Oil/Pride Of The Yankees mash-up/parody speaks to one of the show’s most resonant and recurring themes: the conflict between art and commerce, dignity and the need to sell, sell, sell. Jay is forever on the losing side of the ratings equation and Duke is forever looking for ways to package his cantankerous little pocket critic for mass audiences.

In “Dial ‘M’ For Mother” Duke shows focus-group respondents giving Jay worse scores than Hitler. Actually that’s a bit of an exaggeration, as Duke calmly explains that test audiences don’t find him worse than Hitler so much as they find him “less warm and cuddly” than the Fuhrer.

To rehabilitate Jay’s image they stick in a homegrown set, complete with what appears to be a stuffed bear on the wall. The animal rights folks weren’t about to allow that, so they substituted the stuffed dead bear with a very heavily sedated bear who, alas, isn’t quite sedated enough, as we learn when it swoops down to attack Jay in the middle of the show.

In any other show, the not-quite-sedated bear would be a throwaway gag. A smart throwaway gag, but a throwaway gag all the same. “Dial ‘M’ For Mother” gives the heavily sedated bear a fucking arc. It gives him a broad range of emotions to play. It gives him unexpected reappearances and even a show-saving showcase at the very end.

The Critic put more thought and effort and care and ingenuity into a bear character that appeared in one show than most shows do in their entire ensembles. So it isn’t over for the bear after he attacks Jay on camera. As his trainer explains in this clip, the bear feels terrible about what he’s done and wants to make up for it by performing a little dance.

After Jay’s hillbilly make-over proves disastrous, Duke suggests Jay try to rehabilitate his image and prove to his audience that he’s not history’s greatest monster by addressing the source of all of Jay’s anxieties, insecurities, and feelings of inadequacy: the primordial wound that is his relationship with his mother.

Jay’s mother isn’t capable of experiencing emotions, really—especially warm or positive ones involving her son—so their joint appearance on The Geraldo Rivera Show proves predictably disastrous and Jay become persona non grata around Manhattan after screaming at his mother on national television. He becomes known as the man who hates his mother. In our society there are few crimes more serious.

“Dial ‘M’ For Mother” doesn’t have an emotionally satisfying ending. The estranged mother and son reconcile after Jay ends up in the hospital and wakes up to discover that his mother would, in fact, be devastated by his death. That passes for compassion in her icy heart.

“Dial ‘M’ For Mother” ends on an exquisitely dark note. After Jay serenades his mom we’re back in the sinister land of the focus-group respondents. “Well I guess it’s a happy ending” pipes up a woman with a mixture of befuddlement and mild disappointment. Her comment is met with a stern, “Yeah,” (sneeringly) but it’s not happy enough” by an even more ominous, impossible-to-please representative of a scary and unknowable representative of the viewing audience. 

It’s easy to predict the show’s commercial death from those bitter, bitter lines. The Critic tried desperately to create a show that was happy enough and normal enough to pull in a big, Simpsons-style audience but for Home Improvement viewers a soupçon of sentimentality at the end of a show about a neurotic New York film critic’s icy relationship with his adopted WASP mother was never going to be enough. Not by a long shot. 

Stray observations:

  • “Honey, I could make you Mrs. Ernest Borgnine”
  • I love the incredibly matter of fact way Jeremy delivers the line, “I hate your country and it shows”
  • “We picked Jay because we thought he was a monkey. His original name was Mr. Pipp!”
  • “You are a disgrace to this family. Now who wants to boogie with Baby ’37?”
  • I similarly liked that Michael Dukakis’ disembodied head joined the chorus of voices inside Jay’s troubled psyche.
  • “I thought it was cute. Until the diaper dropped.”
  • “And that is why Goldie Hawn should be shot.”
  • “And that’s why I’m glad The Beatles broke up.”
  • “There’s an interesting story behind this prom photo [Jay with nun]”
  • “The bear feels terrible about what happened. He still wants to be a part of your show.”
  • Next up (after Thanksgiving break), Miserable! Woo hoo! That’s a good one.