The Critic: Miserable”
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The Critic: Miserable”

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The Critic

Miserable”

Season 1, Episode 4

"Miserable" (season #1; originally aired February 16, 1994)

If the creators of The Critic had had their way, “Miserable” would have aired immediately after the show’s pilot. That meant that The Critic would feature back-to-back episodes in which its ostensibly hapless, luckless protagonist is aggressively pursued by beautiful women seeking a sexual relationship with him.

ABC wasn’t having it. According to the episode’s audio commentary, the network was so shocked and horrified by what it saw as the episode’s pervasive smuttiness that it wanted to nix it altogether. ABC apparently felt the episode was so filthy nothing could redeem it. It consequently fell upon Executive Producer James L. Brooks to save the episode using the incredible power he accrued as one of the most successful and powerful men in Hollywood and one of the driving forces behind The Simpsons, Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Brooks succeeded in getting the episode made but it ended up running fourth rather than second. “Miserable” is relatively tame by today’s standards but it nevertheless features the show’s least commercial elements in unusually pure form. First and foremost there is the episode’s persistent smuttiness. “Miserable” is a tale of ribaldry both in its broad outlines and in its particulars.

The episode’s central plot has Jay entering into an enthusiastic, no-strings-attached sexual relationship with a spooky-eyed projectionist who is eager to fuck his brains out yet is curiously reticent to even introduce herself to him. That’s smutty enough in itself but it’s nothing compared to Jay’s counter-productive defense of American Puritanism.

When Australian best friend Jeremy Hawke disparages American attitudes towards sex, Jay replies, ““We Americans aren’t like you Australians. It’s not just about sex. We want to make love to our mothers” with the perfect note of misplaced self-righteousness. Factor in an extended Indecent Exposure parody featuring a now destitute but still randy Robert Redford and a fantasy sequence where Jay sexualizes the Statue of Liberty and it’s easy to see why ABC viewed “Miserable” as a terrible way to ingratiate the show with skeptical audiences.

“Miserable” doesn’t just nakedly aspire to the New Yorker demographic with jokes about Haing S. Ngor and the salacious titles of Pauline Kael compilations; it actually features a cameo from The New Yorker mascot. Yes, The Critic was not shy about striking the occasional elitist note. That may have doomed them in the long and short run but it ultimately proved central to the show’s genial, cerebral charm.

“Miserable” opens with Jay’s perpetually glowering ex-wife glaring at him from a billboard she had installed outside his window and seemingly everyone in New York in love. The Critic alternates between a jaded, cynical take on New York as the exclusive domain of cranks, assholes and the proudly belligerent and a swooningly romantic view of New York as a glamorous wonderland of art and culture that’s deeply indebted to the films of Woody Allen, particularly Manhattan.

Both strains are apparent in this clip: we open with the familiar take on New Yorkers as belligerent blowhards spoiling for a fight but at the very first provocation these battling New Yorkers transform instantly into lovebirds. Not even cab drivers are immune to the spirit of romance sweeping the city.

Jay’s romantic losing streak hits an unexpected end when he locks eyes with the projectionist at the screening room. The attraction is as instant and powerful as it is seemingly inexplicable. The mystery projectionist fucks Jay’s brains out but she won’t talk to him. That only bothers Jay a bit. Otherwise, he’s electrified by the danger and excitement of his new fling and, specifically, “the danger of knowing that Leonard Maltin could walk in at any minute.” 

Yes, one could say that Jay has a different kind of Leonard Maltin game in mind for his new paramour. Upon entering his lover’s apartment for the first time, Jay makes a simultaneously horrifying and flattering discovery: his inamorata is dangerously obsessed with him, as we learn in this awesome 360 pan of her apartment.

At that point “Miserable” becomes a fairly straightforward parody of Misery with Jay cast in the James Caan role of the successful writer held captive by his biggest and most psychotic fan. In my favorite part of the episode, Jay’s desperate cries for help are heard by a doddering old biddy in a neighboring apartment who mistakes Jay’s disembodied voice for the voice of one of her cats. “Miserable” takes this plot twist to wonderfully dark places. First, it has Jay use the old woman’s quasi-sympathetic ear to air out old grievances. “Looking back, I think the other kids always picked me last for sports because I was smarter than them and not because of my unpredictable bladder. What do you think, Esther?” Jay asks the old woman next door smugly, clearly delighted to have someone, anyone, to talk to. In response, the old woman hurls what she sees as her complaining cat out the window.

When Jay first discovers his soon-to-be captor’s apartment he’s particularly struck by a sign of himself braying “Buy my book!” on a perpetual loop in the most irritatingly nasal, abrasive manner imaginable. It’s a killer gag that pays off beautifully when Jeremy Hawke breaks into Jay’s apartment climactically and is miraculously saved when the sign’s incessant chopping motion knocks Jay’s captor unconscious.

The sign saves Jay and Jeremy’s life but it is too goddamned annoying to live so Jeremy chooses to destroy it. “Miserable” begins even more cynically than it began. After Jeremy saves Jay, we flash-forward six months to discover that Jay has agreed to a second date with the woman who tried to kill him. It’s a bit of a gamble, he willingly concedes, but Jay is not so bitter or so spiteful that he can’t enjoy a knowing chuckle with his former captor over her plans to murder him. It is a wonderfully warped way to end what is unmistakably The Critic’s darkest episode and arguably also one of its funniest.   

Stray Observations—

—"You seem to have a psychotic obsession with me. I like that in a woman!"

—"I liked you better when we just had sex."

—If it wasn't for The Critic, no one on television would have been making The Killing Fields and Eraserhead jokes in 1994. And that would have been a goddamned shame

—"I knew that if I lived eighty-five years something interesting would happen!"

—"Severed Heads to Wed"—you gotta love a good New York Post joke

—"Oh, you sound just like the toaster."

—"Hold the cop salad. I'm making Kill Slaw!"—a very McBain joke and delivery, no?