The Critic: “Uneasy Rider”
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The Critic: “Uneasy Rider”

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The Critic

“Uneasy Rider”

Season 1, Episode 12

“Uneasy Rider” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 07/13/1994)

I am a critic—but more than that I am an enthusiast. I write about pop culture because I love pop culture. I cover particular podcasts because I think they’re fascinating and worthwhile and terribly amusing and want to evangelize on their behalf. I only cover television shows I like or love or was at one point at least disturbingly fascinated by (I’m looking at you, Jersey Shore, or at least I was before I lost interest).

I’m certainly not writing about a beloved but half-forgotten short-lived television show like The Critic because our readership angrily demands that it be covered. I’m writing about The Critic for one reason and one reason only: because I love it and want to share my enthusiasm for it with like-minded souls. I’m going out on a limb here and assuming that everyone who reads these TV Club posts does so because they love the show as well and want to reminisce about a favorite cult item from our recent past.

Yes, I write about The Critic because I love it, so it feels weird to write a lukewarm post about how this particular episode, to paraphrase the catchphrase of the show’s famously sour protagonist, is uneven and overly familiar and ultimately a little disappointing. All right, so maybe that isn’t Jay Sherman’s catchphrase but I’m certainly not going to write that “Uneasy Rider” stinks. Because even at its worst (and I would argue that this is the weakest episode I’ve written about so far) The Critic is amusing and clever and diverting, and it established such high standards during its first season (a season that approaches the best of The Simpsons at its delirious peaks) that an only intermittently funny episode can’t help but pale by comparison.

Like “L.A Jay,” “Uneasy Rider” finds Jay straying from his profession, job, and existential identity and embarking on a bold new professional path. Not surprisingly, the philistine dictates of Duke Phillips and his desire for Jay to whore his television show out like a three-dollar Parisian prostitute are at the root of this temporary change in job.

In this case, Duke wants Jay to deliver an on-camera testimonial for Savvy Indian Tobacco, a brand that previously went under the moniker Savage Indian, before cultural sensitivity dictated a name change. Jay is appropriately horrified, at which point Duke, who threatens to replace Jay only slightly less frequently than Mr. Spacely did George Jetson (constant threats of termination: truly the glue holding cartoon boss-employee relationships together for decades!), tries to scare Jay with the prospect of being replaced by a seal trained to discern between good and bad movies. “We call it our ‘Seal of Approval,’” Duke says with altogether too much pride.

When Jay tears up his contract and throws it on the floor (prompting a predictably dated parody of the PSA from the 1970s with the crying Indian weeping over what humanity has done to his beautiful planet), Duke ends up doing something even more desperately than going outside Jay’s species for a replacement; he hires the perpetually desperate and publicity hungry Rex Reed to fill in for him. Reed is not only willing to slide right into Jay’s slot—he’s willing to sing an offensive Native American jingle for tobacco.

The once proud Jay is so terrified of poverty that he begs for a job at a pizza place from a teenager named Mr. Pizzaface, only to be told, “We only hire senior citizens. It’s part of our ‘Enslave the elderly program.’” It’s a funny line but like so much of the episode, it feels like a less-inspired variation of something the show had done before, in this instance the gag in “Marathon Mensch,” where an elderly marathon runner explains that he ran the marathon, “to show that instead of putting old people in nursing homes, you can turn us into slaves and pack animals.” Enslaving the elderly is always funny, and it’s amusing to see Walter Cronkite manning a fry machine and sadly uttering his catchphrase in a vastly less-dignified context—but it also feels awfully familiar.

Jay then embarks on an unexpected career path as a long-distance truck driver, a job suggested to him in an underwhelming parody/homage to The Graduate. Quick, pointless aside: Charles Napier, the voice and soul of Duke Phillips, actually wrote for what his website gloriously describes as “the most powerful trucking magazine in the country” during a lull in his acting career in the 1970s. How awesome is that? What a bad-ass existence that man led.

Jay, however, has led a much less bad-ass existence, though he’s surprised to discover that his ostensibly rough and tumble new professional trucking colleagues have shockingly refined taste: when he tries on “Cineaste” as his new trucker handle he learns it’s already taken. Jay worries that his Susan B. Anthony mudflaps will make him the laughingstock of his new employer, only to learn that his peers have Betty Friedan, the Black History Month combo of Harriet Tubman/Rosa Parks (in the interest of sensitivity, Parks’ mudflap is in the front of course), and Golda Meir.

The unexpectedly refined taste of truckers, cops, and farmers provides most of the episode’s chuckles. I particularly enjoyed when a Jackie Gleason lookalike highway patrolman discovers that Jay is an inveterate city slicker and excitedly inquires about Tama Janowitz’s next novel and enthuses about the bars of Christopher Street, “where anything can happen”—and, as his deputy just as excitingly declares, “usually does.” I similarly enjoyed when Jay is nearly lured away from his job picking up politically correct textbooks from Florida (oh, political correctness: the lazy mid-1990s joke-writer’s best friend) by a sign shilling, “Meet Ingmar Bergman, 25 cents.” When Jay, of all people, rides right past him, the farmer tells the filmmaking giant, “You best get back in the peanut patch with Polanski and Bertolucci.”

I don’t remember laughing more than a few times during “Uneasy Rider,” but looking back, it has its share of funny lines and amusing gags. They just feel a little too easy, whether the show is waxing all egghead and intellectual with gags about the Guggenheim Museum, Samuel Beckett, and Mummenschanz or going the low road with jokes about Jay’s girth, Chevy Chase, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Last Action Hero, Carmen Miranda, and Jerry Lewis.

“Uneasy Rider” eventually coalesces into a riff on one of my all-time favorite films:  Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’ classic about a deluded, idealistic filmmaker (Joel McCrea) who goes undercover as a hobo in a bid to understand the working man and channel his plight into a dour, neo-realist masterpiece. Of course, McCrea discovers that the working man he aspires to uplift desperately needs the kind of frothy fluff he churned out before as a means of escape from their hard, dreary lives.

When Jay and his trucker friends go to see a movie called Ultimate Force that turns out to be a science documentary starring Stephen Hawking (gravity, it seems, is the ultimate force of the title, not Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal) Jay realizes that he can better serve humanity—and more specifically movie-loving truckers—by returning to his pretentious, highbrow old job than by continuing in his gritty new working-class profession. It’s a resolution that sends Jay back to New York and his old job (during the interim Reed has gone crazy and spends every episode of Coming Attractions playing the Savvy Indian jingle on his banjo and murmuring it over and over again in a crazed haze) even if it doesn’t feel entirely earned.

As if to underline the thin nature of the story, Jay comes out after the show’s official end to inform us that if we wish to read more about truckers we’re out of luck, since no literature about them exists, and inform us that if we want a transcript of the evening’s show, we should write to “What was the point?” in care of our local station.

I found myself liking the episode more in hindsight than I did while watching it, especially some of the more self-consciously highbrow gags, even if the show did run the hicks-enjoying-highbrow-culture bit into the crowd. And any episode with a funny, raunchy parody of Clint Eastwood’s chimpanzee movies (Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby respectively) can’t be all bad.  

But “Uneasy Rider” does appear to be the work of a profoundly gifted writing staff that was running out of steam and new ideas at the end of a pretty magnificent, generally hilarious and inspired first season. “Uneasy Rider” is The Critic at its weakest, but in its first season prime, it was incapable of being anything less than good.

Stray observations:

  • In Chicago there used to be a gay bar called The Manhole that locals made jokes about (because it was, you know, called The Manhole) so it was amusing to see that title pop up in this episode
  • It was also fun to see Lovitz reprise his Harvey Fierstein impersonation from Saturday Night Live
  • I liked how Jay’s diminished social standing was reflected by Vlada telling his staff to, “Chain them in the fruit cellar with mama!”
  • “I was President of a Truckers Union for a while. That reminds me. There’s a lot of money in some dead bodies buried in the backyard,” remembers Franklin in one of his many anecdotes that start out impressive and respectable then take quite the turn
  • Next week marks the final episode of The Critic’s first season. That makes me all melancholy and bittersweet and nostalgic and shit.