Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has a finely tuned neural defense network to defend him against high-pitched kids show characters. [Defense breach! Defense breach!]
(Somewhere on the streets of Los Angeles in the early '90s…)
Pollster: Let's say you are a left wing progressive who is deeply concerned about environmental issues, rampant consumerism, and television violence. What's the best way to convert people to your point of view?
Studio exec: The answer is so obvious even you should be able to understand it. Create a sinister, off-putting television show, beat the moral message of the week like a bass drum until everyone gets it, call the viewers stupid, and pat them on the heads condescendingly while marketing our toys heavily to their children.
Pollster: Don't you think that would offend people?
Studio Exec: Good point. We'll make it a comedy!
Facts of the Case
The Sinclair family is a gaggle of dinosaurs who parody the postmodern sitcom family. Earl is a blustery dad with a small brain, Fran is a martyred stay-at-home mom, Robbie is a rebellious kid with wavy spikes on his head, and Charlene is a mall rat with a bleeding heart. There's also Grandma (who naturally hates Earl) and Baby (who hates everybody). The Sinclair family tries to avoid tar pits and glaciers while facing Very Special Issues such as profanity on television, species extinction, pollution, and more.
The first episode or two of this set gave me some great laughs. Dinosaurs does not hold back with its scathing social commentary, which leads to outrageous moments (such as the cop show parodies which are ultra, ultra violent). The full-body puppet suits reveal a high level of technical sophistication. Even the crude potty humor got me with a sneak attack here and there. When you add in the environmentalist, progressive agenda, I was really starting to like the show.
What's right with Dinosaurs is unfortunately not enough to mask an unsettling first impression that grows like unchecked poppies. As the show continued its forced march over a line of Very Special Issues, I grew less and less enthused with the pandering, condescending, smarmy, I'm-right-and-you're-wrong, insulting, holier-than-thou, browbeating, self-satisfied, elitist—sit tight for this short commercial break—arrogant, patronizing, supercilious, and opprobrious way they hammered each point home. By the time the episode is done, you'll get the Very Special Message. Unless you are one of those stupid, slack-jawed automatons who like to watch TV…In that case, buy a Baby Sinclair action doll for the low, low price of $19.95!
Had the Sinclairs more moments of unguarded connection with each other, or had the writers winked at us once or twice, this smug sarcasm might have worked. Whether lowest-common-denominator writing is to blame or whether the plastic eyes of the dinosaurs are not organic enough to engage us, something places the audience at a great distance from the characters. Unlike Al Bundy or even the irascible Archie Bunker, Earl Sinclair has no redeeming warmth. Unlike the love-hate relationships that give modern sibling rivalries some teeth, Robbie and Charlene simply are. Grandma is mean (get it?) and baby is self centered (get it?).
Don't get me wrong, Dinosaurs is full of sublime moments, such as a tear-down of the Barney mystique. In some cases, these moments last entire episodes. In particular, the last two aired episodes are amazing for different reasons. "Terrible Twos" is a gut-busting parody of The Exorcist that any parent of young children can fundamentally appreciate. "Changing Nature," the last aired episode, ranks among the best final episodes in television history. For once, the writers drop their self-assured smugness and really take the gloves off. The resulting farewell is as mesmerizing as it is grim and final.
These superlative episodes, combined with good editing and amazing technical work, demonstrate that Dinosaurs has real talent behind it. The shame is that the show's collective ego was allowed to run rampant. While shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy take cheap shots at American culture, they maintain an oblique angle. Dinosaurs turns straight ahead and attacks the audience, so confident in their moral superiority that any barb is justified. Even when I agreed with their messages, I was put off by the delivery.
There's another angle that can't be overlooked: voice acting. Sally Struthers has a distinctive voice that has been parodied many a time; she gave way to Arlene Lorre in the later seasons and thus isn't an issue in this set. But Kevin Clash, the linebacker-cum-voice actor, is still in the mix. Kevin Clash is an accomplished voice actor who appeals to children with impressive ease. He singlehandedly reinvented Sesame Street with Elmo, one of the most enduring and beloved children's characters of our day. Elmo is so great for children that Kevin Clash has earned everlasting respect (unless he pulls an Eddie Murphy or something). But just like any parent of young children can identify with "Terrible Twos," perhaps many of them share the fingers-on-a-chalkboard reaction I have to Kevin Clash's baby voice. Baby Sinclair is like Elmo with no superego, an unrestrained ball of shrill self-indulgence. As soon as Baby threw out his first high-pitched insult, my Elmo vocal defense system went on red alert.
Even so, Dinosaurs has a vocal fan base that considers it to be superior television. As far as I can tell, most people who love the show saw it during it's production run. The social and political climate has changed since 1991 and perhaps this shift in mindset highlights the show's flaws. There's no doubt that Dinosaurs fans not only exist, but thrive—and have been awaiting this set for a long time.
Those fans will find the set suitable. There is softness in the visual presentation while the audio is flat, but understandable. "Creatures With A Cause: The Issues of Dinosaurs" is frankly a wash and nothing more than a self-congratulatory clip show. "I'm the Baby, Gotta Love Me" has more teeth, discussing the show's most noteworthy character and ending with a live demonstration by Kevin Clash. This is a fitting finale; an eerie juxtaposition of intimidating physique and baby talk. (The extra is not a music video, contrary to some reports.) Though the episode commentaries reinforce the show's ego problem, the assembled cast and crew make many informative comments that make the commentaries worth listening to. Were this all, fans would have a right to be slightly disappointed in the set. Fortunately, seven unaired episodes will give fans something to really dive into. These are not deleted scenes or production tests, but complete, post-produced episodes. That is a huge bonus.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Reading so much praise (from marketers and fans of the show) of Dinosaurs as a wholesome family show, I got this to watch with my 4-year-old son. You know, "Disney" and "great family show" had me thinking Dinosaurs is suitable for all ages. It really isn't. The exaggerated parodies of cop shows feature lots of blazing guns and bullet-riddled corpses which gave me pause—and unnerved my kid.
Believe me, I wish Dinosaurs didn't annoy and insult me. With its razor-sharp satire of family issues and its progressive agenda, Dinosaurs seems like a sure bet. Yet Baby and his frying pan beatings to the head are more than a metaphor.
Guilty of failing the ego check.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "I'm the Baby, Gotta Love Me"
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