Judge Victor Valdivia lives his life in claymation and racially charged humor. He should be canceled any minute now.
"Whitney Houston, we have a problem!"
If ever a show was a victim of political correctness, that show would be the animated series The PJs. When it premiered in 1999, The PJs instantly earned considerable criticism for supposedly trafficking in racial stereotypes and tasteless humor. It also earned several awards, including three Emmys, for its unique look, gifted voice actors, and unusual writing. Now, with this DVD release, viewers can finally see the show without any of the controversy and realize that The PJs: Season 1 is no more offensive than other animated series of the era and is more clever and funny than most.
Facts of the Case
Thurgood Orenthal Stubbs (Eddie Murphy, Vampire In Brooklyn) is the superintendent of the Hilton-Jacobs projects, a run-down inner-city public housing community. Together with his loving wife Muriel (Loretta Devine, Grey's Anatomy), he deals with hostile tenants, clogged toilets, and uncooperative HUD officials while struggling to find as much time as possible to drink his malt liquor and watch his beloved TV set. Here are the thirteen episodes compiled on two discs:
• "Rich Man Porn Man"
• "Hangin' With Mr. Super"
• "Journal Fever"
• "Bougie Nights"
• "Haiti Sings the Blues"
• "Bones, Bugs, N' Harmony"
• "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Super":
• "Boyz 'N' the Woods"
• "Operation Gumbo Drop"
• "U Go Kart"
• "House Potty"
When discussing The PJs, there are two aspects to consider. Visually, the show is a marvel. The claymation style by Will Vinton Studios (also responsible for the '80s "California Raisins" commercials) is so jawdroppingly endearing that you'll love the series for it alone. The design of the characters and sets is rich in detail and hugely evocative. These are cartoons but they instantly become recognizable characters, as much as if they were being portrayed by actors. The sets and props are so detailed that you completely accept the world depicted in the show. This is a housing project in every way, apart from its size and shape.
It wasn't the visuals that earned the show its controversy, however. It was the writing, and on that level, it's easy to see why The PJs was so incendiary. The writing staff included Murphy himself, The Simpsons vets Steve Tompkins, Al Jean, and Mike Reiss, and In Living Color alumni Marc and Larry Wilmore (the latter best known as the "Senior Black Correspondent" on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), writers not known for pulling their punches. Consequently, the humor on the show is edgy and raw. There's a recurring thieving crackhead named Smokey who starts as a thieving crackhead and remains a thieving crackhead as the series progresses with no apologies or excuses. For his part, Thurgood loves his 40 oz. bottles of malt liquor, to the degree that when other characters want to lure him out, all they have to do is threaten his 40s.
Of course, all of this is politically incorrect to the extreme. It's no surprise that filmmaker Spike Lee and conservative commentator Stanley Crouch attacked the show for supposedly perpetuating racial stereotypes. The criticism was heated enough that even though the show won several awards (including a pair of Emmys for DuBois), Fox, the network that aired it, essentially let the show wither into obscurity by neglecting to promote it and taking it off the air for several months. Though the show ran for two more seasons, it never became the commercial blockbuster that it should have, especially considering the talent behind it.
This, in retrospect, is hugely unfair. On a superficial level, yes, the show does depict stereotypes. Such criticism, however, misses the point. If shows like South Park and Family Guy (both of which were on the air at the same time) could mine similarly tasteless humor, why can't The PJs? Why hold the show up to some sort of unstated and unclear standard? Furthermore, it's not true that the characters are little more than stereotypes. Smokey may be an unrepentant crackhead, but in "Boyz 'N' the Woods" he helps the boys when they get lost in the city sewers. Thurgood may be a lazy loudmouth who loves his 40s but he has a heart and is brave enough to use it. He goes out of his way to help Mrs. Avery when she's lonely and poor, even if she is an unpleasant battle-ax, and he functions as a well-meaning, if rather inept, surrogate father to Calvin and Juicy. If you can look past the scabrous humor, you'll see that the show does have a point beyond edginess.
It's also worth pointing out another neglected facet: The PJs is funny. The local HUD office, where Thurgood must get all of his requisitions for the building, has a slogan out front: "Putting a Band-Aid on Poverty for 30 Years." "Operation Gumbo Drop" begins as a funny riff on Thurgood's unusual cooking skills and ends up as a note-perfect riff on Amadeus. The first half of the season is a bit tentative, but by "Haiti Sings the Blues" the writing hits its stride and the show gets some truly hilarious moments. If anything, it's a shame that the show was allowed to die before it could really take off because, judging by the last few episodes of this season and the quality of the writing, acting, and animation, The PJs could have easily rivaled The Simpsons or South Park at their best.
Lionsgate's DVD issue is decent though a bit disappointing. The full-screen transfer looks good but not great. There's some minor grain and artefacting here and there, though nothing too distracting. The stereo mix is good, making it easy to understand the dialogue. The biggest letdown is that there are no extras at all. Surely the people who worked on the show have some thoughts to share about it, especially about the controversy the show generated. Instead, judging by this low-key DVD release, it seems most people would rather just forget the show altogether, which is a shame.
With the controversy and hype long gone, it's possible finally to see The PJs on its own merits and realize that it's a funny and underrated show that deserves to be remembered. It may not be in quite the same league as the best of The Simpsons but the show could have easily hit that mark had it been allowed to continue. Anyone interested in a funny and uncompromising animated show (especially one that's a real treat to watch visually) should check it out.
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