Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dinosaurs (TV)

Created by
Michael Jacobs, Bob Young
Voices by Stewart Pankin, Jessica Walter, Jason Willinger, Sally Struthers, Kevin Clash, Sherman Helmsley, Florence Stanley
IMDB Entry

Any description gives the wrong impression.  A show by Jim Henson Associates and Disney, about walking and talking dinosaurs, with cute catchphrases and a view of family life.  It certainly sounds like a children's show, and was marketed as such.  But Dinosaurs was something much more:  an often pointed satire about just about anything it could get its sights on.

The basic concept for the show came from Muppet creator Jim Henson, who wanted to do a show with puppets about dinosaurs living in a 50-style TV sitcom family.  Henson died (far too young) before the concept was developed, but Michael Jacobs and Bob Young fleshed it out and sole the concept to Disney to be aired on ABC.

The Sinclair family. The show follows the adventures of the Sinclair* family:  Earl (voice of Stewart Pankin), the put-upon father**, his wife Fran (Jessica Walter), son Robbie (Jason Williger), daughter Charlene (Sally Struthers), and their baby, Baby (Kevin Clash).  Earl was a blue-collar traditionalist, while Robbie would often question the values.  Baby was aggressively cute,*** though he would always torture his father.

Other character included Earl's boss at the Wesayso Corporation, the despotic B.P. Richfield (Sherman Hensley), Earl's best friend Roy Hess (Sam McMurray), and his mother-in-law Ethyl Phillips (Florence Stanley).

The voice actors on the show were all just fine, and the puppeteers were amazing.  The characters faces were capable of a wide range of expressions, and their movement is so natural that you forget that these are people surrounded by pounds of foam rubber.

The show was similar to many other sitcoms, but always had a satirical edge, mocking fame, religion, TV shows (sometimes with direct parodies), prejudice, politics, fashion and other issues in a way that was surprisingly pointed.  One of my favorites was the two-part episode "Nuts to War," where the dinosaurs go to war with each other over the years crop of pistachio nuts. 

And then there was the final episode, one of the most surprising finales in TV history.  It had an ecological theme, where the actions of the WeSaySo Corporation leads to the extinction of a beetle, which is the only thing that keeps a certain creeper vine in check.  Fiasco leads to fiasco until Earth is blanketed in clouds, cooling down and becoming uninhabitable.  The last scenes show the Sinclair family in their house as winter arrives, waiting to die.  It's a chilling episode of what always had been a comedy and one of TVs most downbeat moments.  Few shows had had the nerve to end by killing off the entire cast, and this is the only one where it's genuinely tragic and not a gimmick.

The show has been out on DVD, marketed as a children's show.  And though it works on that level, like most Henson projects, it's aimed for a fare more grown-up audience.

*One of the subtle jokes on the show was naming the characters for oil companies.  "Sinclair" is an especially appropriate choice, since Sinclair Oil used a brontosaurus as its logo on its service stations.

**A redundant description for all 50s sitcoms.

***His voice was the same guy who did Elmo on Sesame Street.

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