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A Tribute to The Critic

        What’s the greatest animated show that ended before its time? There are plenty. Some ended well on their own accord like Gravity Falls and Cowboy Bebop. But many were unjustly cancelled like Mission Hill and Clone High. Among those cancelled shows, my favourite is a barely remembered ABC comedy called The Critic. The series was created by Al Jean and Mike Reiss shortly after their tenure as showrunners on The Simpsons came to an end. Seasons three and four which they oversaw are still widely regarded as among the best seasons of TV comedy so naturally they were given the chance to create their own show. The result was an animated comedy about a pathetic New York City film critic called Jay Sherman voiced by Jon Lovitz who hosts his own At the Movies-style show called Coming Attractions. The series follows the tribulations of his career as well as his personal life trying to find love and fulfilment while in a job where he must always focus on the negative. And is he ever negative, a great satire on pretentious film critics who only favour established classics, foreign films, and art-house experiments. The Critic ran thirteen episodes on ABC in 1994 before being cancelled and picked up for a ten episode second season on Fox in 1995 before being cancelled there too. One of the promotions for its run on Fox was a crossover in The Simpsons episode “A Star is Burns” (controversial at the time, but I love it!) and to this day many would recognize Jay Sherman purely from that show.
          Which is a shame because The Critic was and still is, an exceptionally funny show, skewering pop culture and Hollywood in a way unrivalled by none but The Simpsons at the time, and perhaps Animaniacs. The show addressed the commercialism of Hollywood with some great satire, the showbiz around New York, even things like special effects and restoration of classic films. In addition to a bunch of other smart jokes coming from all cylinders. It’s writing was great, boasting a staff that included Ken Keeler, Jon Vitti, Tom Gammill & Max Pross, Steve Tompkins, Patric M. Verrone, and even Judd Apatow!; and it was also one of the first prime-time animated series to follow The Simpsons. During it’s first season it had a unique realistic style of animation (a great middle-ground I’d say between The Simpsons and the style of Mike Judge) which was replaced with a more cartoon-y but still decent look in season two. The show featured a few alternating titles gags: Jay’s alarm would awaken him with either an upsetting radio broadcast or a derogatory answering machine message, and later we’d see a brief film parody on his show (in addition to an end credits gag). The characters of the show are pretty fun too even if they’re not given much time to develop. Jay is a great protagonist, a pretentious loser with an eccentric personality. A lot of jokes are made at his expense: his weight, height, lack of hair, and just general ugliness, and though they seem a little mean-spirited, they’re very fun and smart, and they never quite get him down. And a fair bit of his character stems from Jon Lovitz’s own quirkiness. His son Marty from a rotten divorce, voiced by Christine Cavanaugh is dopey but lovable like his father, and the precursor to a number of like characters. Jay has an adopted sister Margo voiced by Nancy Cartwright who’s not all that useful but does a decent job of keeping him grounded. His adoptive parents, a disappointed mother voiced by Judith Ivey and a senile father voiced by Gerrit Graham (who gets many of the show’s best one-liners) provide for a lot more laughs. Jay’s make-up lady Doris voiced by Doris Grau, is pretty funny; and Charles Napier is a very enjoyable Ted Turner type of executive called Duke Phillips who serves as Jay’s stern boss and grizzled counsellor. And though season two was a slight downgrade in animation, I think it was a fair exchange for the character of Alice Tompkins voiced by Park Overall, a Southerner who becomes Jay’s girlfriend. Though her presence meant less jokes targeting Jay’s unattractiveness, she was well-written and likeable enough that you appreciated having her around. Her daughter Penny voiced by Russi Taylor sadly didn’t have enough time to leave any impact.
          Though as much as I love the show, I can understand to a degree why The Critic didn’t last. For a show about a movie critic, it didn’t always focus on movies or the entertainment industry or even parodies of such. Though it’s important to show versatility in your series, the bulk of the first run of The Critic should have been focussed on his work and his character in general. Multiple times over its twenty-three episodes, Jay is fired or leaves his job for something else. There’s an episode focussed entirely on Jay running a marathon for example, and another where he becomes a trucker. In season two one show’s all a flashback to Jay winding up in the Gulf War and another is about Duke running for President. And because of these and a few other lacklustre ideas and parodies in the second season (not to mention ending on a clip show which is not a good way to go out!), it gave the impression the show was running out of stories for these characters, when really there was a lot of possibility. There’s also the fact I think it threw too many characters at you right from the start. The show should revolve around Jay and his life, but there are a number of supporting characters who are given the limelight like Duke, Marty, Margo, Alice, Jay’s mum; and the presence of so many characters from different areas of Jay’s life doesn’t always work (like the choice to make Margo so much younger than Jay she could’ve been his daughter). At the very least I think Maurice LaMarche’s Australian actor Jeremy Hawke and Nick Jameson’s eccentric waiter Vlada should have had reduced roles, especially considering between LaMarche and Jameson, they were already voicing every celebrity. And some of the jokes don’t land, especially a handful that awkwardly reference Jon Lovitz himself.
          But despite those reasons, I still think its short run was unfair. At the very least something like Comedy Central ought to have picked it up. If you want to check it out there are only twenty-three episodes, but if you want to cut out some of the fat, here are the ten best:

10.“Eyes on the Prize” -after his 1000th episode, Jay rethinks his image and tries to recall what made him a critic. We get to see Jay’s pretentious beginnings as a filmmaker, and a lot of good laughs as Jay tries to recover his muse. There are some great shots at Hollywood, the media’s relationship with critics, a bunch of good one-liners, and a speech the likes of which any film critic would be proud to give. Not to mention Phil Hartman voices the image consultant!

9.“Dr. Jay” -Duke’s diagnosis with a rare terminal disease comes at the same time he’s introducing PhillipsVision, a new technology that allows him to alter classic films. In addition to showing a different side of Jay and Duke’s relationship as Jay tries to find a cure, the movie parodies are great -I have never seen a better spoof of Spartacus that’s not the “I’m Spartacus” scene, and that fake Jurassic Park 2 may have been better than the actual Jurassic Park sequel. Also it’s a perfect moral of “don’t mess with classic movies”!

8.“A Little Deb Will Do Ya” -Margo is forced to go to a débutante ball when her horse’s life is threatened. There’s also a subplot about Jay’s rival being a childrens’ show host akin to Barney. We get to see Ma Sherman being surprisingly cruel, Margo’s character and values, and even a surprising female masturbation joke. There’s a heart to the episode though; you can’t help but sympathize with Margo’s feelings. And the Jay plot is pretty funny even if it does go to a predictable place. 

7.“Sherman, Woman, and Child” -This was the season two première, introducing Alice Tompkins as a Southern single mother who Jay helps as she settles into New York, eventually getting her a job as his assistant. But Jay faces competition for her affections with her ex-husband Cyrus. It’s a cute episode that initiates the relationship between Jay and Alice; and though it’s not entirely believable she’d go for him this quickly, their scenes together are really nice even if it’s not one of the funniest episodes.

6.“Every Doris Has Her Day” -Jay becomes closer to Doris and upon learning she gave up a son for adoption, they suspect she’s his biological mother. It’s actually sweet to see these two characters bond, both being outcasts due to their physical unattractiveness. Doris Grau in particular is great, probably the best she’s ever been. And I want to see that Hunchback of Notre Dame show! There may be a few too many cutaways but the characters make it work, as does the humour and the heart. 

5.“L.A. Jay” -Jay sells a screenplay to a major studio, only to arrive in Hollywood and discover what we all suspected, that movies like his aren’t made for fear of being too good; and Jay is assigned instead to write a sequel to a mindless popcorn flick. There are the typical jokes about Hollywood excess and producers being windbags but they’re done well here, sticking it to the system in more original ways too. There are some great celebrity jokes, and a glimpse at a Ghostbusters 3 that’s likely better than the one we’re actually getting.

4.“Pilot” -Jay begins a relationship with an actress, which gets complicated when he has to review her movie and discovers she’s no good. This inaugural show sets up Jay’s misery greatly as well as his ethics, and the comedy is on point. But it’s also an episode that’s surprisingly endearing and heartfelt in how much it plays up Jay’s sadness, desperation, as well as joy when he’s in love. That in addition to some good parodies like Beauty and the Beast and Home Alone, set the tone for the rest of the series rather well.

3.“Lady Hawke” -Jay finds himself attracted to Jeremy Hawke’s sister Olivia, which throws his unclear relationship with Alice into jeopardy. Though the romance between Jay and Alice is a little unbelievable, it’s also kinda sweet. Both try to figure out their feelings in this episode, which leads to some good character development and a touching if unoriginal ending. I can’t help but love it though. The comedy’s not the strongest, but it does hit a few bullseyes, particularly in a lampoon of Saturday Night Live that’s unfortunately still relevant.

2.“Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice” -How can a show called The Critic not eventually guest star the two most famous movie critics of all time?! Siskel & Ebert break up and each want Jay to be their new partner. From there the comedy pretty much writes itself! Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert voice themselves, making fun of movies and trading insults like the naturals they were! They take over the show but earn it, this episode being by far the funniest of the second season! And the ending is really funny, while also a good commentary on and tribute to Siskel & Ebert’s humble relationship.

1. “Miserable” -Tired of feeling unloved and depressed, Jay is relieved to be the object of affection of a local theatre projectionist voiced by Pamela Reed. But as it turns out, she’s an obsessive fan of his who drugs and kidnaps him. This is the best parody of Misery I’ve ever seen and almost every joke is hilarious. The episode contains the show’s most famous quote (a cardboard cut-out of Jay repeating “Buy My Book!”) and a ton of great visual gags and references. It’s as sharp as any of the great Simpsons episodes, is terrifically performed, well-written, and the end joke is perfectly characteristic of Jay Sherman. It’s episodes like these that make The Critic more than a worthy cult classic of TV comedy!

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