The Short Life of a Critic
The brief behind-the-scenes featurette on The Critic: The Complete Series reveals that creators Al Jean and Mike Reiss conceived a live action television series about a morning news program. Deciding they needed a film critic, they immediately thought of Jon Lovitz, a casting choice that so delighted this writing/producing team responsible for some of the best of The Simpsons that they were unable to write their morning news sitcom, and instead concentrated their efforts on a series about a film critic. Lovitz was unwilling to commit to a live action project, and so the team returned to animation and The Critic was born.
The animated Jay Sherman, film critic and host of Coming Attractions, is perfect for Lovitz. He may never find anything in live action that serves him quite so well. I don’t mean that as a dig at his comic abilities (or his looks); it’s just that Sherman is an ideal outlet for the actor’s ham. Lovitz’s best live action work has been in SNL sketches, and sketch-like cameos in movies like A League of Their Own (1992) and The Wedding Singer (1998). I like the guy, and I still can’t imagine him carrying, say, a feature film of his own. But as a cartoon, he’s continually inspired.
Cartoons can embody qualities that live action actors may find difficult (try to imagine Homer Simpson as endearing in the flesh). Lovitz’s alter ego, a divorced New York intellectual with wealthy WASPish parents (he’s adopted and, it’s implied, Jewish), allows for his two biggest strengths as a performer: sarcasm and ironic overacting. Sherman demonstrates—repeatedly—a neediness that might be off-putting in flesh form. At the same time, he is prone to operatic pronouncements, even screaming fits, that bring to mind Lovitz’s old Master Thespian bit, but the cartoon version, paradoxically, supplies crucial humanity.
A marriage of voice-acting, writing, and animation that rivals some of the best Pixar work, Sherman is nonetheless hampered occasionally by the writers’ over-sampling from the Homer Simpson playbook, mainly gags concerning Jay’s girth and accompanying appetites. More effectively, The Critic‘s humor is very much in the spirit of The Simpsons, taken in a more brazenly surreal direction.
When it originally aired, in fact, the series was (for better or worse) slightly ahead of its time, outlandish in a way that The Simpsons would not adopt until later. Rewatching it now, The Critic seems most similar stylistically to the more recent series Family Guy, with its frequent cutaway gags (usually preceded by a “Remember when…?” like a cheesy clip show gone mad) and blurring of fantasy and reality. The Simpsons introduced these qualities in moderation; The Critic and Family Guy are addicted to them, sometimes to a crippling degree.
The reference-heavy, media-saturated, sketch-like structure works better for The Critic than Family Guy, though, because the former is less in love with itself and its desire to shock or offend. Indeed, it’s more strange than twisted, with jokes about columnist Jimmy Breslin teaching pre-school, or how even Sean Connery can’t look cool in front of his parents (“Eat your haggis!” intones his mother in “A Song for Margo,” 2.2). Unlike Family Guy, it has a frame of reference beyond television, beyond even its self-created film niche. The creators say they intended the series as their “love letter to New York,” and at its best, it’s a ‘toon-world cross between The New Yorker and the New York Post.
Like both of those publications, The Critic is sometimes out of touch. The satire isn’t always as biting as it could be; many of the movie parodies eschew real critique in favor of non sequiturs or homage. Too often the writers rely on audience familiarity with popular movies, showing clips from sequel parodies where Jurassic Park‘s cunning raptors puff on pipes and Jack Nicholson follows up Wolf with a less menacing Chicken (the writers love to poke fun at Nicholson, and reveal themselves as equally smitten with Scent of a Woman digs, as Pacino’s showy performance is spoofed at least three times over the course of the series). It’s amusing to be sure, but rarely as deadpan hilarious as The Simpsons’ parade of fabricated Troy McClure B-movies.
Media-saturated New York City provides a lot of good material, though, especially in the form of Duke Phillips (voice of Charles Napier), a macho Ted Turner-ish media mogul, as well as Jay’s boss and sometime friend. Several Duke-centric episodes are a riot, including “All the Duke’s Men” (2.8), in which he runs for president and Jay, as his speechwriter, must reject some of Duke’s less friendly slogans (“Irish Suck: Vote for Duke!”). Jay also pals around with Jeremy Hawke (invaluable voice actor Maurice LaMarche), a handsome Australian action star; the show takes great delight in surrounding their rotund protagonist with tall, fit, more successful and more masculine figures. The show’s best joke is that virtually everyone Jay Sherman meets is closer to living a glamorous movie life than he. In this way, it captures the life of a critic perfectly; Jay Sherman seems doomed to observe.
When the show first aired, I was a little disappointed by its deviations from the media world into sitcom plots that could happen on any number of cartoons (Jay’s son goes on his first date; Jay gets a job as a truck driver). But looking again at its 23-episode run, I’m struck by how seamlessly the writers weave in the pop culture stuff. Perhaps The Critic was destined for early cancellation, if even some of its fans didn’t fully appreciate it when it aired.
As with the TV run (first on ABC, then on Fox, and then in reruns on Comedy Central), the complete DVD set arrives relatively unheralded but destined for cult appreciation. The set’s packaging makes no reference to bonus materials, but they’re here, and strong: commentaries on several episodes by the engaging Reiss and Jean and cohorts, the aforementioned making-of bit, and the complete run of short Critic episodes produced for shockwave.com in 2000. This kind of archiving of a series too brief to find healthy syndication afterlife is one of DVD’s major benefits.