[1 May 2006]
Although it has become little more than a fondly remembered footnote in television history, Dinosaurs deserves better than that. At the outset of the 1990s, the upstart Fox network had its first serious success with the advent of The Simpsons. After surpassing its modest origins as an animated supplement to The Tracy Ullman Show (ensuring Ullman enduring fame as a Trivial Pursuit answer), The Simpsons became an authentic pop-culture phenomenon. Kids today, who have grown up with The Simpsons as yet another component of the white-noise media environment, might not understand just how big a deal the show was. But it was big. And so it was ruthlessly copied and plagiarized.
Dinosaurs had the distinction of being not only the longest-lived of the primetime cartoons that followed in immediate the wake of The Simpsons, but also the best (who remembers Capitol Critters and Fish Police?). More than just the sum of its amazing animatronic puppeteering parts, Dinosaurs understood what made The Simpsons so enduring, not to mention (to a greater or lesser degree) The Flintstones, King of the Hill, and South Park. Animation (or puppetry) is a perfect vehicle for social satire because it places characters and situations at a slight distance from our own lives. Whereas Dinosaurs’ message-based storytelling would have seemed preachy in the mouths of live-action performers, a seven-foot tall Megalosaurus can get downright nasty when inveighing on the ills of modern, er, prehistoric society.
Dinosaurs was the last full project conceived by Jim Henson before his untimely death in 1990. Although the Muppets have become innocuous children’s icons, Henson always had in mind something beyond “mere” entertainment. His creatures are more complex than they might seem to rapt seven-year-olds, be it Yoda philosophizing, Kermit being hunted for food in the first Muppet Movie or the downright baroque fantasies of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
Indeed, Dinosaurs can be a rather nasty show. Although it keeps the family unit and all the warm fuzzies associated with filial love front and center, the show’s major theme is the extremely fine line separating the recently domesticated dinosaurs from their antisocial, carnivorous ancestors. Repeatedly, Earl (voiced by Stuart Pankin), head of the Sinclair family (think about the gas station logo and you’ll get the joke), wonders whether or not it wouldn’t be easier to eat his offspring than to feed them.
In concert with this challenge to what we might call “consumer culture,” the series mounted an ongoing critique of corporate culture. Whereas ecological issues are now regularly visible in mainstream media, they weren’t very common on primetime TV some 16 years ago. Seeing Earl Sinclair go to work knocking down trees to build a massive suburban development at the whim of the Wesayso Corporation is still pretty fierce, considering that the debate over such development and sprawl has become, if anything, even more sharply politicized in Red and Blue America. It’s also slightly depressing to realize just how little these issues have advanced in the ensuing decade and a half.
Drawing from these topical concerns, the persistent theme of Dinosaurs is the struggle between tradition and self-determination. Society in 60 million BC, much like ours, is a deceptively fragile knot of shared assumptions and unexamined conventional wisdom. When and where is it appropriate to buck “the system,” be it a family, a job or a place in a rigidly hierarchical society? Dinosaurs answers it is always necessary for the conscientious individuals to question those aspects of their lives they don’t understand or enjoy.
Consider the ritual long taken for granted by the dinosaurs, that all males must howl at the moon once a month. On the eve of his first howling (in the episode aptly titled “The Howling”), young Robbie Sinclair (Jason Willinger) asks why that is. The answer is surprisingly subtle: while tradition for tradition’s sake can be superfluous, sometimes, unexamined conventions do have meaning, even if forgotten. So, on their 72nd birthdays, all dinosaurs are flung into the tar pits for the sake of their clan. Again, Robbie asks the question (in “Hurling Day”): does this ritual have merit in current dinosaur society? (As Earl celebrates the prospect of tossing his mother-in-law into the tar pit, the viewer realizes that mother-in-law jokes are a constant through all time and space.)
Not all aspects of the show have aged so well. The cloying baby dinosaur character (called only “Baby”) is still as annoying as you remember. Robbie’s earnest equivocations occasionally reach Lisa Simpson-like levels of self-righteousness. Other allusions to previous shows are less troubling, including the casting of Sally Struthers as the voice of Charlene Sinclair, and viewers can be forgiven if they notice more than a passing resemblance to Gloria Bunker-Stivic. Likewise, Sherman Helmsley (better known as George from The Jeffersons) drops by to provide the voice of Earl’s rapacious boss B.P. Richfield.
While the show impresses, the DVD presentation is, unfortunately, nowhere near as classic. Given the extreme technical wizardry involved in animating the dinosaurs and creating their three-dimensional world, it would have been nice if this DVD set had included more than a perfunctory making-of documentary and a brief look at the conceptual sketches used to pitch the show to ABC. Extra demerits for advertising the existence of hidden “Dino-Eggs,” packed with bonus clips: what’s the point of hiding Easter eggs if you tell everyone where they are?
Though Dinosaurs didn’t last past four seasons, the hallmarks of Henson’s playful skepticism yet color current popular culture. It’s ironic that a show so obviously influenced by Henson would inspire an animation boom that would, in turn, result in Henson’s last ideas being produced for television. But that’s usually how these things work. What goes around comes around.