Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Don't Tell Santa You're Jewish! (2010)

Don't Tell Santa You're Jewish! from The Juki Museum on Vimeo.

Jody is a lonely Jew; she's apprehensive about the things that mark her out as different from her peers and she'd sooner not be drawing attention to herself when there are Christmas festivities afoot.  When her domineering mother pushes her into sitting on Santa's lap in order to get a present at her hockey club's Christmas party, Jody is fearful that Santa will expose her as a fraud, but instead she finds solidarity from an unexpected source.

Don't Tell Santa You're Jewish! is the work of Canadian independent animator Jody Kramer, and tells the charming story of a perceived outsider struggling with the sting of not fitting in during the festive season.  Jody's anxieties about meeting Santa and having to conceal her Jewishness are depicted in a manner that's instantly relatable, no matter what your religious or cultural affinities, while Kramer's soft but squirmy pastel-coloured art style captures a sense of childhood angst that's by turns squeamish and beguiling.  Owing largely to Jody's uneasiness about being forced into the Christmas festivities, the film's take on the holiday is refreshingly non-sentimental; indeed, there's a wry underpinning throughout in how Christmas is predominantly represented as a time of great self-interest and material gain, as exemplified by the girl who beleaguers Santa with her ridiculously long list of wants.  To the majority of party-goers, the tradition of sitting on Santa's lap is not regarded as anything other than a means of getting one's mitz upon a free present, the real joy and excitement of Christmas day being in finally getting to rip the paper off the damned thing.  Jody cares far less about such things that she does about trying to make it through the day with her social dignity intact, and we sympathise with her in having to traverse this crass little wasteland for the sake of a box with chintzy wrapping, the contents of which, we suspect, aren't actually all that amazing in the first place. 

In many respects, Kramer's film is a subversion of the traditional coming of age story in which a child is forced to confront the reality (or non-reality) of Santa.  Here, it's the destruction of Santa's mystique - the peeling away of the beard to reveal a mere human hiding behind a bulky suit - that makes him accessible to Jody.  For much of the film, Jody's view of Santa is as the embodiment of everything that makes her feel different and isolated in the world, but her anxieties subside the instant that she's able to see past that and identify with the man underneath.  She walks away with a newfound confidence, lifted by the realisation that she's not so alone in trying to get by in a world that's not intrinsically understanding or sympathetic, and maybe not as bound by labels or convention as she always assumed.  Jody's social unease also seems to have lessened by the end - compared to the sneering suspicion of the two girls who confronted her in the queue, the two girls who greet her post-Santa seem much more accepting (perhaps because Jody is now holding a present and can be safely recognised as one of them), leading to a humorous exchange in which Jody, awkwardly but more self-assured than before, attempts to return their seasonal greetings using her own more inclusive vernacular.

Notably, Jody leaves the party with a freedom which would surely make her the envy of her impatient, present-craving peers, in that she is not bound by any tradition which forbids her from opening her gift before Christmas day.  Only we know that this isn't really important to Jody, and it's no surprise that the the tangible present doesn't even come up during the final scene showing the ride home.  Instead, Jody's mind is elsewhere - now much more open to the notion that limitations can be challenged and, no longer feeling inhibited by either her religion or her gender, she ponders if she too can assume the role of Santa one day.  This sureness in her own adaptability is the real gift that Santa (ahem, Adam Steinbauer) has bestowed on her, and Jody's desire to inspire those same feelings of support and solidarity in others has a gentle wholesomeness that far transcends the commercialism unfolding around her.  Ultimately, it's a joyous ode to the simple human connections that remind us that we always belong in the world, no matter what kinds of barriers it seems intent on erecting, and that we can figure out how to survive and play our part in it.

Happy seasonal holidays, everyone.  And be sure to check out Jody Kramer's official website.  She has some really neat stuff tucked away in there.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Confessions of a Family Dog Viewer: "Family Dog Gets Good and Sick"

Original air date: 28th July 1993

Baby, we made it.  We've reached the tenth and final episode of Family Dog - once this particular instalment had aired, the character's career was at a total dead-end and the series was immediately consigned to the scrapheap of ill-fated and ill-advised ventures into television animation, where it had Fish Police, Capitol Critters and the Hollywood Dog pilot for company.  The really pressing question, of course, is does it at least enable the series to go out on a high note?  Yeah, I'd say so, in that "Family Dog Gets Good and Sick" is easily the outright weirdest episode in all the series, and that's not such a bad way of wrapping things up.  Not to mention that it actually works pretty effectively as a finale.  If you read the introductory post I wrote on the series back in June, you might recall me mentioning that there were originally intended to be thirteen episodes of Family Dog, although production difficulties meant that three of those episodes never saw the light of the day.  As essentially nothing is known about the three discarded episodes, I cannot say definitively if "Family Dog Gets Good and Sick" was actually intended to be the series finale, but if you'd presented it to me as such then I could certainly buy it.  The closing images have a surprisingly poignant sense of finality to them - in fact, for each and every flaw I've picked at over the course of this retrospective I do have to give the series props for rounding things off as sweetly as it does.  If there's a totally, 100% sincere complement I can pay Family Dog, it's that the specific scene it bows out upon actually ranks as one of my all-time favourite series closers.  There's a lovely, delicate sense of subtly and sensitivity in the final moments that was totally absent from just about everywhere else in the series.  It's so beautiful and yet it also frustrates the hell out of me, because it hints at what Family Dog might have been with just a dose more heart and sharper scripting.

The biggest weakness of "Family Dog Gets Good and Sick" is, as has so often been the case with this series, story structure.  This episode feels, more than any other before it, like two back-to-back shorts which happen to be linked upon a common theme; namely, the dog feeling out of sorts for various reasons.  In the first half, the dog has his first encounter with canine mortality when he comes face-to-face with the corpse of a neighbourhood dog who was struck down by a car, and descends into a state of feverish paranoia upon realising that he could be next.  In the second, the dog gets bitten by a radioactive mosquito (no kidding) and becomes a feverish, now perpetually-vomiting wreck (no doggy vomit appears onscreen, but he gets up to some first-rate gagging).  In both cases, a certain female chihuahua from Family Dog's past plays a vital role in leading him down the road to recovery.  "Family Dog Gets Good and Sick" sees the return of Al and Katie from "Doggone Girl Is Mine", which also adds to the sense of finality - Al's long list of misfortunes have been intermittently alluded to over the course of series, so there is a sense here of an underlying subplot coming full circle.

As I say, "Family Dog Gets Good and Sick" is a weird little episode, which is largely due to the state of stomach-churning delirium in which the dog spends most of its running time (be warned that this may be a bit much to handle if you happen to have a particularly sensitive stomach yourself).  The whole radioactive mosquito thing is pretty far-out, although it's honestly nice to see the show wandering into somewhat freakier territory - a dash more of this kind of warped insanity might have enabled it to overcome some of tedium which weighed down a number of episodes.

The episode opens with the dog crying out mournfully as a plane passes overhead and Skip observing that he does that every time he notices a plane in the sky.  This behaviour mystifies the Binfords, who are happy to write it off as another symptom of their pet's perceived stupidity, although the episode is at pains to remind the viewer that it's because the dog is thinking about his loved and lost, Katie, from whom he was cruelly separated at the end of "Doggone Girl Is Mine".  We get a lengthy flashback to that episode, which lasts for over a minute and is another example of this series either being really desperate to fill out the time or simply not recognising when a sequence is dragging on too long (did we really need reminding that the dogs "made fireworks" in that episode, for instance?).  Obviously, the idea is to ensure that viewers will remember who Katie is, but they could have pulled it off a lot more concisely.  Included at the end of the flashback is a moment between our dog and Katie which wasn't actually part of the original episode, in which our dog shoots a really cheesy, distinctly anthropomorphic grin at Katie shortly before being tossed off the plane by the airline stewardess - turns out that the dog is actually dreaming this portion of the flashback, so I guess that some artistic license can be taken.

The dog awakes with a start to the sounds of an extremely nasty-sounding thud, coupled with an ominous whine coming from the real world, and slowly rises to his feet as a neighbourhood woman can be overheard arguing with a priest about why he failed to stop in time.  The dog casually strolls over to the garden fence and, through a tiny crack observes a few more of the neighbours rushing over to the scene in question - among them the Mahoneys, making their last ever appearance.  The dog gets excited, thinking that a really fun adventure is happening further up the street and that he needs to be a part of it too, so he goes inside the house to grab his leash and gesture that he wants to be taken for a walk.  Inside the house, Bev can be heard ordering Billy to stay put while she goes out to investigate with Skip, but Billy happily disregards that when he sees the dog with the leash in his mouth - "I'll take you", he tells the dog, a little too gleefully, "but I don't think you're gonna like it."

Billy and the dog head over to the gathering crowd, some of whom are wailing out in horror, but most of whom are complaining angrily about the lack of a stop sign on the street and how an accident like this had been inevitable for months.  It takes a while for the dog to get past them, but the instant he gets a gander of what they're all gathered around - the crumpled body of Noodles, the beloved dog of another local family - as Billy predicted, the wag goes right out of his tail.  There's a particularly morbid bit where our dog walks right up to Noodles' corpse and, not quite understanding the situation, attempts to nudge him back to life, but gets nowhere and resorts to barking in desperation.

At this point, Skip and Bev get wise to the fact that Billy has snuck out to the accident scene against their wishes, and it suddenly occurs me that Buffy must be all alone inside the house without any form of supervision.  Surely Skip and Bev weren't stupid enough to suppose that Billy would make a responsible babysitter?  Oh well, one more negligence point for them, I suppose.  Billy attempts to drag the dog back home but has difficulty keeping him under control - suddenly, the dog has become a jittery bag who jumps at the sight of everything on wheels (this leads to a rather nice sight gag in which a car whizzes by bearing the license plate DOGETR).  Billy of course isn't terribly sympathetic, but there is a fleeting moment in which he does seem genuinely concerned for the dog.

Back at the house, the dog's nerves still refuse to settle, as he discovers that his fear of being struck down by anything on wheels has generalised into a fear of just about everything around him that can be construed as vaguely threatening.  The sight of Bev chopping up a watermelon for dinner becomes the stuff of nightmares, as does Skip munching on a cooked chicken, and Billy digging ravenously into a box of - what else? - noodles.  Be warned that this particular sequence isn't for the faint of heart - not because it's scary in any way, shape or form (although does succeed in being sufficiently uncomfortable) but because the sight of Billy scarfing down those noodles is rendered in stomach-churning detail (this is coming from somebody who has a thing about seeing other people eat, but nevertheless, I defy you not to start grappling with your own gag reflexes while watching this scene).  Billy notices that the dog is staring uneasily at him and tauntingly asks if he would like some noodles (Billy is a terrible person, but then I'm sure that you get that point by now).  Bev orders Billy to leave the dog alone but then goes ahead and pours a whole tub of noodles into his bowl, which the dog, unsurprisingly, has no appetite for.  Buffy is overheard chanting, "Kill the eggroll!" over and over - this is the only Buffy moment in the entire series that I'd say comes halfway-close to working, in that it does set you somewhat on edge.  The dog finally decides that his had enough of the Binfords' culinary horrors and retreats outside to the yard, but even there finds no peace of mind, thanks to a couple of neighbourhood kids on the other side of the fence who are playing catch and dissecting the Noodles occurence with morbid fascination.  The dog has a disturbing vision in which Skip and Billy invite him to play catch with them, but are actually conspiring to kill him by throwing the ball out into the street and having him chase out after it into the path of a speeding car.  Actually, given Tim Burton's involvement in the series, I suspect that this may even be a reference to the original Frankenweenie - at any rate, this grisly method of doggy execution seems to be a recurring motif in his projects.

The dog may be paranoid, but that doesn't mean that the Binfords aren't actually a bunch of callous creeps out to get him.  The absolute low point of "Family Dog Gets Good and Sick" is a scene in which Billy and Buffy are tormenting dog by hurling lumps of play clay at him inside his kennel, and Skip, instead of chastising the little demons he sired, encourages them to switch to tormenting the dog by pelting him with kibble, on the grounds that "at least he can eat it".  At this late in the game I shouldn't really be shocked by the Binfords' casual cruelty, but I've always seriously disliked how this series tries to have it both ways with regards to the family's treatment of their dog.  We're supposed to believe that the Binfords really care about their pet and that, if he were to disappear from home (as we saw in the previous episode) or become deeply, horrendously ill (as we'll see later on in this episode) they'd be devastated, but the notion that that somehow nullifies unpleasant and utterly pointless acts of abuse such as this really doesn't wash.

Bev, thankfully, has the decency to stand up for the dog, commenting that he appears to be unwell, as dog gazes down upon the pieces of kibble Skip just threw at him and, in his paranoid frenzy, sees them morph into an array of bugs and earthworms which start crawling around at his feet. Skip and Bev continue to argue over the dog's health as the family retires to the house for the evening - Skip asserts that the dog is simply having an odd mood, but this is really just an excuse to start mooing at Bev and give us our final reference to the couple's barnyard-themed sex life.  They leave the dog in the midst of yet another nightmare, this time involving his kennel being destroyed by a car and him being knocked into a bizarre fantasy land populated by hordes of rolling care tyres.  It's a pretty tame sequence for the most part, the most eye-poppingly surreal element being that we to see the dog in unusually anthropomorphic poses that at times seem almost Wile E. Coyote-esque.

Things take an unexpected turn when the dog feels a friendly tongue licking his face and looks up to see Katie standing above him.  Suddenly, all his fears and anxieties fade away and it transforms into a very pleasant dream sequence indeed, the dog getting to romp around with Katie through a picturesque green park.

The dog wakes up in considerably better spirits and, seeing a butterfly, leaps up to chase it playfully around the yard.  The Binfords observe their reinvigorated pet from their bedroom windows and remark that he appears to be over his period of sickness/low mood.  Thus ends the first half of the episode, and the incident with Noodles ceases to be an issue from this point onward.  As I say, this episode feels even bittier and more disjointed than usual, the second half relating to the first in only a thematic sense - in retrospect, the entire Noodles scenario seems like little more than a drawn-out means of establishing the magical healing influence of Katie, since it's the only really direct continuation that we have between the two halves.  One can't help but wonder if it started life as a separate episode altogether but got merged into another because the writers couldn't figure out how to make it stand up on its own.

The second half has distinctly odd beginnings, as we fade in to find ourselves in the entirely alien environs of a heavily polluted river languishing within the outskirts of a nuclear power plant.  A water rat is seen swimming around in the toxic waste-filled depths and emerges to reveal that it's actually a hideous rodent-fish mutation, while a sickly-looking frog perches upon a nuclear waste drum and belches out incessantly.  None of these sight gags are as endearingly warped as Blinky, the three-eyed fish who inhabits the river beyond the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in The Simpsons, but there is nevertheless something vaguely disconcerting about this entire sequence, underscored by the jarring absence of any background music.  A mosquito hovers above the polluted waters and drinks its fill before flying off, all poised to inflict a bellyful of toxins into the bloodstream of an unsuspecting suburbanite.

The mosquito has its own leitmotif, this really twangy, incessant little tune that's not exactly threatening, but does add neatly to the overall sense of confusion and delirium that runs throughout the episode.  We see the world from the mosquito's perspective as it hovers around the Binfords' back yard, approaching each member of the human family for a sneaky nibble but repeatedly being repelled before it can get quite close enough, until finally it finds an easy target in the sleeping dog.  The dog cries out in pain as the mosquito chomps down upon his muzzle, but the instant he tries to leap to his feet he finds his senses dissolving in a dizzying whirl.  As he staggers feebly across the yard, we hear more of that eerie, twangy guitar music, only this time drawn-out and with a heavily disorientating vibe.  One thing that this episode pulls off very effectively is in giving us a convincing sense of the dog's sickness, perhaps a little too much for comfort - indeed, by the time the dog reaches to the grass clippings bag and proceeds to unload the contents of his digestive system therein, I suspect that you'll already be halfway reaching for a barf bag yourself.

The Binfords can't deny that there's something seriously, life-threateningly wrong with their dog on this occasion, so in the very next scene they're all gathered in the living room, Bev clutching the woozy dog upon her lap while Skip leafs through the phone book in search of a cheap vet who's open Sundays (leave it to the Binfords not to spring for any particularly expensive veterinary care for their pet, even in the event of an emergency).  Just as Skip stumbles upon a promising ad, the dog's gag reflexes start going berserk and the family quickly twig that he's going to barf yet again.  This leads to a wonderful moment in which Bev drops the retching dog on Buffy's lap and, as Buffy erupts in a horrified scream, I kept thinking about how glorious it would be to end the series with the dog vomiting all over this ghastly little hellspawn.  Alas, no such scene occurs; Bev grabs a hold of the dog yet again and manages to get him successfully upstairs and above the toilet bowl before he unloads.  Again, no canine vomit appears onscreen, but it you're the easily grossed-out sort then odds are that you won't appreciate just how nauseatingly graphic some of the sound effects are.

The following morning, Skip takes the dog to the vet and it's worth noting that, from this point onward, he's the only human Binford to appear onscreen for the remainder of the episode.  We do hear Billy and Buffy's voices at the very end of the episode, but their ugly mugs are now out of the picture forever, and it gives me immense gratification to be able to type that.  The dog has a tough time of it on the way to the vet's, owing to the number of potholes in the road and his still very-fragile stomach.  He's also none-too-happy when Skip pulls up outside the building and he recognises the veterinary building which, being a fairly typical dog, he associates with being poked and prodded in uncomfortable places.  Once Skip's actually dragged the dog inside the building however, we see a dramatic transformation in his demeanor, his sickness and anxieties ceasing to be the instant he gets wind of a delightfully familiar scent lingering around the waiting room.  Yep, Katie was here, and the dog just missed seeing her before she was taken away into a veterinary room for a check-up.  Skip is rather put out that the dog appears to have made a miraculous recovery just as he's managed to get him to the vet's, and insists that he's going to get a shot regardless.

As the dog is taken away by the vet and subjected to a highly unpleasant-looking anal probing, Skip runs into Al, who explains that he's now a qualified pilot and able to fly back and forth between South Dakota and his former stomping ground on weekends, so he's brought Katie back for her annual check-up (apparently having failed to register her with a local vet in South Dakota).  Al claims that his donut shop has been a success and that his break-up with Vina was the best thing that ever happened to him, but lets it slip that he's still very much fixated on her.  Meanwhile Skip, who's no better-disposed toward Al than he was in "Doggone Girl Is Mine", struggles to feign any degree of interest or sympathy.  The dog receives a shot, which the vet informs Skip will leave him unconscious for the rest of the day, but before it can fully take effect the dog makes one last desperate effort to be reunited with Katie, managing to make it as far as her carrier before completely keeling over.

Outside in the veterinary parking lot, Skip shakes hands with Al, wishing him a safe flight back home, but can be heard muttering "Buddy Holly, Patsy Kline and Al..." as he turns to walk away (yeah, Skip's a jerk, what else is new?).  Back at the house, Skip carries the unconscious dog out to his kennel and leaves him sleeping peacefully on his side (he strokes the dog fondly before finally leaving him, which is a pretty sweet touch).  The dog is so heavily sedated that not even in the sounds of a plane crashing down upon the Binfords' roof mere moments later are enough to rouse him.  As the Binfords all cry out in confusion, we hear Al nervously explaining that he forgot to put fuel in his tank and might need to stay with them for the weekend.  Meanwhile, a blackened Katie lands beside the kennel and, escaping her disintegrating carrier, is thrilled to pieces to find herself unexpectedly reunited with the love of her life.  She attempts to wake our dog but is unable to do so; alas, the effects of the drugs are simply too strong.  This saddens Katie, but she resigns herself to settling down and sleeping alongside him.  As the two animals lie huddled together, we see a thought bubble revealing what the dog is dreaming, and with it, our final image of the series - poignantly, his dream involves himself sleeping peacefully inside his kennel with Katie right there at his side.  He sleeps on, unaware that his dream has become reality.

Call me sentimental, but I actually do get a slight tear in my eye during this scene.  Family Dog did succeed in bringing out my inner sop, even if was literally at the very last second.

Anyway, this being the end of our Family Dog saga, I thought I'd round off with a general overview of the series and how I rank each episode individually.  Here are my collective impressions:

Best of a Runty Litter: Doggone Girl Is Mine, Eye on The Sparrow, Party Animal, Family Dog Gets Good and Sick

Decent Enough: Dog Days of Summer

Somewhat Tedious: Call of The Mild

Pretty Fricking Tedious: Show Dog, Hot Dog at the Zoo

Broken: Family Dog Goes Homeless

So Fucked It's Art: Enemy Dog

Oh, and hang tight because there is still an epilogue (or should that be prologue?) to come for this retrospective.  I couldn't possibly bid farewell to the character without also taking a look at the original Amazing Stories episode, now could I?

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Confessions of a Family Dog Viewer: "Family Dog Goes Homeless"

Original air date: 28th July 1993

My first question, on reading the title of this episode, isn't didn't Family Dog "go homeless" once before?  In many respects this episode, the series' penultimate, is a direct retread of "Call of the Mild", in that the dog gives up his pathetic yet materially comfortable home life in exchange for a life out on the streets, only discover that he's forever doomed to be a house dog.  In fact, this is technically the third episode in which the dog's loyalties to the Binfords are tested by the allure of an external influence, given that he was prepared to give up everything and board a plane to South Dakota just to be with Katie in "Doggone Girl Is Mine".  In this particular instance, the dog befriends a bag lady who moves into his doghouse and takes to stealing groceries from the Binfords in order to sustain her, before finally opting to accompany her as she returns to the city streets in search of an erstwhile lover.  Much like "Call of The Mild" before it, it's a generally very "meh" episode that struggles to stretch the scenario out to the full twenty-two minutes, which does undermine what I said in my coverage of "Party Animal" about the series possibly starting to get its act together as it neared its demise.

"Family Dog Goes Homeless" is also the closest that this series ever comes to tackling to an "issue" episode, in that it touches upon a serious social problem, albeit not with any especially amazing depth or insight.  Clearly, this rubbed some viewers the wrong way - roasting the series in the Chicago Tribune on June 23rd 1993, Rick Kogan singled out this episode on the charge that it "comes close to making fun of homelessness." (Reviews of this series were not kind.  I suspect that I've written just about the kindest Family Dog reviews that you're ever likely to find on the web.  My favourite review was written by Scott Blakely on the VHS release of "Enemy Dog", purely because it includes this line: "Supper turns out to be a disaster, and the Family Dog, locked in the laundry room with K-10, is nearly eaten alive. His eyes look like this: OO.")  Kogan's specific complaint strikes me as being a bit off the mark; the problem isn't so much that the episode "makes fun" of homelessness (although it does mine at least a couple of visual gags from the implication that Lulu doesn't smell too fresh) as that it raises the issue and then ultimately proves quite toothless on the matter.  The closest thing that this episode has to any especially scathing social commentary comes during a dinner table scene where Bev delivers a condescending speech about homelessness and how everyone's eyes are closed to the issue that barely disguises her contempt for the affected.  Bev, one suspects, is more upset by the fact that she's being made to witness homelessness first-hand than she is that the problem exists and, disappointingly, the conclusion the episode comes to doesn't seem terribly more progressive than that.  Homelessness, ultimately, is treated as an issue that middle class suburbanites shouldn't be expected to get their hands dirty over.

Part of the problem is that Lulu the bag lady, though clearly intended to be a sympathetic character, ultimately isn't, owing to the visibly exploitative nature of her relationship with the dog.  She's nice to the dog while he's bringing her food but immediately abandons him when her boyfriend doesn't take to him, leading to a surprisingly frosty conclusion, perhaps the most unpleasant and unsettling we've had since "Enemy Dog".  More problematic still is the deliberate contrast between the Binfords' life of plenty and Lulu's harsher life of scavenging which, while it does show up the Binfords as shallow and unappreciative of what they have, ultimately favours them as offering the proper companionship for our four-legged protagonist.  Lulu is very blatantly an intruder in this pristine suburban world, and the balance of the Family Dog universe is restored when she retreats back to the alleyways of the grungy city where she belongs and the dog realises that his true place is among a middle class family who yell at him, abuse him and call him a "stupid dog".  I can't help but really despise the ending to this episode, more so than "Enemy Dog", which did at least end on a momentary high for the dog.  But hey, I'm getting ahead of things here - let's go back and take a look at how the episode gets to this most dispiriting of points.

The episode opens with the dog feeling a bit starved for attention but, as per usual, getting none of it from the Binfords.  Bev is getting into a heated debate with a telemarketer, Skip is doing a cock-up job on repairing the car, and Billy and Buffy are being Billy and Buffy, and thus not worthy company.  Actually, the moment with Biffy does start out fairly promisingly, with him doing some kind of old-school mad scientist parody, but turns sour the instant he threatens to electrocute the dog.  The dog retreats outside, where he discovers an old discarded ham hock in the trash and heads off into the backyard to devour it. ,He's interrupted, however, by a strange voice from up above and an odor that has him wrinkling his nose, and looks up to see a ragged bag lady peering over the fence and eying up his hock of ham.  This makes the dog intensely uncomfortable, to the extent that he surrenders the hock and, through a crack in the fence, watches with nervous fascination as as she scarfs the whole thing down.  Billy shows up a lobs a couple of balls at the dog's head and, in a moment that's totally out of character but awesome nonetheless, the dog turns and takes a wet bite out of Billy.  I will give this episode credit for being one of the very few where Billy has to face any kind of direct consequences for his casual cruelty to the dog.  I wish there were a lot more moments like this throughout the series.

That night, the mysterious woman sneaks into the backyard and attempts to snuggle up beside the sleeping dog, whereupon his nose starts wrinkling yet again and he bolts into the house in fear.  The bag lady calls to him from outside the house, imploring him to not be afraid and calling him her "knight in furry armor."  Cautiously, the dog tiptoes back outside and the bag lady thanks him for his kindness and rewards him with a thorough petting.  Not used to being on the receiving end of such lavish affection, the dog immediately warms up to the stranger and allows her to stay with him inside his doghouse.

Lulu: "Poor old poochie got fleas.  Yeah, me too honey.  Ain't they a bitch?"

They used the word "bitch" in an animated series.  Edgy stuff, no?

You'll notice that there is this vaguely animalistic quality to Lulu the bag lady, also manifested in the rather wolfish manner in which she downs the ham hock from earlier and her willingness to spend the night inside a dog kennel, which might be what Kogan was getting at when he accused the episode of mocking the homeless.  I suspect that the intention was mainly just to set Lulu up as being a kind of kindred spirit to the dog (ostensibly anyway), so as to have her bond with him seem all the more meaningful; a case of Lulu respecting the dog enough that she's not too proud to meet him at his level.  It's not too hard to see the affinity here - both of them are downtrodden souls who are well used to being ignored, despised and mistreated, and who have learned to survive right at the bottom of their respective hierarchies.  I'd say that the potential was definitely there for something quite sweet.

The dog wakes up to find himself alone in the kennel and is sad because he thinks that Lulu has left him.  In actuality, she's just nipped out to the dumpsters behind the local convenience store in order to raid up a gourmet breakfast for them both; this consists of a half-eaten apple, a banana skin and a few mangled old french fries.  The dog isn't even prepared to humour Lulu into thinking that he'll accept her offering; certainly not when there are fresher pickings to be scavenged from the Binfords' breakfast table.  He heads inside the house and finds the Binfords being typically unappreciative of Bev's cooking (this is also where we overhear Bev's condescending speech about the homeless) and is able to pick up a couple of breakfast items to take back to Lulu.  Lulu is so grateful that she happily shares it with the dog.

That evening, the dog once again scavenges scraps from the Binfords table and becomes uncharacteristically aggressive with Bev when he suspects that she might take the food off him - his allegiances have switched to a brand new master it seems.  While Bev ponders what's prompting so much aggression from the dog (Skip suggests that he's been negatively influenced by an episode of Hard Copy about pets that kill their owners), the dog heads back outside with his bounty and shares an evening meal with Lulu, who opens up a bit about her past.  Apparently, she was a performer in the 1960s who had a plate-spinning act with her partner Saul.  The highlight of their career was an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show ("You know, The Beatles, Topo Gigio - uh-uh, c'mon, you were a kid, you don't remember"), but by the 1980s they had fallen on hard times.

The days slip by, and as the dog's bond with Lulu grows ever deeper he takes to pilfering supplies directly from the Binfords' larder, while the stupid family never realise that there's a bag lady living in their backyard (although Bev does cotton on to all the food going missing, but jumps to the conclusion that Billy has parasites of his own).

Eventually, the dog turns to stealing more than table scraps and honours his new human friend with a gift lifted straight from Bev's jewelry box - a tacky-ass cat broach which he carries outside and presents to her.  Her response:

"Well, merci Mr. Trump, I won't tell Marla."

Fuuuuu.  Let's move right along.

Lulu attaches the broach close to her heart and then revels in how much more sophisticated she looks.

"Oh, look at me honey, I'm as pretty as a princess.  And I mean Fergie before the divorce."


Lulu announces that she now feels confident to return to the city in the hope of finding and reconciling with her erstwhile partner Saul, and asks the dog if he's willing to accompany her.  The dog leaps devotedly into her outstretched arms and away they go, leaving Bev to freak out when she realises what kind of mischief has been practiced upon her jewelry box.

As they enter the city, Lulu explains to the dog that she's been on her own ever since she and Saul had an argument and she awoke the following day to find that he had left her.  The city is portrayed as a screwy place full of uptights, eccentrics and oddballs, although the majority of gags (which include a nerdy-looking vegetarian screaming at a butcher, and some overly enthusiastic rush hour businessmen) are kind of lame.  Meanwhile, the dog sees an advertising billboard featuring a cheery, clean-cut family and has his first pangs of unease about abandoning his own grotesque clan.  Eventually, Lulu reaches her old alleyway and finds Saul already waiting for her.  They shout one another's names back and forth for a bit before running toward one another in cliched slow-motion - it's a moment which goes on for tortuously long, but I guess they still had a lot of time to fill out.

Lulu and Saul are happy to see one another again, although Saul becomes a lot less jubilant when he spies what's been tagging along at his sweetheart's ankles.  Turns out, he doesn't much care for dogs (although he's not convinced that the specimen in question actually is a dog, as opposed to a rat in a collar) because he's allergic to them, so he's not prepared to welcome Lulu's new friend into the equation, threatening to up and leave again if Lulu doesn't comply.  Lulu feels she has no choice but to give up the dog, and while she's very tender and affectionate in her goodbyes, even returning the cat broach to the dog as a token of their relationship, it bugs the snot out of me that she basically just turns him away into the streets of the city, not even bothering to take him back home after dragging him out there in the first place. And bloody hell, does the dog look as if he's just had a dagger driven right through his heart.  It's not a pleasant scene by any stretch.

Left to wander the streets with only the cat broach for company, the dog gets caught in a heavy downpour and is forced to take shelter under a dumpster.  He's wet, cold, miserable and clearly deeply repentant about walking out on his family.  After the rain ceases, the dog continues his directionless wandering and passes a wall which, unbeknownst to him, is plastered with "Lost Dog" fliers bearing his likeness.  Could it really be?

That's right, it appears that the Binfords have come through on this one and are actually very serious about being reunited with their dog.  As the dog turns a corner, he sees Skip up ahead, fixing yet another flier to a wall and looking pretty darned downhearted about things too.  So Skip really does care for the dog, who'd have thought?  Not far behind him are the rest of the Binfords, with Bev trying to explain to Billy and Buffy that the dog just went away on vacation.  It's a scene which comes very close to working only to then insist upon shooting itself in the foot - Skip's quiet display of emotion, which includes tenderly stroking the flier, is genuinely affecting, but swiftly undermined by the sounds of Billy positively reveling in the thought that the dog may already have been crushed beneath someone's tyre.  If not for the events of "Eye on the Sparrow" and the fact that Buffy can frankly be even more annoying at times, I'd be all poised to write Billy off as the worst character ever by now.

Naturally, the dog goes racing toward his jilted masters and a happy reunion is had - that is, until Bev notices that the dog has her cat broach in his mouth and realises that he was the one who raided her jewelry box earlier.  Suddenly she's not so happy, and it isn't long before the entire family has lapsed right back into their old habits of hurling angry abuse at the dog, while the dog just sits there and merrily laps it up, as if he's had the epiphany that this is his rightful lot in life and boy, is he ever glad to be back where he belongs.  Did I mention that I really despise the ending to this episode?

Part of the problem with these "dog runs away from home to answer an alternative calling" episodes that the series keeps on insisting on doing is that, inevitably, we have to deal with the question as to whether we actually want to see the dog reunited with the Binfords in the end.  Let's face it, he's a cute, smart and friendly dog and he could certainly do a lot better than a clan as mean, negligent and witless as the Binfords.  Naturally, the status quo must be respected (we do still have one more episode to go, after all) so there was never any reason to believe that he wouldn't end up right back where he started upon reaching the twenty-two minute mark, but there's something downright disquieting about how he seems to willingly embrace the Binfords' scorn as being nothing more than the natural order of things at the end.  It's a shame, because "Family Dog Goes Homeless" does have a few genuinely nice ideas and moments (for one, it is nice to have some solid evidence that the family cares about the dog, even it immediately unravels), and the dog's relationship with Lulu could have been a real heart-string tugger had it been handled with a bit more sensitivity (particularly in its conclusion, which as it stands feels bitter and abrupt as hell).  All in all, the episode comes off as tonally misjudged (more so than usual), and as one of the most searingly cynical in all the series, although not in the weirdly, gut-wrenchingly fascinating way that "Enemy Dog" was.  Frankly, it just leaves you feeling a bit wet, cold and miserable, much like the dog as he crawled under that dumpster earlier.

Still, for all my grousing, I do only have one more episode of Family Dog left to review, which means that very soon this retrospective will be done and dusted, and I find myself feeling strangely sentimental about that fact.  I'm really going to miss picking through this series - how genuinely mad it's made me at me at times and yet how weirdly affectionate I always wind up feeling toward it.  It's a screwy relationship we have alright.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Logo Case Study: Gracie Films (I'll get over you, I know I will...)

I've already regaled you with the details of my early childhood exposure to The Simpsons (and, by extension, the Grace Films logo that tags along at the end of every episode), so I thought I'd open this case study with an anecdote from a much more recent point in my existence.  Earlier this month, I went to see the film Nocturnal Animals, and had the misfortune of being seated in the row behind three fellow cinema-goers who were being rude and inconsiderate as fuck. Patrons who tap away at glowing phone screens in the naive assumption that this can be done at all discreetly in a darkened auditorium have unfortunately become so commonplace that I've almost grudgingly learned to ignore them, but these three were certainly the first I'd come across who had the audacity to watch unmuted YouTube videos while the screening was in process.  About twenty minutes or so into the film, a man directly behind them leaned over and hissed in hushed but still very forceful tones, "Will you switch that bloody thing off?!  No, don't just lower it down a couple of inches and think that I can't still see it!  Turn it off!"  Forty minutes or so into the film, they apparently decided that he'd no longer mind if they whipped out their phones and resumed their disruptive behaviour, so he responded in the exact same manner.  I bloody loved this man.

Actually, I found the spectacle doubly cathartic due to an experience I'd had a couple of weeks prior when, during a Halloween screening of Train To Busan, a girl with the most unbelievably atrocious-sounding cough came and sat right next to me.  The screening was hardly a sell-out and there were plenty of vacant seats she could have chosen where she would have been able to minimise any potential disturbance she might have caused, but instead she opted to park her strep-ridden self at my side and, every two minutes, subject my ear drums to the sounds of the total phlegm orgy happening way down in the depths of her throat.  I put up with it for about ten minutes before I scarpered for one of those vacant seats myself.

Fresh from those two experiences, I suddenly find myself with a renewed appreciation for the "Shush Lady" from the Gracie Films logo.  She lives in a far quainter world, where the only disturbance she has to contend with is the indistinct chattering of her fellow movie theatre patrons, but one has to admire the proficiency with which she can command an entire theatre into silence with a simple shushing.  I salute you, Shush Lady.

Gracie Films was founded in 1986 by producer James L. Brooks and was so named as a tribute to the comedian Gracie Allen.  Their first production, and the first to feature the characteristic "shush" logo, was The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, although naturally that series is forever doomed to wallow in the shadow of the little devils it breast-fed, and nowadays the logo is primarily associated with that Tracey Ullman Show spin-off you've probably heard of.  Through that association alone, the Gracie Films logo has received exposure to kill for and now ranks among the most popular and widely-recognised of television logos.  Other Gracie Films productions to carry the logo include Sibs, Phenom, What About Joan? and The Critic, although odds are heavy that it's thanks to The Simpsons that you know this one.  (We'll be talking about The Critic - a flawed but nevertheless highly underrated series - in a lot more depth in 2017).

Personally I've always had a massive weakness for it.  Even back when the entirety of my Simpsons-viewing experience consisted of the measly six episodes my family had on VHS, this logo stood out as being pretty marvelous.  It's unique, quirky and charming, and on top of that there's something distinctly warm and comforting about its leitmotif.  I don't recall ever getting any freakiness vibes from this one either - unless you happen to have a thing about people appearing in silhouette form, then I don't see why you would detect anything at all sinister here.  The only variation which I could see proving reasonably frightening to some viewers would be the "Treehouse of Horror" variant, below, which includes the sounds of a woman (and presumed imminent murder victim) screaming, followed by a spooky organ version of the Gracie Films theme (over the course of the series, The Simpsons has had a heck of a lot of fun with this logo, and numerous variations have cropped up, my personal favourite being "Homer The Great" (2F09) of Season 6, where Carl's "Shut up!" is grafted onto the usual shushing).  If there's any general scare factor to be had from the logo, at least as it appears in The Simpsons, then it's in the startling contrast between the gentleness of the Gracie Films logo and the blaring, bombastic 20th Century Fox one that follows.

A few particularly observant folks have noted the similarity of the Gracie Films theme to the hook of the 1990 song, "The King of Wishful Thinking" by British pop duo Go West, which became a hit after being featured on the Pretty Woman soundtrack.  The resemblance is apparently so convincing that the Grace Films theme is sometimes incorrectly credited as deriving directly from the Go West song, although as you can see the dates don't quite add up.  Still, once you've made the (seemingly coincidental) connection, it becomes awfully challenging not to have those lyrics running through your head on encountering the logo.


Finally, you should check out the official Gracie Films website.  Not much there but an extended (and interactive!) flash version of the logo, but damn it, how on earth could you pass as pure a delight as that by?

Monday, 28 November 2016

The World's Most Self-Defeating Frasier End Credits Sequence

I've already spoken at great length about what is, to me, the absolute weirdest end credits sequence in the history of Frasier, so let's take a quick look at one which irritates the living snot out of me - that of "The Unnatural" of Season 4.  Here's an example of a closing gag that flounders because a tiny element in the presentation of the sequence manages to trip up the entire punchline.

Broadly, the episode deals with Frasier's anxieties that his son Frederick is on the verge of discovering that his father isn't perfect, but mixed in with all that we also learn of a harrowing incident from Roz's history.  As per Frasier's description: "I do recall a story you told me not long ago, about a young girl living in Wisconsin who wanted desperately for her mother to drive her to Chicago to see Bobby Sherman open a shopping mall.  But her mother was just too busy.  And so what did that little girl do that night? She cried herself to sleep on her little Bobby Sherman pillow."

Roz's childhood Bobby Sherman obsession is the subject of a mere one-off joke within the episode itself, but the end-credits sequence really capitalises upon it by having Frasier appease Roz with an array of Bobby Sherman-themed merchandise.  First he pulls out a Sherman LP, followed by a t-shirt, as all the while Roz becomes ever-more ecstatic.  Finally, Frasier steps out of the studio and returns with none other than Bobby Sherman himself, live and in the flesh.  Bobby, who clearly had no idea what he was getting into, is understandably startled at the sight of Roz, now in full teenybopper mode, and turns to Frasier for assistance, but he's already making a speedy exit from the studio, leaving Bobby at the mercy of the hysterical Roz.  End of sequence.

But Scampy, you say, isn't that actually a really hilarious punchline?  Why on earth are you being so down on it?  And true, I'm sure it seemed absolutely hilarious in rough cut form, but there's a reason why it flat-out doesn't work in the finished episode - namely, because the end credits spoil Bobby Sherman's cameo a good eight seconds before he actually shows up.  If you've just watched the entire episode, you'll know that Bobby Sherman has yet to appear, making it painfully obvious where the joke in-progress is headed.

This is a great example of a situation where an uncredited cameo might have worked wonders.  Perhaps they just weren't confident enough that people would believe that they'd gotten hold of the real Bobby Sherman.  Or maybe they were banking on the assumption that most viewers would be too invested in the sequence itself to even notice silly little things like cast credits.  I can't speak for anyone else, but personally my gaze could never help but wander downward whenever Frasier flashed that up t-shirt, my senses heightened to the fact that those exact same words were positioned right beneath it.  The episode as a whole I'm rather fond of, but dang, the hamfistedness here never fails to make me wince.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Confessions of a Family Dog Viewer: "Party Animal"

Original air date: 21st July 1993

We're nearing the end of this Family Dog retrospective and I'm left wondering, if "Party Animal" is any indication, if the series was finally starting to find its feet as it entered its twilight.  Certainly, "Party Animal" is one of the stronger instalments in Family Dog's run.  Pacing-wise, it's a huge improvement over both "Call of The Mild" and "Dog Days of Summer" - the story consists of two distinctive halves which are paired up rather arbitrarily (the Binfords host a party and later on the house catches fire for reasons that are barely related), but it comes together convincingly enough as a cohesive whole, with very little filler that doesn't directly compliment either side of the narrative thread.  The tone also feels considerably less mean-spirited than earlier Family Dog episodes - oh sure, the dog still has a pretty shitty time of things and Skip and Bev exhibit some downright shameful behaviour during the climactic crisis, but there's a refreshing lack of intentional malice or outright scorn heaped upon our four-legged protagonist this go-around.  The episode's only really major flaw is in the climax, which despite offering up a much more dramatic third act than the majority of Family Dog instalments, is hampered by muddled and chaotic execution that quickly has the entire affair descending into confusion.

As for the house fire...well, take a wild guess at which family member is responsible for starting it.  Billy's brand of sociopathy treads ever deeper as the series continues, and we can now add arson to his ever-growing list of crimes against nature, humanity and society, along with tormenting his dog and sister and maiming local wildlife.  To be totally fair, Billy doesn't cause the family's house to burn down on purpose, but it is his newfound obsession with playing with matches and burning things inside his wastepaper bin that causes things to get out of hand.  Annoyingly, Billy also gets off scot-free for what must surely be his most horrendously destructive act in all the series (keeping in mind that he did no lasting damage to the bird in "Eye on The Sparrow").  Despite serving as a catalyst for the big dramatic climax, Billy is actually pretty sidelined for much of this instalment - he and Buffy get minimal screen time, which is a blessing because, as per usual, their material only serves to drag the episode down (in addition to setting the house alight, Billy gets a tiresome outburst about Matlock, while Buffy's biggest contribution involves running rampant and flashing her underpants at the party guests).

The episode opens with Skip feeling tetchy because it's the Binfords' turn to host the local block party and he isn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of having so many neighbours whom he secretly despises convening on his property.  The opening sequence is a pretty good one, with Skip declaring the home to be "private sanctum of familial purity", and the camera panning around to show various scenes of repugnance through different windows of the household, including Billy running raucous in his bedroom and Buffy watching some brain cell-killing children's show.  Finally, we pan out to the backyard, where our dog is honing his mauling skills upon a squeaky rubber hedgehog.  Looking up, he notices an ominous stream of black smoke pouring out from Billy's window and backs off into his kennel in horror but, on hearing the sounds of Skip and Billy wailing out in alarm, summons the will to go racing inside the house and ensure that his family is safe.  As it turns out, there isn't much (as of now) in the way of danger.  Billy had been playing with matches and, as Skip is at pains to point out, could easily have burned the place down, but it seems that this particular instance was just a false alarm.  The dog heads back downstairs as Skip lectures Billy on the virtues of common sense, prompting Billy to have that irritating outburst in which he claims to have been framed and tells his dad to alert Matlock.

Downstairs, the dog is delighted to find the coffee table adorned with snacks in preparation for the party and can't resist digging his nose into the chips and bean dip.  Bev has asked Skip to watch the dog, but he's now preoccupied with lighting up the barbecue in order to grill up the cholesterol-free soy-turkey and tahini burgers Bev has selected to serve the guests.  Initially,  this looks like little more than an excuse to get in another grousing from Skip about his wife's food preferences, but the barbecue actually proves crucial later on, in providing the link between the party and the house fire.

The dog, meanwhile, gets carried away in his snack food-pilfering and ends up knocking a bunch of dishes to the floor, prompting Bev to scold Skip for not keeping an eye on him.  Skip is about to banish the dog to the backyard and secure the pet door when he gets diverted by the unwelcome sounds of hour-early guests upon his doorstep.  This throws Bev into disarray as she hasn't changed into her formal wear, so she and Skip bolt upstairs and leave the convening guests to fend for themselves.  Meanwhile, the dog wanders back into the living room and finds himself the centre of adoring attention for a change, as the guests are quite happy to feed him chips and dip for their own amusement.

There are quite a few things going on at the Bindfords' party, so I'm going to break it down into a list of handy bullet points:
  • We're introduced to a few more of the unfortunate neighbours who have to share their local territory with the Binfords and whose lawns Skip apparently encourages his dog to shit on - there's a baby-talking obese couple whose names are never revealed and Bill and Leesha, the first African American characters to appear on the show.  Perhaps we'd have gotten to know these characters a bit better if the series had had more than just two additional episodes to go.
  • The Mahoneys are seen again for the first time since "Enemy Dog".  K-10 also has a small cameo at the start of the episode.
  • Vina, Al's ex, is at the block party, although only her feet are visible.  She gives a shout-out to Al and "his ugly dog Katie."
  • The guests at the party are having some tedious discussion about restaurant cuisine, while the dog scampers around scavenging dropped finger food from the floor.
  • During the conversation, some guy with a voice not unlike Homer Simpson's can be heard saying "Frog in the blender!" without context.
  • At Billy's suggestion, Buffy starts wandering around the party and flashing her underpants at the guests, shouting, "Free show!  Free show!"  It's every bit as inane as it sounds.
  • Meanwhile, Billy is outside beside the barbecue, picking out hot coals with the tongs and cackling menacingly and, uh-oh, that can't be good.  Thankfully, Bev finally gets downstairs at this point and catches him the act.  She also boots Buffy from the party and throws the dog outside, taking care to ensure that the pet door is locked this time.

The dog, however, has been thoroughly enjoying all the free food he's been getting from the guests and isn't so keen on giving up a good thing.  Happily, he's a resourceful little mutt and knows of another way to get back inside the house; namely, by slipping through the fence to the front of the house and using the family's car and basket ball hoop to hoist himself up onto the roof.  He then scrambles his way down through the chimney, although naturally Skip and Bev aren't too amused by the spectacle of a smut-covered dog landing in a crumpled heap upon their fireplace and blowing soot all over their party.  So out the persistent mutt goes yet again.  This particular scene looks suspiciously like your typical Family Dog filler, but establishing that the dog knows his way around the roof actually comes in handy later on.

Fade out, and when we rejoin the Binfords, in the early hours of the morning, we find the party long over, the living room deserted and the family in their respective bedrooms.  We overhear Bev asking Skip if he put out the barbecue and Skip responding that he entrusted that particular job to Billy.  Oh Jesus.  Remember how Billy seemed really, ominously keen on getting that burning coal earlier?  This particular sequence consists of a number of still, lingering shots around the darkened household, including close-ups of the unwashed party dishes, as we move on closer to Billy's bedroom and discover, to absolutely no one's surprise, that the little sociopath has concealed one of those burning coals inside his wastepaper bin.  Despite being in awe at Skip's dumbness, I have to give props to the effectively understated manner in which menace is built-up and sustained throughout this short sequence.

Unsurprisingly, the dog is the first one to detect the burning coming from inside the house and realise that something is terribly wrong.  The smoke alarm goes off, but Skip and Bev mistake it for the alarm clock and just try to sleep through it.  The dog attempts to run into the house and alert the dumb humans, but is thwarted by the lock on the pet door - meaning that, once again he must resort to his nifty little chimney trick.  Meanwhile, Skip finally decides to get up, figuring that it must be morning, but continues to drift in and out of consciousness, all while remaining painfully oblivious to the ominous cloud of thick black smoke floating right above him.  Finally, just as the dog lands on the fireplace with a noisy thud, so too does the penny inside Skip's brain, and by the time the dog makes it to Billy's flame-grilled bedroom, a panic-striken Skip is already attempting to nullify the problem with a defunct extinguisher.  Needless to say, it doesn't go in his favour.

Skip and Bev order the children to get outside immediately, as they attempt, in vain, to get the fire under control.  The dog's first instinct is to go with them, but he finds himself unable to abandon Skip and Bev, who, having failed to extinguish the fire, have turned their attentions instead to gathering up as many material items as they can carry in their hands.  All the poor dog can do in the meantime is stand anxiously by the door, wondering when common sense is going to take hold.  Finally, they look to be prepared to leave when Bev suddenly stops in her tracks and, in what may be her lowest moment in the entire series, refuses to go because she can't bring herself to abandon her carpet.

Her fucking carpet.

As Bev begins clawing at the carpet in desperation, Skip tries to pull her away and talk some sense into her.  "Don't you think I feel the same way about my lazy boy?" he asks, at which point he gets a flash of inspiration and decides to abandon his wife in order to ensure that his beloved chair his saved.  Yeah, I'm well aware that this scene is supposed to be humorous, but dang, these humans really aren't that nice, to their dog OR one another.  That's something I can't repeat often enough.

At this point the firefighters show up and it's here that the sequence unfortunately begins to unravel.  The drama and suspense goes out, and in their place we get a bunch of confusing and chaotic sight gags - notably, a firefighter holding up a sausage on a pair of prongs and looking totally lost in thought while two other firefighters just stand and gawk at him.  Whatever's supposed to be happening there, it's not conveyed very well.  I suppose that the point of all this simply is to show that the firefighters are every bit as incompetent as the Binfords - there's another firefighter who just walks around in random directions, pointing and crying, "Onward!", and alright, he is kind of amusing.  Caught between two highly incompetent groups of humans who are blatantly not going to resolve this predicament any time soon, the dog does everything within his power - namely, he heads back into the house and barks frantically at Skip and Bev in the hope that they'll give up on their material junk and just get out.  Bev seems entirely impervious to such efforts, however, for she insists upon pulling up a strip of the carpet and dragging it along with her.  Skip, who has finally managed to haul his lazy boy outside, hears the dog barking and attempts to go back for him, but is pulled away by one of the firefighters.  Bev makes it outside with the scrap of her precious carpet, but the dog, who has remained in the house far too long just to help these ridiculous humans, now finds himself unable to escape.

The Binfords are huddled together mournfully on their front lawn, watching the firefighters hose down their burning house, when it suddenly appears to dawn on them that they're one family member short - Skip says, "The dog...", as if he's only just given consideration to the poor creature's existence.  This is played up as a sort of awakening moment, with the family suddenly seeing through their foolish materialism and remembering what's really important, but really, it makes no sense because Skip did indeed refer to the dog and attempt to go back for him only a moment ago.  Why is he acting as if it's only just occurred to him now?  This sequence was not terribly well-edited, I think.

Skip attempts (for the second time) to go back inside the house in order to retrieve the trapped dog, but has his path blocked by the chief firefighter, who tells him that it's too dangerous.  The fact that Skip is prepared to put his life on the line for the dog is, in itself, a huge step up from previous episodes where no one seemed to give a toss about the furry little bugger in the slightest, but still, maybe if the adults had been a bit more attentive and hadn't been fussing about their goddamned carpets and lazy boys, they could have ensured that everyone, dog included, was safely out of the house by now.  Bev asks the firefighter if he can send one of his men in for the dog but is refused - the firefighters are prepared to go into burning buildings to rescue children (maybe) but not pets.  If our dog's going to get out of this jam alive, it'll very much come down to his own wits and nothing else.  No change there then.

Fortunately, our dog is an ever-resourceful one.  After an attempt to scramble back up the chimney fails, he makes a desperate bolt toward the stairs and manages to avoid the flames by running up the banister.  As the house begins to crumble to pieces, the dog is able to get up through an opening in the roof and, for the third time this episode, gets out of an undesirable situation by navigating his way across the tiles.  He then leaps off into the bushes and flees, just as the entire house collapses on itself in a giant flaming heap.

The fire finally subsides and, amid the smoking rubble that was formally the Binfords' house, we see the smoke alarm hanging by its wires, making a last dying bleep as its battery life expires, which is a neat touch.  The chief firefighter then lights up a cigarette (erm, irony?) and declares that they were able to keep the fire from spreading.  Skip asks him what might have caused the fire, and is informed that they may never know, much to Billy's relief.  The evil little fucker is going to get off scot-free for destroying his family's house and nearly killing everyone in the process, in other words.  Oh joy.

The dog makes his way across the yard and finds his doghouse still standing and completely unscathed.  A stray flame is blown across and lands right beside it, but he extinguishes it quite casually by digging up a little dirt upon it.  I won't deny it - I absolutely love that particular detail.  It seems only too fitting that the dog should prove not only more competent than the humans in handling fires but that, after all the shit he went through just to protect a family who care more about carpets and lazy boys than they do himself, his house gets to survive the disaster intact.

At this point the firefighters all leave and Billy, for some reason, tries to go with them (for their axe, I suppose).  The family then notice the dog standing in the yard and Skip declares that he must have been out there the entire time.  Wow, I guess that no one really was paying attention earlier.  The only one who's not relieved is Bev, who's too upset about the house to be capable of feeling any positive emotion.  It's a pretty downbeat ending to the scene, with the Binfords huddling together outside what's left of their home, although mainly it just reinforces your dislike of Billy for what he's done to his family.

Fortunately, the Binfords' are able to rebuild their lives to the extent that everything has been completely reset by the end of the episode.  They get an insurance settlement that covers everything, including a new lazy boy (although I thought that Skip rescued his) and a new carpet.  At the end of the episode, the Binfords are holding another party in their newly-rebuilt house - a housewarming this time - and Billy is outside in the yard trying to light the barbecue again.  Fortunately, Bev catches him in the act this time and proceeds to ground him, while the dog sneaks off with his matches and has fun dumping soil upon them.  So yeah, Billy does get a comeuppance of sorts in the end, although it seems ridiculously mild in light of what he actually did.  I know that Billy's supposed to be, what, seven or eight years old, but he's old enough to learn a thing or two about taking responsibility for his actions - in fact, didn't he already take that very lesson in the sparrow episode?

Despite those closing reservations, "Party Animal" is an infinitely better-constructed episode of Family Dog than we're used to, one which adheres far more closely to the principles of Chekhov's gun.  There's very little detail which seems thrown in purely to kill off excess time, and some of the foreshadowing is pretty well done.  The Binfords are as stupid and unpleasant a bunch as ever, of course, but at least one doesn't get the impression from this episode that they actively hate and resent their dog, even if their negligence and shallow materialism leads to him being trapped inside a burning building at one point.  If ever there was an episode to demonstrate definitively that the dog is a superior lifeform in every regard to the humans around him, it's "Party Animal".  Given that, one suspects, this was always intended to be the central underlying "gag" of Family Dog, I have no qualms in declaring "Party Animal", which comes the closest to getting the tone of that gag about right, to be the most successful episode of the series.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The World's Weirdest Frasier End Credits Sequence

As the entire world goes to pieces outside, I'm making a desperate bid to hold onto my sanity by focusing upon the most genial distraction I can possibly call to mind - namely, the most bizarre end credits sequence in the entire history of Frasier.  It's odd, and yet its oddness is of such a low-key variety that it tends to slip beneath most viewers' noses, so allow me to shine some rare spotlight upon this sequence and ruminate on why it's such a curiosity of mine.

Anybody familiar with Frasier will recall that the series always closed off each episode with an additional scene that played during the end credits.  Unlike Friends, which used a similar tactic, these sequences consisted entirely of visual narration and were accompanied by the show's signature ditty, "Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs", performed by Kelsey Grammer himself.  Actually, I know a number of people who find the closing credits to Frasier to be inherently weird upon the basis of that song, what with its random and slightly confusing lyrics.  Why does Frasier suddenly reveal a strange fixation with two culinary dishes which isn't even hinted at in the series proper?  I'm not certain if I would have gotten it if not for composer Bruce Miller's explanation in the sleeve notes of the series' official soundtrack ("Tossed Salad & Scrambled Eggs and Other Frasier Favorites") - he was instructed "not to mention psychiatry, crazy people or radio, but to make it germane to the show" and the whole tossed salad and scrambled eggs hook seemed like an appropriately zany metaphor for conveying the chaos of Frasier's day-to-day existence.

Ordinarily, the end credits were a place to give closure to a subplot or to throw in an additional punchline to a gag from earlier on in the episode (an obvious exception being the season finales, which usually consisted of a "Thanks For Calling" sequence that listed all of the celebrities who'd guest starred throughout the season as callers to Frasier's radio show).  Occasionally, you'd get something a bit more non-sequitur, and certainly no more so than in the closing sequence to the episode "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" of Season 5.

"Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" is notable for being the send-off for Martin's long-term girlfriend Sherry Dempsey (Marsha Mason), who happens to be one of the series' most divisive characters - depending on who you ask, she was either a hilarious foil to the Crane boys' snobbery or an unbearably obnoxious character who'd already worn out her welcome by her second appearance.  It also shows an unusually ugly side to Niles, whose sole purpose here is to lead Frasier astray and then take no responsibility for his actions once the damage is done (in fact, this is the closest that Niles comes to being the out-and-out villain of any episode).  The brothers learn from Daphne that Martin is hiding an engagement ring in his underpants drawer and all three of them are a little testy at the prospect of him getting hitched to Sherry, whom none of them have ever gotten along all too swimmingly with.  Niles takes it upon himself to hire a private detective, just to see if there's any dirt to be dug up on Sherry - initially, this is not to Frasier's taste, but he eventually gives in and the brothers discover that Sherry has a long history of failed marriages.  They decide to discreetly impart this information to Martin, but naturally things don't go to plan - it transpires that Martin was already well-aware of Sherry's past and he's pissed off to learn that his boys have been snooping around behind his back.  It also turns out that Martin has decided to break it off with Sherry, because he realises that the two of them have very different ideas about where they'd like the relationship to be headed.  Frasier, misreading the situation, further screws up in his efforts to intervene with the break-up, but by the end of the episode, Martin seems to have forgiven him and the two of them share a nice bonding moment as the story fades out.  Oh, and Eddie barks at a wooden fish during the end credits.  That's where the weirdness comes in.

The weirdness of this sequence rests, primarily, in how overwhelmingly arbitrary it is.  The scenario itself is a fairly banal one (which I suspect is why most viewers don't really tend to notice it at all), and yet it seems so disconnected from anything that's gone before it that I can't help but get a little hung up on what it's doing there.  As with most things that I get particularly or unreasonably hung up on, inevitably I've wound up developing a whole lot of affection for this sequence; if you were to ask me about my favourite end credits Frasier sight gag, I wouldn't hesitate to pick out this one, all because it's such a bewildering oddity.

End credits sequences focusing extensively or exclusively on Eddie actually could be a bit more surreal or experimental than most, but they usually had some clear logical connection to the the events or themes of the preceding story, and frequently contained parallels with Frasier's own most recent predicament.  One of the earliest closing sequences to feature only Eddie, "Beloved Infidel" of Season 1, showed the dog alone in the apartment, and rolling around rampantly on Frasier's couch.  This is a direct continuation of a running gag in which Frasier naively believes that he's trained Eddie to keep off the couch, when in actuality the devious little cur has simply learned to jump off the instant he hears Frasier approaching.  In an episode where Frasier also learns of a disturbing historic incident that forces him to reevaluate his perspective on his parents' marriage, the image of Eddie secretly rolling his parasite-filled hide all over Frasier's luxury furniture also conjures up feelings of contamination and of unpleasant realities threatening to encroach something idealistic and pure - not least, Frasier's assumption that the Eddie menace is containable.  Clearly, Frasier does not live in the world that he's long assumed he does.

For a more surreal example, take "The Show Where Diane Comes Back" of Season 3, which rounds off with a sequence in which Eddie upsets Martin by devouring his socks (actually, Eddie isn't so much "devouring" the socks as lying there and holding them impassively in his jaws - Moose, apparently, was a pretty impassive dog in real life and there are times when it comes through in Eddie).  This tiny snippet of Martin/Eddie interaction doesn't relate directly to anything that happens within the episode itself, but thanks to a small symbolic interjection, in which Eddie is shown in darkness with a thought bubble protruding from his head, reading, "I CAN'T HELP IT.  IT'S WHAT I DO," its inclusion here makes perfect sense.  It is a direct callback to Diane Chambers' play, the pretentiously titled "Rhapsody and Requiem", which used a very similar theatrical device (only sans the need for a thought bubble) for disclosing the inner thoughts and compulsions of its characters.  The emphasis upon the overruling influence of primal desires and instincts also fits in neatly with Frasier's own dilemma throughout much of the episode, as he spends the first half wanting to exact his petty revenge on Diane and the second hopelessly attracted to her, despite knowing full well that the two of them are not a good match.

The closing sequence to "The Impossible Dream" of Season 4 is weirder still, as is befitting for one of the stranger outings in Frasier's run. This is the episode where Frasier grapples with a recurring dream in which he's sharing a bed with fellow radio personality Gil Chesteron, and gradually comes to question if his subconscious is trying to tell him something about his sexuality.  By the end of the episode Frasier appears to have established that the dream doesn't stem from any latent sexual attraction to Gil but seems no more at peace with his subconscious (oh boy, Freud).  The end credits sequence suggests that Eddie too is greatly troubled by his own nighttime visions, which his case involve leaping up and down and being tormented by a plate of perpetually out-of-reach muffins upon the kitchen unit.  Eddie wakes up with a start, runs to the kitchen and starts jumping up and down in the same fashion as his dream self, but finally discovers that there are no muffins in reality and staggers back to the living room in defeat.

Eddie's dream also contains the rather odd detail of the kitchen clock showing that it's 3:11 in the morning - odd, because we are technically supposed to be inside the subconscious of a dog, and I'm not sure why such a detail would make a lick of sense in that context.  The answer to that being that Eddie's dream sequence was a straight-up recycling job, reusing footage from the closing sequence of "Author, Author" of Season 1.  That one also ended upon a much more upbeat note for Eddie, as he actually did make off with one of the muffins.

That fish in "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do", though - what does it have to do with anything that happens in the episode itself?  Actually, "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" is a fairly atypical episode of Frasier in general, in that the focus is almost entirely upon Martin and Sherry's relationship and the Crane brothers' unease with it.  There's no subplot to speak of and Daphne, despite serving as a catalyst in a couple of key scenes, is given precious little to do.  The only scene that stands as a wholly independent gag with no really obvious connection to the main story involves Roz making a faux pas while trying to bluff her way out of a traffic ticket from a female police officer.  Even then, it feels like it was written in purely to give Roz some minimal involvement (although that's often the case for episodes in which don't involve Frasier's radio show - to put things into perspective, in Sherry's debut episode, "Dad Loves Sherry, The Boys Just Whine", Roz appears only at the very start of the episode to discuss the joys of being able to wear sandals again).  I can see why they weren't exactly spoiled for choice for end credits sequence material on this one.  Still, Eddie and that fish?  Where does that image even stem from?

Naturally, it's not quite as random as at first it might seem.  The wooden fish DOES show up within the course of the episode itself, although it's such a minor aspect of the mise-en-scène that you'd have to be particularly observant to notice it all, and even then odds are that you'd have long-forgotten it by the time we've reached the credits.  Myself, I had to go back and purposely look for the fish in order to pinpoint where it appears and attempt to make sense of that ending.  In the second scene, as Martin and Sherry are preparing for a party with some of Sherry's friends, we can see Sherry inserting cheese and olives on cocktail sticks into the wooden fish, which functions as a novelty hors d'oeuvre display.  Nobody ever references the fish, nor does the camera ever focus on it - it's a part of the scenery, nothing more.  There's nothing to suggest that Eddie feels particularly strongly about it either - for the entirety of the scene, he's facing in the opposite direction.

We could take a cue from the previous Eddie-centric endings and look for parallels or symbolism in the scenario that relate to the happenings of the wider episode.  My best suggestion would be that the conflict between Eddie and that fish represents the inevitable incompatibility between Martin and Sherry (Eddie is his dog, after all, and the fish was handled by Sherry and used as a prop at a party aimed primarily at Sherry's social circle - and yes, I'm definitely reaching with this one).  Given that the fish has been stripped of cheese and olives by the end of the episode, perhaps what we're meant to be looking at here is the aftermath of the party (which happens entirely off-screen), but there's nothing else visible in the scene to suggest it.  In the absence of any particularly compelling explanation, this may even be indicative of a deleted scene in which the fish was given slightly more focus; enough to make it suddenly being the centrepiece of the closing credits a bit more justifiable.

Or maybe the joke is that the fish, with its beady yellow eyes, is capable of intimidating even a champion staremaster like Eddie into losing his cool.  It still feels every bit as arbitrary a means of rounding off an episode about Martin and Sherry's break-up, but as an individual piece it suddenly gains a lot more clarity.