Friday, 5 June 2020

Fear of Flying (aka The Wreck of The Fairchild)

Let's talk about a Simpsons sight gag that I believe merits more appreciation. In Season 6's "Fear of Flying" (2F08), Homer and Marge visit the VHS Village, a video rental store, which advertises itself in its signage as "formerly the Beta Barn". It's a small moment, but one that the format nerd in me absolutely revels in. Oh yes, trust me, this is a far greater deal than Guy Incognito. On the surface, it might register as nothing more than a fleeting reference to the videotape format war that waged across the late 1970s/early-to-mid 1980s, with Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS each competing to determine the future of home media consumption. Springfield's local video library, it seems, backed the losing pony and were forced to concede come the back-end of the 80s, when VHS emerged as the clear victor and most Betamax tapes were earmarked for landfill. Change happened. Yet that vanquished identity represents more than just a basic nod to a cultural curiosity that was fast fading into memory. It signifies as what could have been as much as what was - a cancelled timeline and a possible future that never materialised. By the time "Fear of Flying" debuted, on December 18th 1994, the succeeding decade was almost half-over and enough distance had been created between Betamax's point of relevance and the present day that the VHS Village really should be able to stand on its own. Surely nobody would be asking for the Beta Barn at the dawn of '95? Instead, acknowledgement of the store's former identity continues to linger, an unassuming ode to every potentially revolutionary idea or development that got lost and discarded in the merciless march of time. (Adding to the poignancy, from a modern-day perspective, is the knowledge that the VHS Village would now be defunct in any format.)

For as much as I'm inclined to read into this gag, its presence here may be down to good old-fashioned labor-saving more than anything else. Technically, the first time we encountered it was in Season 3's "Saturdays of Thunder" (which aired three years prior, in November 1991), when Homer and Lisa go to the VHS Village to rent a Happy Little Elves tape (another nod to a cultural phenomenon that was then becoming obsolete). Yet for some reason the exact same gag doesn't resonate even half as hard with me in that episode. It seems starker in 1994, when the Betamax's try at longevity was more of a faded memory. Studying the store exterior as it appears in "Saturdays of Thunder", I wonder if the Betamax reference in "Fear of Flying" was something of a leftover detail as opposed to a calculated choice. Compare the two and you'll note that while they didn't go so far as to reuse the same animation cels from "Saturdays of Thunder", they have basically recycled the exact same mise-en-scene, only with a new lick of paint slapped on everything. In "Saturdays of Thunder", the blue and yellow colour scheme was clearly intended to evoke that of Blockbuster Video, only here the VHS Village has swapped that out for a slightly less shameless mixture of red and beige. The posters on the store window are the same but are obscured so that we can no longer see the titles. The Simpsons' car has been removed, but the two nondescript vehicles are identical, just with different paint jobs. And here's a particularly disturbing detail - the fire hydrant outside the store is yellow! Have Homer and Marge gone to the VHS Village in Shelbyville, per chance?

Still, not only did they retain the Beta Barn sub heading, in revamping the scene they the lettering bigger, bolder and more prominent, as if they really wanted you to notice it this time around. Perhaps this gag is more at home in "Fear of Flying", an episode where the central theme deals with uncomfortable truths and barely suppressed memories that continue to reverberate in the present, no matter how seemingly far-removed by the sands of time. We saw all the way back in Season 1's "Moaning Lisa" that smiling and concealing has been Marge's long-term survival strategy, and in the same episode we also got an inkling of how well that strategy has served her. Here, Marge's lifetime of bottled-up emotion finally reaches breaking point when Homer's latest misadventure earns the family free airline tickets to any location in the contiguous United States and she's forced to confront her aerophobia. Whenever this episode is the subject of discussion, some smart aleck is bound to bring up that the family previously flew in the Season 3 episode "Mr Lisa Goes To Washington", and there we didn't hear a peep out of Marge. And true, that is one heck of a glaring continuity issue, although here it is strongly insinuated that her areophobia is really just a manifestation of a far greater problem, and the form it takes ends up feeling largely arbitrary. It has nothing to do with her father making a living as an airline steward and not a pilot, as she'd been led to believe. The revelation is just dumb, and the episode knows it's dumb, although it does give us a rare glimpse of Clancy Bouvier, a character we'd previously only encountered once. The real underlying source of Marge's problems is...well, take a wild guess. It's an episode that spends a lot of time dancing around the obvious, without getting anywhere in particular, and for that reason it sometimes has a hard time endearing itself to viewers. "Fear of Flying" is definitely one of the more undervalued episodes of Season 6; it has a sad, sour quality that doesn't consistently yield belly laughs, but it's an interesting look at just how determined the adult Simpsons are to avoid facing up to what hurts. It only scratches the surface, but even that superficial scratch proves potent enough.

When Marge's pre-take off panic attack causes the family to cancel their vacation plans, her latent anxieties continue to manifest themselves in increasingly strange and neurotic ways. Lisa urges Marge to see a therapist, but Homer is against the idea, for he has enough foresight to see where this is potentially headed. Instead, he seeks alternative outlets of support, including a hack radio psychic and agony aunt Dear Abby (Dear Abby, lest we forget, would later unwittingly respond to one of Marge's dilemmas), and gets the idea that watching films about air travel will help Marge to overcome her fears. Hence their visit to the VHS Village. Homer picks out a selection of penitent videos, based on their upbeat titles - Hero, Fearless and most alluringly of all, Alive. This, too, is one of my favourite Simpsons gags.

You can see the misguided logic in Homer's thinking. On the one hand, all of those films do have ostensibly positive-sounding titles, although the imagery on each VHS cover should have been a dead giveaway as to the content in each case. Hero (Stephen Frears, 1992), Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993) and Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993) are all real pictures, and they were all relatively recent releases back in 1994. I'm not sure how much individual resonance Hero and Fearless would have had with viewers at the time, beyond what's self-evident, as both of those films nose-dived at the box office, but Alive was rather a different story. It didn't exactly make a blockbuster-sized killing either, but such was the infamy of its subject that mere mention of the title would have struck an uneasy nerve. Not everyone has seen the film, but most everyone knows the true-life story it was based on, or at least has a vague idea of what went on atop that remote Argentinian mountain in 1972. On October 13th, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 went missing while flying over the Andes carrying 45 passengers and crew, including members of the Old Christians Club rugby team. More than 70 days later, two of the missing individuals, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, arrived in Chile, having made a daring trek across the mountains in search of aid, and on their instructions authorities were able to locate the plane wreckage and an additional fourteen survivors. The lucky sixteen later revealed that there had been a disturbing cost to their survival, for in the absence of any viable food sources, they had been forced to cannibalise the bodies of their dead friends and family. All of the passengers on board the flight were Roman Catholic, and some had rationalised the extreme measure as a form of Eucharist. Their story quickly became legendary, both as a testament to human tenacity and its ability to withstand the most adverse conditions, and as a troubling reminder of our fragility, and the harrowing decisions that might have to be made simply to sustain ourselves if the comforts of civilisation were stripped away. While Alive, based on Piers Paul Read's 1974 book Alive: The Story of The Andes Survivors, is one of the most famous media takes on the subject, it is but one artifact in a long-standing cultural fascination with the story. It had previously been dramatised as another feature film, Survive!, directed by Rene Cardona Jr in 1976. It likewise didn't take long for the world to begin plundering it for gallows humor -  Ted Kotcheff's 1978 film Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? contains reference to a fictitious "Andes Plane Crash Cookbook", while in 1979 BBC comedy sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News featured a skit in which two survivors of a plane crash (played by Mel Smith and Chris Langham) are interviewed about the drastic measures they took to stay alive; we are goaded to think at first that they are alluding to cannibalism, but it is revealed that they are actually describing the experience of having to eat airline food. Then a final punchline confirms that there was cannibalism involved after all ("I mean, we'd already eaten the other passengers..."). Added to that fine tradition, we have the parody in "Fear of Flying", as Marge watched the rented video and we hear one survivor mordantly remark that, "No thanks to the plane, many of us are still...alive!", followed by the tell-tale sounds of ravenous gorging. "Pass me another hunk of co-pilot..."

As a kid, I got this gag because Alive was one of those titles that had serious playground notoriety as I was growing up. "Have you seen the movie about the rugby team who crash into the mountains and have to eat each other to stay alive?" Most of my peers actually hadn't, but I knew one particularly loud-mouthed individual who claimed to have done so, and whose professed admiration for the sixteen survivors barely concealed the strangely perverted relish with which he would talk, in eagerly lurid detail, about the sequences in which they devoured the butt cheeks of their fallen comrades (as per his account, that's where the hunk of co-pilot came from). He was so emphatic on all of this, and the parody on the Simpsons so hair-raisingly macabre, that it was something of a disappointment, many years later, when I finally got hold of Alive and discovered that, not only is it not a good film, but it's actually not as interested in the whole cannibalism dilemma as you might have imagined (given that it's the only part that anybody talks about). Make no mistake - Alive is a Hollywood production with a glossy Hollywood sheen, and it's more interest in stressing the triumph of the story than the trauma. Despite reports of the method acting the cast were supposedly put through in order to simulate starvation (I read at least one book claiming that they were not only barred from eating, but were also tasked with watching the production crew eat), I must agree with what Roger Ebert said in his review: "As subtitles tick off "Day 50" and "Day 70," the actors in the movie continue to look amazingly healthy (and well-fed)." (Gene Siskel was more positive about the film, but felt that it could have used more of that gallows humor). The obvious issue of survivor's guilt - which is the focus of Fearless - is here treated in a very pat manner. And the butt-eating? In one scene you see a character insert their finger into what looks like the vague outline of a frozen human body in the snow - the outline is so vague that it's hard to tell which part of the body he's supposed to be fiddling with, but it could well be the buttocks.

Naturally, being a true story, it merits a certain degree of reverence, and too lurid a focus on the cannibalistic element would have run the risk of being exploitative. Nevertheless, for Alive to have succeeded, it needed to be a far more visceral and physically ugly experience than it is. The tenacity of the human spirit under pressure is all well and good, but I think in a scenario such as this the basic mechanics of survival deserve consideration too - the biological drive to keep ourselves alive, and how this might compel us to do things that under ordinary circumstances we would regard as unfathomable. As remarkable as the survivors' story is, it doesn't exactly strike me as the material of life-affirming cinema. We are, after all, talking about a situation in which the majority of persons involved died, and the minority who survived only did so by eating the dead. There comes a point where the film's spirituality comes to seem less like meaningful commentary than an indulgence by which to kid ourselves that we didn't come to this picture because we were morbidly curious about the cannibalism. I think of my friend, who claimed to be greatly inspired by the courage and endurance of the Andes sixteen, but plainly just wanted to see a movie about people eating keester. It's why I appreciate the gag in "Fear of Flying" - it speaks to a world still haunted by the cultural memory of a harrowing account of death and survival, subverting efforts to repackage that memory as rousing, feel-good entertainment by peeling back the veneer and revealing the crude, unmitigated horrors at the heart of the story; horrors that captivate as much as they repel.

Avoidance of staring an undesirable truth straight in the face is one of the characteristic themes of "Fear of Flying", an episode that, in my experience, gets little in the way of appreciation, in part due to its overall desultory nature. A common grievance with the episode has to do with Homer's opening arc - to find a new watering hole after being booted out of Moe's - is abruptly forgotten and never actually resolved, so that in the end we have to rely on our trust in the end of episode reset to get us back to where we started. Erik Adams of the AV Club takes takes issue with this, noting that the episode's sudden switch in interests is "a letdown after such a crackerjack cold open—one that gave the world Guy Incognito and the always useful Chinese word for crisis and opportunity, “crisitunity.”" He also criticises the overall lack of stakes with Marge's plight, stating that, "There’s no compelling reason to get Marge back on that plane, and her reason for keeping her feet on the ground isn’t particularly compelling" (actually, I do have a number of issues with Adams' review in general). It's true that the destination is less important than the flight itself (I don't think it's even established where the Simpsons were going - wherever it was, they had intended to take Abe with them, in a rare act of generosity toward him, but that turns out to all be the set-up for a Home Alone gag), and that Marge ultimately boards the plane in an effort to prove to herself that she has overcome her problems, which of course she hasn't. That reality is neatly encapsulated in the closing moments when she ends up with a carp swimming around her ankles. "Fear of Flying" is a frustrating episode, if by design, and I suspect that's why a lot of viewers struggle with it. It also has an unusually grim tone, which comes from trawling through all of Marge's half-repressed traumas. For the obviously ridiculous nature of most of her deepest, darkest memories (she had her innocence shattered on her first day of school, not because of all the unsettling falsehoods that Patty and Selma fed to her beforehand, but because she was forced to contemplate the manufactured nature of The Monkees), you still get a strong sense of just show small and vulnerable young Marge was, and how that continues to nibble away at her in the present.

As painful as our voyage through Marge's subconscious is, it ends up feeling like something of a futile effort, and in that regard the opening act involving Homer's personal, more physical quest makes for the perfect prelude. Lisa attempts to inspire Homer to make the best of a negative situation by informing him that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do opportunity (apparently not, Lisa, although I suppose that Homer's own suggestion, "crisitunity", will suffice). The notion that a crisis inherently equals opportunity is maybe a tad questionable (it certainly wasn't for the 29 who perished in the Flight 571 disaster), but the implied motivational lesson is that a quandary has the potential to challenge us and enable to us to develop and change our situation for the better - although Homer, naturally, takes his crisitunity as affirmation that he should be doing more of the same in a different location. He ends up falling down quite the rabbit hole as he tours every alternative bar in Springfield, including a genteel cocktail bar (from which he is ejected on sight), a strangely familiar bar (which proves too terrifying), a trendy lesbian bar (which has no fire exit - enjoy your deathtrap, ladies) and finally a private airport bar for pilots, which is where things finally start to merge into Marge's aerophobia arc. Obviously, order will not be restored in the universe until Homer is back at Moe's (which doesn't happen here, causing things to feel slightly out of whack at the end, among other reasons). We sense that what's driving him on his quest, besides his craving for a beer, is the underlying desire to put off contemplating the alternative, which is to stay home and spend his evenings with the family, as was implied in his response earlier to Marge's suggestion that he pretend the couch is a bar. Homer keeps on moving in order to avoid facing up to the undesirable issue of his familial responsibility, taking him to increasingly far-out and unlikely venues. Later, when Marge's own crisitunity materialises, and she's asked with traversing her subconscious under the guidance of Dr. Zweig (wonderfully voiced by Anne Bancroft), we can see how her journey mirrors Homer's, as she hops from one uneasy dead end to another, before finally reaching an apparent conclusion in which the basic problem goes entirely unresolved.

We are led to believe that the issue Marge has been avoiding all along has to do with her father, which seems a fair enough subject given that we know so little about the man. The big revelation - she was horrified, as a child, to learn that her father worked as an airline steward - is flagrantly ridiculous, and is immediately undermined in being followed up by an all-out avalanche of unhappy childhood memories, all involving aviation imagery in some form, suggesting that Marge's fear of flying could have originated from any number of sources. Zweig, though, has her reasons for wanting to glibly pass over this "rich tapestry", as she's cottoned on that Homer is the real source of Marge's troubles, although more because of Homer's own actions than anything Marge lets slip, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy (Marge only betrays her resentment toward Homer once, when she relates a recurring Lost In Space-themed dream in which she casts Homer as Dr Smith). Homer's earlier response to Marge's plight - "The important thing is for your mother to repress what happened. Push it deep down inside her so she'll never annoy us again" - tells you all you need to know on why that is (it's also implicit in the episode title, a nod to the 1973 novel Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, which explores female sexuality from the perspective of a heroine looking to transcend the limitations of her unfulfilling marriage). Homer intervenes at this point, insisting that Zweig does not have to make Marge Superwoman, thus ensuring that the really painful issues stay haphazardly swept under the rug. Besides Homer, the other devil lurking in plain sight throughout "Fear of Flying" may be Jacqueline Bouvier, who appears in a couple of Marge's flashback but is never the focus of the discussions, despite an earlier moment in which we were reminded of some of the detrimental ways in which she conditioned Marge to suppress her emotions throughout childhood. (It's hinted, and not just here, that Marge may have as troubled a relationship with Jackie as Homer does with Abe, although this was never really explored in any substantial depth, possibly because Julie Kavner disliked doing Jackie's voice - in fact, I think this may even be her last speaking appearance for a lengthy stretch).

Marge's association with Zweig bows out with a callback to a moment from the Season 4 episode "Selma's Choice", in which we get another glimpse of Marge's peculiar obsession with reenvisioning details from her life in order to project herself into world of the 1991 film The Prince of Tides. Here, though, Marge doesn't explicitly acknowledge the connection, so unless you're familiar with the film, or the novel by Pat Conroy, you may be slightly confused by this reference. Marge tells Zweig that she will continue to honor the difference she has made by thinking, "Lowenstein, Lowenstein..." whenever she hears the wind whistling through the leaves (which is how Nick Nolte's character paid homage to Barbra Streisand's character at the end of that film, more-or-less) and blissfully ignores Zweig's indignant reassertion of her true identity, choosing to keep uttering "Lowenstein, Lowenstein..." as she goes her separate way. I presume this is Marge's attempt to affix her own glossy Hollywood sheen onto the ostensible end of her story, to convince herself of resolution where none exists. It's probably not a good sign that, rather than face the world with a heightened new awareness, she heads out retreating ever deeper into the comforts of fantasy. And, despite Marge's insistence that her surface-scratching with Dr Zweig has changed her life, we know that her newfound ability to get on that plane is ultimately a seriously hollow victory. As Homer had already reminded her, going on vacation is an opportunity for her to clean up after chaotic family in another state. That unseen carp swimming around her at the end, coupled with Homer's nonchalant commentary, seems especially ominous in that regard.

Still, if Marge got to watch Fearless out of the deal then the entire experience wasn't wholly in vain. Forget Alive, Fearless is the one you want to ride with.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Pepsi '95: Casper vs Aluminum

It goes without saying that there's no such thing as peacetime between the colas. The Cola Wars peaked in the 1980s and while neither side has ever made a move quite as tectonic-splitting as Coca-Cola's New Coke gambit, their brawl continued into the preceding decade and would occasionally throw up a few fascinating developments, such as the clear cola fad of the early 90s, a short-lived phenomenon that Coca-Cola willfully destroyed with their dirty little kamikaze tactics. Coca-Cola learned how to utilise the commercial appeal of cute and cuddly polar bears, while Pepsi hitched themselves to the Spice Girls' bandwagon and offered bribery in the form of Pepsi Stuff. So ubiquitous was the rivalry that not even Casper could escape it. He was forced to pick a side, and he chose Pepsi (perhaps their underdog status made them more appropriate for the downtrodden young wraith). Hence, there was a Pepsi commercial, around the time of the movie, where we saw Casper wrestle with a can of Pepsi, and discovering, to his chagrin, that aluminum obeys a different set of rules to ectoplasm.

These kinds of commercial tie-ins might strike one as heavy-handed, but it was all part of milieu back in the 1990s, and Casper was far from the only cinematic character to vaunt the joys of Pepsi just in the summer of 1995 alone. There was another ad where Amy, the signing gorilla from Frank Marshall's jungle-action thriller Congo, requested a Pepsi. Heck, even The Simpsons were in on it - they had a tie-in promotion with Pepsi as part of their "Who Shot Mr Burns?" contest. The Congo Pepsi ad strikes me as being somewhat out of character with the movie it's connected to (more so than the Casper ad), and yet the most incongruous movie/cola tie-in promotion of them all would have to be an ad from three years earlier promoting...Alien 3, of all things, which frankly makes that Alien 3 parody we'd occasionally see in the opening sequence to The Critic look tame and sensible by comparison. Here, we discovered that Xenomorphs actually prefer the taste of Pepsi to human fluids, and can be dissuaded from chowing on a prospective victim's hide if you can point them in the direction of the nearest Pepsi vending machine. Too bad that Sigourney Weaver and her crew never figured that out. Heck, we can go back even further, to 1988, and to the other side of the battlefield, where we had a Diet Coke commercial with Jessica Rabbit singing "Diet Coke" over and over, and Roger brandishing a can of the eminent liquid, in case you were at risk of missing the point. I technically find this set-up even more questionable than a Pepsi-drinking Xenomorph, given that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is set in 1947, and Diet Coke wasn't introduced until 1982. Compared to the aforementioned Pepsi ads, there's not even an attempt to create much of a narrative around Roger and Jessica's cola lust; it's pretty much just a case of the characters flaunting the product as much as possible within thirty seconds. I'd brand it the very model of commercial crass, but for the fact that I'm a sucker for any footage with Roger, Jessica and Eddie Valiant rubbing shoulders. In the same way, the Casper ad is neat for all the extra time we get to spend stalking the corridors of Whipstaff Manor (including another glimpse into Harvey's office and of the organ that never got to fulfill its purpose in the finished movie).

The Casper ad boasts an eerily similar premise to that Pepsi ad about a man's ongoing battle with a Pepsi vending machine that wouldn't accept his crumpled-up dollar bill, which received a shout-out in the Negativland song "Drink It Up". By comparison, the Casper ad isn't quite as bleak (we don't get the background noise of "Lonesome Town" by Ricky Nelson to emphasise the aura of almost apocalyptic abandonment), but it's more-or-less the exact same scenario - our protagonist is all alone and desperate for a can of Pepsi, only to find that the limitations of their physical environs are preventing them from accessing the sweetness within. As we leave them, both remain locked in their respective Sisyphean struggle, with the onscreen reminder that Nothing Else Is A Pepsi, and the grim implication that there's nothing else out there for them. Actually, in Casper's case there is a very obvious solution to his problem, which is simply to open the refrigerator door. Come to think of it, why isn't he doing that? Is the can of Pepsi just so alluring that Casper just can't overcome the compulsion to keep his hold, lest he never gets it back again? Then again, maybe that kind of graspiness is perfectly in-character for Casper - it was, after all, his refusal to let go of a sled that led to his becoming a ghost in the first place. Once again, life (signified here by a Pepsi can, and the nihilistic intimation, implicit in the tagline, that the world beyond it is little more than an abyss of unfulfilling nothingness) is something that Casper has to learn to relinquish in order to experience.

Naturally, since Casper ain't got no life, ain't got guts, ain't got no liver, if he were to drink that Pepsi then it would literally pass right through him and leave a sticky puddle on the Whipstaff kitchen floor. But maybe that's one of the advantages of being dead. You're beyond the point where sugar can hurt you.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Hilltop Reunion '90: Can't Beat The Feeling

Coca-Cola's iconic "Hilltop" spot might have come in many years before my time, but it's still an ad tremendous nostalgia for me. It's a strange nostalgia - basically, a nostalgia filtered through somebody else's nostalgia, and for something I didn't even remember from the time. You see, my nostalgia is not for the original ad from 1971, but for the sequel that arrived just over eighteen years later, and which debuted during Super Bowl XXIV on 28th January 1990. I have no memory of watching the ad in the year it appeared, but I stumbled across it three or four years later on a home recording. Back then I was experiencing my induction into the slippery world of nostalgia by mining old VHS tapes for old ads and idents, and delighting whenever any of them had the vaguest chimes of familiarity for me, and I unearthed this one particular ad that opened with a blonde-haired woman informing her daughter that "You know it happened right here, twenty years ago." I was intrigued and maybe a little frustrated that the ad never specified what had happened upon that hill twenty years ago, but before I knew it the woman had burst into this hopeful song about doves and apple trees, all of these other people were flocking out of the blue to join her (each and every one of them brandishing a Coca-Cola bottle), and the ad worked a remarkable kind of magic on me. I still lived in blissful ignorance of the original ad to which it was referring (a clip showing a facial close-up of the then-teenage protagonist Linda Higson plays, but only fleetingly), and yet I felt intuitively that I understood exactly what was going on; that whatever had happened twenty years ago was recurring again with these people, and it was as alive as it ever had been. Even at the time I thought it bemusing that the consumption of Coca-Cola was being equated with laudable values like loving the Earth and your fellow human, but there was nevertheless something wondrous about the notion of the hills spontaneously erupting in a great euphoric flare, and everyone convening to sing about the joys of peace, love and Coca-Cola. In 1990, the ad signified a convergence of the old and new - the adult participants singing their old nostalgic jingle, as the younger generation races in singing the current "Can't Beat The Feeling" jingle - and yet by the time I discovered it, the ad, barely a few years old, already struck me as a relic of a bygone time. The fashions and hairstyles seemed mildly out of step with contemporary trends, and "Can't Beat The Feeling" had long been replaced by "Can't Beat The Real Thing", and more recently by "Always Coca-Cola". The ad had the power to transport me back into another time, a not-too-distant past that nevertheless seemed a world removed, and in the process put me in touch with an altogether more remote past, one that I had not experienced first-hand and which was much more fuzzily-defined. I still didn't know what had happened twenty years ago, but I felt the same yearning for it that the characters did. It was a borrowed memory through a borrowed memory, and my misplaced warm feelings were putty in the hands of the Powers That Be. The message of the ad was that the world keeps turning and the population keeps regenerating; change is inevitable, and generations come and go, but Coca-Cola is the one great constant, our cultural and temporal unity. The time may be wildly out of joint, but there's always Coca-Cola.

The 1990 ad is popularly known as "Hilltop Reunion", although "Generations" is given as the onscreen title, and it features around twenty-five members of the original assembly and their families. Tracking down as many of the original cast as possible was no small task - naturally, Linda Higson, who had been working as an au pair in Italy when she was picked to open the 1971 ad, was the most coveted of the lot, but she very nearly slipped the net. As this Associated Press article explains, since that ad, she had moved back to her native Britain, married and assumed the name Neary, and to further complicate matters, Coca-Cola had incorrectly recorded her maiden name as Hipson, meaning that their chances of tracing her were akin to finding a needle in the haystack. In the end, their last ditch option was to run a print ad in several key newspapers, and this was fortuitously seen by one of Neary's friends and brought to her attention. Neary once again opens the ad, this time accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter Kelly.

The above ad is the version that I'm familiar with, although it seems that there was an alternate version, which I'm going to assume was the one that played to US audiences. This one can be found in the video below, which also contains some behind-the-scenes footage.

Watching the above version, there are two key differences that immediately leap out at me - firstly, the voices of Neary and her daughter have been conspicuously dubbed to remove their British accents. Secondly, every repeated utterance of "The feeling you get from a Coca-Cola Classic!" plays like a jar on my personal nostalgia; it's vaguely dislocating, like seeing a version of your own memory misremembered through someone else's. In early 1990, Coca-Cola was still feeling the knock-on effects of the introduction of New Coke in 1985, and I'm not sure at what point they stopped having to specify which of the beverages they were referring to in a given campaign (I don't think this was such an issue outside of the US and Canada, where the original formula was never replaced). Although Coca-Cola is presented as the one constant in an ever-changing world, that specification adds its own layer of meaning. Compared to the non-Classic ad, this one presents a somewhat disturbed timeline, in which the beverage's identity has been confused, and the unbeatable feeling described by the Hilltop gang has faced a threat to its existence. Calling it a "classic" suggests a more vintage model, and still we see the shadow of New Coke, the trendy contender that recently attempted to consign it to a bygone age. The ad becomes less a celebration of generational bridges than a reminder of our deeply chaotic universe, where even the nexus of our very reality - The Real Thing - is subject to the occasional rearrangement.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Burger King '85: Herb's The Word

The New Coke fiasco wasn't the only questionable marketing strategy to be deployed by a major corporate brand back in 1985. Kicking off its short-lived run in November that year was Burger King's "Herb" campaign, which doesn't bear quite the same level of timeless notoriety as Coca-Cola's legendary faux pas, but nevertheless remains a ready and gift-wrapped target for any editorial looking to scoff at a naff nostalgic curio. In the 1980s, it wasn't just the soft drinks that were attempting to obliterate each other's market shares by blitzing consumers with incessant advertising. The fast food chains were also waging their own equally cutthroat war, and Herb was one of the more baffling by-products of the culinary combat.

In the US, the burger wars were being fought principally between three restaurants - McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's (Wendy's, though, does not have as strong an international presence as the other two). McDonald's led the market by such a significant margin that the other two had basically no chance of toppling them, and in their case the battle was more for the privilege of claiming the number two spot. Naturally, a memorable advertising campaign could go a long way, and in 1984 Wendy's had found great success with their "Where's The Beef?" campaign, in which an elderly woman named Clara griped about the small sizes of their competitors' burgers. Burger King hit back the following year with a campaign devised by advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, in which they posed an altogether more imperative question: "Where's The Herb?" They referred not to some kind of secret flavouring in their own burger recipe, but to some guy named Herb. Burger King urgently wanted to know where he was at.

Actually, the more vexing question, to begin with, was not so much where was Herb as who was Herb? As the campaign got underway, he was shrouded in mystery. All we knew about Herb was that he was "different". How different? He was the only man in the entire world who had never eaten a Whopper (supposedly...). Needless to say, Burger King were deeply unhappy with Herb for his fierce non-conformity, and so, as per their advertising, was the rest of America. Where Herb was specifically was immaterial, for he was defined where he wasn't. All that mattered was that he wasn't anywhere within the vicinity of a Burger King restaurant, and the campaign set about creating an aura of mistrust around anybody who could muster neither the interest or the appetite for popular taste.

The early stages of the campaign were all about how much Burger King hated this phantom Herb's guts for the fact that he wasn't filling them with their product. They resented Herb so much that they came up with a promotion specifically structured around shunning him. When ordering a Whopper, customers were encouraged to say "I'm not Herb" to get it for 99 cents - or, if they were named Herb, "I'm not the Herb you're looking for." In one commercial, it played like an inversion on that scene from Spartacus. Meanwhile, Burger King continued to taunt Herb with a series of print ads and sports banners calling him out on his Whopper aversion. The point, obviously, was to build intrigue and to get the name Herb to the forefront of every consumer's consciousness, but in terms of the campaign's internal narrative, in which Burger King is frequented by everybody except for Herb, their obsession with this one dissenter seems frankly sinister. That, I would say, is the campaign's greatest strength at this point. It's like something out of a dystopian nightmare, in which a corporate giant sets their sights on eviscerating an individual for no other reason than that they represent a challenge to their power. The chilling implication is that Herb is the only thing standing between Burger King and world domination. He is an anomaly they cannot afford to ignore because, for as long as he's out there and not gracing their buildings with his enigmatic presence, he's a reminder that resistance is not futile. It's a far cry from the marketing strategies favoured by McDonald's, which traditionally emphasised warmth, sunniness and family togetherness, and that's potentially not such a bad thing.

It was, however, only the beginning. Two months later, Burger King elected to bring closure to the mystery and, during Super Bowl XX, they unveiled Herb's likeness before a viewing public in a much-touted TV spot. Herb, it transpired, was a wet-looking, wet-sounding milquetoast portrayed by one Jon Menick. Burger King had tracked him down, abducted him and subjected him to all manner of torture before he'd cracked, for he was now singing the praises of the corporation that had devoted the last two months to making a pariah of him. Or so it would seem. Now that the public eye was finally on him, Herb revealed that he had just sampled Burger King's signature sandwich and that it was love at first bite. Ah well, kind of an anti-climax, don't you think? I'm not sure how much of a narrative was concocted around Herb's 180 transition, but I do wonder why, if it was really that easy, Burger King had so much trouble courting him in the first place?

By whatever means, Burger King finally had finally vanquished their lone resister and the path to world domination was clear. All that was left was to have Herb flaunt his contrition by visiting Burger King restaurants all across the country. In early 1986, Burger King ran a contest in which Menick (in character as Herb) would visit restaurants in every state, and the first person to spot him on each occasion would be awarded $5,000. Meanwhile, everybody present in the restaurant at the time would be entered into a prize draw for a chance of winning $1 million. Rather than convincing the public of Burger King's unquestionable supremacy, however, it had consumers questioning their credibility. Turns out, the masses weren't really taking to to this Herb character, which was a serious blow Burger King, who had already poured millions of dollars into his being.

I've read conflicting accounts as to how the campaign was initially received, and at what point the air ran out of its tires. Some sources suggest that the original phase of the campaign was very successful and that people were genuinely hooked by the initial hype, but were ultimately disappointed when Herb's identity was revealed, feeling that the "reality" of his character fell somehow short of the mystery. Others suggest that people found the campaign weird and confusing from the start, and that by the time that Herb was revealed, the public was already sick of hearing about him. Wikipedia, in typically questionable Wikipedia fashion, states that it, "confused people who tried to follow the promotion because they did not know what Herb looked like." Now personally, I was way too young, and way too non-American to have any first-hand memories of this campaign, but from the outset it does seem to me like it was split into two distinct parts. There was the initial part, where Burger King was supposedly searching for Herb, and the onus was on the public to come forth, confirm that they were not Herb, and get their 99c Whopper. Only in the second part does it seem like the onus on the viewer to find Herb in the flesh, and that was after his identity had been revealed. I'm also going to assume that those cardboard standees with Herb's likeness were distributed to Burger Kings all across the country?

As to that infamous second phase, I can see why it might have sounded promising on paper. It was like a real-life Where's Waldo, two years before Waldo (or Wally, as he was originally called in his native Blighty) even existed. A live event happening all around you that, in theory, should have made every visit to Burger King seem magical and ripe with possibility. In practice, I suspect that most people probably figured that their chances of being in the right place at the right time were too minuscule to even bother with, particularly for such a paltry cash prize. The contest failed to drum up much enthusiasm, Burger King's stock dropped by 40%, and what's more, they were headed for a major PR nightmare when Herb arrived in Bessemer, Alabama and was spotted by 15-year-old Jason Hallman, who was denied the prize money on account of his age. Burger King were enforcing a 16+ age restriction on the contest, reportedly as a measure to discourage children from playing hooky and spending all day on the Herb hunt, and opted to give the money instead to Hallman's 16-year-old friend, who was with him at the time. Ouch. Hallman's parents raised a complaint with state senator Mac Parsons, the result being that the matter was formally investigated and Burger King were ultimately condemned by the Alabama senate, who concluded that Burger King had not made the restriction clear in its promotion and that their actions consequently amounted to consumer fraud. Now, I do see a clear "16 and older to enter" disclaimer in the above commercial (assuming that it wasn't added after the negative publicity the company garnered from this incident), but again, I think it's another aspect of the contest that probably wasn't well thought-out. It wasn't like a prize draw or a scratch card, where you could be sure to only distribute the items in question among adult customers - if a kid spotted Herb inside a restaurant, then you could bet that they weren't going to hold back on account of there being an age restriction. Giving the money to the kid's older friend also strikes me as rather a callous move on the part of Burger King. I wonder if they were still friends after that? (Likewise, I suspect the contest wasn't much fun for Burger King patrons who may have borne a passing resemblance to Menick - unless they wanted to create a bit of mayhem by trolling those who might have mistaken them for Herb.)

Once the contest had run its course, Burger King were officially done with Herb and eager to put this whole unwieldy business behind them. This was no skin off Menick's nose, for he was already moving up in the world, and went on to enjoy a fairly prolific career playing bit parts in various films and TV shows - among other places, you can spot him in the 80s Twilight Zone episode "The World Next Door" and the 1992 movie Forever Young. Burger King, though, were left with such a sour aftertaste that they never did business with J. Walter Thompson again.

The real problem with the "Herb" campaign, I think, aside from the awkwardly-implemented contest, is that, as noted, it was a campaign of two distinct phases, and those two phases really don't feel as though they belong in the same campaign. The early ads were spooky, grim and ominous. They weren't exactly warm and fuzzy, but perhaps that's what made them interesting. When Herb showed his face and immediately reversed his position on the Whopper, we were plucked right out of that dystopian universe where Burger King sought to crush the rights of individuals, and the tone switched to something altogether more upbeat and would-be screwball. As for Herb himself, I think it's fair to say that he had way more character when he was a non-character, and I can't help but wonder how much more mileage this campaign might have had if they had never left Phase I and allowed Herb to stay a phantom for the full duration. This, obviously, would have been contrary to Burger King's objective, which was to create a human mascot for their brand (in a similar vein to Wendy's Clara), but in giving him a face and a persona (albeit not much of a persona), it seems to me that Burger King missed the really obvious subtext implicit in those early ads, which is that "Herb" referred less to an individual character we could expect to meet on down the line than to something more abstract and uncomfortable. He was an anti-mascot, rather than a mascot - a blank space, haunting precisely because just about anybody could be projected into it. The implicit narrative was that you, potentially, were Herb. You were the person who was derided, distrusted and shut out of the action because you weren't bowing to the temptations of the King. When you informed that cashier that "I'm not Herb" or "I'm not the Herb you're looking for", it was as much a means of reasserting your own identity and your belonging as a B.K. consumer as it was of claiming a cut-price Whopper. Herb represented the self-willed exile, and you were encouraged to not be Herb. In the end, I don't think it mattered too much who played Herb or how he was characterised. Just to make Herb into an actual, tangible person and to have him develop an instantaneous passion for the Whopper kind of flew in the face of everything he signified. The "Herb" story is fascinating, because it's a case of a corporation not getting the meaning of their own campaign.

So negative were NBC's memories of Herb that in 2007 they voted his heavily-publicised reveal in 1986 as the second worst Super Bowl commercial of all-time. What took the top spot? Well, what do you think?

Monday, 18 May 2020

I Believe It's L (aka If You Can't Beat It, C-C-C-atch It!)

Negativland's 1997 album DisPepsi, a searing critique of the empty sloganeering and commercial crassness deployed by major corporations to net loyalties in soft drink consumption, is an epic in plunderphonics, and there's certainly no track on there more epic than "I Believe It's L". Appearing late on in the proceedings, it's here that a topic that's been festering throughout the course of the album - the ongoing marketing rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, finally takes centre stage, in a dizzying eruption of all-out cola warfare. The soft drink giants are vying for the privilege of being your go-to enamel-stripper, and the result is not going to be pretty. Clocking in at six minutes and twenty-two seconds, it crams in a gargantuan avalanche of soundbites and samples; amid this monstrous mash-up, slogans are muddled, messages are mixed, and buried beneath that overload of useless information is whatever thin sliver of coherence we might have come in with, and yet the track is infused with a faux-urgency that makes the sonic spectacle of hearing two corporate brands go head-to-head feel as though it just might be the most important, exciting match-up in our shared cultural history. We feel the artificial tension of that dramatic gasp when Coca-Cola drinker W.J. discovers that he chose Pepsi in a blind taste test. Never mind that W.J., at least according to how the sound collage is edited together, is not exactly a self-professed Coca-Cola devotee - one senses that, as with the average individual described in the musings we intermittently hear on the problems with relying too extensively on focus groups to second guess what consumers are thinking, he couldn't be more indifferent as to which of these colas comes out as the reigning champion. Nor do we suspect that his participation in the taste test is likely to change his day-to-day existence.

"I Believe It's L" draws heavily from two dueling campaigns of the late 1970s/early-mid 1980s (aka the golden age of cola warfare) - the Pepsi Challenge, which originated in 1975, and loudly touted that a majority of Americans preferred Pepsi when tasked with sampling the colas in blind taste tests, and Coca Cola's counter-campaign, in which comedian Bill Cosby insisted that the findings of the Pepsi Challenge were a sham, but later appeared to double back on those claims when New Coke was thrust into the arena. (Since I've brought Cosby up, I do obviously have to acknowledge that there is now a serious elephant in the room where he's concerned, but I suppose that makes a few of the other tracks on DisPepsi - the ones dealing with the perils of celebrity shills - all the more relevant). In the earlier stages of this campaign, Coca-Cola went on the defensive by asserting that there was a larger narrative than Pepsi were letting on. Obviously, Pepsi were never going to feature footage of any participant who voted Coke in their advertising, but they must be out there; Cosby was at pains to point out "about sixty million times a day, people pick Coke...the Pepsi guys can play their numbers game, cos we've got number one." Coca-Cola indeed maintained its industry lead, but was currently losing market shares to Pepsi and rival beverages, and those taste tests were an omnipresent thorn in Coca-Cola's side, for they suggested that their dominance was in response to the brand more than the product. Pepsi's success in the taste tests enabled them to push the narrative that they had the better tasting cola, and while the Pepsi Challenge campaign left its mark on popular consciousness (a character even references it in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction), it didn't quite pan out into the total usurpation Pepsi were aiming for. This was the paradox at the heart of the cola wars. Pepsi was supposedly preferred, but Coke was ultimately more beloved.

The bombardment of sloganeering throughout "I Believe It's L" serves, in part, as a statement on corporate machinations to convince the public of what it wants by browbeating it into submission, but it also suggests a desperation on the part of said corporations to actually gauge enough of the public mindset to lure it in the desired direction. The overarching narrative of "I Believe It's L" has less to do with W.J. making the alarming discovery that that he apparently prefers the taste of Pepsi over Coke, so long as he can't tell which is which, than it does the New Coke fiasco of 1985, when Coca-Cola changed their formula and faced consumer backlash, and the cola wars really went off the rails. Assuming that Coca-Cola didn't second guess consumer reaction a little too ingeniously ("I Believe It's L" comes right on the heels of "All She Called About", which incorporates musings on the popular interpretation that they did), then how did they make such a gross miscalculation? The great, glaring contradiction of the Cosby campaign is that they initially emphasised that Coca-Cola was superior because it was less sweet than Pepsi (The taste buds say: less sweet means more cola taste! The throat says: less sweet means more satisfying!"), only for Coca-Cola to go the opposite route and adopt a sweeter formula, which Cosby proclaimed to be "the best taste in the history of ever". The cola-buying public declined to agree, even though response to the new product in taste tests and focus groups (where it was blind taste tested against both Pepsi and Coca-Cola) had been overwhelmingly positive. Evidently (to Pepsi's frustration as much as Coca-Cola's) what did well in taste tests didn't necessarily translate into a more popular product out in the real world. Could it be that the Coca-Cola brand was so iconic a brand and such an integral component of Americana that consumers couldn't help but react negatively to the very idea that anyone would have the gall to change it? Or was it that those blind taste tests in which both companies had put so much stock were not actually the be-all and end-all as to what indicates a more preferable drinking experience? They were, after all, based around single sips of the respective beverages, and not the full item. In this Slate article, Matthew Yglesias asserts that, "taste tests consist of relatively modest sips, and Americans don’t drink tiny sips of soda...and while we want something sweet, we don’t necessarily want that kind of long-term relationship with something too sweet." Maybe that earlier Cosby commercial was onto something all along.

Less than three months after launching New Coke, Coca-Cola announced that they were bringing back the old formula under the guise of "Coca-Cola Classic". At this point, Cosby ended his partnership with Coca-Cola, sensing that this participation in the blunder had made him look foolish. New Coke, however, did not go away overnight (it wasn't formally discontinued until 2002, although it spent its twilight years leading an obscure and low key existence under the moniker of Coke II), and Coca-Cola needed a new spokesperson to keep pushing the brand. In an effort to court the younger generation who perceived Coca-Cola as their parents' cola, they teamed up with Max Headroom, a faux-computer generated character portrayed by Matt Frewer, and "Catch The Wave" campaign, in which Headroom urged a generation of young "cokeologists" to not "say the P word", was born. Headroom's wavering voice and characteristic stutter can likewise be heard all across "I Believe It's L", as the narrative is reconfigured to reflect the fact that more consumers now prefer the "ne-eeeww refreshing taste of Coke over Pepsi." Or maybe not. Toward the end of the track, the cola brands have been strategically switched, so that Headroom emerges as a shill for Pepsi: "If you're drinking Pepsi, who's drinking Coke?" (Obviously, it was the other way around in the original commercial.)

Headroom is not alone. By the end of "I Believe It's L", all of the statements and slogans have been chopped up and rearranged, so that Cosby endorses the new taste of Pepsi and we are encouraged to "take the Coca-Cola Challenge". The assertions, "It's a fact!" and "It's true!" are brandished with vigor, but are divorced from all meaning. The soundbites come together in such a chaotic collision course that they become an incomprehensible scramble; it's as if in the fall-out of all the confusion the pieces are settling in the wrong place and none of the participants can remember whose side they were originally on. It's almost as though we've crawled through that rubble and emerged into an alternate universe in which the respective marketing campaigns were deployed by the opposing cola, which in turn illustrates just how interchangeable the basic message is. We are, after all, being harangued into choosing between two products that, in the grand scheme of things, are not radically different. By the end of the track, rather than seeming clearly distinguished from one another, the two seem to blur into the same mudslide of banality.

The most unsettling alteration, however, arrives shortly before the end, when we hark back even further, to Coca-Cola's much-celebrated "Hilltop" television commercial from 1971 - aka the one that gave rise to the pop song "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)", originally conceived as the advertising jingle, "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke". The ad, which featured various youths from all over the globe assembled upon a hilltop in Manziana, Italy, each holding up a Coca-Cola bottle with labels printed in assorted languages, struck a chord with viewers, who were moved by the pro-diversity, anti-xenophobia statement. The message of the "Hilltop" ad is that Coca-Cola's global popularity provides a means of unity between the world's many races and cultures, so that we all effectively speak a common language in our universal love of Coke. Maybe there is a potentially dark side to this message, in that world harmony is equated with a conformist consumption of the same brand. Here, the song's mellow yearnings for peace, love and acceptance are in startling contrast to the generally hectic and chaotic pace of "I Believe It's L", but the final hook has been altered so that Pepsi, and not Coca-Cola, is now the product for which our universal reverence is going to lead us into a golden age of tolerance and understanding. Compared to the other slogan switch-ups, this edit feels far more conspicuous, as if someone has clumsily replaced "Coke" with "Pepsi" to reflect a changed message for this alternate universe in which Pepsi won the cola wars, so that Pepsi is now the product we are instructed to buy in order to avoid upsetting the apple cart. The call for peace seems hollow coming out of the marketing warfare we've just endured, the message now a simple instruction to consume and obey. We then hear the battle cry of "Challenge this, Coca-Cola!", which is an invitation for the entire process to begin again.

For the closing punchline of "I Believe It's L", we return once again to Bill Cosby, with a sample from an altogether different product endorsement, this one for Crest toothpaste: "People think I'm Bill Cosby, but I'm really Tooth Decay." It's another glaring contradiction that makes entirely perfect sense. In addition to underscoring the ludicrous interchangeability of celebrity endorsements (if the same figure encouraging the habitual consumption of sugary soft drinks was also used to promote a product emphasising the importance of dental hygiene), it acts as a final, witty means by which the two products merge definitively into one - neither beverage is promoting good health in the consumers they each purport to know what's best for. Whether you're drinking Coke or Pepsi, your enamel is unlikely to thank you for it.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Wildlife on One '95: The Tale of The Big Bad Fox

"The Tale of The Big Bad Fox" was the opening installment of the 22nd series of the BBC's flagship wildlife program, Wildlife on One. Airing on 6th April 1995, it looked at the battle for survival between the red fox and its preferred prey, the rabbit. The title, reminiscent of a fairy story, is meant with some irony, for the film indicates at the start that it intends to dispel the preconception that the interplay between predator and prey can be perceived as a straightforward struggle between villains and victims. To a degree, such preconceptions are an inevitable consequence of the human tendency to adopt facets of the natural world as analogies for our own behaviour. The real-life rivalry between the fox and the rabbit was, most famously, used as the basis for the fictional enmity between Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox, familiar characters from black American oral tradition, which gained particular notoriety in popular consciousness when they were adapted by Disney for the 1946 film Song of The South. Nowadays, of course, Disney would sooner you forgot about that picture altogether and instead looked to their more recent representation of the ongoing hard feelings between rabbits and foxes in the 2016 film Zootopia. Whereas Br'er Rabbit's repeated outwitting of his vulpine nemesis (and various other predators) could be seen as the triumph of the underdog, in turning the table on his would-be oppressors, in Zootopia the fraught interactions between Nick and Judy are used to make a point about prejudice and social conditioning. In either case, the relationship carries overtones of human judgement. I seem to recall one review of Zootoptia that described the film as a "decades-delayed correction to Song of The South that allows the rabbits and the foxes to live in harmony". Only in a Disney movie. The reviewer in question was, presumably, not actually talking about foxes and rabbits, and the sins of Song of The South go way beyond the implication that these creatures are best viewed as inherent enemies.

"The Tale of The Big Bad Fox" is haunting for the manner in which it consciously evokes the aesthetic of a fairy story while positing itself as a counterpoint to such fanciful interpretations of the animal world. In the film's opening title (above) the face of the attacking fox is obscured, so that we see only its shadowy outline as it brandishes the limp carcass of a freshly-butchered rabbit between its jaws, giving it a sinister, almost monstrous appearance. Throughout the film, particularly in the closing stages, we see other instances in which the animals are seen only as silhouettes, creating the sensation of watching figures in a shadow puppet theatre. The animals are momentarily reduced to symbols, the idea seemingly being to evoke in the viewer the basic conceptions, and the associated emotions, about each of these animal as imprinted by childhood iconography. The film opens with a scene in which a woman reads the story of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby to her two children, oblivious to the flesh-and-blood fox skulking in the shadows across their front yard. In the story, Br'er Rabbit is captured by Br'er Fox, but hoodwinks his arch nemesis into throwing him into a briar patch, where he makes his escape. "Tale" suggests that it will offer a very different picture of the rabbit-fox relationship; as is implied in David Attenborough's narration, there is no villain or victim in the real world of fox and rabbit, but at the end of this particular account one is clearly identified as the victor and the other the loser; the outcome is not altogether different from that of the familiar story we have just heard, but it closes on a much more harrowing note.

Outside of the aforementioned opening, "Tale" is largely devoid of any direct human presence. The Somerset backdrop against which the action unfolds isn't quite Eden, for the landscape is littered with fences and buildings and occasional livestock but, aside from one early scene of fox courtship occurring beside a churchyard, these are kept at a firm distance, and the film stays immersed at all times in the immediate world of the fox and the rabbit, seldom looking far beyond (a scene in which a buzzard predates a rabbit is the only inkling we get of the wider web of life operating around this specific animal relationship). The result is suggestive of, if not a world in which humans never existed, then a world which is totally impassive to the human activity happening far, far away. The effect is a timelessness, as if we are witnessing a conflict that has played out in much the same manner for millennia.

Like "Uninvited Guests", "Tale" is structured around the cycle of the seasons, opening in the midst of a harsh winter in which the rabbit's depleted food supplies leave it more vulnerable to attack from the fox, and closing in late autumn, by which point the creatures' fortunes have reversed, mirroring the story of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. "Tale" is a coming of age story, documenting the wildly contrasting strategies each species has for raising their young (unlike the fox, the mother rabbit leaves her kittens unattended for most of the time, which seems counterintuitive but in practice decreases their chances of being detected by a predator lurking above). In narrative terms, "Tale" gives the fox something of an advantage when it comes to endearing itself the viewer's sympathies, simply because they stand out more obviously as "characters"; while the foxes are represented by a dog and a vixen raising a litter of three, the rabbits are featured more generically, represented as more of a collective entity than individuals. Through the course of the film, we see several sequences in which the foxes launch attacks on the rabbits, and of their various tactics for circumventing the rabbits' vigilance, and while there are ample moments of carnage in those picturesque English meadows, the narration is at pains to stress that the fox inevitably fails far more than it succeeds. As to whether we should regard predator or prey (if either) as Nature's "victims", perhaps it was the Looney Tunes shorts that were closer to the truth all along.

"Tale" is a visually charming film, littering with various atmospheric shots showing the splendor of the English countryside - sunsets, dewy misty mornings, much green and much pleasantness. Many sequences are accompanied by an ambience consisting only of silence and birdsong - long stretches of apparent tranquility waiting to be ruptured by the omnipresent threat of violence and predation. Whenever this threat surfaces, it regularly heralded by a familiar piece of music - the introduction to Part II of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which concerns a pagan ceremony, and young girl who is selected as the Chosen One and made to dance to her death in a sacrificial ritual. Since its tumultuous debut in Paris in 1913, the ballet has perplexed spectators with its strange and beguiling mix of the natural and distinctly unnatural. The poet T.S. Eliot, writing for the New York-based magazine The Dial, noted the contradictory manner in which Stravinsky's ballet appeared to juxtapose primitive ritual with the age of technological advancement when he observed that, "it did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life." Tom Service, reviewing a contemporary rendition by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in The Guardian in 2013, noted that, "The paradox of the primitivism in The Rite is that it can be heard as both a horrifying vision of the pitilessness of nature – and as an expression of the inhumanity of the machine age." (Stravinsky's composition too found its way into the Disney canon, in the 1940 film Fantasia, where it was used to convey a more primitive ritual still - the struggle for survival in the dinosaur age.) The beautiful yet unsettling character of the piece here makes it an apt accompaniment to this tale of two creatures locked in an age-old struggle from which there is no escape, and no alternative but to keep regenerating and passing down this enduring conflict to all successive generations. Perhaps this is the most troubling degree to which we might see ourselves in the fox and the rabbit - as beings cast, whether by nature or society, as villains or as victims, in predetermined roles in which, be they fulfilled out in the fields or surrounded by the cold comfort of modern technology, we have no recourse other to keep repeating the same dance over and over. There is the uneasy sense that, like the fox and the rabbit, who have no means of diverging from their fundamental natures, we are not in control of our own destiny. Perhaps we need the allegories of Br'er Rabbit/Br'er Fox, Nick/Judy and Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner, most of all, as a means of confronting and coming to terms with our own inherent animal natures.

In "Tale", the brutality of nature is evoked not merely in the conflict between predator and prey, but in the rites of passage facing our three young foxes as they are gradually nudged out from the safety of their earth and forced to go at it alone in a world where, Attenborough makes it clear, the odds are stacked against their survival. The vixen is a dedicated mother, but the tight bonds she forms with her cubs will inevitably fade with the seasons, as is made clear when she spies one of her offspring from a previous litter intruding on her territory and savagery breaks out. Throughout the film, there is another clear narrative thread concerning the waning of her bond with her current litter. By the end, two of the adolescent foxes have departed on their own terms, forced out by the cessation of free food from their parents, but one remains with its mother, until the point comes when she no regards it as her offspring but as potential competition, and drives it away. Thus begins the arduous search for a territory of its own.

Only in the final stages of "Tale" does Attenborough's narration disrupt our sense of a pure and timeless conflict, with a reminder of how human encroachment has inevitably tipped the balance in one species' favour. As rabbit populations continue to surge, we are told that only half of the adolescent foxes heading out to find their territories at the end of the season will survive into adulthood, for danger awaits in the form of man, dogs, and possible starvation. Thus, "Tale" ends in sombre fashion, by subverting the rules of the traditional coming of age saga. We close with the three young foxes still not having found their place in the world, and their prospects of ever doing so uncertain. They may be the top predators of the Somerset countryside, but our three young foxes are not on top of their world, and as they are made to go their own way, they do so not not as fully-fledged hunters, but as pitiful underdogs. As Attenborough tells us: "They're poor hunters in general, and totally incompetent when it comes to hunting rabbits." For now, their best bet is to forgo their hunter status altogether and survive by scavenging a diet of earthworms, leatherjackets and blackberries. This seems like a lowly means of eking out a living for such a formidable predator, but Attenborough points to the fox's tremendous resourcefulness when he reminds us that, "foxes are, after all, omnivores, not purely hunters." Nevertheless, the closing image, which shows the sun setting as one of our vagrant foxes continues its potentially futile search, is disquieting. The fox, reduced once again to silhouette, fades into the darkness, with no promise of a new dawn. Attenborough underscores the harsh reality, conversely, by bringing us back to the world of Br'er Rabbit: "It seems the year has ended with the rabbit having, metaphorically, the last laugh."

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Critic: Pilot (aka How To Lose Viewers And Alienate Zeitgeist)

Since 2016 I've had it in mind to take a close look at The Critic, Al Jean and Mike Reiss's attempt at creating their own animated sitcom following their successful turn as showrunners on the third and fourth seasons of The Simpsons (I covered some of the history of the series here). The reason why I've been putting it off for the past four years is because I was reluctant to commit myself to the same kind of rigid, episode-by-episode retrospective that I did for Family Dog some years back, when this blog was still young and I was half-expecting my interest in it to crumble at any given moment. The drawback with doing everything according to such an inflexible structure is that it's easier for it to become a chore that way, particularly if you hit a roadblock with an episode that you don't have much to say about, but have to go through in order to talk about the ones that you do. You start dragging your feet, and before you know it your enthusiasm in the whole project's just evaporated (one reason why I didn't keep the Oscar Bites up past 2018 is that I never got round to seeing most of the nominees for that year, which inevitably brought the whole thing to a screeching halt). However, I figured that I could apply the same approach that I'm currently using for The Simpsons, which is to just cover the episodes I want to cover, as and when and in no particular set order, and which seems to work a lot better for me.

That being said, for my first review of The Critic I am going to start at the very beginning, with the pilot episode (simply titled "Pilot"), which first aired January 26th 1994 on ABC, aka what to was to be the first of several different platforms for the nomadic series (after its failed second start on Fox, The Critic enjoyed a period of reruns on Comedy Central, and in 2000 was revived, briefly, as a series of internet shorts). I'm starting here, because there is one recurring criticism that's going to come up a lot whenever I talk about The Critic, and that has to do with the series' lack of narrative finesse. And, just so there's no misunderstanding, let me be very clear right away that I love The Critic and think it is a wonderfully entertaining and unfairly overlooked show. Three compliments that I can offer straight off the bat are that a) the writing is incredibly sharp, and you can always guarantee that you are going to laugh out loud at multiple points with every episode, b) the voice cast is uniformly excellent and c) the series is handsomely animated and the illustrative New York backgrounds are a real treat to look at - in fact, this may be one of the most visually gratifying television cartoons of all-time. There are plenty of reasons why The Critic deserves your attention, but I doubt that anyone who became hooked on this show did so for the anticipation of being regaled with a compelling and well-constructed story that left the characters seeming that much richer and more nuanced. This, I feel, is the one pivotal factor that always kept the series at least two or three rungs below The Simpsons on the evolutionary ladder - The Simpsons could tell meaningful and well-crafted stories, whereas The Critic preferred to bypass that bothersome narrative process altogether. Recently, when I reviewed the Simpsons episode "Selma's Choice", I mentioned that narrative isn't Jean and Reiss's strong point and, looking back on Season 4 of The Simpsons, on which they worked as showrunners, you can see the basis of what would subsequently become their template for The Critic, with its emphasis is on rapid-fire gags, outlandish humour and surreal non-sequiturs. Multiple episodes seem to end not because they've reached their logical conclusion, but because so much time was spent noodling around with the aforementioned elements that they ran out of time and were forced to hastily wrap up with some vague semblance of resolution (two really obvious offenders would be "Marge Gets A Job" and "Marge In Chains"; I'd say that Marge was probably the worst-served character under Jean and Reiss's reign, but then she did also get "A Streetcar Named Marge", one of the best episodes). For as critical as I can be of that specific era of The Simpsons, the problem is tenfold with The Critic; there, the cart is put all the more conspicuously put before the horse, so that narrative development barely stretches further than the basic premise, and those premises don't end so much as simply stop, once they've accumulated enough gags to fill up twenty minutes. The Critic is likeable and it's hilarious, but it's a glib, glib creature.

The reason why I'm focusing straight off on the one real drawback of a series I've professed to otherwise enjoy is because the pilot episode contains by and far the most egregious example of the above phenomenon, one that unfortunately may have hurt the show fatally right from the beginning. The Critic makes the grievous error of opening with its series low. By that, I don't mean that the pilot is a little rougher around the edges or less refined than subsequent installments, as you might typically expect from a first effort, when the show is still in the process of finding its feet. I mean that it actively plays an unpleasant card in facilitating its hasty wrap-up, one that not only fails to resolve the narrative in a satisfying fashion but also leaves a bitter, lingering aftertaste, and it gets the series off to a seriously ill-judged beginning. The good news is that the series would only get better from here on in, but it remains a testament to just how dramatically a pilot can wrong-foot a series, to the point that it spends the rest of its existence having to repair that damage. The mistakes made in "Pilot" are ones that the Season 2 opener, "Sherman, Woman and Child" seemed to be consciously trying to atone for.

"Pilot" represents a dismal beginning for a marvelous series, but in some respects it's also a perfect introductory episode. The plot, which sees Jay (Jon Lovitz) enter into a relationship with a seductive young model named Valerie (Jennifer Lien) who is looking to kick start her career as a Hollywood actress, seems purposely structured to introduce as many supporting characters as possible, and it does a slick job of clearly setting out who each of them is and cementing their individual dynamic with Jay. We get snapshots of Jay's professional life, of his ongoing creative disputes with his brash, self-congratulatory boss Duke Phillips (Charles Napier) and his self-pitying asides with his tacitly sour make-up lady Doris (Doris Grau). This is followed by a glimpse into his miserable personal life, his troubled relationship with his ex-wife Ardeth (Brenda Vaccaro, although she was replaced by Rhea Perlman in Season 2) and his efforts to be a reliable source of paternal wisdom to his adoring son Marty (Christine Cavanaugh). We also meet Jay's closest friend, Australian action hunk Jeremy Hawke (Maurice LaMarche), who acts as a confidant to Jay's deepest hopes and fears but conversely thinks little about putting him in the shade, and Vlada (Nick Jameson), the toadying owner of Jay's favourite restaurant, L'ane Riche. Finally, Jay takes Valerie to the WASPs nest to meet his wealthy adoptive parents, the perpetually confused Franklin (Gerrit Graham) and the aggressively formal Eleanor (Judith Ivey), as well his teenage sister Margo (Nancy Cartwright) and their begrudging butler Shackleford (LaMarche). It's such a deftly assembled tour of our entire secondary cast that for a while it just about masks the episode's biggest problem - which is that curiously little interest is shown in adding any kind of dimension to Valerie herself as a character. Whatever flavour she has comes largely from Lien's voice-over, which is soft and sultry but with just the vaguest tinge of steeliness, suggesting some kind of hidden volatility. In all other respects, though, her only purpose is to look comely, to go on about how much she likes Jay and to provide set-up for the episode's numerous expository moments ("Jay, I didn't know you were married?", "I can't believe your parents live here!"). It's almost as though Jean and Reiss never regarded her as a character at all, but as a plot device...which as good a sign as any that you'd be best off not getting too attached to Jay and Valerie as a pairing.

Indeed, we know right away that Jay's relationship with Valerie is not fated to last out the episode because the substance isn't there to make it either convincing or alluring. So the plot is largely a matter of watching Jay coast through his superficial paradise and wondering when and where the inevitable serpent is going to rear its head. Jeremy cautions him against entering in too deep with any actress, but doesn't actually elaborate why. Margo doesn't buy the relationship - throughout the dinner, she surveys Jay and Valerie with the same incredulous eye I'm constantly giving Homer and Marge. We get whisper of the possible dark clouds on the horizon when we learn that Valerie's debut film, Kiss of Death, is due for a critic screening next week, an Eleanor articulates her own suspicions more bluntly: "You're just dating my son until he gives you a good review. Then you'll drop him and he'll be back here with one of those "nice girls" from the escort service." Regardless of Valerie's intentions, Jay fears that having to give a negative critique of her performance will spell an end to their relationship, and this gives rise to our third act conflict, which does a good job of establishing the two key driving and often conflicting factors behind Jay's character - his desire to find love, respect and acceptance in the world and his unrelenting commitment to his professional ethics. Jay wants to be liked but he also aspires to be a beacon of integrity in a cultural landscape where mindless blockbusters rule and so many of his fellow critics are bought out by the studios, and he finds his dual impulses at odds when he is forced to view Kiss of Death and discovers, to his horror, that Valerie has no flair for acting and that no self-respecting critic could possibly give her a pass. In the end, Jay's professional integrity wins out and he slaughters Valerie's performance in his televised review, albeit in the gentlest, most sugarcoated way possible. He returns to his apartment, terrified that Valerie will no longer be there, and is relieved to find her standing in wait for him. Only she immediately slaps him and indignantly declares, "You're fat, you're bald, and even for a critic you're ugly!" before storming out, making a beeline for the nearest airport and boarding a plane to Paris (for some reason), with Jay trailing her every step of the way and imploring her not to leave him. We get an epilogue in which Jay is still in low spirits about losing Valerie, but Marty manages to spur him out of his funk by suggesting that he direct his festering rage at a critic screening of Sylvester Stallone's lasted flick, in which he plays a concert pianist. "To the multiplex!" Jay declares, and the episode ends.

Here is my major contention with this ending. It can be split into two separate points, but it comes down more-or-less to the same thing:

  • Firstly, WHY was Valerie dating Jay? Was she simply trying to wheedle a few words of professional endorsement from him before going her merry way, as Eleanor infers, or was she really in love with him, and genuinely spurned to hear such a damning appraisal from the object of her affections? The script never specifies, and from what we have to go on, either scenario seems entirely possible. And while I suspect that we are intended to see Valerie as a hoodwinker, for no other reason than her improbable aptitude for saying everything that Jay wants to hear, the ultimate implication is that it's not important either way. Jeremy's advice on the matter was that actresses are a dangerous class, period, so Valerie was always a ticking time bomb and the particulars of her wanting to be with Jay are irrelevant.
  • Secondly, IF Eleanor is correct, and Valerie was only dating Jay because she was fishing for a good review, after which she intended to dump him and never look back, then what does it matter whether he panned her performance or not? He was going to have his heart broken either way, so perhaps we should feel relieved that he didn't flush his professional integrity down the toilet for a relationship founded on false pretenses? All the same, would anybody feel genuinely satisfied if that were confirmed as the outcome? I doubt it - I think we need to believe that there is some prospect that things could work out between Jay and Valerie in order for there to be anything much at stake. At the very least, there needs to be some semblance of  a bond between them, so that we can actually feel a sense of loss at the end, when Jay chooses to remain true to his ethics at the risk of alienating the person he loves. Otherwise, it just amounts to a shallow exercise in rug-pulling, which is what we're left with.

What I think is going on is that Valerie comes to Jay from what she assumes to be a mutual understanding that if she sleeps with him and goes through all the motions of being his lover then he'll give her a good review. Hence, when he fails to make good on his side of the unspoken agreement, she gets angry because as far as she's concerned, he's the one who took advantage of her. Jay, however, is naive (or lonely and deluded) enough to have convinced himself that this is the real deal, and to hang his heart on a relationship with a clear expiry date. It's a situation in which both parties could be perceived as equally vulnerable, and there would certainly be ample scope for pathos, were the script actually interested in shining a little more light on Valerie's perspective. The harsh reality, I fear, is that the episode doesn't care to delve any deeper beneath the surface of Valerie's character, because as far as it's concerned, there's nothing to uncover. As noted above, Valerie is less a character than a plot device, and her last minute 180 degree turn with Jay is afforded no deeper motivation than that it's needed to suit the demands of the script. How self-aware is Valerie about her acting abilities? Are we supposed to view her as a kind of wily femme fatale (a couple of allusions are made throughout to Sharon Stone's character from Basic Instinct) or are we to view her efforts to win over Jay as an act of extreme desperation, to cover for the fact that she has no confidence in her talent? Why does she fly out to Paris after discarding Jay, other than that the ending requires her to get as far away from him as possible? Alas, we never get any clarity on what was rattling away in Valerie's head this entire time, not because the episode is seeking ambiguity on the subject, but because it's totally indifferent. All that matters is that Jay got rejected, thus cementing his status as a lovelorn loser who's royally screwed whatever tactic he chooses. That, ultimately, is the real purpose of "Pilot" - to demonstrate roundly that everything stinks.

On the DVD commentary for "Pilot", Jean and Reiss predictably offer no insight into Valerie's characterisation or motives, although they do imply, interestingly, that the need to secure allies in the business is the underlying basis for Jay's friendship with Jeremy. They acknowledge that the entire notion of Jay being pally with Jeremy seems somewhat improbable, given that, on the surface, the two should be natural adversaries (one abhors cinematic refuse, the other creates it), but reflect that it is not uncommon for actors and critics to form tight, mutually beneficial relationships, and cite a cautionary anecdote in which Dustin Hoffman turned down an interview offer from a television critic who professed to be a great fan of his, and who subsequently went on to pan Hoffman's latest performance in retaliation. The implication that Jay's camaraderie with Jeremy is itself a facet of the "feed me and you get a good review" mentality that characterises much of the real-life film industry is startling, given the subject of this very episode. We get all this hand-wringing over Valerie's motives for getting close to Jay, and yet it's hinted that this may all be a broader, unexplored problem happening right under Jay's nose, and Valerie is only the tip of the iceberg. If we are expected to draw this conclusion about Jeremy, then arguably there is something quietly misogynistic about it too - to get a foot in the door, Valerie's imperative is to sleep with Jay, whereas all Jeremy has to do is to hang around in restaurants and swap life advice, and neither Jay or the writers feel the need to probe his sincerity any further (added to which, Valerie is not the only instance we get in "Pilot" of a woman in the media biz who is implied to have slept with a man in exchange for professional favours - at one point, Duke gives an interview to a female journalist who compliments him on how great in bed he was last night). Personally, I can believe that Jay and Jeremy's relationship might have started in that manner, but that they've gotten the point now where they're familiar enough to have a genuine rapport. There is a vaguely Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf vibe to their dynamic, which is most apparent during a sequence where a couple of adoring fans approach Jeremy to compliment him on his performance in Crocodile Gandhi, and Jeremy gleefully informs Jay that, "You see, people did like that picture!" Jay indignantly responds that, "I'm sorry, I just didn't think you made a very convincing Mahatma!", and we see shades of professional enmity momentarily spiking their genial banter. This also confirms that, contrary to what's suggested in the commentary, Jay doesn't give Jeremy glowing appraisals where he feels it's not merited, and that Jeremy harbours no hard feelings in return. But then, his star power is such that a negative review from Jay is unlikely to break his career.

Elsewhere on the DVD commentary for "Pilot", Jean and Reiss acknowledge that the one big mistake they made all throughout Season 1 was in overselling Jay's pathetic personal life. At the beginning of the series, the only truly positive relationships he had were with Marty (who clearly reveres him, but seems every bit as awed by Ardeth's new partner Alberto), Margo (with whom he doesn't hang out too often) and Jeremy (who doesn't like Jay half as much as he likes himself), and most other characters seemed to either barely tolerate him (Doris, Eleanor, Duke) or actively dislike him (Ardeth, Shackleford, the entire populace of New York). In his review of the episode on The AV Club, Nathan Rabin points out that the episode finds itself in a tough position, because when you look past all his relationship issues, Jay does lead quite the enviable existence: "over the course of a single episode we learn that he is a Pulitzer Prize winner, makes $271,000 a year appearing on a national television show and has sex with a beautiful starlet the night of their first date." As such, there is the omnipresent risk that Jay's non-stop carping will merely translate into the insufferable self-pity of an extremely well-off individual, a sentiment certainly felt by Doris when Jay confides with her his concern that his job isn't worth the $271,000 salary tag, and she retaliates by setting his head on fire. Jay is not the everyman that Homer Simpson is; his celebrity and his cultivated outlook elevate him well above the average man, and Jean and Reiss feel obligated to humble the living Hell out of him - possibly to the point of excess, so that Jay ends up wandering through most of the first season in a state of off-putting wretchedness. "Pilot" represents this excess at its most ill-judged, most notably the sequence where Jay willfully surrenders his pride and follows Valerie to the airport on the futile presumption that enough grovelling will get her to turn around and profess her love for him at any moment. The sequence can't seem to decide whether it's going for pathos or dark comedy, but doesn't quite manage either, leading us only into black hole of uncomfortably numb despair - the culmination, in which Jay is shown sobbing in the dark and abandoned airport lounge, transcends mere bleakness and feels downright nihilistic. The closing punchline, which implies that Jay's merciless skewering of the Hollywood product is but an outlet for his own unexpressed feelings of personal inadequacy, does not take off the sting, but instead drags us ever deeper downward into that inescapable well of nihilism. There were episodes of The Simpsons that incorporated unhappy endings too - eg: "Simpson and Delilah" and "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?", but they were never this implacably cold about it.

On that basis, I have a lot of sympathy for those viewers who tuned in for the show's debut on ABC, watched this episode and immediately thought, "Yeah, I'm done." "Pilot" was not, thankfully, the first episode I personally ever saw, but if it had been, then I suspect that I too might have had second thoughts about persisting with the series. Yet, for as sour a first impression as "Pilot" seems determined to make, Jean and Reiss reflect on the commentary that The Critic was probably never likely to charm a substantial viewership on ABC, on which it always felt hopelessly out of place. They recall a sorry story about how soon after "Pilot" first aired, they arrived at their office and were greeted by a stack of hate mail (something they had apparently never encountered while working on The Simpsons); this was largely concerned the fact that Jay had slept with Valerie within hours of meeting her, which was way too ribald for the kind of audience ABC traditionally netted (although things have reportedly changed since). Fox, in theory, should have been a more fitting platform for the series, and yet a problem it ran into there was that it was considered too tame. Like Jay himself, The Critic was a perpetual misfit, blighted with the misfortune of never being in the right place at the right time.

Since I've been mostly down on "Pilot", I'll cite something that I really love about it, which is the entire "Beauty and King Dork" musical sequence, a parody of the now iconic ballroom sequence from Disney's Beauty and The Beast. This stands on its own terms as one of the most singularly wonderful moments of the entire series. At one point, Jay envisions Valerie as Belle and himself as the Manhattan equivalent of the Beast, King Dork (a callback to the graffiti sprayed across his car in the first act), and his apartment is suddenly transformed into a luxurious dance hall, complete with chandelier and enchanted household objects. As a sequence, it's both emotionally transportive and replete with tinges of trouble, since Jay's life is certainly no Disney movie (on top of which, the fantasy is made somewhat disturbing for the presence of a singing toilet). And visually, it's beautiful, boasting computer animation that hasn't aged too shabbily.

Last off, although Jean and Reiss are at pains to state that while developing The Critic they were consciously looking to avoid comparisons with The Simpsons, there are a few features that were blatantly lifted wholesale from the Book of The Simpsons. The opening sequence for The Critic has its equivalent of the Chalkboard Gag and the Couch Gag (themselves inspired by the titles for Mickey Mouse Club, where a number of possible misfortunes would await Donald Duck whenever he banged the club gong). The sequence, which takes us through a typical day in the life of Jay Sherman, opens with Jay being awoken by an early morning telephone call - the caller and their unwelcome message changes with every episode. Then, at the end of the sequence, we see Jay on Coming Attractions, and a preview spoofing some popular movie, followed by Jay's review. The clip varies from episode to episode (myself, I'm particularly fond of the parody of The Fugitive where Harrison Ford does his infamous dam leap and gets scored by a panel of judges), but his review doesn't. Everything stinks.

Here's what we get in "Pilot":

  • The Call: Eleanor - "Jay, this is your mother. Your father and I are taking you out of our will. We feel you already have enough money. Oh yes, and happy birthday!"
  • The Movie: Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992). This parodies the sequence where the Xenomorph corners Sigourney Weaver but mysteriously refrains from killing her, but with a more candy-coated twist. Here, the Xenomorph opens its mouth to reveal its inner set of jaws, which lovingly kisses Weaver and they stare fondly.

And finally a quote, because they're fun:

Quote of the episode: Jay - "Son, let me tell you the key to holding onto a woman. You must building from a foundation of trust and understanding. If that doesn't work, tell her you have a tumor. Either way, the key word is growth."