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Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

A Look at The Simpsons' Failed Prime Time Cartoon Competitors

It's odd to think, at a time when South Park has been renewed for twenty seasons and Cartoon Network dedicates half of its schedule to adult themed programming, that for a long time, cartoons were seen as being strictly for kids, following the logic that bright colors and ink and paint appeal only to unformed minds.

It wasn't always this way: early cartoons like Betty Boop were clearly designed for adults, and the directors and animators working at Termite Terrace claim they wrote and produced the Looney Tunes simply for their own amusement. Even in the early years of television, shows like The Flintstones dealt with adult themes like nagging mother-in-laws and Barney and Betty Rubble's apparent barrenness.

But throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, cartoons were confined to the ghetto of “children's entertainment,” with no redeeming value other than acting as a temporary babysitter. It wasn't until The Simpsons changed the proverbial game that people realized cartoons could be more than a half hour commercial for Harlem Globetrotter action figures with a tacked on PSA about looking both ways when you cross the street.

Throughout The Simpsons DVDs, the writers casually mention a handful of Simpsons imitators that sprung up in the early '90s, only to be cancelled after a few episodes. All cartoons airing on major networks in primetime, they were an attempt to understand and cash in on The Simpsons' success.

Fish Police:
CBS February 1992
3 episodes aired in the US, 6 in Europe
Produced by Hanna-Barbera

Fish Police opens with a joke that I don't understand, and things move on predictably from there. As the jazzy, noir theme song plays, Inspector Gil, voiced by John Ritter, claims, “If New York City is the melting pot, then Fish City can only be described as the bouillabaisse.” Is this even really a joke?

Nominally based on an underground comic book, Fish Police was Dragnet with fish. Inspector Gil, who introduces himself by saying, “That's me, Inspector Gil…I'm a cop, who's a carp,” isn't quite the Sam Spade-tough guy he wishes he could be, but he's a competent if slightly befuddled cop who has a habit of talking to the camera. I think John Ritter is under appreciated as an actor, and was an incredible physical comedian, but he isn't given a whole lot to work with here. The show lacks any real clever writing. It's not so much a Philip Marlowe parody as it is an aquatic Philip Marlowe movie with fish jokes.

This show also has far too many characters. The pilot in particular felt overstuffed to me, mostly because it jammed all eleven of its regular characters into the story. These include Gil's assistant Tadpole, undercover cop Inspector Catfish, and squid crime boss Calamari, who appear in every episode, even when they make no sense for plot purposes.

Unlike The Simpsons, which would have episodes based on minor characters like Mr. Burns or Otto, every episode of Fish Police is about Gil, making the secondary cast feel totally unnecessary. After watching four episodes, I still have no idea who the Buddy Hackett-voiced, cranky, cab driving crab is, why he appears at all, and what his relationship is to any of the other characters. But he's always there, sitting at the end of the bar, making ichthyological puns.

Although it ran in primetime, Fish Police is closer to children's fare, except for the risque jokes thrown in every episode. Like when Goldy, the police secretary talks over the phone: “What makes you think your husband's dead. You got into bed and there was no response? Oh, sweetheart, we're going to need more than that. I'll tell you what, reach for his wallet. If he doesn't move, you're a widow.” Most of the jokes are at the expense of femme (fish) fatale Angel Jones, a buxom lounge singer in a mob run nightclub, who is a pair of legs away from being Jessica Rabbit. A major subplot in the episode Beauty is Only Fin Deep is concerned entirely with Angel's figure. Her dialogue is stuffed with entendres, my favorite being her line to Gil in the pilot: “If you're ever up for buying a ticket, my box office is always open.” I don't totally understand it, but it sounds really, really dirty.

Despite its many, many shortcomings, Fish Police has a phenomenal cast. The whole time I watched it, I couldn't stop thinking about how great this show would have been as a live-action movie, without the whole underwater/fish angle. John Ritter stars as a not-quite hard-boiled police detective. Also featuring Ed Asner as his grumpy boss, Megan Mullally as his love interest and Buddy Hackett as a wise-cracking cab driver. With Tim Curry as a mob lawyer named Sharkster, Jonathan Winters as the mayor and Phil Hartman as a hot-shot new detective from out of town. In theaters Christmas 1993.

Capitol Critters:
ABC January 1992
7 episodes aired in the original run, 13 aired on Cartoon Network in 1995
Produced by Hanna-Barbera, Steve Bochco Productions, 20th Century Fox Television

Capitol Critters is a mind-numbingly surreal program. It opens with what may be the most horrific scene I've ever witnessed in a cartoon. The series stars a young mouse named Max, voiced by a young Neil Patrick Harris, who lives on a Nebraska farm with his parents, grandfather and what appears to be about four or five brothers and sisters. After spending a day gathering corn, Max returns home to find an exterminator truck parked out front.

And then his family is brutally murdered. On-screen. Well, not quite on-screen. We see shadowy exterminators smashing the family's dinner table, stomping with their mice-squashing boots, and swinging baseball bats with reckless abandon, and it's a safe bet that bat was beating the life out of Max's grandfather. As toxic gas begins filling the basement, Max talks with his mother, as she tells him with her dying breath to move to Washington D.C. to live with his cousin Berkeley. As his mother quietly expires, Max lets out a blood-chilling scream.

It's like a scene out of Art Speigelman's Maus. I mean, they sold toys from this show at Burger King. Which sums up the tonal confusion that Capitol Critters suffers from. It wants to be a dark, adult satire, at the same time that it wants to be a '90s Tom & Jerry, with cartoon mice running from terrifying presidential cats.

Max makes it to D.C., where he lives in the basement of the White House, alongside hippie cousin Berkeley, exploding lab rat Muggle (voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait), and the streetwise rat Jammet, who will become the naïve Max's best friend despite their cultural differences. Also, Max isn't too bothered about overhearing Jammet's fairly graphic descriptions of his sexual dreams (they involve twins and somehow using his tail).

Capitol Critters dove right into heavy-handed social satire, covering things like corrupt politicians, drug abuse (in the episode Opie's Choice, in which Jammet sells a squirrel caffeine pills, which are apparently rodent crack), and racial tension. This show pulled no punches. In the episode The Rat to Bear Arms, a minor character is eaten alive by one of the president's cats as the other rats watch on helpless. But the satire rarely makes much sense, summed up best in An Embarrassment of Roaches, wherein a pair of roaches move from their segregated slum to the basement, alongside the rats and mice.

Until this point, it seemed pretty clear that the roaches were meant to be broad African American stereotypes, mostly based on Moze, Max's pal who talks like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and calls Max things like “Homey” and “Little brother.” But the elderly roach couple that moves into the basement are obviously a pair of borderline offensive Jewish stereotypes. After the roaches are met by an angry lynch mob (they call it this), Max and Berkeley argue on their behalf, and everyone realizes that bigotry is wrong. Until the couple, after a night of off-screen (but assumedly hot) love making, gives birth to thousands and thousands of cockroach eggs and everybody remembers why they hate roaches in the first place. With the basement infested, Max and Berkeley talk with Moze, who swiftly destroys the precarious social satire they've set up. He reminds Max that rats and roaches aren't humans, so the rules of equality don't really apply, and they probably shouldn't live together. Even though everyone should respect one another. So much for subtext.

Things end with Jammet about to be eaten by a cat, and being unexpectedly saved by a thousand roach babies, but everyone agrees that although the roaches are nice and everything, everyone goes in their separate, but equal directions. If the episode had a point to make, I certainly couldn't find it.

There were times when I had trouble even telling if this was a comedy. There are a handful of jokes, like when Max stumbles on a piece of erotic literature called “Nazi Milkmaids in Acapulco,” but there's too much of an emphasis on social issues and not enough on comedy. In a contemporary review in Variety, critic Brian Lowry compared Capitol Critters to the films of Ralph Bakshi. It's a logical comparison, but there's a reason that Bakshi's controversial films (like the X-rated Fritz the Cat or American Pop) play better in art house theaters than on television opposite Growing Pains and The Wonder Years.

Family Dog:
CBS 1992
10 episodes produced and aired, but 13 ordered
Produced by Amblin Entertainment

Of the three shows, Family Dog was the one with most likelihood of success, if only because of the talent behind it. Although the show premiered in 1993, Family Dog's genesis actually pre-dates The Simpsons, first appearing as a one-off episode of Steven Spielberg's '80s anthology series Amazing Stories. If you've never heard of Amazing Stories, do yourself a favor now and look it up, but only if you're fine with doing nothing but watching the show for the rest of your life. Produced by Spielberg, the episode featured characters designed by Tim Burton and was written and directed by future Ratatouille director Brad Bird.

The original Family Dog is everything the series isn't: clever and fun to watch, cinematic, well animated, with a great sense of pacing. Three separate, independent vignettes make up the original episode, told from the point of view of a nervous, jittery and frequently ignored family dog. And not a talking, cartoon dog like Brian Griffin, but a fairly realistic dog like Santa's Little Helper. The episode riffs on silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, with the tiny dog caught in uncomfortable situations.

The series wasn't nearly as enjoyable. The cinematic, visual style of storytelling that the original episode did so well simply did not translate into a weekly sitcom. The series ran into budgetary problems very early on, and could never match the quality of the Amazing Stories episode. The Simpsons' success is almost entirely from its sharp writing and talented voice-over artists, two things that Family Dog ignores in favor of character animation.

Because the series is told from the dog's point of view, we never get a good sense of the odd, dysfunctional family. They're unlikable, but not funny or interesting enough to really invest in. And since everything we know about them is filtered through the family dog, there are whole areas of their lives that the audience is never privy to.

Each episode involves the family wanting something (whether it's a day at the zoo, or winning a dog show) and the dog wanting something simpler (a bowl of water or rightful recognition as a hero). They both bumble through some obstacles, with the dog ultimately getting what he wants and the family apathetically accepting the outcome.

Luckily, this Spielberg guy was able to bounce back with some other animated series like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Freakazoid!, shows that were ostensibly for children, and yet contain more satire, clever writing and genuinely funny moments than any of the shows listed above. I think that Spielberg's animated oeuvre is criminally underrated in the work they did molding ripe young comic minds.

Final Thoughts:

It's easy to see why none of these series were successes, and although it feels like it should have been obvious at the time, maybe it's easier to realize in retrospect why a cartoon show about a fish police inspector couldn't compete with Seinfeld and Cheers.

For one thing, all of these shows are trapped in the fundamentally flawed mindset that cartoons are primarily for children. If these shows were developed as children's programs, and not aired in primetime, they may have had slightly more success. Fish Police in particular is infamous for its supposed Ishtar-level of badness, but just like the movie Ishtar, this has been greatly blown out of proportion. It's not great, but I could see it doing fine as a children's cartoon, sandwiched in between Street Sharks and SWAT Cats on Saturday mornings.

Peculiarly, each series stars animals, talking mice and rats and fish, and never people, who tend to be much more relatable. In Capitol Critters, the people are all faceless politicians, and in Family Dog, they're more obstacles than anything else. Out of all the successful adult cartoons that have followed The Simpsons, whether it's South Park, Family Guy, American Dad!, King of the Hill or even cult hits like The Critic and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, the major thing they have in common is that they star human beings.

Like all the greats, The Simpsons makes it look easy. And yet everything it did — whether it was joke-writing, character development, or animation — was so revolutionary, it left its competitors stumped.

Anthony Scibelli is a handsome stand-up comedian, comedy writer and sometime cartoon character. His writing has appeared on Cracked.com and his blog There's No Success Like Failure.

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  • HerooftheBeach

    I only found out about Family Dog years after I, on a whim, rented the video game for Super Nintendo. The game was…about what you'd expect. I don't remember enjoying it much.

  • ino

    I seem to remember there being an kids show very similar to Fish Police called Sharky and George who, according to the theme song, were crime busters of the sea. It's possible it was only up here in Canada though…