‘Animal Practice’: The Post-Mortem
Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we ponder as our foreheads turn red from frequent smacks. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.
Sometime in the eighties, NBC threw a show called Manimal on the air. It was an action-adventure drama about Dr. Jonathan Chase, a man who was able to turn into any animal he wanted, which enabled him to fight crime and help out the police/make the police look bad/annoy the police. It’s theme song and introduction lasted one minute and forty-seven seconds, and the series basically lasted just as long (eight episodes). It was so bad and offensive to anyone who possessed the ability of sight that it almost tarnished the career of the then head of programming at NBC, Brandon Tartikoff. Tartikoff was responsible in varying degrees for the success of critically acclaimed and popular shows like Cheers, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice; he in fact turned NBC around from a ratings doormat to a successful and well-respected network. But he was always the guy that said yes to Manimal. “You ever hear of The Cosby Show?” Tartikoff rhetorically asked his teenage daughter one day in 1988. “It was my idea to convince Cosby to star in his own sitcom.” The younger Tartikoff did not begin her homework. In fact — without disrupting the staring contest with her Walkman — she simply uttered one word in response: “Manimal.” She was punished for a week, for uttering a profanity.
About twenty nine years later, the Peacock channel presented another dubious-looking show involving live animals called Animal Practice, a program starring Weeds’ Justin Kirk as Dr. George Coleman, a prickly, antisocial veterinarian working in a New York City veterinarian office. He was surrounded by people he considered to be intellectually inferior to himself, and his best friend: a monkey named Dr. Rizzo. While Mister Ed, Lassie, Flipper and even Gentle Ben were beloved shows in their time — and Harry and the Hendersons was tolerated, quickly forgotten and left behind — Animal Practice was showing itself on primetime television in 2012, where everyone over 8 is an adult, and live-action shows seemingly centered around animals would not be tolerated by a fair amount of people, some of whom remembered Manimal. While current NBC entertainment boss Bob Greenblatt infamously said that the network was looking for more broad programming, Animal Practice tried to have it both ways by being that show where a crazy old monkey acts like people and by being a show that had humans talk to each other like people.
The show was axed after its sixth episode aired. What happened? Before we blame the monkey for the cancellation, we should first look squarely into the cold, dead eyes of Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Cee-lo Green: unlike all of the new NBC shows that have already received a full season commitment — Revolution, Go On and The New Normal — Animal Practice did not run right after The Voice and benefit from its massive ratings. Because NBC and The Voice insist on not ruining a good thing by putting the show with the spinning chairs on the air every night of the week, Animal Practice had the unenviable task of opening a night that didn’t involve football or singing. Even Thursdays, which used to be NBC’s showcase evening and was stocked with highly rated comedies, is performing terribly now. It wasn’t entirely surprising that Practice‘s ratings got so bad that by the end it rated lower than the CW. You can also blame the actual competition: ABC had already claimed Wednesday night sitcoms to be their thing years ago, anchored by award whores Modern Family. The Middle, which has been on for four seasons now even though nobody you know including yourself watches it, aired opposite Practice and routinely touted more total viewers, trouncing all over poor Crystal the monkey with almost five million more total viewers on October 24th, the final night Practice was on TV.
Also, yes, it was the monkey’s fault. There was actually a scene in an episode where Dr. Rizzo Tebowed. It was the kind of sophomoric, pathetic, poor attempt at Zeitgeist capturing garbage that made some viewers feel like taking a shower and vowing to never waste time with the idiot box ever again. Whenever Rizzo was involved in a storyline — usually with Betsy Sodaro’s weird looking and sounding Angela — it seemed like suddenly viewers were being transported to a different TV show entirely; a show that didn’t have the Russo Brothers as two of their executive producers and an Emmy nominated actor in Justin Kirk at its disposal. There were plenty of amusing moments in all of the other stories told on Animal Practice that solely had to do with the dynamics between the human beings. Three examples forthcoming: 1) In one episode George grew jealous of the sudden fame thrust upon lesser doctor Dr. Yamamoto — a massive loser played perfectly over the top by former Mad TV cast member Bobby Lee — who had just successfully operated on Mayor Bloomberg’s dog. He had found out about the surgery from reading the New York Post headline: “DR. YAMAMAZING!” 2) Lee also had a great moment in “Clean-Smelling Pirate”, where his earlier explanation for his lifelong fear of puppets paid off with an unexpected flashback to his childhood in Japan, where his father, in lieu of handing him over to a babysitter’s care (“They are a foolish Western extravagance.”), would leave his son to watch creepy human-sized puppets in a Japanese theater all afternoon. The visuals were both funny and horrifying. 3) That couldn’t top the show’s finest moment in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Coleman?” when George and Angela engaged in a “Who Had the Worst Mother?” pissing contest. We learned everything we ever wanted to know about Kirk’s closed-off, distrusting character with the game-winning sentence, “My mother said my father left us because I was too clingy.”
It’s likely that Crystal would have been phased out of Animal Practice had it continued, letting it blossom into the decent workplace comedy that had ailing animals as Macguffins that it sorely wanted to be; most comedies evolve and figure things out after the first few episodes, after all. It was never more obvious that the writers and producers knew how people that didn’t watch the show perceived Practice than in “Wingmen,” an episode that was initially supposed to be the final one put on TV but was instead dumped exclusively to the internet. In one of the storylines, Angela and Dr. Rizzo watched a television show called Law of the Jungle, starring Adam Goldberg as a lawyer and a monkey as a paralegal. No less than five scenes of Law of the Jungle were shown in “Wingmen,” all of which showcased how bad and cringe worthy Animal Practice could have actually been had its writing staff went after the most basic of instincts with live animal humor. In one scene, the paralegal primate threw a banana peel at his human lawyer friend, only for Goldberg to roll his eyes and say that it wasn’t the kind of “a peel” that he was talking about. Angela defended the show on more than one occasion to whoever had found her watching the show, twice saying “Sure it’s about a monkey; but it’s really about the relationships.”
If you thought that wasn’t bitter or meta enough, consider that Christina Pickles was also a guest star in “Wingmen,” and both Pickles and Goldberg were recurring characters in the Friends universe: the former played Ross and Monica’s mother; the latter played Chandler’s crazy roommate Eddie for a few episodes and later was a regular on the spinoff Joey, where he was an entirely different character and Joey never said a damn word about it. Considering how far it went with the Law of the Jungle joke — it took up about a third of the episode — the casting might as well have consciously been a very clever response to how the fellow freshman comedy Go On got a much better time slot because a former Friends star was the face of the show. Kind of brilliant work. Too brilliant for this world, unfortunately. Besides, NBC kind of has a self-aware show already.
Roger Cormier wishes he could have fit in the whole Nick Swisher’s team getting eliminated from the playoffs on the same day that his wife Joanna Garcia’s show got canceled coincidence into the article.