Much like the irascible character at its center—balding, rotund film critic Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz)—the short-lived animated series The Critic is a paean to life's bitter defeats. Palpable bi-polar outlooks pervade the show's 23 episodes, reflecting the neglect visited upon the series by heartless television executives. The brainchild of writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss, the show was originally a low-rated ABC product cancelled midway through its initial 13 episodes. Quickly picked up by the Fox network and scheduled after Jean & Reiss's alma mater, The Simpsons, The Critic ran for an additional 10 episodes before being cancelled yet again. The show found a cultish afterlife in Comedy Central re-runs, but its post-midnight airtime was more evidence of attempted murder by network proxy.
Gathered together on DVD in the intended viewing order, The Critic now plays with a more angrily connective subtext. The race-out-of-the-gates "Pilot" ably sets up Jay Sherman's cursed existence: adopted son of WASP parents, divorced, terminally single, and forced to review Hollywood trash like the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Rabbi P.I." It's all self-denigrating embarrassment humor at its finest, complete with a gut-busting parody of Beauty and the Beast that stars household cleaning appliances, and which cuttingly reveals the loneliness inherent to true movie love. The remainder of the first season reaches similar heights only sporadically, though this is not to say that any of the show's episodes are painfully without humor.
Certainly this is due in part to the chagrin of the ABC executives; as Jean and Reiss state in the DVD extras, the network didn't know what it had and the show's uniqueness led to its premature cancellation. But the obvious stress of this overhanging Sword of Damocles gave us at least one more example of true brilliance. In "A Day at the Races and a Night at the Opera," Jay helps his son Marty (Christine Cavanaugh) overcome an inferiority complex, and this clearly parallels the creators' own frustrated internal voices, which fortunately begets hilarity in the episode's overall structure and in several of its throwaway details.
It takes a heartless soul to feel unmoved when Marty discovers his inner worth through an endearing outer talent, causing Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II to dance together in a sublime case of only-in-the-movies bliss. Likewise, it's impossible to forget creations like the Easter Island kid (a boy with one of those famed stone monoliths for a head) or Satoshi, the 1000-year-old eater of souls who inexplicably threatens a Cookie Puss ice cream cake before belting out a solo guitar version of "Big Girls Don't Cry." At moments like these laughter never felt so profound.
With the move to Fox, Jean and Reiss added a love interest for Jay, Southern émigré Alice (Park Overall) and her young daughter Penny (Russi Taylor). The intent was to soften the show's hard edges—more a residual ABC concern than a Fox demand. And yet, with all of the first season's love-life trials and travails, it's nice to have our cursed critic find some sense of stability. The emotional grounding leads to a pretty consistent string of great episodes, including my all-time favorite, "Sherman of Arabia," which was a grand critique of Bush senior then and is an even grander swipe at Bush junior now. A close second favorite is "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice," which guest stars the two famous television pundits as themselves, now broken up and looking for new partners.
But even with this quite apparent rejuvenation, Fox cancelled The Critic, forcing it to end on the intentionally shoddy 23rd installment "I Can't Believe It's a Clip Show." Here The Critic achieves a postmodern sophistication alien to most series television. While hosting his 10th Anniversary special (we fans can only wish) at Carnegie Hall, Jay and his family are taken hostage by a deranged group of terrorists. Jean and Reiss call attention to the show's very mechanisms, leaving in obvious mistakes like mismatched lip movements and repetitive animations. As the terrorists' bomb counts down, clips from the entire series play as both counterpoint and summation, all leading up to an explosive finale instigated by the legendary Milton Berle, clad in ninja garb. A climactic, sincere spoof of West Side Story leaves us with a full-on view of all the characters we've grown to love over two networks and too short a time. And upon the final fade-out it is near impossible to hold back a protest at the unfairness of it all. So we answer back to the darkness with our own bitter and ironic reading of Jay Sherman's signature catchphrase: "It stinks!"
IMAGE / SOUND:
A solid full-frame transfer nicely showcases the show's hyperreal New York setting. At times within the same sequence imagery appears blurred in long-shot and crisp in close-up, though this happened enough times to suggest that it's a flaw inherent to the cel animation. Sound is Dolby Digital stereo with only the occasional interplay between right and left channels. Otherwise, this is a very central audio experience. Overall, a perfectly acceptable DVD presentation.
The DVD packaging makes no note of any extras, so it's a pleasant surprise to discover a plethora of material to the contrary. Spread-out over the collection's three discs are nine audio commentaries. Numerous cast and crew members (presided over by Jean and Reiss) mask their contempt for the vagaries of U.S. television production through a steady stream of humorous anecdotes. Of particular note: Jean and Reiss mention the non-plussed reaction of a Fox executive to the show's hilarious parody "Hee Haw: The Next Generation," which hinted at the show's final demise. Also listen for a particularly candid moment on the commentary for "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice" when Jean and Reiss remark on the premature death of Gene Siskel. It cuts deep. The second disc also houses a storyboard comparison feature for the episode "A Pig-Boy and His Dog." Turn this highlight on and you will be able to see the work-in-progress drawings for this particular show as it plays. The third disc contains the rest of the extras. "Trailer Parodies" and "Top Ten List" house most of the series's movie spoofs, a surprising number of them starring Marlon Brando (in "Family Affair: The Movie," "Apocalypse WOW!," etc). "Creating the Critic" is an all-too-short video documentary where Jean, Reiss, and several of the cast and crew talk about the show's genesis and reception. It is quite apparent that the full behind-the-scenes story has yet to be told, but one gets enough sense of the behind-the-scenes travails to sympathize wholly with the artists. Finally, "Webisodes" contains all 10 Internet episodes of The Critic, produced in 2000 by Jean & Reiss for the Shockwave website. There are several classic bits within, especially a sublime Pokemon joke and a pointed jab at the Mel Gibson/Roland Emmerich atrocity The Patriot.
Hotchi Motchi! The Critic gets a respectful and well-deserved DVD treatment.