Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Storytelling Engines: The Critic

(or "Dumpy Guys Are A Tough Sell")

On paper, the ABC (and later Fox) series "The Critic" seems like it should have run for a long time. The creative team behind it shares a lot of names with the seemingly-immortal "Simpsons", it's got a pretty familiar name as the lead in Jon Lovitz, and the storytelling engine feels remarkably strong for a "workplace sitcom", especially an animated one. Sitcoms set in an office (or a TV studio) that center on the inter-personal dynamics of the (generally quirky) characters who have to work together despite their various dysfunctions, tend to reach a point where it's hard to keep finding things for them to do that aren't repetitive; the good ones, like 'Cheers', work around this problem by having a flow of guest-star and semi-regular customers to keep things fresh, while the bad ones just embrace repetition. (I'll leave it up to you to fill in the blank here with your own most-hated sitcom.)

By focusing primarily on one character, film critic Jay Sherman, "The Critic" works around this problem by expanding to his family and romantic life as well as his job, and showing all the ways those intertwine. He has to deal with an egomaniacal boss (who is wonderfully played by Charles Napier as a crazed Ted Turner), a frustrating and emotionally distant family (with the exception of his little sister, who looks to him for guidance), and the fallout from his disastrous first marriage. Each element provides fodder for one or more stories above and beyond the typical "workplace" drama, which is also present (and it helps a lot that the choice of "film critic" as job allows for plenty of gags about the entertainment industry, from brief gag movie clips to whole episodes revolving around a spat between Ebert and Siskel.)

So why, with all the talent behind it and all the opportunities available to it, did "The Critic" fail? Even a spot just in front of 'Home Improvement' couldn't help it on ABC, and even a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" couldn't save it on Fox. (And incidentally, that's not a good question to bring up to Matt Groening. Trust me on this.) What made "The Simpsons" into a huge success, and "The Critic" into an obscure cult series?

We have to consider the setting to be a culprit; unlike "The Simpsons", which takes place in a deranged vision of Anytown USA, "The Critic" sets itself in New York City and is squarely cosmopolitan. From a storytelling angle, this works great. New York becomes a character in its own right in the series, with the atmosphere of the city informing every episode in all sorts of ways that show that more than a few New Yorkers worked in the writing room. But to a non-Manhattanite (yes, we do exist!), these elements worked to exclude potential viewers instead of draw them in. It's sort of like Woody Allen's films, which work well in critics' circles but never seemed to make a ton of money in nationwide release.

A comparison to Woody Allen also brings us to the key point that made "The Critic" a tough sell; it's a self-consciously intellectual comedy about an intellectual character (how many sitcoms are about Pulitzer Prize-winners?) In a country like America, which has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, that's a tough sell in and of itself. But more than that, "The Critic" is a comedy about failure, about a single guy who stays single due to his lack of confidence (and looks and virility and savoir faire...) Despite the seeming attractions of the concept, audiences don't tend to want to watch the lives of people who are even worse off than they are, especially not one who seems to be mired in failure. The series attempted to fix that when it moved to Fox, adding Park Overall's "Alice Tompkins" character as a love interest, but by then, the tone of the series had already been set in the minds of its potential viewers. And so Jay Sherman, like Woody Allen, remains an acquired taste on DVD instead of an enduring icon like Homer Simpson. (Hmm...so maybe "dumpy" isn't that tough a sell after all...)


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I always tended to take the opposite view, in the sense that audiences don't like to watch people who are usually so much more successful than them; how else do you explain the popularity of guys like Spider-Man, Al Bundy, or Homer Simpson, people who generally even worse off than the rest of us schlubs in one way or another (Homer in terms of intelligence, Spider-Man in terms of luck, Al Bundy in terms of everything)? Batman might have enough money to buy six or seven small countries, but many interpretations also depict him as having enough psychological hang-ups to make Charles Manson look sane.

That said, you're dead on about the intellectual aspect of the show, although it also had its share of Family Guy-esque lunacy and cutaways, such as Jay's father finding that there's a penguin flying his airplane, and realizing that "PENGUINS CAN'T FLY!" Then there's also the bizarre master/slave relationship Jay has with his stomach, and the various jokes about his weight, including the fact that he apparently couldn't be lifted by a fighter jet that was strong enough to lift a tank...

Oddly enough, I never once found the setting of New York to be exclusionary, and I'm from Canada, although this is perhaps due to all the Spider-Man comics I read as a kid, so I was well-used to New York by then.

The absolutely cruel irony of it all is that while a hilarious, witty show like "The Critic" was cancelled, "The Simpsons" has survived all these years despite being a rotting pile of cow pie as far as quality goes, to the point where it's been plagiarizing "Family Guy" for the last decade and has the absolute gall to accuse Seth McFarlane of plagiarism, when if anything McFarlane should be suing Matt Groening for blatantly ripping him off. Not only that, but Groening and the rest of the "Simpsons" crew should be sued for crapping all over their artistic legacy.

And yes, I realize how very bitter I am.

Austin Gorton said...

I also thought of Roseanne, and its success, as another example of a show with characters worse off than the average that clicked with viewers.

Maybe its more of an occupational thing? After all, Spider-man, Homer, Al Bundy and Roseanne are all blue collar and/or struggle to make ends meet, whereas as Jay Sherman, while as socially schlumpy and downtrodden as the others, more or less had a successful career and wasn't afraid to use his intelligence and wit (self-perceived or otherwise)to compensate for his other shortcomings.

In other words, maybe the average viewer is okay with a character worse off then they are, as long as he isn't smarter than they are too. I dunno.

I do know that I love the Critic. Just being reminded of his dad's panicked "PENGUINS CAN'T FLY!" made me chuckle.

John Seavey said...

Oh, yes, "Penguins can't fly" is a gem. (Really, every line Jay's father ever had was a gem. "You have disgraced this family. Now, who wants to boogie with Baby '37?")

And when I say "unsuccessful", I mean emotionally, not financially. Don't forget, Jay makes six figures on the series...but despite that, he's miserable for the whole first season and much of the second. Whereas Homer and Roseanne, for all their financial difficulties, have a wife and a husband (respectively) to be their emotional rock in turbulent times. Even Spider-Man has gotten plenty of nookie over the last forty-plus years. (Not sure how to explain "Married With Children". That series really does break all the rules.)

I do think you're right and that a completely successful character is dull to audiences--the Marvel formula for decades is to take someone who should be happy, then give them one crippling flaw that makes them miserable (blindness, heart problems, paraplegia, poverty, turning into a giant, uncontrollable green monster.) But I think audiences have a harder time enjoying a story about a guy who constantly gets shot down by good-looking women. It's just too close to home for most men. :)

Anonymous said...

I think with "Married With Children", the key to its success is that many in the audience, no matter how bad their own problems are, are still better off than the Bundys. On an MWC reunion special, the producers discussed a letter they received from a fan, who wrote that, despite his crappy job and lousy home life, he could always take comfort in the fact that Al Bundy's week was just a little bit worse.

As for Jay, his problem was that he never really learned how to market himself. Playing the trumpet with your stomach would be a great trick at parties, and sensitive singer-songwriters attract the ladies like magnets.


Anonymous said...

I think The Critic (which I loved) had a slightly different problem than Jay's successes or failures -- I don't think he was really someone with whom anyone could identify.

Everyone has had a day in which he or she felt like Peter Parker -- or like Al Bundy in terms of how the world treats him or how his mistakes continue to haunt him. Everyone knows at least one person like Bender, and all of us know what it's like to pretend to feel like Professor Farnsworth.

The original Simpsons was remarkable at the time for showing moments of genuine affection between Bart and Homer when most such comedies took for granted that any familial affection should take place off-screen so that it doesn't take up time that could be used for gags.

But as charming as Jay and later Alice could be, and as witty as the dialogue could be, none of Jay's problems seemed to have any genuine emotional resonance.

When Jay thought he'd discovered his biological mother, the occasion became an excuse for a lot of excellent, hilarious jokes but almost nothing to which the audience could relate. Everyone knows what it's like to think they've found a surrogate sibling or grandparent, but there was nothing in the episode to connect with.

There have been a number of series that have survived only on the basis of their wit and humor, such as Absolutely Fabulous, but because their entire success is predicated upon coming up with something seemingly new and hilarious every single episode, they don't last long.

When the series tried for more character-based humor by bringing in Alice (i.e. tried to import a Storytelling Engine that was not so dependent upon novelty and jokes), it was too late. The people who preferred the original style had no interest in seeing yet one more couples sitcom, and the people who would have enjoyed a couples sitcom with a high level of wit had long lost interest in giving The Critic a chance.

Those of us who could enjoy the last-minute fusion were in the minority.

So, I doubt it's that people don't like characters that lose too much or that surpass them intellectually, it's that people don't like character-based humor involving characters that involve characters with whom they can identify only superficially.

Jay Sherman would have made an awesome member of a supporting cast, but he lacked the identifiability crucial to a central character in a character-based comedy.

And as for the jokes-based comedy of the first season, the writers simply ran out of material that was both novel enough and witty enough yet could be shown on television at the time.