Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Critic: The Complete Series

3-disc set; 23 episodes (~520 minutes)

Argh. For the second time, I saw a show I got at the same time as this set, “Dilbert,” in its entirety on DVD. Why didn’t I review it? Now, here’s a show that has an interesting history. It ran for 13 episodes on ABC where it was canned, but with episodes already in production, the show needed a new home. It found one at FOX. Included here are all 23 episodes from both ABC and FOX, and I’m prepared to review them.

The premise is fairly simple: Jon Lovitz voices Jay Sherman, a film critic from New York. He has a son named Marty, is adopted into a rich family (and his dad is a kook) and has his own TV show, “Coming Attractions.” His boss Duke seems to be based on Ted Turner, although with more character.

There’s a few other characters and things, but I’ll get to them in the course of the review. Usually, a plot is intertwined with gags and clips from films he reviews. In retrospect, the show resembles “Family Guy,” although at a comparatively deliberate pace. There’s lots of times where Jay flashbacks because of something he said, or a TV show or movie is parodied in his daily life, stuff like that.

Pilot – Here’s the first episode. Jay’s guest on “Attractions” is actress Valerie Fox, who falls for Jay and starts dating him. He takes her to see his family, who worry she’s using him to get a good review. He plays sick to try to get out of seeing it, but ends up with a copy anyway, and it’s dreadful. Thankfully this episode doesn’t feel too “pilot-y” and things are introduced correctly. We see the restaurant he frequents at (its name in English is “The Wealthy Jackass”) and his buddy, Australian actor Jeremy Hawke. Plus there’s classic moments with his dad – “on this TV, his nose is bigger than my foot.” There’s enough laughs here to warrant a thumbs up.

Miserable – In Jay’s morning, he sees a lot of people in love – but not him. At a screening of “Indecent Proposal 2” (“I’m willing to offer you…$6”) he spots the female projectionist watching him. He goes up and they have sex. Again. And again. Eventually, he finds her to have a psychotic obsession with him, and he gets tied up in her apartment. Jeremy helps to break him free. Just packed with lots of funny stuff, both visually and in dialogue. More laughs than the first – thumbs up. Oh, and “buy my book! Buy my book!”

Marty’s First Date– Marty has Jay speak at career day at the UN School and comes across a girl from Cuba whom he likes. They go on a date, she’s bored, and heads back to Cuba. He stows away on the plane home and Jay has to retrieve him. There’s a lot of nice gags amidst the plot, notably a flashback to Fidel Castro’s first date. Thumbs up.

Dial “M” For Mother – Due to bad focus group tests (no thanks to a venomous review of a “Pride of the Yankees” remake where the ending was retooled), Duke tries to fix Jay’s image. He eventually asks Jay to appear on “Geraldo” with the topic being “Celebrities and Their Mothers.” Jay tells her off and she enters the hospital. He then gets knocked out cold by an angry viewer and finds his mother watching over him in the hospital when he is admitted. Another funny one, and it includes one of my favorite moments – Jay’s dad as “Baby ’37.” Thumbs up.

A Little Deb Will Do Ya – A character I haven’t mentioned yet is Jay’s makeup lady, Doris, played by “Simpsons” talent, the late Doris Grau. In one of the show’s two changing opening credit jokes, she calls Jay and says, “Jay, I’m at the morgue – come tell them I’m not dead!” This one’s about Jay’s sister Margo getting forced to go to a debutant ball and Jay’s ratings sinking due to competition Humphrey the Hippo. Funny stuff, including a dressmaker asking Margo if she’s pure enough to wear virginal white. “Yeah, give me the white…just not on the gloves.” Thumbs up.

Eye on the Prize – After a disastrous 1000th episode, Jay is told his show is just too stale. He eventually gets fired and put on a show called “English for Cab Drivers.” After some soul searching, Jay decides to go after another Pulitzer Prize. Phil Hartman does a few voices in this one, but it’s largely dull. I decided to bump its status after one of my fave clips – “Arthur III: Revenge of the Liver.” Thumbs in the middle. Besides, most of the better moments from this episode are seen on a FOX-aired clip show we’ll get to down the page.

Every Doris Has Her Day – A guest on “Attractions” gives Jay tickets to a musical remake of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” called “Hunch.” He ends up taking Doris, whom he befriends, and eventually finds out might be his real mother. There was some decent stuff within, but it largely told a story rather than tried to be funny. Thumbs in the middle.

Marathon Mensch – When a fire breaks out on the air, the audience sees Jay as a wuss. He decides the best way to prove his manhood is to run the New York Marathon. Yeah, that’s a dumb premise. There’s a lot of dumb in this episode, but a few jokes I really liked bump it up to thumbs in the middle. We see Mario Cuomo in the marathon deciding to run, then not to run…then when Jay passes out in a bad neighborhood – “old nudes! They’re fat, they’re ugly…but they’re nude! You gotta give me that!”

LA Jay – Jay writes a screenplay and heads to Los Angeles to get it shot. Decent jokes within again, but they’re on a downward spiral…thumbs down.

Dr. Jay – Jay’s at the Cannes Film Festival where Duke unveils “Phillipsvision” – a new creation that has computers changing the endings of films. (Casablanca –“Stay tuned for the local news…”). In a shouting match, Duke has a heart attack and is struck with “Duke Phillips Disease.” Jay vows to cure him. This one’s pretty good despite not being among the funniest episodes, and I think it all goes to Duke. Thumbs up.

A Day at the Races and a Night at the Opera - Jay visits Marty at Field Day where his lack of athletic skill (and resulting “Horse’s Ass” award) makes him feel depressed. After a largely unsuccessful search, Marty decides to play guitar in the school Talent Show. Only his act is trumped, so he jiggles his stomach to the delight of the audience. There’s a sidebar plot where Duke promises the audience $100 each if Jay doesn’t make them laugh that’s pretty funny. Lots in this episode is silly and hilarious – so thumbs up.

Uneasy Rider – Jay loses his job after he won’t endorse Savvy Indian tobacco on the air. So, he enlists in truck driving school and becomes a trucker. Who said cartoons had to have a truck driving episode? But with the staff from “Critic” and “Simpsons” cross-pollinating, maybe they suggested it over there too, and “King of the Hill” stole it from them. Oh well, plenty funny – on the road in his truck, Jay gets excited when he sees a sign. “Next Sign, 50 Miles.” Thumbs up.

A Pig-Boy and His Dog – Jay’s mother doesn’t have any fun in her life, so she tries to fix that. Meanwhile, Jay gets a dog. His mom ends up penning a book about a fat little pig who bears a striking resemblance to Jay (complete with sweater vest). No real reason for the rating, but I had a smile on my face all episode, and I liked the “Home Improvement” parodies. Thumbs up.

Sherman, Woman and Child – This is the start of the show’s second season, which aired on FOX. The opening sequence was changed, the theme got a new instrumentation and some of the animation was different. In this episode, Jay sees a woman, Alice Tompkins, and her child down on their luck in New York. He hires her as a personal assistant who dresses Jay in snazzy clothes and boosts his ratings. But, her no-good country singer husband turns up. In any event, this was pretty funny – hell, I’ll give thumbs up to the drunken singing bears gag alone.

Sherman of Arabia – Jay tells the kids at Marty’s slumber party about his time in Iraq during the Gulf War. He was stranded there after going to a film festival, and was then turned into a correspondent for Phillips Network News. Lots and lots of great moments here, not limited to, but including parodies such as “Hee Haw: the Next Generation” and “Brown Acres.” Thumbs up. Way up.

A Song For Margo – A new neighbor moves in at Jay’s parents – rock star Johnny Wrath. Margo falls in love with him but the family has doubts. Meanwhile, Alice is trying to find her daughter a pre-school. The humor is this is mostly meddling, which is textbook thumbs in the middle.

From Chunk to Hunk – Jay and Marty go to fat camp, where Jay loses 2 pounds, but Marty loses a ton, and gains a role as Peter Pan in the school play. The stress causes him to gain it all back. Pretty funny, with a lot of hilarious Franklin stuff. Thumbs up.

Lady Hawke – Attending a taping of “Yesterday Night Live” (yes, the SNL/John Lovitz jokes fly here), Jay meets Jeremy Hawke’s sister Olivia Newton Hawke. The two hit it off, which makes Alice jealous. She makes Jay decide who to love. The show does an incredible job of taking that boring plot and surrounding it with so much humor, that is succeeds in a big way. Thumbs up.

Franklin and Ellie Get Lost – For their 40th anniversary, Jay gives his parents a three-week vacation – but a pilot strike sends them on a bad flight and they crash on a deserted island. Jay inherits the family fortune, which he finds comes from corrupt businesses, while the couple rekindles their love and builds a mansion on the island. One of the best episodes of the series. Hilarious. The summary doesn’t do it justice, but there’s lots to see here like the penguin pilot and the electric football documentary… Thumbs up.

Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice – Siskel and Ebert break up, and Jay strives to be either’s new partner. Disappointing for what should have been the show’s crowning moment – getting America’s two most premier film critics to guest star. However, it had a tough act to follow, and may have stood up on its own…so call it a generous thumbs up.

All the Duke’s Men – After writing a good speech for Marty’s class president campaign, Duke hires Jay to write for his presidential campaign. He takes on his dad as a running mate, which is comedy gold right there. A number of hearty belly laughs, but since I was generous to the last one, I’ll be meaner here and give it thumbs in the middle. The episode was goofy and a bit disjointed, but funny.

Dukerella – Alice’s sister comes to town. A southern belle, she came to New York just to find a rich husband. After trying Jay and Jeremy and a host of others, she finds Duke and they meet at Duke’s ball. Long story short, there’s some hilarious stuff here, but with peaks come valleys. And they’re real low here. Can’t go higher than thumbs in the middle since I was really aggravated at how boring the valleys were.

I Can’t Believe It’s a Clip Show – Jay hosts his 1000th episode from Carnegie Hall, looking back on many film reviews and other moments from his show. The broadcast gets hijacked and held ransom, but all is saved by…Milton Berle? More substance than your average clip show (which was also true for “The Simpsons” for a while too) and some new funny jokes. Plus, of course, funny clips. Thumbs up.

The count (up-middle-down):

Included are commentaries on a handful of episodes, usually including co-creators Al Jean and Mike Reiss, as well as voice actors Maurice LaMarche and Nick Jameson. They’re more entertaining than informative, so be warned a bit there – but loads of fun to hear Maurice for example do his Jon Lovitz imitation. They also joke about downloading the entire show on Kazaa and other stuff.

Other special features include a mini-documentary on creating the show – most of which is touched upon in the commentaries anyway. There are also two clip packages that aren’t really interesting.

The biggest of the extras are the ten episodes made for Atom Films a year or two back. They run about 2-3 minutes of actual content a piece, but are still pretty good. The new series focuses on Jay and his new makeup woman/girlfriend Jessica. The creators liked being able to parody the latest movies, which they do to fair effect on the webisodes. The worst part is the lax way they were made – since they had no benefit of good, long, hard paint-to-cel work, you had to settle for verbal jokes on a lot of movies, where I’m sure some sort of clip would’ve been done on ABC or FOX.

What’s also cool is that the webisodes and clip packages come with the Atom Films loading screen – Jay is sitting in a theater pre-show watching those inane trivia bits go by. For example, “Fun Fact: Sharon Stone has made more bombs than the IRA.” “Know Your Baldwins: Stephen – skinny and dumb. Alec – fat and dumb.” You can interrupt these at any time to get to the feature.

Sooo in short, this is a great DVD set for a great show. It would be awesome to have back today. With the advent of digital animation, they could do what they did with the web show (and what “South Park” already does) – be up-to-date on movie parodies. They said they tried to pick timeless movies and references for the show, and I have to say they did a pretty good job. Lots of fun to watch, and worth picking up.


72% great episodes, plus good commentary and the webisodes makes one happy reviewer.

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