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The Critic: The Complete Series

Columbia Pictures Television (January 26 1994), Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment (January 27 2004), 3 disc set, 520 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Surround, Not Rated, Retail: $49.95 (though now often heavily discounted)

Storyboard:

Manhattan movie critic Jay Sherman is quick to point out the inadequacies in modern cinemagoing – cue a slate of pinpoint parodies – but doesn’t have anyone to critique his own rambling personal life!

The Sweatbox Review:

“It stinks!” – no, not what I think of this collection, but the way many fans, myself included, think of the way this gem of a short-lived series was treated during its original run. They are also the words of The Critic himself, one Jay Sherman, TV reviewer for a New York network. A rather short man with high ideals, Jay would rather spend his movie-watching time on foreign and art-house classics than on the mindless Hollywood popcorn thrown at him. But a job’s a job, and where the show excels is in the various pastiches of blockbuster movies past.

Unfortunately, the show’s original run on ABC didn’t sit too well with audiences, even with its pedigree of coming from producer/creators Al Jean and Mike Reiss – long time veterans of The Simpsons. The Critic allowed their wild Simpsons movie references to really break out and become more than just brief parodies, being an integral part of each show. After a disastrous first half season on ABC, it was cancelled, with the remainder of the contracted episodes moving over to the Fox network (and presented as “season two”).

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This set collects all 23 episodes – plus some more surprises – and is a wonderful tribute to possibly the finest single-season show ever animated. Kicking off with the pilot show (aka Beauty And King Dork), its clear even from the title that there’s going to be some movie shenanigans with one of our favourite Disney features. Even from the opening sequence, The Critic gives the impression that, as a program, it’s here to stay. As with The Simpsons, we’re treated to a fun opening, scored by a big Hollywood composer (here it’s Hans Zimmer filling in for The Simpsons’ Danny Elfman), which also has some laughs along the way, alternating some lines of spoken dialogue, as well as the movie spot that Jay reviews each time around, and, as always, “It stinks!”

This opening show itself most certainly doesn’t stink, actually being one of the funniest and re-watchable in the series. Jay, washed up and alone, finds possible true love when an actress moves in with him on the eve of the premiere of her big breakthrough movie. Is she really in love with him, or angling for a decent review? Despite pleas from family and friends, Jay falls for the actress, Valerie Fox, in a very big way, but can’t bring himself to sit down and watch the movie. Eventually, he has to face the fact that, when the time comes to see what Valerie is like on screen, she’s a terrible actress. Leaving the studio, he’s surprised to see her still at his home, though possibly not how he’d imagined!

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It’s a great show, a strong opener, and sets up the characters and situations well. Throughout the series, you’ll notice how Jay himself “rounds out” a little in design; certainly the difference is apparent in the later shows, when he is drawn a little “softer” and with cleaner lines. This initial pilot really pushes the boat out, with great film gags, and a spot-on rendition of Beauty And King Dork that really plays on the ballroom sequence from Disney’s Beauty And The Beast, down to singing furniture (I won’t spoil the surprises here), and CGI-animated backgrounds (a lavish approach that the show would unfortunately only use on very rare occasion, now that a commission was assured).

The rest of Disc One continues the series with another seven episodes: Miserable (a great take on Misery), Marty’s First Date, Dial ‘M’ For Mother, A Little Deb Will Do Ya, Eye On The Prize, Every Doris Has Her Day and Marathon Mensch (a good closer for this first disc). This “first season” concludes on Disc Two, with LA Jay (Jay sells his own script to Hollywood), Dr Jay, A Day At The Races And A Night At The Opera, Uneasy Rider and A Pig Boy And His Dog, in which Jay’s chubbiness inspires his Mother to create a children’s book entitled The Fat Little Pig.

Season “two” begins on Disc Two with Sherman, Woman And Child (featuring a great, stop-motion animated riff on The Nightmare Before Christmas), Sherman Of Arabia and A Song For Margo, while the second season finishes off with the final seven shows on Disc Three: From Chunk To Hunk, Lady Hawke (another encounter with a female that only Jay could have), Frankie And Ellie Get Lost (which centers on Jay’s amazingly funny parents), Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice (possibly the second funniest show in the set), All The Dukes Men and Dukerella. Finally, wrapping things up, it’s the I Can’t Believe It’s A Clip Show, where Jay is held hostage during the taping of his 10th Anniversary special and resorts to showing the best moments from past episodes. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the final show, but remains a fitting tribute, and closes on one of the best public digs between a series producer and a network that I’ve ever come across – classic!

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All in all, The Critic is an exceptionally fun show. There’s no moralising, grand themes or amazing plot twists to throw into the mix: just a man reviewing good parodies of bad movies and trying to live his hysterically mumbled life. This is a show guaranteed to raise many laughs for even the most casual of film fans, though real aficionados and animation nuts will catch more jibes than most. The scripts are witty and fast, sometimes far out-pacing The Simpsons for random “out there” moments and quick cutaways to seemingly totally unrelated quick “thought” shots and parody sequences (apart from the creators, others who uniquely touched The Critic include Phil Roman, Brad Bird and actor Charles Napier). Again, as with The Simpsons, this is a James L Brooks-produced Gracie Films production.

Jon Lovitz provides Jay’s voice, and not only makes the character his own, but imbues him with so much honesty and charm, that he feels like an extension of Lovitz himself. Having Lovitz on board also pushes the comedy further: he’ll easily be able to deliver a minor laugh line and be able to get a much bigger chortle out of it, as well as being able poke fun at himself at times. Jay’s relationships (particularly with his son) work far better than might be expected too, bringing the show an emotional core that helps it feel even more “real”. Sherman’s parents are the loose cannons in the mix; the wacky kind of folks that we’ve now come to perhaps find predictable on shows such as King Of The Hill or Futurama, but still feel fresh and funny here.

Easily worth a look, The Critic will probably get you hooked, and for those who have waited patiently for one of the finest short-lived series to debut on disc, I can say it was well worth it. Sales of this set unfortunately don’t seem to have encouraged new episodes to be produced, Family Guy style, as of yet, but we still have this one-off to look back on. And that’s exactly what The Critic is: a genuinely classic one-off.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Worried that the perceived failure of the series could have led to a lacklustre approach to the DVD, I was excited to find that the bonuses here were a mixture of good – and great! The packaging is awful, just about bothering to say that the actual series is present on the discs! There’s not a word about bonuses ANYWHERE on the cover, the inserts or on the disc art – in fact, the “front” and “back” covers seem to have been printed the wrong way round too (you’ll see what I mean if you pick up a copy). Fans were right to have been concerned that this release might have been bare bones, but rest assured that there’s a very nice and decent selection here that puts South Park and perhaps even the early Simpsons sets to shame.

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Spread out over all three discs, the first “extra” we come across is a couple of generic TV On DVD promos from Columbia/TriStar (featuring that other short-lived, animation-inspired live-action show, The Tick among others). Our first real extra is commentary on eight selected episodes, beginning with the pilot. Al Jean and Mike Reiss are joined on various shows by writers and voice cast artists (including the prolific animation vocalist Maurice La Marche, the voice of Brain in Animaniacs), and these audio peeks behind the scenes are worthwhile and fun. Again, though, the packaging mentions nothing of the commentaries or the participants, and it’s a case of inserting the disc and finding which shows feature these extra audio tracks (for the record, they feature on the Pilot, Miserable, Eye On The Prize, Every Doris Has Her Day, LA Jay, Sherman Woman And Child, Sherman Of Arabia, and Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice.

Topics covered are why Lovitz wasn’t involved in the DVD set (apparently he was filming a movie in New York), the design of the show, the main character and where he got his name, among other interesting points. As anyone familiar with The Simpsons and Futurama commentaries will know, the participants are lively, coming as they do from the same stable, offering up amusing anecdotes and jokes, and speaking candidly about the genesis of the show, guest voices and impersonations (including several lapses into character!), changes made to episodes in production, and the ultimate fate of the show. It’s all great stuff, though spoil sport Matt Groening’s apparent disliking of the show (he removed all traces of his name from the Simpsons episode in which Jay crossed over to put on a film event in Springfield when the show moved to Fox) is left unmentioned.

On disc two, the commentaries are joined by some branching featurettes, giving a brief but worthwhile look behind the scenes. Centered around one episode, A Pig Boy And His Dog, a film can pops up throughout (I counted three) to lead you to an optional split screen version of the scene you’re watching. The branched clips are pretty short, ranging from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, but are fascinating nonetheless, feature a storyboard comparison with the completed scene, with additional commentary explaining the process. Now, although I would have liked to see more (perhaps the entire Pilot show?) in this way, it actually boils down to the fact that once you’ve seen a couple of these clips, you get a pretty good idea of how the production staff work things out!

It’s disc three (with one episode less than the first two discs) that holds all the goodies. A couple of compilation clips (Trailer Parodies and the Top Ten List) are exactly what they seem, being a group of clips from the shows themselves. Proceeding these, however, is a bunch of “on screen” slides which mimic those found in a real life theater, though with facts, figures and fun that we’re never likely to actually see in one!

A 12-minute interview with the creators opens up the story behind Creating The Critic, with insights from Jean, Reiss, producer James L Brooks, Maurice La Marche, and others involved in, well, creating The Critic. The team discuss the initial ideas behind the show, as well as how the production was pitched originally and how it all came together. Best of all are glimpses of concept art, a few more pencil tests and several highlights from the show.

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Finally – and best of all – is a complete set of ten webisodes, created for Atom Films.com. After the initial ABC and Fox failures, The Critic was given a brief re-run on Comedy Central. Though these airings didn’t turn the series’ success around, it seemed Jay still wouldn’t go away, returning for this (so far) final series of Flash-style shorts. As they were originally conceived for the web, these mini-shows were obviously created digitally, and benefit from a digital-to-digital transfer. Despite a staggered (but hardly noticeable) lower frame rate, the episodes look spotless, being presented in a slight windowbox so as to preserve their original web-aspect ratio.

What’s really great about these extra shows is that they bring The Critic closer up to date with current goings on in Hollywoodland, having been made in 2000-2001. So, we get pop-shots at more recent blockbuster fare, such Mission: Impossible and Shrek, and where network TV had to toe the line carefully, the freedom of the net allows Jay to say what we all really felt about those movies! All in all, the web shows almost amount to a mini-“third” season, lasting just over the length of a new show, at 34 minutes! The animation is something of a paradox, being not quite as fluid as the original show, but having the fine lines and cleanliness of image usually found in such Shockwave animated content. However, the style suits this material miles better than Warner Brothers’ unfortunate attempts to update their Looney Tunes characters to the web, and sends Jay Sherman and The Critic off in style.

Case Study:

Appearing in the usual foldout gatefold digipack style we’ve come to expect for many multi-disc titles, Columbia/TriStar follows suit with this set. It’s a nice enough designed box, but absolutely nowhere on the box (as mentioned above) does it mention anything about any extras whatsoever – talk about promoting your sales points! The included insert booklet gives a brief synopsis, writer and director credits for each episode, but that’s about it. One last thing: the cover seems to open on the “wrong side”, with the back and front images printed where the other should normally be. A bit lacklustre then, perhaps, but better than nothing, and as I say, the actual design is fairly pleasing throughout.

Ink And Paint:

Despite some earlier complaints from others, I found the video quality on The Critic to be more than fair. Yes, perhaps the image is soft in places, but I couldn’t see any of the film dirt and scratches that others have mentioned. There are some obvious pointers to the source being film, but these are just minor nicks and pops, which also plagued the first season or two of The Simpsons. Some episodes fair better than others, and I would agree that the 1994/95 show should look a little sharper than the early 1989 Simpsons episodes, but overall very pleasing and not half as bad as some would make out.

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Scratch Tracks:

Again, a very pleasing experience throughout, and if I remember correctly, one of the first cartoon productions produced in Dolby Surround for television. Those soundtracks have been preserved and presented here, with Zimmer’s jumpy Gershwin-esque theme perhaps benefiting most, though the many movie pastiches get a boost from some fun sound design to help them play well. Dialogue, an important part in any TV show, but perhaps more so in an animated program based on clever and witty one-liners, is locked center and is reproduced well, just as should be expected.

Final Cut:

A quirky show, The Critic doesn’t seem to have any passionate haters, though there are those who obviously didn’t care for the show (witness those low, low ratings). On the flip side, The Critic really does have its passionate fans: people who stuck with the show, worked up enough of a fuss to get it switched to Fox, then re-run and added to with the online series and, eventually, pushed for the release of this boxed set. Once you’ve seen the show, it will work its magic, providing a gentle half hour or so of offbeat humor per episode. It’s a great program, and hopefully will find a new audience and the respect it deserves with this fine DVD set. The web shows being included is an extremely welcome and pleasantly surprising touch. On the Shermometer, this rates a big fat ten!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

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