Case Study 39: Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, Episode 1–“Deadly Dolphin”

Original Airdate: September 15th, 1986 on first-run syndication

If you’re sputtering in disbelief at the existence of a Saturday morning cartoon show predicated on the fame of 1980s-era Chuck Norris (Walker, Texas Ranger) rest assured that it is only the seventh or so most ridiculous thing cranked out by Ruby-Spears Productions, which is apparently where Saturday morning cartoons go to die. But Kommandos and another Spears gem centered around an action-adventure icon, the Mister T cartoon, live on thanks to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup. It makes sense—Adult Swim has long mined old cartoons for ironic lulz, and Ruby Spears is a great fit for them, since Ruby & Spears started out writing episodes of Space Ghost for Hanna-Barbera. They went on to create a juggernaut in cartoon history–Scooby Doo, Where Are You! In 1977, they struck out on their own to form a new production company. Did they make new Scooby cartoons? They sure did–and they introduced Scooby’s charming nephew, Scrappy! Beyond The Scooby & Scrappy-Doo/Puppy Hour, about which the less said the better, the biggest hit for the production company was the Alvin & The Chipmunks cartoon. But if we just focused on the hits, we’d miss all the bizarre licensing cash-ins: The Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour boldly ignores the Chachi-centric components of the Happy Days universe; The Pac-Man/Rubik, The Amazing Cube Hour reveals what Pac-Man’s dog eats (power pellets) and what keeps puzzles awake at night (evil magicians;) Saturday Supercade gives us a look at the inner life of Q*Bert and friends, since I guess that Pac-Man bet paid off in some way; Police Academy, Punky Brewster and Rambo all enjoyed bafflingly unnecessary Saturday morning cartoons thanks to Ruby-Spears; there was also a cartoon about time-travelling laser tag enthusiasts. Compared to those projects, a Chuck Norris cartoon looks downright reasonable. What could go wrong?

Strengths

  • Hilariously campy. Ever since Susan Sontag, critics have been trying to figure out the value and merit of camp in their personal definition of what makes any given cultural artifact worthwhile. With an entire catalog of Ruby-Spears gems waiting in the wings, it was inevitable that I’d have to deal with this eventually, but if I stray too far into J. Bryan Lowder territory please feel free to come to my house and shoot me in the head, or force me to watch every episode of the Rubik’s Cube show. Unfortunately, thanks to people like Lowder writing 16-part thinkpieces on the subject, it’s become something like an empty signifier. For all the shit he talks about Sontag, he manages to obfuscate the subject more profoundly than ever. One of the things I find most confusing about camp is a question that should rightly be confusing for any critic—intent. Sontag says that “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.” This allows for the campy possibilities of Kommandos or Showgirls, but it disqualifies some of the most universally acknowledged camp touchstones—Batman, Rocky Horror Picture Show, everything John Waters ever worked on. Meanwhile, we have the usually impeccable Emily Nussbaum calling Ryan Murphy’s polished turds camp, and the Oxford English Dictionary is content to make it synonymous with “effeminate and homosexual.” (I am sad to report that the only subsections of the queer community that Kommandos makes a direct appeal to are the Men’s Health crowd.) Where this gets prickly is simply this—usually I’d penalize a show for being aggressively, cartoonishly bad. But with something like this I can’t help but laugh—to return to John Waters, it’s “tragically ludicrous.” I totally get why Cartoon Network bought the rights to this, because even a nocturnal viewer who isn’t totally baked will get a chuckle out of Norris disarming three gunmen with something that appears to be an oversized grocery store can retrieval gripper, or Kommando Pepper (Kathy Garver, Family Affair) dislodging two assassins from the trunk of her car by turning on the retractable spoiler, or a villain called Claw (Bill Martin, writer of Harry & The Hendersons) threatening his minion over video phone by telling her to “remember this” and waggling his claw hand at the camera. But you can’t let camp be a blank check for everything, so let’s dig into the fertile loam of weakness.

Weaknesses

  • Chuck Norris. Well, he may be so badass that he can kill two stones with one bird and delete the Recycling Bin, but he’s a goddamned terrible actor. I think he knows it too—he once famously said of David Carradine that he’s “about as good a martial artist as I am an actor.” ZAP! That line was so delicious that The Telegraph couldn’t help but use it in the poor man’s obituary, but I guess they deserved a treat for restraining themselves re. chokeplay. Anyway, maybe it’s helpful to have Chuck Norris on camera so you can marvel at the balletic ass-kicking, but this is cartoon Chuck Norris so the feats of martial arts are decidedly less impressive. I mean, he could also grapple his foes with steel tentacles. It’s a cartoon. He can do anything. And god knows he isn’t a good voice actor, either.
  • Racism. The Wikipedia page describes the Kommandos as “radically diverse,” complete with scare quotes. It’s easy to read this as sarcasm, because Kommandos’ idea of diversity is white people, Asian people, and no one else. This flaccid attempt at “radical” diversity supposes that only whites and Asians can be good at martial arts, ignoring a lengthy tradition of black martial artists and pretending that capoeira isn’t a thing. Many if not most TV shows erase people of color and make them invisible, and I often don’t point it out because it’s considered poor form as a critic to criticize a show for something it’s not. So in that spirit, let’s criticize Kommandos for what it DOES do with its Asian characters. There’s Tabe (Robert Ito, Quincy M.E.,) a sumo wrestler who stops in the middle of a fight to wolf down a tray of fried chicken. Who cares about the fact that sumo wrestlers aren’t hopeless gluttons but instead deliberately gain weight and bulk up in both fat and muscle for power in the ring when you can make lazy fat jokes? There’s Kimo (Keone Young, Men In Black 3) an ahistorical samurai given to sage pronouncements like “Sometimes to get rid of the cat the bird has to invite him inside his cage.” And what does he mean by that pearl of wisdom? “Let’s do that old trick where we lure the prison guard into our cell, knock him out and escape.” Dressing your cliches up in the garb of a magical Asian doesn’t make them less cliche. Finally, we have the diminutive Too Much (Mona Marshall, South Park.) You may be confused about whether or not that’s a name an actual person would have, until you realize that the cutting edge of racism has just given Norris an upgraded version of Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Woof.
  • Astonishing mixture of incoherence and cliche. I didn’t know it was possible to make something that was simultaneously total gibberish and riddled with tired, careworn stock tropes, yet here we are. This is the first episode of this show, and we’re given no introduction or explanation as to why the star of that Rambo knockoff is leading a crack team of fighters in the defense of some kind of Sealab. No, it’s not THAT Sealab—Hanna-Barbera owns the rights to that. It just looks kind of like it and is called the same thing. Fine. So Claw dispatches some people to capture the head scientist, Dr. Sanford (uncredited) so they can read his mind using a CAT scan (!?) and thereby divine the blueprints to Sealab, which they subsequently invade in order to threaten the world’s coastal cities with Sealab’s Wave Reactor. The Wave Reactor generates gigantic destructive tidal waves. Why a presumably peaceful underwater research station (I think?) would want to invent something that does that is anyone’s guess. Here come the cliches—Chuck must sneak into a supposedly impregnable fortress through a handy pregnable spot and take down the whole operation while the rest of his team is being held captive. Of course, they escape using the aforementioned trick the very stupid guard cliche and there is a final confrontation where the baddies activate the Irreversible Self-Destruct Mechanism that turns out to be reversible when you just turn the power off. Through martial arts, of course. Did you know that cutting the electricity stops a tidal wave in its tracks? All that energy just goes nowhere, because of Sealab.

Motivation: Well, I have no earthly idea who the Kommandos are or why they care about any of this, but Claw and his friends want money. Which I guess is better than just being evil because somebody’s got to be evil if there’s going to be a plot. Not much better, though.

Final Episode Judgment: 2/10. Comparing this to Shnookums and Meat shows us that it’s better to attempt seriousness and fail than to attempt humor and fail. At least if you fail at being serious you’ll make the viewer laugh and hipsters 30 years into the future will still view your work for the lulz. Ain’t nobody gives a fuck about Shnookums and Meat, except me, and I have mental health problems.

NEXT TIME: I crack open the ribcage of the medical drama like a rusty drawbridge as I review Emergency!

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Case Study 39: Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, Episode 1–“Deadly Dolphin”

Case Study 38: Petticoat Junction, Episode 167–“Cannonball For Sale”

Original Airdate: March 9th, 1968 on CBS

Nowadays, TV fans are intimately familiar with the creators and personalities behind their favorite shows. Shonda Rhimes, Dan Harmon, Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, Aaron Sorkin—they all have dedicated followings, people who are fans of not just specific shows but the entire body of work. We tend to think of this as a relatively recent phenomena, dating back perhaps to David E. Kelley’s reign of mediocrity in the 1990s. But Paul Henning gives lie to this theory. He created three of the most memorable and long-running sitcoms of the 1960s, all of which aired on CBS. In the 60s, CBS had a reputation as the “Country Broadcasting System” for its surfeit of rural sitcoms and westerns. In the 1960s, CBS was home to Lassie, The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoffs Gomer Pyle USMC and Mayberry R.F.D., Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, The Real McCoys, Hee-Haw, Mister Ed, and of course, the Henning suite of countryfied juggernauts: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and today’s offering, Petticoat Junction. Very few of these shows made it past 1971, thanks to what’s now known as the “rural purge.” It sounds like something that might have happened in Stalinist Russia, but Green Acres actor Pat Buttram aptly described it as “the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree.” One widespread theory as to why this was the case is that it was around this time that the all-important Nielsen ratings began to break down audiences into more fine-grained age segments, birthing the holy grail of TV marketers everywhere—18 to 34 year olds. And CBS was aghast to discover that hip young urbanites no longer cared about Mayberry. If you’d like to read hundreds of pages about analysis about rural sitcoms on CBS, check out historian Sara Eskridge’s dissertation on the subject, but if you haven’t got the time for that, you’ll have to settle for the patented Oryx & Cake Boss approach to Junction.

Strengths

  • Funny. Okay, so it’s not The Simpsons, but the whole point of the rural era on CBS was safe and gentle, and Junction is a reasonably good demonstration that safe and gentle can still be funny and entertaining. Early in the episode, Hooterville denizens Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan) and Sam Drucker (Frank Cady, Green Acres) are playing horseshoes, and Joe settles a dispute about whose shoe is closer to the stake by chucking Sam’s into the bushes when he’s not looking. It’s not exactly gold, but the performances really sell it. Like many episodes of Junction, this installment deals with an existential threat to the Cannonball, a neglected and ill-starred railway spur that only provides service to Hooterville. At one point, hotelier Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) tricks miserly railway executive J. Homer Bedloe (Charles Lane, It’s A Wonderful Life) by flirting with him and fondling his decidedly unimpressive old man biceps. The scheme to save the Cannonball culminates in Joe and Sam posing as captains of industry in Chicago. To bolster their deception, Joe urges retired conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis) to call during the meeting with a “big, important” message—the actual message doesn’t matter as long as Floyd conveys how big and important it is. At just the right moment, the big, important message is delivered—they found the missing horseshoe. Reader, I chortled.
  • Engaged with economic realities and the absurdities of finance. Too many sitcoms—particularly the so-called “classics”—rely on contrivance and artificially prolonged treatment of social faux pas that could easily be resolved with a quick conversation. Staples like Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother are famous for blithely ignoring the economics of urban life in a quest for a blandly hip series. Junction definitely isn’t hip, but you can’t say it’s not thoughtful about the livelihood of its characters. They all know that without the Cannonball, the town will undergo complete economic collapse. There won’t be enough income to support hotels, general stores and a crop-dusting business, and even when everyone takes out loans against their assets, they can’t match the price offered for the Cannonball by a junk dealer. This is one of many episodes dealing with a potential threat to the Cannonball, because it’s the fulcrum of financial precarity for the entire community. Much of the humor here also deals with the radical inaccessibility of financial arcana for the folks in Hooterville. Crop-dusting pilot Steve Elliott (Mike Minor) condescendingly explains to his wife Betty Jo (Linda Kay Henning) that she can’t boycott the railroad’s parent company because they only sell stocks and she isn’t planning on buying any stocks. Wackiness ensues when the relatively esoteric finance term “combine” is confused with the farm machinery. Joe produces a financial statement listing coat hangers as assets. I was worried that Junction was going to be little more than an exercise in mocking slack-jawed yokels but in reality many of the jokes are about how the world of high finance is inaccessible and irrelevant to regular people despite the fact that their fortunes depend on it.
  • Frank Cady. Frank Cady is awesome. There’s a reason that Sam Drucker is the only constant in all three of the Henning-verse sitcoms. The entire third act of this episode consists of the caper in Chicago and Cady is pitch-perfect accompaniment to Buchanan’s bluster. The fine art of being a comedic straight man is highly underrated and Cady does more with a dubious expression than can be accomplished with 10 lines of repartee.

Weaknesses

  • Lazy, implausible ending. Sure, they need to wrap it up to 22 minutes and hew to the status quo. It’s not like Hooterville can actually undergo complete economic collapse. We’re not going to see the characters scatter to the four winds because the show isn’t called Petticoat Diaspora. But it does seem a bit unlikely that the wealthy industrialist would forego thousands of dollars in profit out of the goodness of her heart because a couple of rubes tried to fleece her in a comically incompetent fashion. She’s a railroad magnate. Surely she closes down railway lines all the time. It’s her job. Every one of those closures is going to bring financial ruin in its wake. Why is this one any different? Because some bumpkins tracked mud all over her carpets? Wouldn’t it be much more satisfying if Sam and Joe managed to pull it off and maybe get Henrietta to invest in their non-existent corporate empire? Admittedly, having the Hooterzens commit fraud and get away with it also stretches plausibility somewhat, but if you’re going to paint yourself into a corner you might as well climb out a window instead of knocking down a wall.

Motivation: Anything that involves a wealthy industrialist can safely be categorized as being about money.

Final Episode Judgment: This provided satisfactory proof that not all goofy 60s sitcoms are created equal and books shouldn’t be judged by their petticoats. 7/10.

NEXT TIME: Ironists, take note–I’ll be reviewing Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos.

Case Study 38: Petticoat Junction, Episode 167–“Cannonball For Sale”

Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”

Original Airdate: January 19th, 1961 on first-run syndication

Mister Ed was at the vanguard of a wave of high-concept sitcoms that were everywhere in the 1960s. People often confuse the phrase “high concept” with something highly conceptual or experimental. That’s not what it means. No, when a TV show or a movie is high concept, it’s something with mass appeal, usually with fantasy or sci-fi elements, that can be summarized in a short sentence. Jurassic Park: There’s a theme park with cloned dinosaurs. Big: There’s a twelve-year-old in the body of a thirtysomething. Snakes On A Plane: There’s snakes on a plane. In the 60s, sitcoms were so fanciful they make contemporary fare like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family look even more boring. You had witches and genies and martians and monsters and dead parents reincarnated as cars. But before all of that you had a man and his talking horse. What could go wrong?

Strengths

Um, well, you see….hmm….

Weaknesses

  • Profound misogyny. Look, I realize it was 1961. I realize you have to overlook some of the more incidental symptoms of widespread injustice or else you’re not going to make it through anything from the period without gagging. Watch, here’s me overlooking the fact that Wilbur (Alan Young) pretends that a caller’s dialed the wrong number by adopting a wincingly racist “Asian” accent when he picks up the phone. But in this episode, misogyny is central to the plot of the show. In fact, it’s the entire plot. Wilbur’s wife Carol (Connie Hines) joins a club dedicated to lobbying for civic improvements, and Wilbur isn’t able to stand it for one goddamned second. How dare she take up an interest that keeps her from making him lunches and picking up his dry cleaning? The horse (Allan Lane, Stagecoach to Denver) impugns Wilbur’s masculinity. Wilbur’s asshole neighbor (Larry Keating, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) taunts him for doing his own grocery shopping. Wilbur manages to fix the situation by preying on his wife’s sexual insecurities and humiliating her in front of her friends. Hooray! It all worked out in the end! The worst part is that we’re supposed to sympathize with Wilbur, despite the look on Carol’s face when she realizes the consequences for daring to push even slightly against the suffocating confines of her home life. No, the real tragedy here is the scene where Wilbur can’t bone his wife right there on the living room rug because she wants to talk to her friend (Edna Skinner.) Instead, he sadly slinks up the stairs, trying to figure out a way to get his manhood back that doesn’t involve murdering Carol and turning her into a new saddle for Mister Ed.
  • Has nothing to do with its central premise. So there’s something else you may have noticed about that little cautionary tale about the dangers of unchaining your wife from the radiator. IT HAS SWEET FUCK-ALL TO DO WITH A TALKING HORSE. That’s what the people came for. They wanted to see the hijinks that ensue when you have a talking horse, but all the talking horse does here is tell Wilbur he’s pussy whipped and watch Leonard Bernstein on CBS. Oh, he also reprises Wilbur’s racist telephone bit. That’s it. Admittedly, the final act requires a woman wearing a bikini astride a horse (don’t ask) but that could have been accomplished with a standard nonverbal horse. I went into this halfway expecting Ed to offer Wilbur some wise counsel on how to have a healthy marriage, but instead he just makes fun of him, and the asshole neighbor is already doing that. Admittedly, Ed does complain that because Wilbur is off in the kitchen making sandwiches like some kind of unnatural monster there’s no one to entertain him, but this feels like fairly perfunctory horse usage, and if there’s one thing you don’t want from Mister it’s perfunctory horse usage. Well, I guess you also don’t want a field trip to the glue, Jell-O and leather factory, but presumably that’s not in the offing.

Motivation: I hesitate to describe this as an issue of love…that would assume that this form of marriage has anything at all to do with love. Since Carol’s essentially treated like a broken piece of property, we’ll call it money.

Final Episode Judgment: This presents me with an interesting problem, because while Mister evidences no strengths, it’s also not nearly as terrible as some of the dreck staining these pages. I’d hardly cite them as strengths, but there’s things this show could have done badly that would have made it worse. The acting is fine. The story is coherent, if repulsive. It’s not funny, but it also doesn’t try too hard at being funny–it’s very gentle. 2/10. Don’t watch it, but don’t bury it thousands of miles below the earth in a steel cask, either.

NEXT TIME: Our search for the dumbest sitcom of the sixties continues as we review Petticoat Junction!

Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”

Case Study 36: See Dad Run, Episode 20–“See Dad See Through Grandma”

Original Airdate: May 12th, 2013 on Nick at Nite

When I was growing up, the cable channel Nickelodeon was my only window to the world of wacky 60s sitcoms like Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island thanks to its late night broadcasts under the branding of Nick at Nite. Roughly 10 years after Nick at Nite debuted, Viacom decided it was doing well enough to make a 24-hour channel dedicated to old-time TV favorites—that would be TV Land. Nowadays, you won’t see Bewitched or Gilligan’s on Nick at Nite. The timestamp on their offerings has been creeping steadily forward. Today, their offerings feature 90s stalwarts like Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends, as well as George Lopez, which was on the air as recently as 2007. It’s enough to make a person feel old. Much like VH1, their partner in Viacom format creep, Nick at Nite has also been developing original scripted program as of late, filling a need that no one expressed. The only hint offered in See Dad Run that Nick at Nite used to be a home for classic sitcoms is star Scott Baio (Charles In Charge) and the increasingly antiquated laugh-track festooned multi-camera family sitcom style.

Strengths

  • Fleeting moments of wit. This may sound like damning with faint praise—because it is—but really, this is a not insignificant accomplishment given some of the flaccid attempts at comedy I’ve seen in my reporting here. It turns out that most sitcoms are dreadfully unfunny, which will come as no surprise to adherents of Sturgeon’s law. The possibility also exists that I’m just a terrible snob. But I got a few laughs out of this. It was about as funny as an average episode of Friends. On the other hand, I often hear Friends spoken of in hushed tones as if it were some master class in comedy, so I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The show centers around the life and family of washed-up sitcom star David Hobbs (Baio,) and this episode has him dealing with his overbearing mother, Maggie (Michele Lee, Knots Landing.) The show does better when it veers towards over-the-top. Maggie has no boundaries, and she regales the children with tales of her sexual exploits with Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Maggie’s intrusion occurs on the occasion of Mother’s Day, and David had intended to give his wife Amy (Alanna Ubach, Meet The Fockers) a scrapbook of family memories. Of course, Maggie takes this over as well, going so far as to insert a talking pop-up of herself into the scrapbook. On paper this is so-so; on the screen, timing, visuals and audio make it funny. The Hobbs’ also do a little half-hearted behavioral modification inspired by The Dog Whisperer, which doesn’t really go anywhere, but we do get to see Lee sprayed with a spritz bottle. It’s not Oscar Wilde, but there are certainly more joyless sitcoms out there.
  • Reasonably interesting integration of its central theme. As mentioned, David is a washed-up sitcom star, which probably convinced someone that Scott Baio was the right choice. (Scott Baio is never the right choice.) I was fully expecting this to be an entirely cursory background element to another generic family story, but it ties in nicely with the theme of the episode. You see, Maggie is an insufferable stage mom straight out of central casting, and David was a child star before he made his name in the sitcom world. Like many stage moms and dads, Maggie was/is trying to live vicariously through her child. She also values praise and validation from others above all else, which has made her constantly vie to be the center of attention in everything she does. Amy notes that David is exactly the same way, and while Maggie is about a thousand times more obnoxious, it’s clear that Amy’s assessment of David is accurate. The whole show is about him desperately clinging to scraps of faded glory—the two cast members who aren’t part of the family are David’s obsessive former production assistant and live-in servant (?) Kevin (Ramy Youssef) and former head writer Marcus (Mark Curry, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.) So it works on a meta level—the whole world of the show enables David as the slowly dying star at the center of his private solar system of delusion. Maggie is what you get when you take this to the extremes.

Weaknesses

  • Cliche. 22 minutes of somebody’s obnoxious mother-in-law? What is this, the Catskills? Now, I understand why this is a cliche. You’re cranking out a story about a family every week and inevitably we’re going to meet the grandparents, uncles, cousins and exes, and they’re going to be wacky, and there’s going to be guest stars. Sometimes this can work really well! Edith’s cousin Maude was such a hit on All In The Family that she got her own spinoff. The episode of Big Love where we meet Margie’s mom is one of my favorites. Ron Swanson’s ex-wives were reliably hilarious on Parks & Recreation. For this to work and not to come off as lazy, the family member needs to be a fully realized, memorable character who meshes well with the existing cast. Maggie does reflect David’s self-absorption, but that’s all she does. Let’s talk a little bit more about who she is and why she doesn’t work here.
  • Unsatisfying treatment of toxic family dynamics in service of maintaining the status quo. Maggie’s the worst. She doesn’t get a single moment of redemption. She only talks about herself. When someone tries to talk to her about something other than herself, she pretends to be asleep. She cheats when she plays backgammon with David’s son Joe (Jackson Brundage, One Tree Hill.) She criticizes David’s oldest daughter Emily (Ryan Newman, Zeke & Luther) for her fashion choices. She’s disrespectful towards Amy and is generally an impossible asshole. When David tells her to stop during Amy’s Mother’s Day breakfast, Maggie breaks out into a song about how nobody loves her. The thing is, in the world of most sitcoms nothing ever changes. This squanders so much of the potential of serialized storytelling. Not everything has to have a grand arc, but any arc of any kind would be nice. So what ends up happening here is that David reassures Maggie that of course everyone loves her and will always pay attention to her and never forget about her, and she’s temporarily mollified and returns to the breakfast table. Never mind the fact that it’s pathological for someone to rely on the attention of others to feel validated. Never mind the fact that her behavior’s unacceptable and she has no boundaries regardless of where it’s coming from emotionally, or the fact that it’s unlikely to stop just because she’s been given some quick reassurances. This could have been so true to life. So many people have toxic family members they feel suffocated by, and they aren’t just wacky guest-stars—they’re ever-present. Actually dealing with her behavior could make for a great story instead of just slapping a band-aid on things because, hey look, we’re out of time. This was the show’s chance to leave the realm of ephemera behind and actually make something meaningful and valuable. By now, should I really be surprised that they blew past it like it was a shit-spattered highway rest stop?

Motivation: Family, the last refuge of the mediocre sitcom.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. Eminently forgettable, but at least there’s a chuckle or two.

NEXT TIME: I crack the creme brulee of ridiculous high-concept sitcoms of yesteryear by reviewing Mister Ed! Keep coming back, folks—we’ve got a long way to go.

Case Study 36: See Dad Run, Episode 20–“See Dad See Through Grandma”

Case Study 35: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, Episode 7–“Step-Ladder To Heaven”

Original Airdate: February 13th, 1995 on first-run syndication

At the end of my last review, I promised to explain what foul truffle I’ve exhumed from the deep roots of television to present to you today: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show. Yeah, you’ve never heard of it. It ran for 13 episodes. It was a spinoff of Marsupilami. Yeah, I know–you haven’t heard of that one either. Marsupilami was a spinoff of Raw Toonage. I swear I’m not making these up. Toonage’s tenuous hold on a cartoon you might actually remember is another one of its spinoffs, Bonkers. Remember Bonkers? Some kind of predatory cat that was also a cop and had trouble with the ladies for some reason? Yeah, you can go back to forgetting Bonkers. Shnookums was the decidedly less notable creation of Bill Kopp, responsible for Eek! The Cat and the Whammies from Press Your Luck. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Anyway, it’s divided into three segments focusing on different characters and it’s annoying garbage from wall to wall. Will I explain how and why in a profound level of unnecessary detail? You know I will.

Strengths

  • A unique setting for the Pith Possum segment. That’s right, Shnookums narrowly avoided the ol’ goose egg with one slightly interesting idea. It’s a tired-as-hell Batman parody, but the Batman character is a possum (Jeff Bennett, Johnny Bravo) and instead of Gotham City, he patrols a city of woodland creatures deep in a forest. This makes for some interesting visuals. The plot deals with rampaging termites, and they eat the police station, so the commissioner or whatever (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond) summons Pith Possum “down to the police pile of sawdust right away.” I chuckled. The end.

Weaknesses

  • Misogyny. Jesus, my kingdom for a TV show where I don’t have to put up with this. I guess we’ve got to get the kids hating women early! Shnookums (Jason Marsden, A Goofy Movie) and Meat (Frank Welker, Scooby Doo) are a chaotic dog and cat duo that is legally distinct from a much more famous chaotic cartoon dog and cat duo from 90s kids cartoons. In their segment, they die and go to heaven, where the housepet version of St. Peter (uncredited) calls them to the carpet for their many sins. One of these involves our heroes going on a blind date, but their dates turn out to be ugly, so they ditch them. Because the only value women have is contingent on their fuckability! Taking notes from Henry the VIII, I see. Later, S&M learn that there are sexy succubi in hell, so they clamor to be sent there. Yep, all the best kids’ cartoons are about housepets wanting to fuck busty demons in hell. Where were the Parents’ Music Resource Center people for this shit? Let’s leave the worst parts of Looney Tunes in the past, shall we? The joke’s on S&M, though–the succubi are actually the ugly dates in disguise. Haha! There is no punishment worse than sex with an ugly woman!
  • Incoherence. Sometimes S&M are house pets. For the blind date interlude, they’re inexplicably dressed as 50s greasers, because I guess that goes along with the fact that they take their dates to the drive-in-movie, or perhaps this is meant to be a scene from their callow youth, or who the fuck even knows. The worst offender on this score is the third segment, which is about cowboy Tex Tinstar (Bennett.) For some reason, unlike the other two segments, the third segment is serialized, which is a bizarre choice in the first place. The entirety of the segment here is a dramatic fight between Tinstar and his foes. It starts in a saloon. It continues to a carnival. Then the characters dive into some dude’s bathtub and all of a sudden they’re under the sea, with sharks and so forth. There’s no resolution. The set up is minimal. It’s cacophonous and disorienting. I get that cartoons are supposed to be wacky, but usually there’s a narrative through-line and a vague gesture at adherence to a setting. Why have a cartoon about a cowboy if you’re not going to use the Old West setting? There’s also five more characters than there need to be. It’s just a hot mess.
  • Shitty voice acting. You’d think that industry pros like Welker, Bennett and Garrett would be able to acquit themselves more nicely here, but it might be a man behind the curtain situation. Welker and Bennett just use the Scooby and Bravo voices respectively. It turns out there’s a reason Scooby-Doo doesn’t get much dialogue. The Bravo voice makes sense on Johnny Bravo, but on an old west cowboy it’s simply confusing, and Bennett hadn’t refined the voice, so much of what Tinstar says is nigh incomprehensible, adding to the general feel of incomprehension plaguing that segment. Garrett voices the antagonist of the Possum segment, one Shirley Pimple, and as you may have realized he has no range whatsoever.
  • Not funny. Look, “funny” is in the name of the goddamned show. It should at least deliver on that. No? Okay then. I mean, if “Shirley Pimple” doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the humor on display here, what will?
  • Derivative. Yeah, you guessed it. Take one part Ren & Stimpy, one part Animaniacs and one part Tiny Toons and you get fetid, grey mush. I understand the rationale the Disney execs used–these other things are popular! Let’s just copy off their work! Surely then we will be successful! Of course, the reason people liked the latter cartoons is because they were original and funny and charming. But it’s a lot easier just to churn something out of a Play-Doh Children’s Cartoon Fun Factory, isn’t it?
  • Clip show. Ugh, this is like a compendium of what not to do. Mercifully we’re only treated to a single recycled montage of S&M misbehavior from this show and Marsupilami, but that’s one too many. This is episode seven of your show and you’ve already run out of fresh material? BOO MINUS.

Motivation: Too incoherent to tell. I guess S&M want to get their dicks wet on that sweet succubi gash, so that’s love/sex for you. And Possum is trying to save Possum City from destruction, so we’ll chalk that up to survival. Couldn’t tell you about Tex Tinstar.

Final Episode Judgment: 1/10. The only reason this didn’t join Mary-Kate & Ashley in the annals of ignominy is because I was feeling charitable. Yeah, that up there? That’s what charitable looks like.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Nick-at-Nite makes original scripted programming? Read my review of See Dad Run to learn more!

Case Study 35: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, Episode 7–“Step-Ladder To Heaven”

Case Study 34: Married…With Children, Episode 102–“You Better Shop Around, Pt. 2”

Original Airdate: April 21st, 1991 on FOX

When the FOX network launched primetime operations on April 5th, 1987, it had two programs: Married…With Children and The Tracy Ullman Show. Of course, Ullman eventually led to a megahit in the form of The Simpsons, but that wouldn’t happen for another two years. Married made a big splash right out of the gate with its controversial content and decidedly unique outlook. In the context of a fledgling network without a large affiliate base, Married was a tremendous hit and it eventually ran for 11 years. It’s a nice complement to Simpsons: it’s also a deconstruction of the traditional family sitcom with a cynical outlook and a satirical bent, telling the story of a family headed by an oafish buffoon with a ne’er-do-well smartass son. It’s also clearly got some of the DNA of TV classic All In The Family, with an unblushing look at the seamier side of family life and a crude loudmouth in the role of the patriarch.

Strengths

  • Genuinely funny bits. It passes the first test—there are quite a few amusing moments. This two-part episode has the Bundys try and beat the heat on a scorching summer day by setting up lawn chairs in the freezer section of a supermarket. Naturally, the staff dislikes this, but father Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill, Modern Family) manages to throw a hapless stockboy off the track by claiming to be an anti-shoplifting officer. He shows the stockboy his credentials in the form of his unadorned open palm–and the stockboy is totally convinced. The store is called Foodie’s Supermarket, and who’s the owner? Why, Mr. Foodie (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe), of course. The second half deals with a shopping spree contest between the Bundys and their despicable yuppie neighbor Marcy Rhoades-D’arcy (Amanda Bearse), and Al cheats by using a souped-up shopping cart, complete with built in traps. While bragging about the cart to his family, he accidentally sets off a hair trigger and lodges an arrow in a nearby watermelon, which we later see Marcy hustling to the checkout line. At another point, dimwitted daughter Kelly Bundy (Christina Applegate) is legitimately terrified when Al pretends to be a sea monster menacing her from the depths of a kiddie pool. There were clearly legitimate comedy chops at hand in the writer’s room and in the cast.  
  • Al Bundy. Protagonist Al Bundy is also a charming character. He’s a schlub and a total loser—he’s got a demeaning, dead-end job and a family that disrespects him at every turn. He has absolutely no luck and he’s always broke. Every episode he manages to find himself in a degrading and humiliating situation. But he seems to take everything in stride—he’s always got a scheme to try and turn things around. Every time his acid-tongued wife Peg (Katey Sagal, Sons of Anarchy) insults him, he shoots an insult right back. It would be easy to be repelled by a hero as gross and ignominious as Al, yet he’s immensely likable nevertheless.
  • Class war. The class politics of this show are fraught. It would be easy to claim that this show mocks the impoverished Bundys for their complete and total lack of class. Twice, Al crows, “I wonder what the poor people are doing!”—once when trying to beat the heat in his kiddie pool, again while lounging near the freezer cases. Of course, the joke is on Al—his family are the poor people. But by even acknowledging the realities of class in the first place, Married takes a big step. After all, this entire episode is driven by the fact that the Bundys can’t afford air conditioning. The upwardly mobile Rhoades-D’arcys are frequent antagonists, and they’re depicted as grasping fools just as much as the Bundys are depicted as oafish louts. They also try to secure a better shopping cart–by stealing one from a homeless lady. Of course, Al tries to prolong his stay in the grocery store by framing an old woman for shoplifting, so he’s not exactly a moral paragon either. But the real villain here is Mr. Foodie. He sells expired milk. He lets Al cheat because he put a pandering, pro-Foodie’s message on his obviously non-regulation cart. The shopping spree only comes into things when the Bundys cut Marcy in line at the register and wind up as the store’s one millionth customers. Marcy claims the prize is rightfully hers. When asked how he plans to resolve the issue, he says, “Well, there’s only one fair way.” Peg suggests he could give them both prizes. “No, I meant fair for Foodie’s!” Even if the show has some laughs at the expense of its “white trash” characters, it’s still got a sharp eye when it comes to observing what it’s like to be poor in America.
  • Supermarket Sweep parody. When I was six, my favorite show on TV was Supermarket Sweep. I’m not sure why that was. Maybe it’s because when you’re a little kid, you don’t know much about the wider world, but chances are you’ve spent many long, boring hours in the supermarket. Everyone needs to go to the grocery store and chances are if you’re too young to be left on your own you’re going to get dragged along for the ride. There was something entrancing about the disruption and gamification of that staid, mundane place—something about the anarchy of sprinting down the aisles, throwing everything you can into your cart, grabbing gigantic inflatable Ms. Butterworths and hauling them off to the promised land. The writers of Married saw Supermarket for the ridiculous farce that it is–a paean to the joys of consumerism and illusions of plenty. So as the Bundys rampage around the supermarket, shit gets knocked over. Elbows get thrown. Feminine hygiene products get sprayed in people’s eyes. Sprinting through a grocery store with butcher knives affixed to the front of your souped-up shopping cart—it’s a beautiful thing.

Weaknesses

  • Profound misogyny. The misogyny in Married is not casual or passing. It’s the bedrock and the roots of the entire show. The central premise of the show is that marriage and children are a life sentence in prison for an average blue-collar American like Al Bundy. The central jokes at the expense of the main characters are all gendered in nature—Al is powerless at work, home and in the bedroom; Peg is profoundly bad at cooking and cleaning; Kelly is dumb, blonde and promiscuous; Bundy scion Bud (David Faustino) is perpetually horny and perpetually terrible with women and Marcy is the worst thing a woman can be—not traditionally attractive. At least three times in the course of these two episodes jokes are made in which Al refers to women as things. There’s an excruciatingly long set piece about Al sexually harassing a woman in the supermarket who is too dumb to realize he is harassing her (those blondes, you know) and it culminates in Al giving Bud a high-five after discovering that Bud has made a habit of rubbing himself up against women at bus stops. Even the live studio audience is in on the act, judging by the lascivious hooting when we see Peg and Kelly in bathing suits. I find it somewhat interesting that despite Married’s sharp satire of the politics of class, family and the American Dream as seen in 50s stalwarts like Ozzie & Harriet or Leave It To Beaver, it’s even more reactionary about gender than those icons of mid-century conservatism.
  • Corny, cartoonish humor. The memories I had of this show from my youth were recollections of bleak nihilism and cutting-edge comedy, but some of the bits on display here are groaningly silly. It starts in the opening credits sequence–every Bundy comes to Al in turn for money…including the dog! Wamp wamp. When Al buys a WWII-era German air conditioner for $17, the settings are “Der Low,” “Blitzkrieg” and “Der Freezin’ My Hiney Off.” Even the frequent outbreaks of violence are cartoonish. When Bud connects the air conditioner to a telephone-pole-mounted transformer and falls off the pole, he merely gets covered in leaves and clumps of grass. Marcy gets run down with a shopping cart and appears flattened on the ground with tire treads on her clothes. The grand finale has Al getting stabbed with the knives from his own cart, and in the last scene we see him drinking water and having it spray out of holes in his side. I suppose I would rather this sitcom not stray into gruesome territory, but the better option might be not including these interludes at all instead of filing down the edges with Bugs Bunny style antics.
  • Jerry Mathers. Yes, you read that correctly: Mathers of Beaver fame makes an inexplicable appearance here. In fairness, the show is mercilessly mean to him. He’s a token celebrity at the Foodie’s shopping spree event. He’s mistaken for Ron Howard and he was the store’s second choice after Gary Coleman. Bud asks if he frittered away all his money on booze and cheap women or donuts and cheap booze. It’s also in keeping with the show’s overall target of satire to have a washed-up relic of a classic family sitcom come in for a drubbing. It turns out, though, that there’s a reason you haven’t heard much from the adult Mathers. He’s a terrible ham. Like many child stars, his fame was predicated on his cuteness, not his acting chops. He adds nothing here except padding.

Motivation: Money. The Bundys and the Rhoades-D’arcys scramble over each other like crabs in a bucket for $1000 worth of free food in a chain of events incited by the Bundys lack of air conditioning.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. There’s a lot to recommend here, but it’s marred by some seriously fatal flaws. Watch The Simpsons instead.

NEXT TIME: Read my review of The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show so you can find out what the hell that even is!

Case Study 34: Married…With Children, Episode 102–“You Better Shop Around, Pt. 2”