Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
At The Movies Meets The Simpsons
In the 1980s and '90s, American film lovers loyally watched At The Movies, a television program featuring film critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The legendary duo was known for reviewing movies and giving them either a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."
At the same time Siskel and Ebert were reviewing movies, The Simpsons was establishing itself as the first animated series to appear on network primetime television since The Flintstones in the 1960s. Combining these two influences into a new animated series was not what anyone suspected, but that's what happened with The Critic.
The show was created by Simpsons showrunners, Al Jean and Mike Reiss, and it centers around New York film critic, Jay Sherman (wonderfully voiced by Jon Lovitz). Even though the show lasted only two seasons, it developed a sizeable cult audience who appreciated its sharp comedic wit.
A Concept Ahead of Its Time
At first glance, The Critic seems to replicate The Simpsons for lampooning American culture and society. However, in terms of execution, it gives the show its own identity where the concept emphasizes more on parodying the New York setting and film genre. For starters, the show was considered the first non-family prime-time animated sitcom at the time, since it draws attention to a singular main character instead of the family as a whole. Sure, there are episodes involving Jay's family, but they act more as moral supportive characters.
For those that are familiar and/or live in the Big Apple, the city has glorious sights to see, but have to deal with busy streets, poor sanitation and people with attitude. The Critic would take those elements and makes New York a cruel and mean-spirited society. Upon hearing that, this would sound like an unpleasant cartoon to sit through. Yet, this is where the main character Jay Sherman comes in. He is a divorced father struggling to find love and having a difficult career reviewing movies that he dislikes against his boss Duke Phillips's wishes.
The main highlight of the show is the massive load of parodies and/or fake sequels of famous movies that audiences wished wouldn't exist. These include Home Alone 5, The Cockroach King, Forrest Gump 2: Gump Harder, Planet of the Dogs and more. Sometimes, there are a select number of episode plots that are reminiscent of Stephen King's Misery and Lawrence of Arabia. There is a sense of passion in the writing and these definitely poke fun at Hollywood for milking out unnecessary franchises...even ironically to this day. While Jay may act cynical on the outside, he is the most tragic and likable protagonist on the inside. His criticisms and mannerisms represent him as the straight man against the cruel reality around him, thus giving balance in the show's setting.
Outside the parodies, there is an abundance of jokes that either consist of visual gags and witty dialogue, which often result in a mixed bag...depending on one's sense of humor. On one hand, the visual gags involving New York culture and/or Jay's appearance deliver big laughs on how much the concept itself promised. Not to mention, the main character does have a series of catchphrases, including one phrase that audiences would relate to after watching a legitimately bad movie: "It stinks!". On the other hand, some jokes and pop culture references would get repetitive after a while and most likely become dated by today’s standards. It is highly evident with some jokes involving celebrities like Marlon Brando and Dudley Moore.
With a total of 23 episodes, the show doesn’t have much of a narrative—for Season 1, at least. The pilot episode did establish the main character, the tone and setting decently enough. Some episodes do contain cliched and unoriginal stories that anyone would find in any other sitcom. Yet, the concept’s focus on parodying film and humor does help overshadow the generic stories. Actually, there are a couple of episodes that would be debatable either ahead of their time or predicting the future. For example, Duke Phillips is a billionaire tycoon with an egotistical and prejudiced nature, decides to run for President. With that description, this may foreshadow a certain event decades later.
The second season had more of a coherent narrative involving a single mother named Alice who later became Jay’s assistant and love interest. Outside the repetitive humor, her presence does give Jay a more emotional and tender love journey. Although a couple episodes shorter than the first season, the second season had more memorable episodes by comparison, especially the Siskel & Ebert episode. In that episode, the duo split after a fight and Jay took this as an opportunity to be one of their partners. Not only the episode satirizes both the duo's partnership and the Oscars, but the critics themselves supplied their own voices. They even made a cameo in a later episode.
Since the animation was produced by Gracie Films, the same company that worked on The Simpsons, the art direction is noticeably different when comparing both shows. In Season 1, the character designs look more realistic and down-to-earth, but not completely on the same level of realism as Mike Judge's works, such as Beavis & Butthead and King of the Hill. Granted, the most appealing character designs are the caricatured celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and abstracted side characters like Vlada, the Eastern-European restaurant owner. They look fine on their own, but when set in motion, it is difficult to read their emotions from their small eyes and the constructed character models feel off when they try moving. Heck, the creators admitted that Jay and his parents' designs were the hardest to draw and animate.
However, beginning with Season 2, the animation received a major improvement. The character designs are more simplified and appealing along with their eyes being much bigger and easier to emote. It almost felt like a similar transition to The Simpsons' animation quality. As for the background animation, both seasons consistently give us a sense of the New York atmosphere with the iconic landmarks featured in certain episodes.
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Improvements aside, the character animation is limited and sometimes recycles facial animations or clips. The most noteworthy examples are the intro and credit scenes. There's even a clip show episode, which is the series finale, where it not only recycles the movie parody clips from both seasons but it also on Jay's lip-syncing as well. It is such a pity for a show with that much ambition put into it. Nonetheless, the animation as a whole gradually became its own unique style under Gracie Films.
On a side note, the intro and credits music performed by Simpsons composer, Alf Clausen, has a welcoming, big band jazz feel that pairs well with the New York setting.
While Jay Sherman is the focus, the show also consists of a cast of diverse characters. They would fall under either the "likable", "indifferent" or "cruel" categories. For Jay's family, we have his son Marty. Like Jay, he is overweight and would occasionally get teased at school. Besides that, he is the typical awkward yet kind kid who looks up to his dad. Under his custody, we have Jay's ex-wife Ardeth. Although she seems caring towards Marty, she is a very bitter and regrettable woman whenever Jay is around. Her reason for marrying him is admittedly funny without giving anything away.
We then get introduced to Jay's adoptive family. Their daughter Margo is a teenage activist who deeply cares for her brother. Eleanor is Jay's conventional mother who would sometimes go into immoral measures whenever something doesn't go under her way. His father Franklin is an instant show-stealer and personally my favorite character. At first, one would call him an idiot father trope...which is ironically becoming more common in animated sitcoms nowadays. Eccentric is the better way to describe him. He is an unpredictable man with a passion for drinking brandy. Did I forget to mention he was also a former New York governor and a Republican? This man is full of surprises.
Outside the family, we also have Jay's chain-smoking make-up artist Doris, Australian actor and Jay's best friend Jeremy Hawke and Alice's optimistic daughter Penny. The majority of characters may not be as memorable as The Simpsons, but you will eventually walk out with one or two favorites.
Surprisingly enough, the best aspect of the characters is the voice acting. From a show with a mixed quality, these actors have talent and breathe life into these characters. Jon Lovitz's flamboyancy and occasional singing add charm to Jay while Charles Napier's deep and Southern accent gives Duke Phillips an authoritative nature. Even a few actors from The Simpsons lent their voices: Nancy Cartwright as Margo, Doris Grau as...Doris, Russi Taylor as Penny, and Tress MacNeille as Humphrey the Hippo, a knock-off of Barney the Dinosaur.
Of all the voice actors, Maurice LaMarche is easily the most talented voice of the cast. Besides voicing Jeremy, he also delivered a wide variety of celebrity impressions including Orson Welles. This was during the peak of his career thanks to his contribution to Animaniacs and Pinky & The Brain. In addition, he also provided the burping sounds of Jay as he did to Wakko. Like The Simpsons, the show also had guest appearances, such as Geraldo Rivera, Billy Crystal, Adam West and other critics like Gene Shalit and Rex Reed.
The Critic: Cancellation and Legacy
You may be asking, "Why was the show canceled?" There are a couple of theories. One is that the show's first few episodes were actually reviewed by Siskel & Ebert where they were initially mixed on the show and its execution. Keep in mind: there was no Internet back then to look at reviews and these two were the most reliable sources outside publications. The show originally aired on ABC but got canceled and moved to FOX during its second season.
This leads to another theory: The Simpsons crossover episode "A Star is Burns". In that episode, the town of Springfield holds a film festival to restore their publicity and invites Jay Sherman as a judge. Generally speaking, the episode on its own was alright and has its humorous moments (i.e. Hans Moleman getting hit by a football or Steven Spielberg's Mexican equivalent), but others felt it was like a "shameless advertisement" for The Critic.
Even Matt Groening himself was unfavorable with this idea and didn't want to be credited among the people who worked on it. On top of that, some would call it "false advertising" where Jay Sherman himself is differently downplayed. Besides making his skin yellow, Jay seems to be treated like royalty, such as having multiple awards and making Homer feel substandard with jealousy. In vice versa, there are scenes where The Simpsons try to cram in many film references and parodies more than usual. Now in its defense, there is a bit of a self-aware nature to how bizarre and cheap this crossover is, particularly from Bart Simpson.
Nonetheless, The Critic improved its ratings, but got cancelled after moving its last five episodes into a different time slot. There were plans for a third season and UPN was supposed to pick it up, but that never came to fruition.
Early 2000s Revival
Suddenly, in the early 2000s, The Critic made a short revival as a Flash-animated web series with Jon Lovitz reprising his role. Unfortunately, it was an immediate downgrade. The episodes themselves were a three-to-five minutes long, the animation is cheaper and many characters from the series are absent (except for Vlada). To be fair, there are occasional meta jokes and Maurice LaMarche returned with a new assembly of impressions (including Pikachu). Jay also reviewed actual movies that were released around this time (i.e. Mission Impossible II or Micheal Bay's Pearl Harbor) rather than fake sequels or parodies. The only new addition to the show was Valerie, Jay's new make-up lady and love interest, which personally tarnished Jay and Alice's relationship with no mention of the matter whatsoever.
Worth the Watch
Throwing all the difficulties and struggles aside, The Critic still remains a cult hit for its passionate concept on lampooning movies, monumental episodes and first-rate voice acting. Yes, it has aged with corny pop culture references, tedious humor and average characters. But after a while, you will be accustomed to some appealing animation, clever gags and stand-out characters. It is highly recommended for those that love either The Simpsons, New York or film in general. All of the episodes (and the webisodes) are available to watch on YouTube. It is also available on a collector's edition DVD with a behind-the-scenes feature and commentaries. It is cautiously pricey and rare to find online though.
And remember: "If the movie stinks, just don't go!"
Keith Abt from The Garden State on July 04, 2020:
I loved this show! I met Mike Reiss years ago at a college writing workshop, not long before the release of the Simpsons Movie. I told him how much I'd liked "The Critic," and he said, "I thank you, sir. I wish there had been a few million more of you." Haha