In creating The Critic, Al Jean and Mike Reiss set out to make the show as dissimilar from the The Simpsons as humanly possible. This might seem counter-intuitive. Why distance yourself from one of the most beloved successes of the past half-decade?
Yet it was important for the show to establish an indelible identity right out of the gate, so The Critic made its protagonist the anti-Homer Simpson. Where Homer is a booze-sodden everyman, Jay Sherman is an unabashed elitist. Where Homer is a rudely physical creature, Jay leads a life of the mind. Homer is a slob. Jay is a snob.
Jay is the butt of many of the jokes on The Critic but he’s also an extraordinarily accomplished figure. The pilot episode of The Critic errs on the side of making him seem altogether too accomplished. Jay begins the episode in a comforting pool of self-pity but over the course of a single episode we learn that he is a Pulitzer Prize winner, makes $271,000 a year appearing on a national television show and has sex with a beautiful starlet the night of their first date. That does not sound like the life of a garden-variety sad sack. That sounds like the life of a stud. The Critic has to keep knocking Jay down just so we don’t envy him too much.
The opening credits sequence for The Critic elegantly establishes the world Jay lives in, a world where, in the parlance of Jeff Daniels in The Squid And The Whale, people read books and see interesting movies and care about art and ideas. It’s a cozy, continental realm where people devour The New Yorker every week, listen to NPR (and contribute during pledge drives) and are emotionally invested in the relative health and success of Saturday Night Live.
It is, in other words, a New York world populated by the smart set. If Springfield is very aggressively and deliberately Anywhere, United States, The Critic is an extended Valentine to a certain kind of pointy-headed East Coast elitism. Showrunners Mike Reiss and Al Jean came to praise what David Brooks has dubbed the “bobo” (for “bourgeoisie bohemian”), not to bury him. The Critic is swooningly romantic in its depiction of life in New York but its affection went largely unreturned: the producers note with bitter irony on the audio commentary that the show consistently scored weak ratings in New York.
Watching The Critic in 2011 is an exercise in nostalgia: the very first image is of the the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers resting high atop the rest of a now sadly outdated New York skyline. The Twin Towers appear throughout The Critic; they come to represent a New York lost to time. The opening credit sequence depicts a lovely fantasy of New York straight from the pages of The New Yorker as it respectfully surveys the contours of Jay’s life and the upscale world he inhabits: The Guggenheim Museum, Central Park, The United Nations building.
The Critic is similarly a poignant throwback to the heyday of the television film critic, a trip back to the time when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert loomed large as preeminent public intellectuals and talking intelligently about films on television still represented a viable career path to a chosen few. People sure aren’t making $271,000 a year talking about movies on television any more.
The show’s first non-visual joke references the world of money and privilege Jay occupies when he picks up the phone and the sharp, cutting voice at the other end of the line is Jay’s mother sternly informing him, “We’re taking you out of the will. We feel you already have enough money” before her voice shifts into a motherly coo so she can wish him a happy birthday. The raspy-voiced hairdresser Jay employs “accidentally” sets his hair on fire upon learning he makes $271,000 a year. Jay’s boss Duke Philips—an alpha-male tycoon modeled on Ted Turner and voiced by Charles Napier—wonders why in the hell he’s so critical when, as he sees it, Jay’s job is to rate movies “on a scale from good to excellent.”
Mike Reiss and Al Jean-written episodes of The Simpsons are often defined by a high number of parodies, spoofs and homages. In their episodes, the Simpsons are always watching television or going to the movies. They didn’t need any such excuse for film parodies on The Critic since Jay’s life was inherently and organically filled with film. It proved the perfect delivery system for an endless series of clever, bite-sized spoofs.
The Critic’s film parodies benefit from an exhilarating sense of economy. Consider Home Alone 5, the show’s parody of the kiddie smash. It establishes a hokey but funny premise—that the Home Alone franchise will continue long after it makes sense for it to do so—adds some neat details like the cigarette and stubble of the now-23-year-old Kevin, then gets the fuck out. The parody is over before audiences have an opportunity to really get acclimated to the gag, let alone get sick of it. Then again, it’d be hard to get sick of a parody that lasts exactly 11 seconds.
The plot for The Critic’s first episode finds Jay falling in love with a sexy young starlet who comes onto his show to promote her upcoming new movie, an erotic thriller clearly modeled on Basic Instinct. Alas, Jay has not seen his new paramour’s new film and worries that their relationship will die a quick, agonizing death if he sees the film and pans her performance.
Many of the episode’s sharpest gags pit Jay’s battered dignity against a world that never stops mocking him. When Jay tells his actress love interest that he has no fans, only frat boys who like to make fun of him, the humor comes from how sadly resigned Jay seems about his unenviable fate. Jon Lovitz, the voice and soul of Jay Sherman, gives the character a perpetually wounded dignity that’s incongruously hilarious.
Jay takes his new girlfriend home to meet his super-WASP adopted parents, Franklin and Eleanor Sherman. The Critic derives some of its biggest and most tasteless laughs from Franklin’s endlessly entertaining dementia; he cuts such a dashing, respectable figure it can be easy to overlook his complete and total insanity. It’s funny but more than a little queasy-making when Jay tells his girlfriend that his father suffered a stroke and Eleanor elaborates, “He didn’t really [have a stroke]. We just say that to describe his personality.”
The big problem with the series’ pilot lies with the character of the starlet/girlfriend/actress. She’s a plotpoint rather than a flesh and blood character, a way of compromising Jay’s ethics rather than an autonomous human being. Sure, she professes to find Jay’s intellect attractive but really she’s on hand just to be sexy.
Like pretty much all première episodes, The Critic’s has a lot to unpack. It’s not as quick or as dense as it could be because it has characters to introduce and a rich, lovely, and multi-faceted milieu to introduce—but the show had a strong, clear voice and sensibility from the very beginning. It knew exactly what it wanted to do and how it wanted to do it.
The episode ends with Jay seeing his girlfriend’s movie and writing a pan that destroys their relationship. He’s in a romantic funk until his son Marty proposes that they see the latest Sylvester Stallone abomination. This rouses him from his romantic despair. As we will come to see over the course of this series, women will come and go, fate can be unkind, but bad movies are eternal. Bad movies endure. Bad movies will always be there for you in times of need, like a really shitty variation on Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
- The producers note on the commentary that The Critic was paired with Home Improvement during its run on ABC, a mismatch nearly as pronounced as Home Improvement’s infamous pairing with The Dana Carvey Show.
- “Even Satan himself would love this angel-hair pasta!”
- “He’ll be back here with one of those ‘nice’ girls from the escort service.”
- “Can’t one dinner go by without us talking about your rotting corpse?”
- “My shrink was right. God does hate me!”
- Welcome aboard y’all. This should be fun.