Thursday, December 01, 2011

Capitol Critters

Anthony Scibelli on had a particularly inspired article about the early stages of prime time cartoons. Apparently, the success of the Simpsons sent networks in a rush to develop cartoons for the prime-time landscape in the early 1990's but it took break away tonally from children's shows. As a result, the first batch of prime time children's shows occupied an awkward middle ground between preachy Disneyesqe and the animated shows of today which are indistinguishable from live action TV shows in quality and maturity.

I just watched several episodes of Capitol Critters which first aired in 1992. Five minutes into the show, the protagonist's family is brutally murdered by fumigators which is very jarring. In his article, Scibelli seems equally jarred by this:

"It opens with what may be the most horrific scene I've ever witnessed in a cartoon. The series stars a young mouse named Max, voiced by a young Neil Patrick Harris, who lives on a Nebraska farm with his parents, grandfather and what appears to be about four or five brothers and sisters. After spending a day gathering corn, Max returns home to find an exterminator truck parked out front."

To be fair, Finding Nemo opens with one such tragedy and Bambi has a more tear-jerking scene. Unlike those two films, "Capitol Critters" makes the mistake of treating this opening passage relatively casually. The little guy lost his entire
family yesterday and it's treated as just a typical first act designed to move the plot along and explain Max's move to D.C. For comparison's sake, imagine how jarring it would be if a show with a similar premise, "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", described Will's mom being killed and raped.

One of the show's strengths, to me, was the ensemble. None of the characters (with the partial exception of Jammet) were overly bland.

1. Max's cousin, Berkley, is a hippie mouse who calls everyone fascist. She has the least screen time of the five main characters on the show, yet the writers impressively mold her into a fully formed satire of the kinds of socially-conscious people I see in D.C. all the time (I live less then a third of a mile from the nation's capitol, I should know).
2. Trixie is a landlord and maternal figure of sorts with a Jersey-accent who gets some choice lines. Her vague resemblance to some regional New York/New Jersey/Boston stereotype (she'd fit in with the ladies from the SNL sketch "Good Morning Bronx")that somehow worked for me.
3. Trixie's son, Jammet, is the most broadly drawn character. Scibelli describes him as "streetwise" (because of his idiosyncratic speech patterns? he doesn't exactly sound like he's from the hood). Mostly, he's the bad influence on innocent Max. The group troublemaker, who inexplicably remains friends with the people who's plots he foils (think Shake in "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" or Dr. Smith in "Lost in Space"), is a long-standing sitcom staple that I'm a sucker for.
4. Lastly, there's the particularly inspired invention of Muggles. Voiced by Bobcat Goldwaith (who has a voice suited for comedy like no one else), Muggles is a former lab rat (or is he a mouse? he doesn't look like Jammet and Trixie) who still has the after effects of countless experiments. He goes on an LSD trip in one episode and in another he turns into the Manchurian Candidate. He also possesses an inordinate amount of knowledge like Chuck (from "Chuck") and regularly explodes like a popcorn kernel.

Like a kid's show, the episodes have moral themes and teach a lesson. One episode is about the danger of drugs while another is about cultural acceptance and so on and so forth. This didn't strike me as cleverly conceived satire so much as the remnants of a children's show which the art form hadn't yet transitioned out of.

To make a show about mice and rats in the White House be an effective satire about politics presented a lot of challenges anyway. The mice are primarily interacting with each other and have little to do with the lawmakers. If you wanted to overthink the premise, you might ask why Berkley is invested in the happenings in the White House when the legislators make laws that probably don't affect the lives of mice and if so, only inadvertantly. The show might have been better if there was something along the lines of a separate mouse congress.

When they get the mice interacting with the human world, it creates a few moments of effective satire. In one episode, Max gets stuck in the briefcase of a congressman, and he learns the truth about bribery in Washington. The show can also be kind of cute when it asks us to look at things from a mouse's perspective, although that's
what most Disney cartoons of that genre do.

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