Maybe you remember the first time you saw Family Dog. It was way back in 1987, in an edition of Steven Spielberg’s flop NBC anthology series, Amazing Stories. In those pre-Simpsons days, this first-rate half hour, written and directed by Brad Bird, was something unusual for a network cartoon: an almost completely novel creation, the funny yet gloomy tale of a gray little football of a dog, despised by his despicable family.
The grown-up joke in Bird’s Family Dog was that the people who owned this lazy, smelly, dumb pooch were even more pathetic than the dog was. In the context of this clan, the family dog (always a nameless creature) was the hero, the protagonist to root for, if only by process of elimination. The whole thing would have been too much of a downer had Bird not displayed a bright, quirky talent for showing us the world from the canine’s doggedly optimistic, low-down point of view.
That cartoon was one of the few episodes of Amazing Stories that generated some word of mouth and lingered in people’s minds, so it wasn’t surprising that Spielberg’s Amblin production company decided to turn the one-shot show into a series. What is surprising is that it has taken six years for Family Dog to debut — there reportedly were delays and problems with the animation, some of it done overseas, and with the quality of the scripts, which frequently rely on poor-taste jokes. The biggest surprise of all, however, is that this once-subtle, striking creation has been turned into such a crude bore that CBS is dumping the show into its slow summer schedule.
In the new adventures of Family Dog (where Brad Bird’s name is nowhere to be seen), we are reintroduced to the pup’s owners, a drab suburban tribe called the Binfords. The clan consists of paunchy, gimlet-eyed Skip (voice provided by Martin Mull); his dumpy wife, Bev (Harry and the Hendersons’ Molly Cheek); and their two children — bratty 9-year-old mischief-maker Billy (Zak Huxtable Epstein) and a plump toddler, Buffy (Cassie Cole). In the two half-hour episodes airing back-to-back this week, the family is a perpetually unhappy bunch, always sniping at each other for no apparent reason.
In fact, the only thing they all seem to agree on is the ”stupid dog,” as everyone calls our sad-sack star. They scream at the dog (”You ungrateful bag of fur!”), then tie a leash around its neck and give a hard, strangling tug; when the family wants to take a trip in the car, they sneak out of the house, because they know how much the dog would like to come along with them.
To think that many children will probably be watching this casual cruelty, which is unrelieved by anything other than crass put-down humor, is pretty dismaying. In one installment, a few dog-poop jokes are topped by a family visit to the zoo, where we’re subjected to elephant-poop jokes. Both episodes were written by Dennis Klein (The Larry Sanders Show), with an ”additional material” credit going to Paul Dini and Sherri Stoner. There is as much sloppiness as there is witless vulgarity: It took three writers to have Buffy say, ”Your nose looks like a clown’s nose” after Skip is hit in the eye?
There’s a lot of cynical sarcasm in The Simpsons, to be sure, but Matt Groening’s cartoon is rooted in the rockbottom love and loyalty that hold that family together. Young Bart may hold his silly dad, Homer, in contempt a lot of the time, but there’s always a level on which he admires the big galoot. No such emotional complexity disturbs Family Dog, however; for all its depth of characterization, this may as well be Scooby-Doo.
The trend in television these days is away from grim, downbeat dramas in favor of chipper comedies that reduce family life to cartoon status. In this atmosphere, the chances for survival of a grim, downbeat cartoon seem slim. It’s too bad, actually. How interesting and innovative it would be if mainstream artists started using animation to depict the morose, as well as the cheerful, side of life. The one thing Family Dog has going for it is its sleek look, a clever throw-back to the stylized, semiabstractionist mannerisms of animators like Chuck Jones, John Hubley, and Bob Clampett.
But style in the absence of wit only emphasizes the cold heartlessness of Family Dog. If I were more of an animal-lover, I’d be offended at the way this poor hound is treated; it’s as a cartoon-lover that I’m really annoyed.