If ever ABC thought it had a hit, it's Dinosaurs. After the runaway success of Fox's The Simpsons proved that audiences of all ages enjoy kiddie shows with a sarcastic streak, the prospect of a sitcom with talking dinosaurs created by the late Jim Henson's special effects team must have struck ABC as surefire.
And it is, sort of. As you probably know by now, Dinosaurs isn't a cartoon; its prehistoric creatures are moving figures, marvels of technical design. A top-secret combination of up-to-the-minute electronics and costuming, they make Alf look like a paper-bag puppet. Dinosaurs fits right into its cushy Friday-night showcase spot nestled between the hits Full House and Family Matters. It's a family sitcom about the Sinclair clan in 60,000,003 B.C.: Beefy papa Earl, a massive, cigar-chomping megalosaurus; his wife, Fran, a prim, tall, blue allosaurus; and their trio of attractively scaly children, 14-year-old Robbie, 12-year-old Charlene, and the newly hatched Baby, who in the premier episode scrambled out of his egg yammering, ''Love me, love me, love me c'mon!''
Not so fast, kid. At this point, Dinosaurs is easy to admire, tough to love. Its premise working-stiff Dad coping with his wiseacre family-crosses The Honeymooners with Married...With Children, and the banality of this setup befits a show whose executive producer is Michael Jacobs, the man who gave us My Two Dads and Charles in Charge. There's nothing new about the attitude the show takes toward family life: It's hell (or, in early prime time, heck). Trying to weasel out of doing his math homework, Robbie moans, ''I don't get it: If this is 60,000,003 B.C., why is next year 60,000,002? Why are we counting backwards? What are we waiting for?''
Much of the humor on Dinosaurs is of the Flintstones sort gags that cast modern items in prehistoric terms. While making dinner, Fran watches the Dinosaur Shopping Network; Earl wears a hard hat and labors as a ''tree pusher'' he clears forests for new dinosaur condominiums. Whenever Earl reaches into the refrigerator for a beer, he has to wrestle it away from the food supply: live animals being kept in there on ice. ''Where are the vegetables?'' daughter Charlene asks at one meal. ''Dinner ate the vegetables, dear,'' replies her mother.
Among the performers supplying the dinosaurs' voices are a few well-known actors. It's easy to pick out Sally Struthers' whine as Charlene, for example, and Amen's Sherman Hemsley is a terrific grouch as Earl's boss, a triceratops named B.P. Richfield. (In one of the show's few stabs at Simpsons-style satire, some of the characters sport the names of modern fossil-fuel companies: Richfield, Sinclair; Earl's best friend is Roy Hess.)
But the vividness of the voices only adds to Dinosaurs' problems after a while, you begin to notice that these marvelously designed creations really don't have very expressive faces. The eyebrows waggle, the mouths move up and down, and a few facial muscles twitch, but these sitcom characters can't really execute a convincing double take or slow burn when the script requires it.
Dinosaurs is one of the few projects to survive the acrimony around the merger that Jim Henson was negotiating with the Disney company before his death last May, and the Disney influence can be felt in a symbolic way in this project. The characters in Dinosaurs are much less like fuzzy, warm Henson Muppets than they are like the impeccable but cold figures that populate the live-action exhibits at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Maybe Dinosaurs will be the pop-culture smash that ABC hopes, but there's another possibility: that the characters in Dinosaurs are not quite cuddly enough for kids and not quite funny enough for grown-ups. B-