Dinosaurs – “A New Leaf”

As has been mentioned on this blog and in many other places, the 1990s was a weird time for television. Thanks to the booming economy in America, money was shooting out of everyone’s ears and more money was thrown at ideas that could potentially make even more money. This resulted in insane TV shows like Get A Life, brilliant shows like Twin Peaks, and now-classic shows like The Simpsons getting their chance to air on one of the major networks. Simply put, there was enough money to produce experiments in the medium, and if it didn’t work, crap like Home Improvement made enough money to cover any potential revenue losses.

Enter Dinosaurs, a half-hour sitcom following the lives of domestic, anthropomorphic dinosaurs that were played by actors in full, intricate dinosaur costumes that had robotic eyes and mouths operated remotely by a technician. Only something this weirdly developed could have come from Jim Henson Productions (Henson himself having passed away only a year before the show’s premiere, his son Michael was the Executive Producer of the show).

A satire on normal sitcom tropes–only, you know, with dinosaurs in place of humans–Dinosaurs was a kind of sleeper hit at the time of its airing, with the baby dinosaur (named Baby) quickly ascending to sub-Urkel levels of stardom (its catchphrases, “Not the mama!” and “I’m the baby; gotta love me!” tumbled off the tongues of the more obnoxious children of the country).

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And that didn’t get old quick…

Running from April 1991 to July 1994, Dinosaurs was a bizarre show aimed towards the family audience and airing on the TGIF block. Its production history was similarly odd: with only 5 episodes comprising its first season, its second season had an astounding 24 episodes, the third had 22, and then the fourth only had 7 (with 7 “lost episodes” airing after the finale, which is confusing, since that doesn’t make them lost, now does it?), with a total of 65 episodes produced that make up the total series. This isn’t surprising, considering how damn expensive and difficult it must have been to film every episode with people in full body suits and coordinating the robotic mouths and eyes to move at the right time by remote. I’m amazed they made more than a few of these before throwing their hands up in disgust and deciding to reboot Leave It to Beaver or something easier to make instead.

Now notoriously known as having one of the bleakest series finales of any show ever produced–especially for a “family” show (I mean, Family Matters didn’t end with Urkel hanging himself in the Winslow’s kitchen, did it? Wait, did it? Mental note…)–Dinosaurs is one of those shows that people of a certain age remember, albeit vaguely. It’s currently not rerun on television and while DVD sets are available, I have yet to meet anybody that actually owns even one season on DVD.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, nothing ever truly goes away and it’s easy enough to locate episodes online. I remember really enjoying this show as a little kid, but then again I had the brainpower and awareness of tapioca at that point so it may be total garbage. Only one way to find out. Today, I’m choosing an episode that people online seem to recommend, season 2 episode 17’s “A New Leaf,” which from what I can gather is a parody of after-school specials. So let’s watch, shall we? Well, I’ll watch and recap it and you just use the power of imagination to follow along.

Season 2, Episode 17 – “A New Leaf”

The opening credits start with timpani and horns accompanying a stomping dinosaur’s feet (feet? sure) crashing through the jungle. When it stops stomping, the camera pans up and it’s red flannel-wearing Earl holding his lunchbox and declaring, “Honey, I’m home!” The music then changes to some wacky-sounding New Orleans jazz number as we see scenes from the show. This is the first TGIF show I’ve come across without lyrics in its theme song, and I’m wondering if this will even happen again with any other non-dinosaur centered show in the TGIF lineup. My guess is not. I also bet they tried a theme song with lyrics and it was just too stupid to try and incorporate dinosaur-themed lyrics or a heartfelt pop tune over images of anthropomorphic dinosaurs. I’m trying to imagine “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” over this and got a nosebleed so I stopped that. Anyway, it’s a jaunty little tune and you get that this is a pretty silly show from the opening credits.

We open on the Dinosaur’s suburban home and Earl’s chasing teenage son Robby around with scissors, wanting to cut his spikes down a little because they’re all floppy and I guess their spikes are their hair in this show. The puppetry is very impressive and Earl says Robby looks like a girl bum, which is kind of funny, and Earl complains about Robby and hey, there’s no laugh track! Robbie storms out in anger and hangs out with his friend, whatever the fuck, Spike is probably his name and he sounds like Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club and wears a leather jacket. They talk about how they’re dinosaurs and don’t need their parents so they look for dinner. But they can’t find an animal to eat so they eat some leaves instead. CUT TO later and these two are just yukking it up and can’t remember what they’re laughing about and there’s green smoke in the air so I guess this is the dinosaur’s analogue to pot. What kind of sentence is that? Madness. Anyway, they’re both baloney and Robby says that he wishes his dad were there and how much he loves him. So Robby runs of to tell Earl how much he loves him.

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I was in high school once, too.

Back at home, Earl’s pacing the floor and gives Robby a bunch of shit when he comes in but because Robby’s stoned to the gills he says he loves his dad and talks about how his dad has always been right. OK, so far, so good. Earl appreciates this touching moment and Robbie says check this shit out: this plant makes me happy so try some, dude. Earl is skeptical but eats some and CUT TO the two of them singing “It’s A Most Unusual Day” so I guess they had dinosaur analogues of Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson (look it up) writing standards in their dinosaur world. They dance around the living room and both of them are totes baked. Anyway, they’re having a nice time and it seems like they’re advocating for parents and their children to get stoned together. I’m just going to pause here and say I don’t know if I’m enjoying this, but I sure am finding it fucking weird.

Charlene, the sister and daughter, walk in and she’s confused as to what’s going on. She takes some of the plant and chomps it down and now the mom comes in. Earl again says how great this plant that makes them happy is and she’s wondering why the fuck Earl’s not at work. Earl is blissed out and guesses that he has to go to work. But Robby and Earl are still super-stoned and Earl finds it funny that he doesn’t wear any pants. Oh, meta jokes.

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Pictured: stoned dinosaurs. Because it’s a family show!

He skips into work all high and shit and all of his co-workers are like, where the fuck have you been, dude? They’re really playing up how “happy” Earl is and it’s getting a little tiresome. Earl shares the plant with his co-workers and Earl’s asshole boss calls for him to get the fuck into his office. Anyway, the boss is all pissed so Earl gives him some of his happy plant. I think the boss is voiced by Sherman Hemsley. Earl condescends to Mr. Richfield (the boss’s name) and he explodes and fires Earl, so Earl’s fucking fired. Earl is happy about this because fuck work and he loves getting stoned. Sounds like a lot of people I know. He even kisses Richfield on the lips or whatever it is these dinosaurs have in the mouth area.

CUT TO sometime later, where Early, Robby, and Charlene are stoned out of their fucking minds and doing stereotypical stoned things. The Baby’s not stoned and tries to get their attention, but not even when it cries out that it’s on fire does this break these freaks out of their reverie. That’s why people that have babies shouldn’t do drugs (when the babies are around, at least). Robby makes a pretty funny meta joke wondering if they’re being secretly watched by cameras, and then points to the three camera angles covering the scene, to the point that the camera follows Robby’s finger as he waves it back and forth. Charlene also mentions that if the audience stops watching them they’ll cease to exist. Earl also poses the funny question as to  why their numerical system is based on 10 when they only have 8 fingers. Pretty sneaky, sis.

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Can you guess what’s going on, viewers at home? Write in and win a prize! (The prize is utter, inescapable madness.)

Baby finally gets their attention about wanting more juice but they’re all still wacked out. Fran comes in wondering why they’re all home in the middle of the day and besides this all being pretty funny stoner stuff, it’s also intended for children in the early 90’s so…yeah. Whatever, I’m not a kid anymore so why should I give a shit? And I don’t. Fran (the mom, in case we’ve all eaten too many happy plants at this point) finds out that Earl was fired last week and she says I don’t think eating this plant’s a good idea. Robby makes the excellent point that how can something be bad if it makes you happy and makes you feel good? Smart lad. Or, dinosaur. I don’t know. Anyway, these stoners ate all of the food in the house and Fran says fuck this and that Earl has to go get his damn job back.

CUT TO Earl’s co-workers doing the Bunny Hop like they’re the squares in Crybaby and one of the workers is all paranoid and tweaked out. How the hell did this episode ever get on TV, in the early 90’s, on ABC, much less on TGIF? I must have been too young (of course I was) to understand what they were parodying, but still…this is kind of nuts. Anyway, this dude wigs out and one of the dinosaurs even says, “We’ll ride this out together,” which is just crazy talk. And it’s coming out of a talking dinosaur’s mouth! I need to lie down. Anyway, Richfield’s listening to Jimi Hendrix in his office and is all high and wait, is there a dinosaur Jimi Hendrix in this world, too? What the fuck is going on? I feel like I’m on drugs now instead of just drinking a single glass of red wine. The paranoid dinosaur pops his head into the office and says they’re talking about him, aren’t they? Which is also funny.

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At this point I don’t know if I’m watching a TV show or I cracked my head open on the sidewalk and this is my dying dream.

I don’t know: this is all maybe a little too crazy for my adult brain in a way that it wasn’t for my younger, stupid brain. Anyway, Richfield says fuck work, let’s just not do anything and get high as shit all of the time. Again: sounds like a lot of people I know. But he gets a phone call from his boss who says he’s been fired and says bummer, man, so he eats more happy plant, and then more Dinosaur Hendrix music goes back on. What the hell is going on? This is insanity. It’s like a half-hour long version of that lizard scene in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

Back at the house, Earl, Robby, and Charlene are all hung over (what?) from the pot analogue. But pot doesn’t make you hung over (so I’ve heard…and read in books…and for the official record, I only eat bran and drink wheat grass). They all jump up looking for more happy plant but “there’s nothing left but seeds and stems” and I’m just knocked out of my seat at how many explicit, direct pot references there are in this episode. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

Charlene finds a bit and they all start fighting over it like a bunch of maniacs and Fran comes in saying this is goddamn crazy (I hear you, sister) and she and Baby are leaving and not coming back until they come back and clean themselves up. Earl’s no longer high and he gets whanged on the head by the baby with a frying pan, which was a running gag in the show. Earl explains that his life has gone to shit and he needs to do something to fix this: CUT TO these nutcases now tearing through the forest looking for more plant. Oh, a show meant for children and families, how charming your drug references are.

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Finally, an accurate portrayal in this show of dinosaurs in their natural habitat: trying to score some weed.

The come across Spike (Robby’s friend, for those of you whose short-term memories may be affected for some reason) and he’s all fucked up and passed out in the bushes. Earl comes to the realization that throwing everything away in life for a cheap high has a downside. Literally, that’s what he says, and the snark is so thick it’s like a haze of smoke from some sort of substance. So they all agree no more eating the happy plant and throwing their lives away for the sake of getting high. Hilariously, Charlene pauses at this suggestion for a moment but eventually agrees. Robby says they should keep the plant around to remind them that their will power alone must stop them, but nope, Fran destroys it because it is temptation and dinosaurs don’t have Jesus to help them be led not into temptation but to deliver them from yadda yadda.

Then, a call bell rings and I guess that’s a wrap on the show, and Robby walks to the side where we see the edge of the set and addresses the camera. He says a bunch of funny meta stuff: while walking to his chair, one of the cameramen says, “great episode, but it got a little preachy at the end,” to which Robby replies, “Indeed it did, but that brings us to the point: drugs are a major problem in our society: drugs ruin lives, destroy families, and lead to preachy, heavy-handed sitcom episodes like this one. We managed to keep it delightfully funny and upbeat, but other shows aren’t so lucky.” The snark level here is off the charts.

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THIS WAS AN ACTUAL SHOW THAT AIRED ON A MAJOR NETWORK AND PEOPLE WATCHED IT! WITH THEIR FAMILIES! I KNOW: CRAZY, RIGHT?

He goes on about how this problem is leading to an epidemic of shows to produce anti-drug episodes and mentions that they haven’t even been on-air for a year, and “here I am talking directly to the camera.” He then asks that we say no to drugs so we can put a stop to preachy sitcoms like this one. AND THAT’S THE EPISODE!

Conclusions

First off: that was nuts. Like, way crazier than I even remember this show being. Also, again, this was a family show. And it was mostly just making fun of stoned behavior–not really condemning it, just poking fun at it. But the wildest part was that last address-to-camera by Robby, which just shits all over any potential “message” the show was trying to impart to the viewing audience. Of children. That’s next-level bonkers for a show on TGIF in 1992 to pull off. I couldn’t imagine this episode airing on anything other than Adult Swim in 2017. My 10-year-old self watched this episode when it first aired and was savvy enough to know it was making fun of anti-drug episodes of sitcoms (I watched a LOT of TV as a kid), but only in this re-watch did I realize how subversive and snarky this episode’s take on it was.

I don’t know if I’ll watch Dinosaurs again unless I find some happy plant of my own to indulge in. Watching it under the influence of a single glass of red wine was kind of enough for me. I can see how this show would have heavily appealed to kids and parents, this episode not withstanding: it’s fairly clever, the dinosaur suits and robotics are actually impressive even by today’s standards, and it’s a flip satire on normal sitcom conventions. But it’s also a little…much. Maybe a little too much. Maybe it’s the uncanny valley effect or that my brain is now hardwired and can’t take in any more radical new stimuli, but I was equally enjoying and baffled by what I was watching. It’s a bold, inventive, and wholly original take on the traditional sitcom, but I can also see why it lasted only 65 episodes.

It’s also nuts to think that this aired during TGIF, which was a bastion of such supreme, middle-of-the-road suburban middle-class normalcy that even a square dude like me as a child could barely sit through episodes of Full House and Step By Step without wanting to punch the television several times during their airing.

Again: I really loved this show as a kid, but as an adult it tends to unpleasantly smash my brain against my skull. It’s enjoyable but probably not best to watch while moderately sober. Now who’s holding some of that happy plant?

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Categories: humor, recap, television

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