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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Attack of the 'Dinosaurs' : Television: ABC series sinks its teeth into witty social commentary a la 'The Simpsons' and finds its metier.

February 19, 1992|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Dinosaurs," ABC's weekly series about extinct carnivores, is consistently funny comedy to chew on, the only spot on television where the Mesozoic Era intersects with witty social commentary.

Its audience? Let's call them comevores , kids who devour physical comedy and adults who love nothing better than voraciously sinking their teeth into meaty urbane humor. Both thrive in "Dinosaurs," now achieving only so-so ratings at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, after premiering last April with Nielsens that soared.

Maybe they will again in another time slot, for "Dinosaurs" is scheduled to be relocated by ABC after February. It's hard imagining something so uncommonly clever, and with such potentially transcendent appeal, not becoming a hit somewhere.

Michael Jacobs, Brian Henson and Bob Young are the executive producers here, in partnership with Walt Disney Television. The unique, farcically reptilian look of their series comes mostly from audio animatronics--a collaboration involving electronic puppetry, actors wearing costumes and other actors speaking the voices of the characters.

As much as anything, though, it's writing that nourishes "Dinosaurs," which relentlessly satirizes contemporary manners, often as brilliantly as Fox's great animated comedy, "The Simpsons." When it comes to spoofing middle-class conventions, these two irresistibly weird series occupy a television stratosphere of their own.

Although distinctive in its own right and anything but derivative, "Dinosaurs" shares more than a few traits with "The Simpsons."

Both series are essentially sitcoms, centering on turbulent blue-collar households where the parents are continually tormented by their three children. That slug Homer Simpson's counterpart on "Dinosaurs" is oafish megalosaur Earl Sinclair (the voice of Stuart Pankin), a forest-destroying tree toppler who, like Homer, mindlessly works for a greedy corporate giant (Wesayso Development) that pushes profit at the expense of the environment. And like Homer's wife, Marge, Earl's allosaurus wife, Fran (the voice of Jessica Walter), is the principled, level-headed half of the pair.

Fifteen-year-old Robbie (the voice of Jason Willinger) is the Sinclair household's socially conscious visionary, a la precocious Lisa Simpson, and 12-year-old Charlene (the voice of Sally Struthers) is only a little less self-centered and self-serving than Bart Simpson. Again like the Simpsons, the youngest Sinclair is an infant, named Baby (the voice of Kevin Cash). And just as Homer is constantly annoyed by Marge's visiting twin sisters, Earl has his own family nemesis in Fran's scene-stealing sourpuss of an elderly mother, Ethyl (the voice of Florence Stanley).

In another characteristic shared with the Fox comedy, "Dinosaurs" gushes shrewd TV references. Tonight, for example, it launches a two-part spectacle, "Nuts to War," an homage to "The Winds of War" that, among other things, pits two-legged dinosaurs against four-legged dinosaurs while mocking the Persian Gulf conflict and its media coverage.

"Dinosaurs" was particularly brash and funny last week, partially building an episode around a show remarkably similar to "Unsolved Mysteries," the NBC series that consistently whips "Dinosaurs" in the ratings. "Dinosaurs" renamed it "Mysteries That Haven't Been Solved Yet," then poked fun at its competitor--and itself.

The plot's catalyst was shriveled Ethyl, whose euphoric, near-death encounter after passing out ("There were shuffleboard courts as far as the eye could see . . . (and) I was regular") enticed "Mysteries That Haven't Been Solved Yet" to depict her experience.

"I just love your show," Ethyl told the Robert Stack-like host. "How do you come up with those mysteries, week after week?"

"Actually," he replied, "we only have four, which we use over and over. Luckily, no one seems to notice."

Earl and Fran were watching at home.

Earl: I want to watch the puppet show on the other channel.

Fran: That'a kid show.

Earl: Not so! They do some very sophisticated juxtaposition of reality.

Fran: It'll last a year.

After Ethyl's segment, the host announced the following week's top-billed mystery:

"Our viewers. Who are they? Why do they keep watching our show when there's a wildly better show on the other channel in this time slot?"

Good question.

There is nothing mysterious about the strengths of "Dinosaurs," one of which is tongue-in-cheek topicality. For example, it has weighed in on the issue of endangered species, with Earl's intended 20th-anniversary present to Fran a gourmet meal consisting of the last remaining members of a species known as Grapdelites, "the sweetest, furriest-tasting little animal in the world."

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