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HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's No 'Simpsons,' but Toon In : Television: From the folks who brought us Bart and Homer, ABC's new 'The Critic' takes aim at a slew of targets. When it hits, it's very funny.

January 26, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Television has trekked so far since "The Flintstones" that prime-time's Fred, Wilma and blithering Barney of the 1960s seem like quaint time-travelers from a Merchant-Ivory movie, gently remembered high tops, corsets and bustles from a much earlier era.

The X-rated animated feature "Fritz the Cat" made the movie public's fur fly in 1971, but that was nothing compared to the loud screeching and honking that has greeted the crude antics of a pair of pointy-brained cartoon toms from MTV. How ironic that the nation's least-watched animated night-time series--the humorously inane "Beavis and Butt-head"--has become the most mentioned. It has easily topped all other TV cartoons in headlines this season, its teen protagonists' allegiance to self-destructive buffoonery earning them a place high on the hit lists of those aiming to sweep away broadcasting's lint.

Although an underclass of its own, "Beavis and Butt-head" hardly owns the market when it comes to adult animation. For several years that honor has belonged to "The Simpsons," the hilariously dysfunctional family that Matt Groening created more or less as filler for "The Tracey Ullman Show" on Fox before reinventing his creatures for their own successful half-hour series on the same network in 1990.

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So cartoon-infused is "The Simpsons" that the older kids themselves--Bart and Lisa--can't get enough of "The Itchy and Scratchy Show," a violent, blood-splattering animated TV show about a sadistic mouse and the cat he constantly terrorizes. A send-up of all the gory cartoons for kids that reformers have been attacking for years, the cartoon within the cartoon is sometimes the show's funniest element.

It's rare on television when genius strikes twice in succession.

As former executive producers of "The Simpsons," a remarkable series as smart and witty as anything ever on television, Al Jean and Mike Reiss have big shoes to fill. Their own.

Their ABC animated series "The Critic" premieres at 8:30 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, relying on the snide voice of Jon Lovitz, some mischievous writing and pictures from the animators of "The Simpsons" to depict the world of a short, plump, balding movie snob whose reviews for a New York cable channel fall just short of nasty. In fact, so does he.

The keys to the new series are the writing (the opening script comes from Jean and Reiss) and Lovitz, who doesn't so much speak as he does blow out gusts of words that seem to fade or dissipate like smoke before they complete a sentence.

"The Critic" isn't "The Simpsons." Of course, even "The Simpsons" isn't always "The Simpsons" anymore. There was a time when its humor was piled on like lasagna layers, and peeling each of them back was part of the fun of watching. Every show was tightly packed with jokes, to the extent that you could watch a second or even a third time and still discover something--a visual nuance, a throwaway reference--that you missed in earlier viewings. Lately, though, there are no layers. What you immediately see and hear is everything you get. The show's bratty Bart and once bankable Homer humor are flatter, the gags often labored and belabored, and the characters inconsistent.

Along with fairly solid ratings, "The Simpsons" still has its moments, still is a couple of dozen IQ points above most television. But those moments are less frequent, as if Groening and this season's writers have mislaid some of the old magic formula's herbs and spices. What used to be finger lickin' tremendous is now finger lickin' pretty good.

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At times, "The Critic" is not even that. A divorced dad with an 11-year-old son, Jay Sherman (Lovitz) tonight is an ugly dumpling with an ethical crisis. The beautiful star of a film he will soon review--the kind of luscious woman he would usually never attract (the voice of Jennifer Lien)--picks this moment to come on to him. Does he sleep with her or not?

His dilemma is more than matched by the one that this plot-line poses. Like a plane that circles without landing, Sherman is held too long in limbo by this love throbbing and is diverted from the much funnier task of satirizing the goings-on within the entertainment industry. Those hills are full of gold.

In that regard, "The Critic" does indeed sniff out a slew of targets with exposed jugulars, and the show's protagonist himself turns out to be one of those critics whose means of discourse (he rates movies on his Shermometer) replicates the very mass culture that he wishes to diminish. There are some very funny jabs here at movies, from "Home Alone V" to "Rabbi P.I.," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Chicago cop who wears his thick accent like a prayer shawl while going undercover as a Hasidic Jew ("Hava Nagila, baby").

"Beauty and the Beast" also takes a hit, as do Gene Shalit (his own voice), Woody Allen and Marlon Brando, who shows up as the mumbling manservant Mr. French in a neo "Family Affair."

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