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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Bart Begat Butt-head Begat 'Bob and Margaret'

June 22, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

That graying revolutionary, "The Simpsons," is not merely one of the premier comedies of its TV generation; it also helped shape and define that generation. This genius creation by cartoonist Matt Groening was the big whammy that made this decade TV's golden age of animation.

"The Simpsons" resonated like a sonic boom when it became a weekly series in the 1989-90 season after first surfacing as a chain of shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show." The result was a "Simpsons" merchandising explosion and a big, whopping, feel-good shot of ratings and credibility for Fox that helped get that network, then a wobbly toddler, onto its feet and walking.

Fox was not the only beneficiary. Even more than their raunchier anti-sitcom Fox predecessor, "Married . . . With Children," the dysfunctional Simpsons became the ultimate sendup of "family values" and a primer for bad parenting. It was that endearing doofus Homer Simpson, after all, who told his daughter, Lisa, that it's proper to steal "from people you don't like."

The cynicism and wicked social satire of "The Simpsons" made subversion a popular flavor with viewers (while featuring a cartoon within a cartoon in the sadistic "Itchy and Scratchy Show"). In doing so, "The Simpsons" nourished a renaissance of nightly animation, the most blasphemous of which bore no likeness to Saturday morning cartoons or that Hanna-Barbera franchise "The Flintstones."

Although the chips have not lived up to the block, the most accomplished of these progeny have made a creative mark, while owing their existence to "The Simpsons." If not for the enduring commercial success of "The Simpsons," for example, viewers likely would not have met those insurrectionists Ren and Stimpy on cable's Nickelodeon channel, and still worse, there would not have been a pair of low beams named Beavis and Butt-head to memorialize absurdity on MTV.

Just as tragic, Comedy Central would not have let the twisted "South Park" open its hilariously foul mouth. Nor taken a chance earlier in the '90s on the subtlety cool and urbane "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist."

"Dr. Katz" opens its fifth season tonight with comic-creator Jonathan Katz returning as the voice of his alter ego, a mellow shrink who clashes amiably with his lazy teenage son and listens dutifully to the rambling monologues of his neurotic patients, well-known performers who play themselves in voice-over.

"I remember the first time I got undressed in front of a woman, and how horrible it was because she started screaming," laments anguished comedian James Leemer. "Then they kicked me off the bus."

The episode also features TV's first in-depth analysis of fanny packs, a typical Dr. Katz bit that forgoes animation's customary visual antics and requires audiences to listen.

And now paired with "Dr. Katz" on Comedy Central is a new animated half-hour comedy from London for adults, titled "Bob and Margaret." Like "Dr. Katz," it's very conversational and highly seductive. It's also meticulously un-hip, aimed mostly at an audience that relates to its middle-aged, middle-class protagonists, the show's underlying philosophy having been expressed earlier this year by co-creator David Fine:

"Real people just keep doing the same dumb things over and over. Real people don't always develop, real people stagnate just like Bob and Margaret."

*

So . . . welcome to stagnation. Although it sounds depressing, these real people have a natural humor that's infectious. Driven by wry commentary on human nature, life's minutiae and British convention, "Bob and Margaret" retains the nuanced charm of its genesis, a 1995 Oscar-winning short by Fine and Alison Snowden about a childless English couple living monotonously with their two yelping dogs.

And here they are again, a pair of crudely drawn cartoon dumplings whose faces are all jaw and egg-shaped nose. Margaret is a podiatrist and doting parent to the dogs. Bob is a dental surgeon with an office above a sweet shop, a receptionist with an attitude, orthodontic tools designed for torture and a lousy chair-side manner that gets him into trouble tonight when a competitor moves across the street and immediately employs an unethical strategy that is just infuriating.

He's nice to patients.

It's amusing nonsense, as is next week's second episode, in which Bob and Margaret are burgled at night by a pair of likable oafs who have a sort of yard sale to peddle the stolen merchandise, selling a teapot to one of the police officers investigating the crime. Meanwhile, Bob and Margaret tap the larceny in their souls by going for a little insurance fraud.

Bob and Margaret are hardly Homer and Marge Simpson, and they live their quiet, mundane lives in a universe apart from "Dr. Katz" and epithet-slinging "South Park." They're tedious, in fact. But somehow rewardingly so, and another example of animation being something for TV to brag about in the '90s.

* "Bob and Margaret" premieres at 10:30 tonight, following "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist" at 10 p.m., on cable's Comedy Central.

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