Sitcoms are a predictable and serviceable staple of the cable television landscape in America. A slice of middle America is put on display for the populace to watch and relate to as families can get through all sorts of mad capers, yet they still learn important lessons about family and life before their thirty minutes are up. From All in the Family to The Flintstones, Roseanne to Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond to The Simpsons, we love watching the average family go through many of the same things we already do. Except on TV, dad can run for mayor on a whim. Mom can lose her job and things would somehow still come out all right. The kids will wear funny costumes to avoid telling their parents about a bad grade. The neighbor will stop by with either sage advice or a wacky shenanigan, but often both. The baby and/or dog will do something cute with expert comedic timing. And of course, some catchphrase must be dropped to preserve their precious identity.
Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs was in every way all of that and yet it still blows my mind.
One of Henson’s last projects before pneumonia shuffled him off the mortal coil, it stood in stark contrast to his earlier projects like the Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Labyrinth. This was an out-and-out sitcom, but instead of a laugh track, it was loaded with social commentary.
Earl Sinclair, the patriarch, is your typical dopey Archie Bunker type, a tree-pusher for the WESAYSO corporation. His wife, Fran, is the homemaker, carefully treading the life between loving and supporting her dim witted husband while calling him out on his cockamamie schemes. 16-year-old Robbie is the progressive rebel, constantly questioning the old-fashioned traditions of dinosaur culture, much to his father’s chagrin. 14-year-old daughter Charlene is, like, a total valley girl, from the crazy sweaters to the obsession with shopping. And Baby (At one point named Augh Aargh I’m Dying You Idiot Sinclair before switching back to Baby), is your adorable tot who loves spouting catchphrases and smacking his father with a skillet. There’s more, like sassy Grandma Ethyl, slow-witted Roy Hess, tyrannical B. P. Richfield, delinquent Spike, feminist Monica DeVertibrea, and much more.
And even if you can hear Kevin Clash’s cackling cries of “Not the mama!” And “I’m the baby, gotta love me!”, I’m here to showcase the ten best episodes of the show and dissect their messages.
10. Nuts to War, Parts One and Two
The show aired from 1991 to 1994, not long after the Gulf War supposedly finished in early ’91. The memories of Vietnam were still fresh, and news coverage over any and all armed conflicts were a constant reminder to the average American. Gone were the days of blind patriotism and widespread joy of military might, and even by this point, we were all sick and tired of war.
Earl becomes cantankerous when he finds out his favorite snacking nut, pistachios, are now highly rationed. The government of Pangaea blames four-legged dinosaurs for the shortage and launches the We Are Right campaign, where young males are brought to the front lines and encouraged to hiss and spit at each other as displays of dominance. Robbie valiantly marches off, enthusiastic to serve a great cause. But things take a dark turn when the news suddenly refuses to report on the W.A.R. and Fran is beside herself in panic. Even Earl, who was just as gung-ho about the war as the next Pangaean, is doubting his faith in his government, the media, and even his own love of pistachios.
War is always stupid. Even if it’s for the right reasons, we have to ask what is worth sacrificing the lives of so many young men and women. In the real world, it’s often over land, natural resources, or other private interests, often thinly veiled in some perception of nationalistic pride. With this two-parter, the cause of war is made not just absurd, but phenomenally absurd: the livelihood of a popular snack food. The parody isn’t so ludicrous You break your suspension of disbelief, and you might feel chills when Earl comes to his senses and Robbie just cries out how the war is bigger than nuts.
There’s a lot of silly parody, too, but the stakes are real, even when the war escalates and the the dinosaurs resort to throwing sticks, a measure that gives even the most hardened patriot pause. From the shifty government/media relationship to even war profiteering, it hits home plenty hard. And how the war ends…well, it hurts. It hurts bad, and gives anyone a moment of reflection on how we do war in modern times. Even in a society as bloodthirsty as the one in this show, some things just aren’t worth going to war for.
9. The Greatest Story Ever Sold
Religion has been in the show’s crosshairs a few times. In season one “The Howling”, Robbie’s lack of faith causes a crisis that actually empowers religious faith. In the following season, in “The Last Temptation of Ethyl”, the script took shots at televangelist con men. Here, the prime target is religious zealotism.
Baby one night starts asking THE questions. You know, our purpose in life, where we all came from, all that. Earl’s tiny brain goes into overdrive, and when he asks others, everyone is similarly panicked, forcing dinosaur society to shut down. When they decide to at least try to answer the questions, the Chief Elders defer to the easiest answer, a religion called “Potatoism”, and get society going again. Robbie, incredibly unsatisfied, rejects the new teachings, and soon finds himself on the unfriendly ends of religious police and an angry mob’s torches.
It’d be easy to say this was mocking religion, but that’s taking it only at face value at best. The values Potatoism was addressing weren’t the issue, it was the strict enforcement upon others by fanatics that was the problem. Slight infractions like merely questioning the material are treated with severe punishment. Religion is one of those things that make edgy people even edgier, and often leads to intolerance of those who don’t fall in line.
We live in a country where we are granted freedom of religion, at least on paper. Christian symbolism still dominates our landscape, while those who don’t practice it feel it infringing upon their own beliefs. It can be frightening just how much it sucks to live somewhere where religion dictates how you live your life if you’re not a part of it. My favorite part of this episode is not just Robbie’s incredulous reactions to a world gone mad, but the last lines from him and Earl.
8. Charlene’s Tale
So one of the stars of the show is a young teenage girl. Because they’re often targets in comedy from the stereotype of being ditzy, emotional, if not altogether crazy, they’re often lampooned. While Charlene was not spared from this, she did get one episode that even Pixar’s Inside Out was hesitant to even mention: puberty.
Charlene’s tail since the series began had been just a nub, and in this episode, she begins to wonder if her tail would ever grow in so she could get the attention of boys. She even goes so far as to order a fake one, but her insecurities are hardly squelched. When her tail does grow in, Earl can’t fathom his baby girl being a sexually active lady, and has a nervous breakdown.
Yes. You are reading this right. Charlene’s tail is made an allegory for girls’ breasts.
This was the genius of Dinosaurs‘ writing. Much like Zootopia, allegory has taken over to discuss these kind of issues head on without getting squicky. Talking about a 14-year-old girl’s bust is the kind of thing that would unsettle most network executives, but it becomes so much more palatable with a dinosaur’s tail.
Charlene confesses her insecurity arises from advertising about her inadequacy. Earl reacts just how any father would react. Yes, there’s even a skeevy guy Charlene goes on a date with that ends exactly how you think it does. I even enjoy the chat she has with her mother and grandma about how she ought to carry it, in a way that completely makes sense, even to us tail-less hominids.
I’m not a teenage girl and never have been one, but I imagine this is a good episode to show to one if my future daughter starts having the same issues Charlene does.
7. Swamp Music
There were plenty of episodes where certain creatures were treated as inferior to dinosaurs: the females, the four-leggers, even cavemen, but this time, they turned to what Jim Henson Productions excels at: furry hand puppets.
Robbie tags along with Spike (Played by Christopher Meloni) to a bar down in the swamp, and finds the inhabitants are all mammals. Uncomfortable at first, Robbie soon relaxes and listens to their amazing “swamp” music by Howlin’ Jay. He tries to encourage them to go mainstream, but Jay has zero trust in dinosaurs, or as he calls them, “The lizard”. Robbie’s attempts to bridge the racial gap has more problems than he realizes, though.
The racism shtick is fully on display here, right down to Earl’s tirades. Racism rarely gets portrayed well, especially in network television, because writers try to place logic into an ideology that doesn’t operate on logic. But at least in a society where prey and predator live alongside each other, the allegory works (sorta like in another Disney property…) and it makes sense.
There are way too many entitled white people who ask things like “why can’t there be a white history month?” Or “why isn’t ‘honky’ or ‘cracker’ as bad as the N-word?”. Hopefully this episode can shed some light on this question. With the mammals, they’re used to getting the raw deal when mingling with dinosaurs, so excuse them if they need something to call their own. In this case, music. Once again, the allegory is surprisingly insightful, and the result of Robbie’s efforts is not at all surprising, and tragically an all too common story.
6. Baby Talk
I hate when shows try to use “heck” and “darn/dang” as though they’re just as potent as other cuss words, because no matter how hard they try, it just falls flat. Even worse when they try to invent curse words, like in Lilo and Stitch: the series where Gantu frequently grumbles “Oh, blitznak!” Or in the animated Guardians if the Galaxy series where Rocket keeps shouting “Krootackin” as his be-all, end-all default curse. It just feels so lazy, contrived, and pretentious. But for whatever reason, this episode made a smooing difference.
During a live-on-TV show, a dinosaur cries out “holy smoo!”, a foul word for Pangaeans. Baby delights in getting a rise out of everybody every time he shouts the word, but dinosaur society seems to enjoy swearing on TV, much to Earl’s frustration. He gets some busybody parents together and demand the government censor the language, but asking for federal regulation starts going a little too far.
First of all, it’s not just some arbitrary string of letters devoid of context. Fran explains to Baby that “smoo” refers to the dirty sole of a foot, not unlike other dirty words we have. So already, it has a basis. Second, the way grandma gets Baby to stop swearing is just perfect. The governmental regulation aspect doesn’t come into play until the last few moments of the episode, so it focuses mostly on Baby and the grievances Earl takes up with the network. It’s a multi-faceted episode with plenty of clever insight.
5. Green Card
I almost considered the episode “And The Winner is…” because it featured the temperamental psychopath B.P. Richfield running for Chief Elder, but being reminded of the 2016 election was depressing enough. Then I found this episode, where I found it even more depressing.
When Earl’s tree-pushing job dries up, and the company has no desire to be blamed for the short-sightedness. So the government uses the media to divert blame to four legged dinosaurs, making it illegal live there without benefit of marriage. Monica, an apatosaurus, has already lost her job and home, and Earl’s buddy Roy, who’s had a crush on Monica for some time, steps up to marry her so she can stay. Things get even more intense when the government decides…(sigh…)…to build a wall in the swamp to keep out the four-leggers.
Do I even need to say anything? With all the discussions going on concerning immigration, this kind of episode is more important than ever. Right down to the wall. And that wall, built on a swamp, goes about as well as you’d imagine.
As you might expect, the lesson about criminalizing an already oft-maligned sect of people is pronounced here. But the heart of the episode lies with Roy. Already besties with a racist like Earl, Roy unhesitatingly and nobly marries Monica, not even for his own self-interests, but hers. He even takes his undeserved lumps and chooses to stay at Monica’s side purely to help her. It’s really kind of a beautiful episode.
4. Dirty Dancin’
So we saw how Charlene dealt with her blossoming tail as she grew toward womanhood, how did Robbie deal with wet dreams, masturbation, sex ed, and prostitution?
Robbie starts having dreams about doing the mating dance with a girl at school, and even unwittingly busts out into the routine in class. Robbie is suffering from not being able to control his hormones and Earl thinks it’s best to just ignore it. Fran, however, elects to teach the mating dance at Robbie’s school, much to his horror. As his humiliation deepens, Robbie ends up making decisions that may make things worse for him unless some wizened, albeit dim, paternal figure can step in and save the boy from himself.
Feel awkward yet? I understand. However, the allegory again saves this from being too gross for network TV. It’s the primal mating dance that arises purely on its own. It makes sense, especially when you consider no one on this show wears pants. But because this is the lens they view it with, we can see things like Robbie watching a sexy commercial in his room and when he involuntarily starts dancing, his mother walks in on him. Any other show at the time would be scandalous. But a puppet show with talking dinosaurs? Oh, that’s okay!
I love how disgusted each teenager reacts to seeing the mating dance, and even the old Navy film on “dancing related injuries” is wildly perfect. If you focus too much on the veiled subject matter, it’s going to make you incredibly uncomfortable. But there is heart here, as well as the running gag line that sums the lesson up pretty neatly. And for once, Earl is actually the one giving the lesson, and in a darn good way, too.
3. I Never Ate for my Father
A couple of seasons prior, though, it was a different story.
Robbie worries that since he’s not big into eating meat, maybe he’s an herbivore. It’s a thought that repulses him, until he finds a friend who encourages Robbie to try it out. Earl is defiantly angry at this, and tries get Robbie out to hunt smaller creatures to eat. The plan backfires in the most ironic way possible.
This works on several levels. At first, being a “herbo” or “veggo” (as the slander terms apply here) is seemingly equivalent to being gay. The dialogue is completely transparent in the first scene with Robbie’s friend, but it gets peppered with other references. When Earl and Fran finds a stash of broccoli in Robbie’s room, it’s treated just as you might expect, with the two blaming themselves and each other for Robbie’s supposed moral failure, almost as if they found a baggie of weed. I even love the Salad Bar establishment that is quite the cheeky homage to 60’s beatnik culture. It’s insanely well executed.
But let’s go back to the homosexuality aspect. This came out in 1992. Even here, nearly 30 years later, having any acknowledgment of homosexuality in children’s programming is the cause for unrest. And here this episode is, using that beloved allegory to expound upon the moral that we should have learned by now. The episode even literally ends with love saving the day. I…I love it.
2. What ‘Sexual’ Harris Meant
This past year, we watched a woman testify against a Supreme Court nominee, claiming that he sexually harassed her. Despite the fact she was composed, assertive, and supported by many, and Brett Kavanaugh spent his time gabbing about how much he liked beer, got defiant numerous times, and even brought a 1982 calendar to prove he couldn’t go to the alleged party of it wasn’t on it, the court ruled against Christy Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh still made it to the Supreme Court. It was a phenomenal miscarriage of justice. What made it so much worse was this case was hauntingly similar to another court case from 1991, where attorney Anita Hill made similar claims against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Of course, the powers that be went out of their way to discredit these women on the basis that women somehow can’t be impartial not-sex objects, and the Ford case just proves how far we haven’t come. Which is why I truly hate watching this episode.
Monica’s real estate job hits a slump and she agrees to take a vacant spot at Earl’s job. Her supervisor is Al “Sexual” Harris, a dinosaur who prides himself on inventing the double entendre, voiced by Jason Alexander. Monica turns down his advances and is fired. Outraged, Monica files a complaint and gets a televised hearing from the WESAYSO board of directors, and yes, they are all old men. Take a wild guess what happens.
If things had gotten better for women in the workplace in 2018, I might’ve chortled at this time capsule, but this is WAY too close to home. The board members keep discrediting her, constantly throwing up barriers to disgusting degrees, like the geezer who starts going off on a personal fantasy, only to be interrupted, and he asks for a moment. Even the polls shown on their news broadcast echo the idea that the anti-feminist resentment is beget by self-loathing women and spiteful men. It ends predictably just as painfully as you expect, but caps everything off with a subtle, cautiously optimistic message delivered by Charlene’s off-camera B-plot.
Again, this’d be inspiring…except we’re supposed to better than this almost thirty smooing years later!
1. Changing Nature
Between a wall in a swamp, a tyrannical political candidate, and a sexual assault hearing, I’m not altogether unconvinced this show didn’t have the same future-goggles the writers had from Back to the Future II, and that makes me very, very depressed. But there’s one more element that emphatically haunts me due to the show’s prevalent theme: climate change.
Let’s back up: Henson’s original pitch for the show was that the dinosaurs died out not due to a meteor, but maybe they lived irresponsibly and did not take care of the planet, causing irreparable harm to the Earth. The first episode’s opening lines are that of a news anchor addressing a massive meteorite that has struck the Earth, and the series ends with the impending ice age. In fact, you may have even noticed the names of various characters are named after oil companies. And there are several episodes that address pollution and deforestation. After all, it was the early nineties, when kids were watching Captain Planet. but this episode was the series finale. And it didn’t want you to forget the consequences.
The dinosaurs are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the migrating bunch beetles, which will devour the overgrown poppy vines. However, everyone is shocked that the beetles are gone. The last remaining one, Stan, explains it’s the next generation that does all the eating, but he can’t find the swamp to mate. Why? Because WESAYSO built a wax fruit factory on the swamp, directly causing the extinction of the beetles. But as the poppies continue to overgrow, Earl, on behalf of WESAYSO, has to come up with ways to combat the problem. Sadly, one decision after another makes things progressively worse, until…sigh.
This had been planned from the start, obviously. And even the network wasn’t okay with the idea that the show was implying that this beloved TV family was going to die. But of course, that was the whole smooing point. We as humans have spent centuries systematically destroying the planet: ripping down forests, hunting animals to extinction, harvesting natural resources, polluting, all that stuff we’d been warned about for almost fifty years. And while we have made many great steps in fixing and preserving our planet, we recently have taken some colossal leaps backward.
At least in the nineties, global warming was mostly a theory that required more research. But now, it’s become an irrefutable fact. And now we have politicians in office who are defiantly fighting any attempts to regulate corporation-induced pollution. The president himself, less than a week ago as I write this, has publicly refused to accept a bipartisan report on global warming that had disastrous implications because he doesn’t believe in it. His words, not mine.
Worse still, because global warming’s effects aren’t immediately obvious, scores of people simply refuse to believe in it, as if taking care of the planet is some kind of wasted endeavor. And that’s why this episode is the most important compared to “We Are Not Alone” Or “If I Were a Tree”. These two had environmental messages that could be seen as preachy. With “Changing Nature”, it shows how badly our actions in destroying ecosystems can escalate and cause much more widespread destruction. Why? Because profits matter more than ensuring our future generation’s future. Thanks, Koch Brothers.
Well, that seems to cover my top favorite favorite episodes. I have more, some that just didn’t make the list, but if you want to see them, hit me up, and I’ll happily write that one, too. But until next time…
Seriously. Smoo Trump.