Remembering Dinosaurs

Fond memories of the 1991-1994 Jim Henson series, "Dinosaurs".
October 16, 2007
It was the dawn of the 1990s. We had a new president in the White House, Russia had given up communism, Nickelodeon officially gave us the Nicktoons, Sega introduced us to a little blue hedgehog named Sonic and around this point in time, Jim Henson had kicked the bucket. One of the last ideas that he had before his time came was inspired by his work on the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie: a series featuring full body, animatronic puppets. The characters were brought to life using a customed performer, an animatronic head which had controls for lip-synch and blinking, and a third actor who would provide the character's voice. I am not a huge Muppet freak, I remember watching "The Muppet Show" and "Fraggle Rock" but can't recall any episodes with great detail. By the time we got shows like "Bear in the Big Blue House", I was over preschool series. While I did watch "Muppet Babies", remember that show is animated and not live-action. Finally in 1991, being a dinosaur authority, I was eagerly anticipating this new series which was made finalized by his son Brian Henson, Michael Jacobs Productions and Disney called...

I remember watching "Dinosaurs" anytime I found it on the airwaves. This series was originally broadcast on ABC during the early half of the '90s. Like how "Futurama" used the distant future as a gimmick for social and political commentary, "Dinosaurs" used that theme, but it was set millions of years before humans claimed dominance on Earth. It was done to make jokes and references to world events and social commentary.

As an answer to the question to of "What were Dinosaurs' lives like 65 million years ago?" This series answered it by saying...

"Probably a lot like our own."

The show's main characters involve the Sinclair family:

The main character is Earl Sinclair, the self-proclaimed "Mighty Megalosaurus". The breadwinner of the nuclear Sinclair family, he works as a tree-pusher for a mega-conglomorate company called "WESAYSO", a soulless corporation that at least feeds his family. He's in his 40s and is kind of a dummy, bearing some similarities to Homer Simpson, but in later seasons, he started to be more willing to hold a grudge in the vein of All in the Family's Archie Bunker. He struggles with being a new father, as he has just spawned his third child. Through his desires to sit at home and drink or earn recognition from his boss, Earl is a caring parental figure.

His wife is Fran Sinclair, the family's binding glue. Fran is the more sensible, doting parent who tends to think about the upkeep of the family and provides the voice of reason. Much like you would expect from the typical Alice Kramden/Wilma Flintstone/Judith Bunker/Marge Simpson character, she is not supposed to funny--she's the straight character to her goofy husband's antics. Though Fran only had about three episodes of the whole 65 episode run that were really about her character, she made likely the most notable changes during the series' run.

These two are kept in check by their children: firstborn son Robbie and middle child Charlene rarely have their interests in the same place; they add contrast and conflict much like a teenage son and prepubescent daughter would. Robbie is the cause-conscious, forward thinking member who is often the conscience and tends to question old traditions that he feels don't make sense (as an example, he once struck the question about the calender dates: instead of counting forward, they count backwards. He wondered if there was something that they were counting down to). He tends to be a strong focus character. Charlene, on the other hand, is the opposite. She is more ditzy and cares more about being popular in school and such instead of serious issues. She may have more say in the overall series than a character like Family Guy's Chris Griffin, but she's by far the lesser interesting character.

Finally, there is Baby Sinclair, the obnoxious, demanding couch potato lastborn child with a strong "my-way-now" attitude who acts like a comedy relief character; his nickname for Earl was "Not-the-Mama". The character used most often for merchandising purposes, he always makes the most of his time on screen. If you want an idea of his voice, think of a more malevolent Elmo of "Sesame Street". He's even had a music video devoted to him centered on another of his catchphrases, "I'm the Baby". You gotta love him.

"The baby's voiced by a tall black man? Who'da thunk it?"

Of course, "Dinosaurs" has some memorable secondary characters:

First, there was Fran's elderly mother Ethyl, whom I would, in most circumstances where a parental figure plays only a secondary role, call "the Grandma". She would often put down her son-in-law with the phrase "fat boy". This factor in the series suggested that they would start to use some mother-in-law comedy, but this is kept in moderation.

Other characters included Roy Hess, Earl's co-worker/best friend who is a swingin' bachelor Tyrannosaur and while he is not very quick-minded, he always holds good intentions. In the later seasons, he seemed to start replacing the Grandma as a major character. He has always had his funny moments. Monica DeVertebrae is Fran's best friend, a real estate agent Brontosaur who's only body part we see (outside of a wide shot of the Sinclair's house) is her head and neck. In addition to feminism, she is often the subject of racism; four-legged Dinosaurs tended to be scoffed at. I use this picture in homage to Roy's hotspot for her, they were temporarily married in the episode "Green Card".

Another memorable character is B. P. Richfield, Earl's impossible tyrant of a boss. For the most part, we only see him in his office while Earl is working, but he is always demanding and expecting more than one can manage. His dialogue is always used in a shouting voice (imagine if your boss was Yosemite Sam) and while he is like The Simpsons' Mr. Burns in the sense he fills the role of a villainous character, the difference is he is much younger and strong enough to crush anyone. How'd you like a boss like that?

Finally, there is Spike, Robbie's rebellious hoodlum buddy who we can only wonder if he is the type of guy Robbie ("Scooter" to Spike) ought to be hanging out with, and Mindy, who is just there to be a token friend for Charlene. There are other characters in the show as well--such as Earl's co-workers Al, Sid, and Ralph--but they tend to be more recurring characters who with different clothing, are recycled to play the roles of one-shots as well.

What was nice about "Dinosaurs" was they emphasized the jokes and writing over the elaborate designs; the show would still have worked even without the gimmicks and the show made jokes about itself without the material getting overbearing. Over the course of the show, they make several potshots at many different topics, including women's rights, sexual harassment, objectification of women, censorship, civil rights, war, body image, drug abuse, racism, peer pressure, rights of indigenous groups, corporate crime, government interference of parenting and the environment. Some of the material, including some mild language (momentary uses of the words "hell" and "damn" are used)is quite subjective considering the fact it bears the Disney name.

As a series, "Dinosaurs" lived a rather erratic lifestyle. It began as a TGIF show on ABC:

"America's Watching"

It's first season--spring 1991--lasted only five episodes. The second and third seasons--respectively, the seasons of Fall 1991/Spring 1992 and Fall 1992/Spring 1993--followed the standard TV series season lineup. The final episode of the third season aired in July 1993, and we didn't see any more new episodes until the fourth season summer of 1994. And even then, we only got half a season; there were fourteen episodes for Season 4, but only seven were aired on ABC and the remaining seven remained unseen until the series entered syndication. I think a main reason "Dinosaurs" didn't last as long as I would have hoped it would might have had something to do with its elaborate construction; it was more costly than a typical sitcom.

Of course, the show wasn't perfect--it's most glaring fault was most of the time it stepped up on the political soapbox. Many times, they would bring up a topic and treat it in a one-sided manner; the side it takes is obviously right and the other is obviously wrong. It's not that it's intent is bad; it's just that this one-sided theme can make it seem like a big "this idea is right and here's why you should agree with it" and seem like a typical preachy TV episode that many late '80s-early '90s series were guilty of.

However, these faults can be overlooked by the show's strengths. "Dinosaurs" is a much, much more successful show in the episodes that aren't so political and are more about regular family life.

"I told ya Fanny, I AM the one who wears the pants in this family!"

The Sinclairs love TV a lot and the show makes all sorts of jokes involving many commericals, TV shows and networks. Classic and '90s contemporary shows are spoofed in the Dinosaur way: there are jokes made about "COPS", "Ask Mr. Wizard", "The Brady Bunch", "The Little Mermaid", "Full House", "Barney and Friends", "Unsolved Mysteries", "Beverly Hills, 90210", "CNN", "Double Dare", "Totally Hidden Video" and "Good Morning, America!".

And I must discuss one more important factor: the series finale. Some shows end on their run with a planned final episode (Seinfeld, Friends, Moonlighting). Other shows end while they are leaving you with the feeling the show could have continued, but were the victims of abrupt cancellation from their networks (Diff'rent Strokes, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched).

But not "Dinosaurs". This show had one of the most memorable series finales ever. In the final episode aired on ABC, the July 20, 1994 episode "Changing Nature" (which caused many TV listings to list a warning to parents) involved the Dinosaurs irresponsibly wiping out an important species of beetle to build a wax fruit factory. As the beetles' vine that they would feed on grows out of control, Earl is appointed the environmental task force leader and is charged with poisoning the vines. The mass poisoning is overdone and kills all plant life on Pangaea. Under Mr. Richfield's orders, the task force is assigned to try to make rain clouds (thus reviving the plants) by dropping bombs in the planet's volcanoes. This too backfires, as the clouds are made and bring snow. The family agrees to stay together no matter what happens. During the credits, we are in no question as to the characters' ultimate fates. It presents us with a clear, compelling message of environmental responsibility and while not as "in-your-face' as some other series...

"Until the day...'til all are one."

...there is no disturbing image, but its theme of "nature cannot be controlled" was still clear. Now, while this finale is something people may find upsetting, it is closure to the series (can you imagine what it would have been like if shows like "Home Improvement", "Boy Meets World", "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper", "Mr. Belvedere", "Step by Step" or "Family Matters" ended this way?). It also means the show would not be 'just left open' so you are not left hanging there waiting for the show to get picked back up by the network.

Long off the air even in syndication, "Dinosaurs" made many good memories from viewers in an ardent Muppet fanbase and through a strong marketing pitch, Disney has made two official DVD releases of "Dinosaurs" (titled "The Complete First and Second Seasons" and "The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons") for consumers to buy a success. The show's ideas, themes and values still hold up more than 10 years later, and I would suggest picking up these sets as I am sure that they will provide many laughs and nostalgia for you as the Sinclair family did for me.
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