Things That Are Actually Satire: Dinosaurs

Series: Things That Are Actually Satire

Spoiler Warning: Dinosaurs (Hurling Day (S1), What Sexual Harris Meant (S2), Nuts to War (S2), Swamp Music (S3), Changing Nature (S4), Working Girl (S4, unaired))

Note: If you want to watch this series, it’s available on DVD and Netflix. Both place the unaired episodes after the finale, Changing Nature, so it might be a good idea to skip the finale and watch it after you’ve finished the rest of the series.

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Image Description: A grinning green dinosaur puppet  (“Earl”) holds a (much smaller, pink) baby dinosaur puppet (“The Baby”) on its shoulders. “Dinosaurs” is written in all caps across the bottom of the image, with the ‘o’ replaced by a dinosaur egg. Image is from IMDB.com.

In 1991, Bob Young and Michael Jacobs, along with the Jim Henson Company, created Dinosaurs. Both Michael Jacobs and Bob Young had worked on sitcoms previously and would again, but Dinosaurs combined earnest emotion with satire to create something which obviously cared a lot about the issues it was addressing, and which had a lot of heart. The show focused on the Sinclair family: Earl, Fran, their three children, and Fran’s mother, who moved in with them in the third episode.

Technically, the show was pretty impressive: between the sets and the giant dinosaur puppets, they succeeded in creating a very unique aesthetic, even for a Jim Henson Company production. An aesthetic which included giant dinosaur puppets.

I really cannot stress the giant dinosaur puppets enough.

(Alright, apparently they’re “full body suits”, not puppets. I don’t know. Everything I know about puppets I learned from Dinosaurs special features, Wikipedia, and that one time “The Table” came to my college. Sorry, guys.)

In fact, the giant dinosaur puppets “full body suits” are pretty important to the satire. Like the aforementioned Gulliver’s Travels, Dinosaurs directs its criticisms at a fictional society, rather than our own. This allows for a few things: first, it means that Dinosaurs is criticizing attitudes, behaviors, and cultural norms, rather than people. This makes the criticism easier to accept, but it also means that the writers aren’t removing their own behavior from criticism. They’re not saying “look at these people who do these things, they are terrible” they are saying “look at these behaviors, they are not good, maybe everyone should avoid them”. Second, it allows for exaggeration of behaviors that might otherwise pull viewers out of the story. They aren’t trying to show actual people or an actual society, so they can make use of exaggeration for comedic effect (and to make their message a little more obvious).

And, of course, by making them dinosaurs, they have some built-in implications about behaviors and about the eventual end of such a society–the latter being something they take full advantage of in the finale.

Dinosaurs tackles a number of issues, probably the most prevalent being family relationships, women’s lib, and the environment. It also discusses racism, both anti-Black and anti-Native American as well as in a sort of general sense, nationalism, and the Cold War. Oh, and, of course, corporations. Dinosaurs does not like corporations. Like, really, really not a fan.

So, we’ve got satire, we’ve got sincerity, we’ve got dinosaurs, come on, what else do you need, but what makes it really special is that on top of all these things it also has wonderful, genuine characters, who change and develop over the course of the series. Which is part of what makes it effective: you care about the characters, and so you care about the problems they face–and by extension, about the criticisms presented.

 

Wait, Character Development? In a Sitcom? In a Satire? In a Satirical Sitcom with Giant Dinosaur Puppets?

Full body suits. And yes, character development. That’s what makes it so much fun to watch–and that might be why it lasted four seasons, although some of the best character development doesn’t really become obvious until season four (and actually, there’s some really important stuff that never got to air, at least during the show’s original run). While Earl gets some development (he has a tendency to go back and forth on lessons he learns, although his relationship with Baby does seem to move forward–which is maybe realistic for a middle-aged man), and Robbie grows from a 14-year-old teenage boy with an interest in activism into a…17-year-old teenage boy with an interest in activism, the character who grows more than anyone is Charlene.

Season four is where Charlene really starts to grow into a young woman. There’s certainly buildup before then, but it all comes to fruition in two or three episodes near the end of the show–two of which were not shown with the rest of the series. Over the course of the show she goes from being a 12-year-old kid who cares about nothing more than clothing and popularity, and who usually sides with her father in discussions of gender (“I believe a female’s place is in the home–a professionally decorated home in the nice part of town”, she explains in the episode “Unmarried…with Children”) to a young woman who wants to make the world a better place, and who is willing to stand up for her right to express herself.

It’s true that some of season four’s episodes are a little rocky. I can see why they cut “Scent of a Reptile”, for instance: in my opinion it’s poorly done and it actually sets Charlene back a little in order to make the development more obvious. “Working Girl”, however, is great, and the self-confidence that Charlene finds during it makes her place in the finale make a lot more sense. It’s also the perfect follow-up to the season two episode “What Sexual Harris Meant”, and together the two episodes say a lot about how the actions of one generation affect the next. And in the end, that’s one of the biggest and most consistent themes in Dinosaurs–and it’s the message that they, blatantly and unusually bitterly, choose to end on.

 

The Highlights:

Dinosaurs ran for four seasons, and had a total of something like 65 episodes. There is no way I can go through the whole thing in one post. So here are some of the highlights, that I feel do the best job of showcasing Dinosaurs as a satire. A couple of these were mentioned above when I talked about character development; like I said before, in Dinosaurs, character and character development is very much tied to the satire.

“Hurling Day”

“Hurling Day” is the third episode of the show, and maybe the first that’s clearly satirical. The first couple episodes head in that direction, but it’s not as obvious. This particular episode is a commentary on ageism, and not a subtle one, which is generally the case with Dinosaurs. (Lack of subtlety is, as I said before, an advantage of this type of satire.) In this episode Ethel, Fran’s mother (who, incidentally, uses a wheelchair), reaches the age at which dinosaurs are thrown into the tar pit so that they aren’t burdens on the community. This is apparently the best day of Earl’s life, since men traditionally throw their mothers-in-law. Hurling day is a day when “the lowest of the low stand shoulder to shoulder with the highest of the high”, according to Earl’s boss.

In other words, Earl may be working class, but Ethel is a woman. And also old. And so even he has someone he can exert his power over.

(Of course, Earl has plenty of people to exert his power over–but he doesn’t usually feel that way.)

In the end, however, Earl’s son Robbie, with the help of Fran, manages to convince both Earl and Ethel not to go through with it, and Ethel moves in with the family. Like most Dinosaurs episodes, this one ends on a somewhat hopeful note as we see actual progress being made.

What Sexual Harris Meant”

I mentioned this episode above: it’s one of my favorites, and it is sort of the catalyst for Charlene’s character arc. It also features Monica, a character introduced in the second season. She is a real estate agent, and is unmarried (divorced, actually), which is almost unheard of in the Dinosaurs universe. I mean that literally: when she first says she’s divorced no one knows what it means. Monica doesn’t get as much use as some of the other characters. Aside from some minor appearances, she usually only turns up in episodes that are about her or a group she’s a member of–woman workers, unmarried women, or “four-leggers” (dinosaurs that walk on four legs, representative of a marginalized race or nationality). There are a couple reasons for this: first, Monica consists of only a neck and head, and is therefore hard to write into stories, and second, Monica is almost always right. That type of character is of limited use in a demonstrative satire.

In this episode, she goes to work at WeSaySo with Earl, pushing down trees, because the housing market is bad and she needs the extra money. After a sequence about “equal opportunity” employers, where Earl’s boss “interviews” Monica by telling her she has a nice purse and trying to send her away, the foreman hits on her. When she refuses to have sex with him, she gets fired. And she’s ready to give up and let it go–until she sees Charlene having a similar experience. She decides to take WeSaySo to court for wrongful termination, and the ensuing trial is a farce, as lawyers yell out accusations about her sex life and sexually harass her in the courtroom. In the end, she loses, and Earl and his coworkers parade around singing “we are males, hear us roar”. The episode still manages to end on a hopeful note, though: Monica may not have changed the world, but she inspired Charlene.

“Nuts to War” (“A Sweeping Miniseries”)

“Nuts to War” is a two-part episode framed as a “sweeping miniseries”. It is the only two-part episode in the show–which makes it pretty important all by itself. There is a shortage of pistachios, and as a result a war is declared between the two-legged dinosaurs (who live on one side of the swamp, where the show takes place), and the four-legged dinosaurs (who live on the other side). Assuming my knowledge of US history isn’t completely failing me, these episodes are a commentary on the Red Scare and the related wars, as well as war in general. There’s one scene where a government representative explains, using a graphic which is a clear reference to the Domino Theory, that this is not about nuts. It’s about principles. First the four-leggers take their pistachios, next it’s their chosen form of government.

There’s a lot of stuff here about propaganda and the relationship between the media and the government, as well as the role that corporations play in war (WeSaySo wants to keep the war going because they are getting defense contracts–from both sides). By making the war about nuts and having the dinosaurs fight it using hissing and spitting (and then, eventually, sticks and rocks), they manage to keep the whole thing just removed enough from reality that it can be discussed.

In the end, though, these two episodes are still about war, and that isn’t something they shy away from. A boy does die, and the second episode ends on a very serious note, with Robbie struggling with the return to civilian life and Earl giving him what is actually a very emotional speech about how it’s time for him to come home and be a kid, not a soldier.

(One last note: these episodes, specifically the second one, do contain some transmisogyny when Earl and his friend Roy dress up as USO girls to infiltrate the army base. Which just goes to show that even a generally good and well meaning satire can support harmful tropes and stereotypes, and the fact that a show is generally good doesn’t negate its screw-ups.)

“Swamp Music”

This particular episode tackles both the white appropriation of Black music (specifically Blues and Jazz) and the appropriation by white activists of the Black struggle–two issues which are, at their core, very much related. In this episode mammals stand in for African Americans, Earl’s son Robbie stands in for white activists, and a dinosaur music producer stands in for…basically the whole of the white American music industry. (They also get in a couple stabs at the sexism in said industry.) Robbie’s friend Spike–who appears to be below the dinosaur poverty line, and who very much appreciates Robbie’s regular access to things like food–decides that Robbie needs a lesson in culture. Specifically, culture that has not been heavily commercialized. So he takes Robbie down to the swamp to hear some swamp music. And Robbie loves it! Robbie convinces the youngest member of the mammal band that they should take the music to a producer, against the band leader’s wishes and Spike’s advice. And the music sells, after a fashion.

Unfortunately, the dinosaur producer has no intention of letting the mammals actually sing the music, or of paying them for it. Instead he steals it and has a dinosaur musician sing it, who older and more culturally-aware minds tell me is supposed to represent Perry Como. To be clear, the only reason I managed to miss that is because my knowledge of Perry Como is limited to “he was mentioned in The Twilight Zone once”.

The musician is literally named Perry Llewellan. Not even trying to be subtle.

Robbie is outraged, not just for the mammals, but for himself–until the mammals point out that it’s not his music that was stolen. They were the ones wronged, not him. He gets the point pretty fast–a lot faster then many white activists seem to, but hey, it’s a half-hour show.

Again, though, this episode ends on a hopeful note, as the mammals decide to start their own record company.

“Changing Nature: The Finale

Did I mention they don’t like corporations? Because they don’t. Like, at all.

Criticism of big business makes its way into just about every episode (The company Earl works for is named “WeSaySo”, let that sink in for a second), but it wasn’t the focus of most of the episodes I talked about here. I think this one will more than make up for that.

In this episode, WeSaySo (specifically Earl and his boss) is just about solely responsible for the beginning of the ice age and the utter destruction of dinosaur civilization.

No, seriously.

They drive a crucial species to extinction to make way for a factory, which throws the entire ecosystem off balance. In an effort to correct this they throw several poorly thought out quick-fixes at the problem, finally blowing up a volcano in order to make it rain. The resulting clouds of smoke and ash block out the sun and cause the ice age.

Throughout the episode Charlene argues with her father and advocates for more well thought out, natural solutions (there’s a pretty heavy emphasis on letting nature figure things out, to be honest). Earl, who has been put in charge of WeSaySo’s environmental task force, ignores her. He refuses to listen to the next generation, eventually ensuring that they will be the last generation.

In general, Dinosaurs is a lot less bitter than a lot of satire. It’s pretty hopeful that things can be turned around, between the main characters and regulars who are trying to fix things, and the tendency to portray Earl as more ignorant than genuinely malicious.

This episode is not like that.

“Changing Nature” is bitter. It has a very clear message, and that message is: “We screwed up, and our kids are going to suffer for it, and if we don’t stop what we are doing and start respecting nature, and do it soon, we as a species are not going to survive.”

Notice I said “we”.

The episode ends with a speech from Earl, who often seems to be the self-deprecating face of the writers. Really, what it is, is an apology, from Earl to his kids, from the writers to the next generation. And honestly, it’s one of the best apologies I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t ask for forgiveness or try to make excuses. It’s just an apology.

 

Dinosaurs is a show about a lot of things. It’s a show about environmentalism, sexism, corporations, racism, and every other issue mentioned above. It’s a show about growing up. And it’s a show about being grown up, watching your kids, and wanting the world to be better for them, to be good for them, wanting them to be prepared to live good lives in the world–and about trying to figure out what exactly any of that means.

And also, it is a satire.

 

Have a satire you would like me to review? Email me at eliora.smith@gmail.com

 

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