When it comes to films, many people ignore the critics since they seem to get it wrong, though there are some things they get right. For years, though, critics were idolized because they were the people who knew what was real and what was crap. They knew just what movies were supposed to be idolized, and what movies were supposed to be hated. Naturally, critics were ripe for satire.
Enter the ABC series The Critic which is about the life of the melancholy mensch of movies, Jay Sherman, voiced by Jon Lovitz. Jay is a film critic with a show called Coming Attractions for the Phillips Broadcast Network. Jay is bald, overweight and divorced, all of which forces him to find solace through criticizing things, both on and off the movie screen. His knack for being overtly critical makes him somewhat of an unlikeable protagonist. He seems to be one of the last honest critics left in the business. The nicest people to him are his son Marty, voiced by Christine Cavanaugh, and his movie star friend Jeremy Hawke, voiced by Maurice LaMarche.
Aside from this, most other people, even the random New Yorkers he meets on the street, cause him as much grief as holidays do for Charlie Brown. The pilot episode of the series sees Jay start dating a movie star named Valerie Fox, voiced by Jennifer Lien, who is a caricature of Sharon Stone’s role as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. To prolong the relationship and avoid the eventual break-up, Jay puts off seeing her movie. However, she turns out to be so phenomenally bad in it, he knows he has to do the right thing and review the movie poorly. She reveals her true intention which was to sleep with him so he would give her a great review, something foreseen by his adoptive mother Eleanor, voiced by Judith Ivey.
While much of the episode is spent focusing on the development of Jay and Valerie’s relationship, one of the tender moments comes from a spoof on the ballroom dancing scene in the Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast. During the scene, Jay is home pretending to be sick so he won’t have to see Valerie’s movie. She and Jay dance while his vacuum and toilet bowl sing “Beauty and King Dork”, named for something that was spray-painted on his car earlier in the episode. It’s beautiful because it shows that despite what the world may think of him, Jay is a lovable guy capable of loving more than artsy films like those of Wes Anderson.
Season 1 of The Critic had a different tone than the episodes from Season 2 on FOX and the much later online shorts. Jay is a character you root for in the same sense that you root for Rhoda Morgenstern from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You know the character is doing the best they can but the world seems to be hell-bent on making them miserable. Listening to Jay’s self-deprecating remarks about how unliked he is, are like listening to your best friend when they’ve had a bad day. Most of the episodes show Jay being better-off ever after, as seen in the second episode of the series, “Marty’s First Date.”
In this episode, Jay’s son Marty begins dating the daughter of the Cuban diplomat to the United Nations. However, in order to remain close to her, he stores away on her plane to Cuba. Jay, however, has to go the longer route. After being detained in an airport, his show frightens people and the station runs a disclaimer that he is mentally ill. He is then mistaken for a mental patient, and is sent on a boat for the mentally ill. While on the boat, he marries a woman he met there for citizenship, though she is never seen again. In the end, Marty gets the girl while Jay is last seen about to be killed by firing squad for insulting Fidel Castro. But then he mentions he reviewed The Mambo Kings highly, which apparently gives him a stay of execution.
Many episodes of The Critic featured their own original plots, while other episodes include a bevy of movie parodies in them, as evidenced by the fourth episode of Season 1, “Miserable.” In this episode, spring is in the air, as is romance, but Jay seems to be in for lust when a film projectionist falls in love with him. At first, it seems the lowly critic will finally get the girl until it’s revealed she has a psychotic obsession with him that includes tying him to her bed. She does this so he will tell her what the good movies are. While the episode’s plot bears a resemblance to the 1990 hit film, Misery, there are many other film parodies loaded into the episode such as one resembling the scene where Mookie throws a trash can into Saul’s window from the 1989 film Do The Right Thing.
Jeremy ends up saving Jay after the woman repeatedly threatens to kill him. However, she is released from prison in Texas, where it’s apparently not illegal to kill a film critic, and Jay wants to date her again, only because she was willing to have sex with him.
Other disastrous relationships in the show include a non-romantic one, that between Jay and his mother, Eleanor. She is quite the complex character in that she is a former debutante turned society wife to Franklin Sherman. At one point in the series, Eleanor forces her daughter Margo to be a debutante by threatening to shoot her horse, and also reveals she is an excellent shot. In another episode, Jay and Eleanor are interviewed on Geraldo Rivera’s show but after she embarrasses him, he yells at her. All of New York shuns him, more than usual. Even Vlada, the owner of the restaurant he frequents, L’Ane Riche (which really means The Wealthy Jackass), tries to make him feel better, while telling the waiter to serve Jay “the tainted clams.” Jay apologizes to his mother and realizes that despite being a conniving, selfish wretch, she is his mother that loves him.
During the show’s run, Jay continually attempts to prove he can be more than just a critic. During the eighth episode of the series, “Marathon Mensch,” Jay attempts to prove he can be masculine after his elderly makeup woman Doris, played by Doris Grau, saves him from a fire on the set of his show. He tries to run the New York Marathon and instead takes over a week to do it. At one point during the series, Jay was fired from his job for not promoting chewing tobacco. With no other way to make money, he decides to become a truck driver. Jay’s unusually rock hard butt makes him a hero after he delivers a bunch of textbooks for New York City Public Schools in under 24 hours.
Throughout the series, Jay always was striving for new heights of criticism, even when he decided to win another Pulitzer. He was fired from his job for the first time during this season, but bounced back after becoming the host of the public access show “English for Cab Drivers.” The Pulitzer Prize committee finds that all critics have sold out and there is no one doing honest criticism anymore. However, when Jay begins a rant about how movie studios will stop making bad movies if people stop going to bad movies, he is celebrated throughout the film world—except by movie studio executives, who jump out of their office windows like it’s the stock market crash of 1929.
One of the more light-hearted episodes of the show was when Doris and Jay become friends after seeing a bad theatrical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Doris and Jay spend the day together and later learn it’s possible that Doris might be Jay’s mother in the seventh episode, which is the only one where they get along. The first season is arguably the best because when Jay is unhappy, this show was hilarious. Though the show has since developed a cult following, it was cancelled after a single season, only to find itself renewed for a second season on FOX. However, before they would commit to it, the show would have to find a lighter tone than the original first season. This included the addition of Alice, played by Park Overall, who develops a relationship with Jay as the season goes on.
The show was not as bittersweet as the first season but did start relying more on Jay’s career rather than his personal life as a source of comedy. In the second episode of the newly revamped series, “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice,” Jay becomes the newest partner after acclaimed critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert break up. Alice and Jay’s relationship took away from the usually comedic plots centered around Jay’s unlikability to women. Another change to the second season was a lighter animating style. During the second season, the characters got a little shorter and things were a little brighter for Jay. He was still tormented by his life as much as Liz Lemon, which kept the show close to what it originally was.
Jay also became a little more modest instead of being a bit pompous and often snarky to people. He is shown living in a smaller, less glamorous apartment as compared to his first one which had a terrace and floor to ceiling windows. Modesty is a quality that in the right character can make for a good change to a series, but Jay Sherman was not that character. What the show made up for in light-heartedness, it lost in edge as the character of Jay Sherman was now just a regular guy. To that, I say no! The Critic showed a man who viewed himself as the top of the heap of the film world. However, the consistent reminder that he is the most hated person in the species made him humble.
The changes to the show were okay, but, this was not enough to keep the show on the air as FOX cancelled it after its second season. What became the series finale was a clip show, which would have been suitable had the show gotten a third season, but instead looks back on the movie parodies from the show’s run. While a third season on another network would have been nice, all we got are a series of brief webisodes that only featured Jay and his new makeup woman, Jennifer. These focused more on the movie parodies than on an actual plot, like a full episode would.
It’s a shame that The Critic had to be subject to not one but two cancellations but it lives on through YouTube and other DVD releases. The Critic was such a great model for later animated shows, mostly those created by Seth MacFarlane, like Family Guy and American Dad, which rely on cutaway gags to be funny. However, The Critic’s naturally snappy comedy and willingness to satire Hollywood in the wackiest ways, makes it such a memorable show. Now if there were a revival, I think that might make life just a bit better.