Considering the new HBO Friday night line-up (with The Ricky Gervais Show and Life & Times of Tim), Fox's Sunday Night "Animation Domination," and Adult Swim, I think it's safe to say that Americans have embraced cartoons for adults. We no longer believe that animation is strictly for children; instead, we give animated series a fighting chance, and openly enjoy comedy that isn't live-action. I'd like to think that if The Critic was created today, it would have been a hit, as opposed to the flop it was back in the mid-'90s.
As I'm sure you remember, The Critic revolved around the life of film critic/host of a TV review show, Coming Attractions, Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz). The show featured parodies of movies, poking fun at ridiculous sequels and the over-commercialization of the film industry. With spoofs of popular movies like The Lion King (with The Cockroach King), Forrest Gump (with Forrest Gump 2: Gump Harder), and the Arnold Schwarzenegger franchise in general (with Rabbi P.I.), as well as recurring jokes about Orson Welles' career, the Critic took no prisoners when it came to its endless mocking -- Leno haters will be pleased to know that the show was making fun of the late night host years before the rest of the world boycotted him. The series was also chockfull of catchphrases, jokes about religion, obesity, the government and New York City society. Interestingly, according to IMDB, "The show was meant as a 'love letter to NYC' by the show's creators and producers. Ironically, it received very low ratings in NYC, as well as other major cities in the U.S., but did extremely well in the Midwest." Hatchie-matchie!
Created by Simpsons veterans Al Jean and Mike Reiss, The Critic aired on ABC in 1994 and Fox in 1995. The show was canceled after only two seasons (though nine scripts were written for UPN, but that deal never panned out). Comedy Central has occasionally run episodes of the series in syndication, but for the most part, besides ten webisodes only available on DVD, the show is totally over. After the cancellation of The Critic, Jean and Reiss went on to make Teen Angel together, a live-action series that briefly appeared on ABC's TGIF line-up. (I digress: I distinctly remember loving that show, but I'm sure it doesn't hold up at all anymore.) Perhaps the most famous Critic alum is Judd Apatow, who created Freaks and Geeks not long after the show was cancelled.
While some of the gags were downright hilarious (like "Buy my book!", Duke's kaleidoscope vision, and "Penguins can't fly!"), The Critic heavily relied on its character development. We got to see both the obnoxious side of Jay Sherman and his tender, lovable side, especially with his sister Margo and son Marty. Jokes about Jay's ex-wife Ardeth were good for the occasional chuckle, but Alice (Jay's Season Two girlfriend)-centric episodes were more interesting and generally more enjoyable. Critic writers searched for both the silliness and the happiness in every story, and though crude jokes were aplenty, they worked as part of a larger piece. It's worth mentioning that though the show featured lots of fun celebrity cameos and ridiculous impersonations (a style later adopted by South Park), the voice acting in The Critic aimed for excellence. My personal favorite actors were Doris Grau (Jay's hair and makeup woman Doris Grossman, as well as The Simpsons' Lunch Lady Doris) and Christine Cavanaugh (voice of Marty, and just about every other cartoon character I've ever loved).
Real critics agreed that the show was underrated. In fact, The Critic was the only TV show Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ever reviewed, though they did say that it needed to focus more on the movie parodies and less on sitcom staples. Still, the duo guest starred in one of the series' best episodes, "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice."
While there's no doubt that Jay Sherman's universe heavily influenced other animated series with its cut-away gags and celebrity-obsession, The Critic owes a lot of its current success to Seth MacFarlane. Due to the success Family Guy's DVD sales, Fox rushed to release The Critic on DVD. The series achieved good sales, was highly popular on Amazon, and went through five issuings. The show's relationship with The Simpsons, however, was a bit more complicated.
As the story goes, Simpson veterans Al Jean and Mike Reiss left their highly popular series to create The Critic. While crossovers caused tension with Matt Groening, the Jay Sherman episode, A Star Is Burns, is now a classic. The drama has since been smoothed over, and at one point on the Simpsons' Season Three commentary, Matt Groening says he thought it was great Al Jean and Mike Reiss got to do The Critic, since they could finally write all the film parodies they wanted. Though, based on its flop, Jean's response is pretty much, "Look how far that got us."
I highly recommend Critic fans check out its Wikipedia page, as other enthusiasts of the cult following wrote pretty impressive descriptions of each character. For those of you who don't have the DVDs, you can find plenty of episodes on YouTube, as they have miraculously stayed up for several years now. For now, I leave you with my favorite musical number from The Critic, "Beauty and King Dork."