nostalgia fact-check

How Does Dinosaurs Hold Up?

Earl and Baby Sinclair

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered Heathers, Ally McBeal, Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” and Ghostbusters. Our latest installment: Dinosaurs.

Background: Dinosaurs, a Jim Henson Productions sitcom starring a family of animatronic dinosaurs, joined ABC’s much-beloved TGIF lineup in April 1991. Set in prehistoric Pangaea, which looked pretty much like Earth, give or take a few modern appliances, the show centered on the Sinclair family: Earl, the Megalosaurus father; Fran, his Allosaurus wife; Robbie, their Hypsilophodon teenage son; Charlene, the Proceratops preteen; and Baby, a nubby, unidentifiable mini-dino voiced by Kevin Clash (more famously known as “the Elmo Guy”). The show, buoyed by Baby’s catchphrases, was initially a ratings and merchandise smash, but it was moved to Wednesdays for its second season, it never quite regained its TGIF following, its ratings fell off, and it was canceled in 1994.

Nostalgia Demo: Early-to-middle TGIF fans (anyone born before 1985, basically) and the parents/siblings who dutifully watched with them.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: Like any other civilized, slap-braceleted child born in the eighties, I lived for TGIF. Family Matters, Step by Step, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, and — most important — Full House: I remember planning my Friday nights around these shows, bribing babysitters to let me stay up late enough to watch them and then, in the later years, bribing babysitting charges to go to bed, so I could enjoy them in peace. Dinosaurs, in my mind, is grouped with this lineup: your basic feel-good family show, but with goofy plastic puppets instead of Olsen twins. To be more honest, I remember almost nothing specific about the show except for that awesome (to a tween mind), screaming baby dinosaur. “Not the mama!” “Gotta love me!” “AGAIN!” A recent and totally unscientific survey conducted by this writer confirms that any twentysomething given the prompt “Dinosaurs” will respond with an enthusiastic laugh, followed by one of the Baby’s catchphrases. “Not the mama” is all that most people remember about the show.

And this makes sense. Watching with a pair of adult eyes, Baby Sinclair is the silly TV candy meant to lure younger viewers into what is otherwise a family sitcom with a sneakily serious agenda. “Family sitcom” is key here: Dinosaurs is still a by-the-book show about a normal blue-collar family going about their normal (dinosaur) lives, in a long tradition going back to The Honeymooners. Earl, the hapless father, makes chauvinistic comments but ultimately does the right thing for his family*; Fran, the mom and homemaker, knocks sense into Earl and her children whenever they need it; and the older kids trudge through puberty and teenage angst with a fine-tuned mix of attitude and heart. (Baby just hits people with a frying pan.)

What’s most surprising about the show now is the extent to which the standard family plots take on some larger editorializing: One episode raises questions about dinosaur — and by extension human — marital traditions; in “Unmarried … with Children,” Fran has to learn about and debate the concept of divorce before she can decide it’s not for her. A father-son episode about proper eating habits turns into a defense of vegetarianism and homosexuality, and also features an amusing Bob Dylanosaurus performance of “This Lamb Is Your Lamb” and a did-they-really-just-say-that joke about chlorophyll/semen taste. Pangaean dinosaurs are more wasteful than humans, setting up a steady stream of heavy-handed environmental commentary, and basically every Pangaea disaster can be traced back to the giant, thoroughly evil “WeSaySo” corporation.

Generous helpings of social and political commentary, this New York Times article notes, were still relatively new in 1991: ABC finally allowed Dinosaurs on the air because The Simpsons had successfully been doing a similar shtick for just two seasons. (It’s important to get this out of the way now: The Simpsons not only did it first, they did it better.) But it’s nothing new now. Dinosaurs’ agenda is startlingly obvious to anyone over the age of 13 (you won’t find an Ayn Rand School for Tots or Glenn Gould references anywhere in Pangaea). Far more impressive, however, is the fact that Dinosaurs had an agenda. If the execution doesn’t hold up, the gonzo satire does. Take the two-part episode “Nuts to War,” for example:

Aired in February 1992, the episode parodies the Gulf War with a fairly scathing send-up of the World War II mini-series Winds of War. Instead of oil, the Dinosaurs run out of pistachio nuts, and so the nation of “Dinosaurs Who Walk Normally” launch an offensive against the “four-leggers” across the swamp. All your major Desert Storm players make an appearance: George H.W., reincarnated as the Chief Elder, reassures the nation with a simple slogan: “We Are Right.” Stormin’ Normin barks at sycophantic reporters; the DNN (Dinosaur News Network) anchor can’t show live battle footage, so he stages a reenactment with toy dinosaurs. Meanwhile, the flag for the Nation of Dinosaurs Who Walk Normally features a giant bull’s eye, so that the enlisted soldiers, “mostly teenage boys and the poor,” walk around with a target directly on their uniformed backs. (The uniforms appear to be borrowed from the Harvard Marching Band and were, as Earl notes, “designed by the elder’s unmarried brother Julian.” Dinosaurs: not 100 percent P.C.) Earl and Charlene bring some extra levity with a USO (“Uninhibited Sisters of Other Guys”) plotline that involves an Andrews Sisters Medley performed by Earl in dinosaur drag. And of course, this being a family sitcom, peace and pistachios win the day. Still, it’s not only hard to imagine this airing on ABC in 1992, it’s hard to imagine it airing on ABC now: What would our congressmen say?! It’s fairly jarring to queue up a show best remembered for a mouthy dinobaby and get a puppet lecture about the evils of oil and ownership instead.

“Nuts to War” was probably Dinosaurs at its edgiest, though there are a few other episodes worth mentioning: “Earl’s Big Jackpot,” in which Earl wins a disability claim against WeSaySo to the tune of $800 million, but then is forced to give it back when the overenthusiastic jury awards his boss with an equal amount (Dinosaurs: pro-tort reform); and a personal favorite, “Dirty Dancin’,” in which Robbie has to deal with changes in his teenage body (specifically: boners, or, as they are known in Pangaea, uncontrollable “Mating Dance” urges). Just watch the first scene:

A wet dream cold-open on family television! And a wet dream that involves dinosaur flamenco dancing, no less. If every episode of Dinosaurs lived up to “Nuts to War” or “Dirty Dancing,” we might still be screaming “Not the Mama!” at each another on a regular basis. But unevenness is a major problem: The lesser episodes don’t quite make it past it the kitschy puppet sitcom feel of “Unmarried … with Children,” and the show’s running gags — talking food, zoos full of cavemen — can’t make up for the slightly hokey dialogue and jokes. You can’t help but feel, when watching a random deep cut from Season 2, that you’ve seen this episode before — on Family Matters, or Home Improvement, or maybe even Married … with Children (Earl was kind of a jerk in the early seasons). Also, and with all due respect to Jim Henson’s workshop: In 2011, no matter how impressive the technology, we’ll always watch a puppet show and think “Hey, we have CGI now; wouldn’t it be cool if the words and the mouth matched up?”

At its most ambitious, Dinosaurs is smart, charming, if slightly pat family satire; at its laziest, it’s an interchangeable mid-nineties sitcom with fancy puppets. But as a previously young and clueless fan, I appreciate the attempt to create something more substantive than a TGIF warm-and-fuzzy. In that spirit, let’s go out with one more ambitious moment: the ending. Hats off to the Dinosaurs team for calling it like they saw it, environment-wise, until the very end. Like, the literal end, because they killed off the entire Sinclair family in the final episode. Really! Watch:

And that’s how your favorite TGIF dinobaby bid goodbye to this Earth: in a yellow parka, with his well-meaning father explaining that there’s “nowhere else to go” because dinosaurs–a big bad corporation, helped by Earl himself–have ruined the Earth. R.I.P, Baby Sinclair; we hardly knew ye.

*the right thing until the whole meteor bit at the end, clearly.

How Does Dinosaurs Hold Up?