Two Big, Sarcastic Thumbs Up

Canceled after only one season on ABC in 1994, then dropped by Fox after 10 episodes the following year, The Critic is one of television's great lost causes. If the world were just, the series would have enjoyed a run as long as The Simpsons; it had more wit in a five-second aside than Family Guy does in an entire show. Reruns were used as filler on Comedy Central, and a vastly inferior, Web-only spin-off debuted on shockwave.com in 2000, but Columbia TriStar's new three-DVD boxed set -- which includes all 23 episodes -- is what The Critic's fan base has really been clamoring for.

The show featured the incomparable Jon Lovitz as the voice of Jay Sherman, an overweight, curmudgeonly film critic equal parts Ebert and Maltin. "Your job is to rate movies on a scale from good to excellent," his boss Duke Phillips (Charles Napier) told him in the first episode. "What if I don't like them?" Jay asked. "That's what good's for."

With Mel Brooks in quasi-retirement, The Critic was our generation's surest bet for merciless, rapid-fire parody. Jay reviewed such films as Rabbi P.I., with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cop undercover in the Hasidic community ("Hava nagila, baby!"); the director's cut of JFK (featuring two hours of new footage); and Children of a Lesser Godzilla ("Godzilla's not so bad! He just can't hear you."). Other parodies included Honey, I Laminated the Kids, Dennis the Menace II Society, Howard Stern's End, and Snow Man (a sequel to Rain Man).

Because there were only 23 episodes--watched over and over by Critic junkies--many of the funniest bits have begun to feel like classics. There was the time when Jay lost his job and went to work on the show English for Cabdrivers ("This morning I was going to teach you how to say, 'He was already dead when I hit him.'"). There was the time it took him 17 hours to complete the New York City marathon (as the newscaster tells us, it only takes 13 hours to walk). There was the immortal flashback where young Jay is beaten up by his peers, at the High School for Performing Arts, who haven't responded well to criticism.

The show also had great running gags--the uproarious "technical difficulties" cards; Jay trying, and failing, to set an example for his nerdy son Marty; Jay's father's senility-induced antics; and of course, frequent clips from the later works of Orson Welles ("Rosebud. Yes, Rosebud frozen peas. Full of country goodness and green peaness.").

Some episodes were especially novel. In one of the best shows, Siskel and Ebert had a falling out and competed to have Jay as their new partner--mainly to get Rex Reed off their asses. All the critics did their own voices. (That episode, titled "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice," has acquired a retroactive poignancy; if you don't fall out of your chair laughing, it's hard not to get teary at the shot of Ebert sitting alone on his seesaw, in need of a friend.) Jay also appeared in a hilarious installment of The Simpsons--not, alas, included in The Critic boxed set--to serve on the jury of the Springfield Film Festival.

Judged on Jay's Shermometer--a rating scale he always hated--The Critic DVD set is about as hot as they come.

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