Al Jean, animated show, blogathon, critic, Ebert, film critic, film critics, Gene Siskel, it stinks, Jay Sherman, Jon Lovitz, Matt Groening, Mike Reiss, movie critics, Roger Ebert, Siskel, Siskel and Ebert, siskel and ebert and jay and alice, siskel and ebert blogathon, television animation, television review, The Critic, The Simpsons, tv review
Well lookee here, I’m participating in another blogathon! This time it’s 18cinemalane’s Siskel & Ebert At The Blogathon, which honors the iconic film critic duo of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. For my part, I decided to look at something Siskel & Ebert-related that doesn’t get as much attention as their reviews.
For those of you who are unaware, The Critic was a short-lived but popular animated series by The Simpsons writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss. It aired on ABC in 1994 before moving to Fox for its second and final season in 1995. It centers on Jay Sherman, the titular film critic (played by Jon Lovitz) and his life, focusing mainly on the colorful cast of friends, family and coworkers, and the many, many bad movies he’s stuck reviewing.
The highest compliment I can give The Critic is that it combines the best of The Simpsons (no big surprise there) and the best of Family Guy; its humor bounces between hilarious parodies of contemporary and classic films, playful dialogue, and zany surreal moments that you can only get away with in animation. Its characters are just as good as the casts from either of the aforementioned shows, and there’s barely a stinker in the entire series’ run. But perhaps the most fondly remembered episode is Season 2’s “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice”, aka, the one that stars Siskel and Ebert playing themselves.
Siskel and Ebert are not the first recognized film critics to be featured in this series; Rex Reed and Gene Shallit also appeared multiple times. They even have a few lines in this very episode. As a matter of fact, Siskel and Ebert reviewed the first few episodes of The Critic on their show – and gave it a thumbs down. This isn’t a reflection of the series or their judgement, however. The problem is ABC aired the episodes out of order. After the pilot was supposed to come the official second episode “Miserable”, a humorous take on Stephen King’s Misery, but for whatever reason they showed the less interesting “Marty’s First Date” instead. It affected Siskel and Ebert’s view of the show overall despite their high praise for the movie spoof segments. But how does their premiere in the world of prime-time animated television hold up?
It’s Oscar season, and Jay kicks off his show promising a look at some forgotten contenders, “Children of a Lesser Godzilla” and “Planet of the Dogs”. Trust me, both these clips are funnier than they sound. Afterwards, Jay’s boss and Ted Turner spoof Duke Phillips (voiced by the late great Charles Napier), tells him he’s flying him out to Hollywood for the Oscars, but he won’t be able to fly first class this year. I’d make some kind of joke about the poor quality of lower-class air travel but this episode beats me to the punch. The airplane from Airplane! looks like a more pleasant ride by comparison.
Jay invites his girlfriend Alice to come with him. They land in L.A. and immediately run into Siskel and Ebert. You can tell something’s rotten in the state of California as the two don’t want to travel together and pester Jay to join them instead. Though we don’t know what caused this rift to form, the seeds of discord and foreshadowing are already planted.
Jay and Alice make it to the Oscars, and with it comes a barrage of great jokes directed at the overindulgent pageantry of the ceremony. I think my favorite has to be Jay discovering the statuettes are really made of chocolate and devouring one before he goes onstage to present it. It’s so ridiculously simple and funny I almost wish the writers who try to make up jokes for the real Oscars had come up with it first.
Next comes a musical tribute to film critics that the critics themselves are a part of. Oh, did I mention that this is a musical episode? The songs don’t take up the bulk up the episode, but they’re short and entertaining. Reed, Shallit, Ebert and Siskel have their moments in this one as previously mentioned, but really it’s all buildup to the punchline where Jay winds up saying his infamous “It stinks!” catchphrase at the worst possible time.
On the plane ride home, Siskel and Ebert watch “Snow Man”, a ripoff of Rain Man, but they have differing opinions on it. It devolves into a petty argument over bad movies each one has enjoyed in the past, namely Carnosaur and Benji The Hunted. I looked it up and Siskel and Ebert were indeed split over these films. Good to know the writers did their homework. The two come to blows in a cartoony brawl that references both Air Force One and the infamous Nightmare From 20,000 Feet episode of The Twilight Zone.
Silly or not, that fight is the last straw. Siskel and Ebert’s big breakup shocks the airwaves. An exposé news show presents a mock version of how the two got started, presenting them as boys who gave roadside movie reviews like kids running a lemonade stand. This scene also highlights a common criticism with their review style; when they can’t agree on a film’s merit, how do you form your own opinion on it (apart from, you know, seeing the film yourself?)
Siskel and Ebert start looking for new partners, but the candidates aren’t quite up to snuff; one melts like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark after watching 30 seconds of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mrs. Doubtfire, and Siskel susses out another who praises a Tim Allen Disney flick is really the devil in disguise. Satan reveals his true form and declares though he’s won this round they’ll meet again. I know when Gene Siskel died Roger Ebert said he’d be saving the aisle seat for him in that great movie theater in the sky, but based on this gag I like to imagine that they’re both embroiled in an eternal struggle against the forces of Hell to ensure mankind will never have to endure another Foodfight or Garbage Pail Kids Movie. The mental image Siskel and Ebert battling the Lord of Darkness for humanity’s cinematic soul is one that’s worthy of a heavy metal album cover.
Jay is determined to criticize by Siskel and/or Ebert’s sides. Duke warns him that he’ll be fired if he even considers leaving his station, but with some encouragement from Alice, Jay sets out to prove himself in another song, this time parodying Barbra Streisand’s iconic “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl.
Jay begins stalking Siskel and Ebert in increasingly outlandish ways. Eventually he worms his way into their good graces and receives calls from both critics to join them on their new shows. But it doesn’t go as well as he hoped. Siskel insists something isn’t right and dresses up Jay to look like Ebert, and Ebert is more interested in sharing photos of him and Siskel than discussing film. It’s obvious the two miss each other to the point of obsession.
Jay storms out of each scenario in tears, and this is where we get the most remembered part of the episode – Siskel and Ebert singing. What you are about to watch is in fact real.
Even though the clip is short, it’s only half of the song. Duke, who’s heartbroken over losing Jay, takes up the second part. In hindsight this scene is heartwarming and tragic; one can imagine how much it came up when Siskel and Ebert died to underline how deep their friendship and partnership was.
Jay and Alice come to the conclusion that Siskel and Ebert really are meant for each other and conspire to get them back together. Jay impersonates Woody Allen (boy, the references to Soo-Yi have not aged well) and invites them to the top of the Empire State Building for a private dinner and interview without saying the other’s coming too. Once the critics arrive and see each other again, they instantly know what’s up, and they state it in what might be my favorite piece of dialogue in the episode:
E: Aw, this is just a ripoff of “Sleepless in Seattle”…
S: Which was in and of itself a ripoff of “An Affair To Remember”…
S&E:…which wasn’t that good of a movie to start with!
With that shared bit of critical snark, Siskel and Ebert realize they’re a great team after all and make up. And this installment of The Critic ends on the best meta joke possible – Siskel and Ebert on the set of At The Movies reviewing the episode they were just in. They more or less give it their initial thoughts on The Critic itself: that the parodies were funny but the story didn’t make much sense.
As a rule Siskel and Ebert never played themselves in fictional media; so for them to appear in this show, especially one that they originally criticized, is something special. Their acting is all right, but I really appreciate how willing they were to take a couple of potshots at themselves. If I had to nitpick anything about the episode, it’s that feels more like a Season One outing in that the amount of jokes the writers wanted to cram in takes precedence over the pacing. Yet they’re still great jokes and many of them help get the plot points across. All in all, it’s a good-natured ribbing of two of the most respected film critics of all time that also shows just why they worked so well together. Give it a watch, and by all means check out the rest of The Critic too. It most certainly does not stink.
Thanks for reading, and a very special thank you to 18cinemalane for letting me take part in her blogathon! Be sure to check out her blog and the other entries of this event!
If you like what you read and wish to support me, then please consider signing up to my Patreon. Patrons get great perks including early access to blog posts, extra movie review votes and more. If I reach my goal of $100 a month, I can return to writing weekly tv series reviews! Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani, and Sam Minden for their contributions!