LOS ANGELES THE PRESS CONFERENCES about various mid-season television shows drone on one after another. Stars and %o producers parade by, all promising new and different but sounding all too old and the same.
The parade of mediocrity creates a certain aural numbness that can be difficult to penetrate. But not too far into the press conference for ABC's "Dinosaurs," some long-dormant, and perhaps on the verge of dying, brain cells were awakened.
Suddenly you begin to realize that this is something genuinely different, not just the same old sitcom in new wrapping paper. Though there's not a foot of film to see, this show could be the next step after "The Simpsons," the half hour that will get people to have those did-you-see-it-last-night? conversations.
"Dinosaurs" is the first major product to come out of the Henson Company since its founder and guiding force, Jim Henson, died last year. It is a joint venture between Henson and the Disney Company, even though plans for Disney to buy Henson fell through in the wake of that death. Brian Henson, Jim's son, is the series' co-executive producer.
The series will be populated by a family of dinosaurs currently under construction at Henson's creature shop in London. But this is not your ordinary run-of-the-archaeological-site dinosaur clan. These are dinosaurs based on the fantasy that the huge lizards continued to evolve and rule the Earth, leaving man for a subordinate role.
"The critical idea behind the show is to compare what might have happened had the dinosaurs evolved to what you might call 1991 B.C.," explained Michael Jacobs, the show's executive producer.
"They are the great consumers. They don't know about any holes in the ozone layer. They eat and drink and make merry and they abuse the world they live in much as we have. And we know the penalty that the dinosaurs paid for it, but certainly they don't know. They expect to rule this world forever."
The family at the center of "Dinosaurs" will be headed by Earl and Fran Sinclair. They will have a baby, in the pilot, their third child, joining 14-year-old bohemian Robbie and 12-year-old material girl Charlene.
"It is set in what would be dinosaur Levittown," said Jacobs, who created the shows "Charles in Charge" and "My Two Dads."
"Earl, who's a very bombastic leading man, works for the Wesaso Corporation, which is the giant conglomerate of the day. He is a 'tree-knocker' which is a very entry-level sort of position that he has been doing for 24 years. He knocks down trees to clear out the natural eyesores so they can create lovely cave pueblo dwellings and high-rises they can live in once they get rid of all the forests."
Human beings have shown up on the scene, but they play second fiddle to the dinosaurs in the evolution symphony.
"The dinosaurs relate to the cavemen as we relate to cows," Jacobs said. "You know, you point them out as you drive by, but certainly you wouldn't step up to one of them and speak to it. The cavemen are basically the evolving comic relief of the day. The dinosaurs are the more serious-minded adventurer characters."
Jacobs said that the dinosaurs do enjoy playing jokes on the cavemen, such as having their craftsmen make huge papier-mache bones for the cavemen to find, and pulling down painted scrims of mountains and trees so they can take Polaroid shots that exaggerate their size.
"One of the things we are having a lot of fun doing is charting the evolution of human history in front of the dinosaurs," he said. "For example, on a lunch break, Earl and his best friend Roy will glance off to see one of the cavemen banging two rocks together and getting a spark.
"His mate will be looking on in awe as he gets that spark and another spark. And caveman, sensing a great moment in human history, will hold the rocks up to the heavens. And we pull the camera back and there's Earl with a Bic butane lighter.
"If the show works, the audience will associate more with the dinosaur population than the cavemen who will be played by human actors. That's because the dinosaurs will be the metaphor for what we are now."
And the fact that they are a metaphor, Jacobs thinks, will allow "Dinosaurs" to use its fantasy world to make some very realistic statements.
"The audience will tolerate a metaphor much more than they will something thrown in their face," Jacobs said.
According to the 27-year-old Henson, this idea started several years ago with his father but didn't really get going until the partnership with Disney and Jacobs was forged.
"It was always an idea of his that was just a little too wacky, but now we know we can do it," Brian Henson said, explaining that the format came out of meetings between his father and Jacobs. "Obviously, then, I got involved.
"It brings together a lot of his ideals into one program, some of the stuff he was doing with 'The Storyteller,' some of the stuff he was doing in 'The Dark Crystal' and in some of his movies, together with the type of entertainment from 'The Muppet Show.' I know he would love it, actually."
ABC has ordered 13 episodes. With filming scheduled to begin in March, they could show up on the air in April, perhaps running into the summer.
"So far it's been a complete labor of love," Jacobs said. "We really hope this works because it's going to be very different than anything you've seen on TV."
That's a promise a lot of producers make, but it sounds like Jacobs and Henson might deliver on it with "Dinosaurs."