ABC's INVENTIVE new "Dinosaurs" has all the ingredients of a breakout hit -- a great premise, a gimmicky hook, good characters, solid ideas, fine writing, extraordinary production values. But it shows in its premiere episode that it still has to adjust the seasoning a little if it's going to become a staple of the American television diet.
"Dinosaurs" was hatched in the fertile mind of the late Jim Henson, and now his son, Brian, and successful sitcom producer Michael Jacobs ("My Two Dads," "Charles in Charge") are bringing it to reality. A sitcom about a dinosaur clan, the Sinclairs, whose father, Earl, has a family tree that includes Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson, the series stars some of the most sophisticated electronically animated puppets ever produced.
It's set in 60 million B.C. when dinosaurs are at the top of the evolutionary chain and plan to stay there by settling down and raising families. Earl has a housewife, Fran, a punk teen-age son, Robbie, an acquisitive daughter, Charlene, and, in the premiere episode, a new egg on the way.
But civilization has only a toehold on the dinosaurs' consciousness. As they muddle and waddle through various domestic dramas, they will encounter all-too-human dilemmas. They will also encounter some humans, cave men who are distinctly less advanced than the dinosaurs.
Throughout the premiere -- tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 13 (WJZ) as ABC has placed the show in its two-hour block of kiddie hits -- "Dinosaurs" displays a nice edge and a sharp wit.
Earl is basically fed up with the responsibilities of being a father and breadwinner and, after an encounter with his boss -- a mean triceratops named B.P. Richfield -- he loses his job knocking down trees for a tract developer.
So when he learns that his wife has layed another egg, he heads for the woods, determined to live the simple, rugged life of his forebears. Following an encounter with a would-be prey, he is lured by Fran's home cooking back to his house where the hatch of his new baby reawakens in Earl the joys of domesticity.
As good as "Dinosaurs" is, throughout this initial half hour you have the feeling it could be better. It's as if writer Jacobs is trying too hard to make these dinosaurs into distinctive characters, with the result that they verge on caricatures. Since the creatures are already larger-than-life, the writing should be trying to tone them down a bit, but it sometimes does just the opposite.
Also, the resemblance to "The Simpsons" cannot be overlooked. Earl is too close to Homer for comfort, a lovable buffoon who wants a beer after a hard day at work. With a reassuring stay-at-home wife, a punky, smart aleck son and a baby, the parallels seem more than coincidental.
Though Jacobs can claim the common ancestry of Kramden and Bunker for both Homer and Earl, it was not the wisest move to bring puppetry to prime time with basically the same set of characters that just succeeded in bringing animation to that arena.
That said, there is no doubt that these dinosaurs are compelling, interesting creatures. Just looking at them is fascinating enough as they employ the same sort of techniques that the Henson shop developed for the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movies -- a person in a suit with complex electronic controls manipulating the facial expressions.
Henson and company have downplayed the technical aspects to protect the magic of the dinosaurs, but, no matter how they work, they should have kids and adults looking on agog, especially since they are on film, not tape, and are not accompanied by a laugh track.
Right now, you wouldn't mind them living next door, but you might hesitate before asking them over for dinner. Because wait until you see what they eat.
*** The Sinclairs, a family of dinosaurs created in the Henson creature factory, try to figure out what civilization is all about.
CAST: Voices of Sally Struthers, Sherman Hemsley, Kevin Clash
TIME: Fridays at 8:30.
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)