Age-old dilemma: Will 'Dinosaurs' amuse?

April 26, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Think of Ralph Kramden, from "The Honeymooners," as a dinosaur living in the year 60,000,003 B.C. OK, it takes some thinking. But that's the idea behind "Dinosaurs," the much-anticipated ABC show that premieres at 8:30 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

The sitcom about a blue-collar family of dinosaurs, the Sinclairs, living in prehistoric times is co-produced by Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson. That's one reason there has been so much advance word-of-mouth: The dinosaurs were made in Henson's Creature Shop where the Muppets and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created.

Like the Turtles, the dinosaurs are humans inside outer shells. The five creatures that comprise the Sinclair family look more like friendly bullfrogs with horns than dinosaurs.

There's Earl Sinclair, the blustery hard-hat father; mother Fran, who is a lot like Ralph's wife, Alice Kramden, and their three children, Robbie, 14, Charlene, 12, and a baby that is hatched in tonight's episode. Robbie seems a bit like Bart Simpson, with a lot of talk about his underachieving.

Those kind of self-conscious references to the Kramdens, "The Simpsons" and "The Flintstones," for that matter, are some of the things that don't feel right about the pilot.

Michael Jacobs, Henson's co-producer, said he hopes the show will be a crossover hit the way "ALF" was. "ALF" started out as a show for kids but then adults discovered it, he explained, and found it also played at a hip, smart level with many informed references to pop culture.

That's what Jacobs says he's going for: Hook the kids with the Henson creatures, but keep the jokes and references working on that other level for adults.

It's a sound strategy. But "ALF" was never this obvious about trying to be hip. Furthermore, ALF's status as an alien made it seem natural for him to stand outside our culture and comment on it. Tonight's "Dinosaurs," on the other hand, feels very forced in that direction -- to the point where some kids might feel left out.

What counts is the kids and the critters. Will kids like this newest batch of Henson creatures? Will the dinosaurs connect with that magical place where a child's imagination lives?

I think kids will like the Sinclairs, if Jacobs pulls in his intellectual horns and plays directly to them. Hip and smart are nice. But it's not what ABC's hit Friday night lineup is about.

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