'Capital Critters' makes timid use of a good idea

January 28, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

THERE IS one daring thing about ABC's new animated political series, "Capitol Critters": the network's decision to launch it at 8:30 tonight (WJZ-TV Channel 13) as a lead-in to the President's State of the Union message.

But that's the end of daring.

As a cartoon, the new Steven Bochco and Hanna-Barbera series about mice living in the basement of the White House is potentially rich material cheapened into knockabout yuks. As politics, the series is so safe and middle-of-the-road that it literally has no point of view. In short, it's a brilliant idea gone silly.

The smart part is all in the concept of the hero, Max, a country mouse from Nebraska. (Max's voice is supplied by Neil Patrick Harris, star of "Doogie Howser, M.D.")

In tonight's opening, Max comes of age on the farm and is sent by his parents on a great journey to the "other side of the river" to gather corn for the family. The trip is a success. But upon his return, Max finds exterminators in the basement of the farmhouse killing his family. Max tries to save his mother, but fails. With her last words she tells him to go to Washington where his cousin, Berkeley, a 1960s granola-head mouse, will take him in. Berkeley lives in the basement of the George Bush White House.

So young Max sets off on another odyssey, this time from the heartland to the nation's capital: Max the mouse goes to Washington.

Yes, it does have the sound of myth and fable. It's the same notion found in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" -- the simple, honest, plain-speaking fella from the heartland come to the nation's capital to cut through all the double-talk, politics and democracy-drifting-off-course.

But it's even deeper than that. It's a cartoon version of the great myth of democracy in the new world. Abe Lincoln, from a log cabin in Illinois to the White House. Dick Nixon from a modest bungalow in Whittier to the White House. What a fertile field of American legend and mythmaking to plow with the blade of satire.

But it's only there in the concept. Once Max gets to the White House, the saga degenerates into "Tom and Jerry" with a presidential cat and a vice presidential cat chasing Max and the other mice around and having all sorts of violent mishaps, like the Coyote in "The Roadrunner" cartoons.

As for actual satire on the presidency, there is almost none. We hear a voice that sounds like George Bush's and see the speaker's shoes and pants legs from mouse-eye-view. But the words have no political significance.

What few political jokes we do get are somewhere between tame and neutered: a "Nixon's the one" button is shown in one of the mouse's homes, a mouse jokes about the endless supply of Billy Beer in the White House kitchen, we are given a vice presidential cat that seems especially inept and stupid as a foil for the mice (though no direct comparisons are made to Dan Quayle).

Tonight's episode does try to deal with race relations and satirize prejudice, as Max visits the world of the cockroaches in the White House. But it loses its nerve in a hurry.

To be a success, the story of Max the mouse needs to work on two levels: It has to enthrall kids with slapstick cartoon nutsiness and impress their parents with its political smarts and daring. It's a tough combination to pull off. "Capitol Critters" looks to have lost its way in the politics of a network TV industry afraid to offend the powers that control its licenses to make money off our airwaves.

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