Clash of classes on WB

Preview: Stupid moments dull the edge of `Oblongs' social commentary.

March 31, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As someone who has long railed against network television for ignoring social class differences, I should be dancing on the rooftop at the arrival of "The Oblongs," a new animated series on WB about a family of have-nots living in a valley of toxic waste.

The series gets right to it, opening on the front doors of a mansion on a hill. The doors open, and out walks a young, handsome, blond-haired man in a monogrammed bathrobe. He picks up the morning paper, looks at the headline and smiles. The headline says: "Rich Get Richer," and a photo shows a grinning man in a yachting cap holding a bag of money.

The man in the bathrobe goes back into the mansion with his paper, and the front doors close. A moment later, we hear a toilet flush, and the scene shifts to a sewage pipe extending from the mansion down a hill. We follow the pipe down, down, down past signs demarcating "The Hills" from "The Valley" until we see the pipe belch the waste into a sewage pit.

We hear an alarm clock ringing from a small house on the edge of the pit and meet the Oblongs as they start their day in the valley.

This is masterful storytelling instantly mapping the yin and yang of the sitcom universe.

Sitcom dad Bob Oblong (voiced by Will Ferrell of "Saturday Night Live"), reaches out with his chin to silence the ringing alarm, since he has no arms or legs. Despite the disability, he is incredibly upbeat and almost always smoking a pipe like the sitcom dads of yesteryear.

"Ah, another glorious day to be alive. Rise and shine, Pickles, my love," dad says to the woman passed out on the bed next to him with a martini glass in her hand. This is mom (Jean Smart), a bald, alcohol- and tobacco-addicted former resident of the Hills who descended into Valley living after she fell in love with Bob. She still wears - even sleeps in - a big, blond wig that looks like the natural hair of the women in the Hills.

We also meet the Oblong kids: conjoined-twin teen-age sons Chip and Biff (Jason and Randy Sklar), who share three legs and three buttocks; 4-year-old Beth (Jeannie Elias), who has a growth the size of a cucumber atop her head; and Milo (Pamela Segall Adlon), the youngest Oblong boy, described as a "one-haired optimist who has every childhood emotional disorder and behavioral problem ever diagnosed." This is the family, WB tells us, "that put the love in Love Canal." Their condition is a result of toxic waste dumped in the valley by Globocide Industries, the corporation that provides the good life for the folks in the Hills. Bob Oblong works on the assembly line of Globocide. The pilot revolves around Bob's boss telling him the Oblong family has filed too many medical claims. One more, and his health insurance will be canceled.

This is wicked, daring satire. So, why am I not dancing in the streets?

As intelligent as the show based on the underground cartoons of Angus Oblong can be, it also has moments that are incredibly stupid and possibly dangerous to children watching. One such moment in the pilot has a kid playing a trick on Milo by putting a $5 bill on the tip of a downed power line. Milo strolls by, picks up the bill without incident and drops the sandwich he's eating on the line. The trickster picks it up and takes a big bite, lighting up like a Christmas tree. And then she bites into the sandwich again, lighting up again.

It's classic Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote shtick, with the girl perfectly all right in the next frame despite having put a downed power line in her mouth twice.

Downed power lines are too deadly to children in the real world to be joked about on a show that will be watched by children too young or ignorant to know it is not OK to play with such a wire. It's a throwaway scene, and any points it makes about character could have been made in responsible ways.

Being edgy and "out there" doesn't mean you have to endanger the children in your audience.

The other reason I'm not so excited about "The Oblongs" is that social critique in animation does not have the same impact as a live-action series. We simply don't care as much about cartoon characters. "The Simpsons" has been playing many of these same notes for years, and America hasn't changed.

Maybe the measure of how repressive American television is when it comes to social class is that serious discourse about it is only allowed in animated series where there is an element of make-believe or fantasy attached.

`The Oblongs'

When: Tomorrow night at 7:30, 8:30 and 9:30

Where: WNUV (Channel 54)

In brief: A loving family of mutants living the nightmare of the American dream.

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