Because the pandemic has pinned so many of us in place, either walling us away from our families or claustrophobically trapping us in with them, I’ve been thinking nostalgically about the simplicity of the family sitcom. The usual family sitcom features gentle plots in an aggressively “normal” home with a cluster of iconic features (the Connors’ couch quilt, the Cosby Show’s staircase), always returning to a safe and achievable status quo. This is not the present American situation. As we Zoom with the people we would otherwise hug and cope with the unseen biological danger, economic shrapnel, and political fallout of these shut-in days, I’ve had déjà vu. I’ve felt something like this before, some adulterated version of the family sitcom that shook me up because the stakes under the veneer of normalcy were off. It finally hit me when Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested some weeks ago that the elderly were prepared to sacrifice themselves for the economy.* I was catapulted back to a point in the spring of 1991 when, staring horrified at my television screen, I watched the grandmother in a family sitcom fix herself up beautifully in order to be thrown off a cliff.
I wasn’t expecting to suddenly remember the “Hurling Day” episode of the 1991 ABC sitcom Dinosaurs. But if I had my druthers, the series—starring the Sinclairs, a blue-collar family of enormous-eyed animatronic dinosaurs in Pangaea—would be streaming on every available service during the pandemic. I’ve been thinking about the show not just because the concept is silly or because of the incredible actors who lent their voices to it, including Jessica Walter as Fran, the patient, beleaguered mom, and frequent cameos by the likes of Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tim Curry, and Michael McKean. The reason I’ve had Dinosaurs on the brain is that the show combines the perfectly normal and low-stakes suburban problems we’re all used to with a jarring resignation to death. That juxtaposition resonates differently at a time when a locked-down America is baking sourdough bread while tens of thousands die.
Dinosaurs started in 1991, a couple of years after The Simpsons. It wasn’t subtle in its humor or its messaging. The baby bashed its father on the head with a frying pan while the show tackled everything from the evils of television to the Gulf War to the stigma against homosexuality, the latter coded as vegetarianism and pacifism in the series. (The episode in question has Robbie, the teenage son, discovering he might like vegetables and cavorting with hippies who advocate “giving peas a chance” despite his father’s lectures on the carnivorous natural order of things.) The analogies were as leaden as the puppets were unwieldy and waggly and expressive. But because the basic setup was so conventional—stressed-out dad, smart mom stagnating in her own lost potential, bratty kids—I didn’t realize, as a child, how much the sadness I felt after watching a Dinosaurs episode wasn’t accidental but deliberately engineered.
Dinosaurs is often regarded as dark because of its quietly apocalyptic ending: The series finale has the family preparing to go extinct thanks to a new ice age brought on by corporate greed. But the show exposed the ugly undercurrents of American sitcoms long before its bleak end. It did so by combining the genre’s low-stakes concerns with high-stakes questions of life and death that Dinosaurs’ characters take casually in stride. The problems are pretty ordinary: Earl wants a raise. Fran wants the family to watch less TV. Charlene gets made fun of at school because she’s the only girl who hasn’t “grown her tail.” Meanwhile, the refrigerator is stocked with living animals who scream and scrabble for release every time Fran casually reaches for an ingredient. (There’s no actual animosity here, which is of course part of the sitcom’s incidental horror. Fran takes their screams in stride, and they’re pretty helpful in return, handing her whatever she needs.) Though Fran and Earl suffer greatly when the baby is temporarily taken from them—within the ordinary spectrum of sitcom feeling—they also refer casually, and without apparent pain, to two children of theirs who’ve died. When a huge dinosaur takes a liking to Fran in the grocery store, the family reconciles itself with astonishing speed to the fact that Earl is about to be killed and replaced. And in “Hurling Day,” the third episode in the first season, the family merrily prepares for an annual holiday in which dinosaurs who have turned 72 get hurled off a cliff into the La Brea Tar Pits by their loved ones.
In other words, the typical fiddly little sitcom problems are operating in a society whose barbaric baseline assumptions go unquestioned—until someone does question them, blowing the others’ minds. When Earl has revelations like “Maybe it’s OK not to eat your mate and live in the woods like my father did” or when Fran tells her new suitor she doesn’t want to marry the person who murdered her husband, stunning everyone, the show is poking fun at the formulaic vapidity of sitcom epiphanies. But “Hurling Day” is different. Rewatching “Hurling Day,” the first thing that struck me was the revoltingly innocent pleasure Earl takes in the prospect of murdering his mother-in-law, bolstered by the congratulations he receives from his circle of male friends and associates, all of whom excitedly high-five him on what is really his day. I vaguely remember understanding, even as a kid, that Dinosaurs was Modest Proposal–ing the culture’s barrage of hacky mother-in-law jokes. I was still unnerved by the almost bridal excitement the men, including Earl’s vicious boss, were expressing for him.
The thing about Earl is that he isn’t smart, but he really does want to be good. He’s downtrodden, past his prime, and working as a “tree-pusher” for too little pay. The corporation employing him, WESAYSO, is destroying the environment, but no one cares, and Earl copes with his circumstances by venting to his friend Roy—a dim and affable T. rex—and trying to reclaim at home the authority he’s denied at work. In short, Earl is a typical sitcom dad: stout, dumb, and less refined than his smarter, more sensitive mate. He resents the expense of his third child (the baby) and blames his wife for birthing him. At one point he runs off into the woods, overwhelmed by responsibilities he doesn’t want and can’t meet. Earl’s anxiety comes from the fact that the Sinclair dinosaurs are pretty much the first “civilized” generation, having only recently started to get married and live in homes. He’s concerned about it, and so is the culture, which is rife with rituals meant to appease masculine anxiety about being effete, domesticated, or bloodless.
The horror of the setup, in other words, is that Earl isn’t a monster. He wants to be a good dinosaur, and if anyone had said he was a bad person for wanting to kill his mother-in-law before now, he’d have changed course. They haven’t. No one thinks this is bad. Not even Ethyl, the one being hurled off a cliff. “I’m so excited I feel like a schoolgirl,” Ethyl says of her impending demise, and her daughter, Fran, seems serenely on board. Fourteen-year-old Robbie is the only one who finds anything amiss. But when he questions it, Ethyl resists. “I’ve lived a long life. I’ve earned this,” she says to Robbie, adding that she’s looking forward to reuniting with his grandfather. He pushes harder. “You’re a young, sweet kid, Robbie, and you don’t really know anything yet,” Ethyl says, firmly.
These are formulas sitcom-viewers are trained to accept. We’ve seen a million episodes of television where a wise old person understands things about death and dying that young people can’t. As a kid, it felt clear that I was getting every cue in the world that I was supposed to side with Ethyl. Even now, it seems to me like we ought to respect her agency. Over the course of the episode, Robbie slowly convinces everyone that the conditions that made sacrificing the elderly necessary—a nomadic existence that meant they couldn’t keep up—no longer apply. But it isn’t a clean victory. Earl resents it and runs off with Ethyl to kill her before anyone can take the moment away from him.
You can guess how this ends: Earl relents, Fran advances the radical notion that old people might not be wholly without value, and Ethyl chooses to live. But these are not normal sitcom stakes! We’ve just spent a half-hour watching a bone-chilling family debate over whether or not to kill an old lady, and the resolution is fragile: Everyone thinks this new way is worth trying, but no one is particularly convinced it’ll work. The mismatch between genre and subject was enough to scramble a kid’s mind back in 1991, and I’m feeling a similar scramble now, as I sit here writing about a TV show while legislators suggest that letting people attend football games and shop even if it means more deaths is the lesser of two evils. “In the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life, of American lives, we have to always choose the latter,” Indiana Rep. Trey Hollingsworth said. The stakes of everything we used to consider normal and harmless—a cup of coffee, a dinner out—skyrocketed somewhere along the line. My god, I thought, looking out my window at a sunny world no one “inessential” can responsibly spend time in. This feels like an episode of Dinosaurs.
Correction, April 27, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Dan Patrick as the lieutenant governor of Florida. He is the lieutenant governor of Texas.