People have been asking me if I've seen "The Critic," ABC's new animated series. Maybe they think I can identify with the hero, a critic named Jay Sherman who reviews movies on television and has certain points of similarity with Gene Siskel and me: He's bald, and he has a Pulitzer.
Sherman, the adopted son of a rich family, lives in a Manhattan penthouse he could hardly afford on his salary of $271,000 a year. He reviews movies for a network with a boss not unlike Ted Turner, tirelessly trashing new releases like "Home Alone 5" and "Crocodile Gandhi." When he pans a new movie, his producer screams that people don't like negative reviews; he should stick to "good" and "great."
"But," says Sherman, "what about movies I hate?"
"That's what 'good' is for."
He's a regular in a restaurant where he and the other critics get tables near the kitchen. He has a makeup lady who covers his bald spot with spray-on hair. (When she sets it afire with her cigarette and he complains, she replies, "I'm union.") When he's told how popular he is, he replies, "Most of my fans are drunken frat boys who make fun of me."
It is impossible not to like this guy. And James L. Brooks, the executive producer of "The Critic" (which airs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays on WLS-Channel 7) has put together a writing and animating team that brings a lot of humor and showbiz savvy to the program. Brooks seems attracted to material about media; he was a guiding force on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and directed the movies "Broadcast News," about TV news, and the current "I'll Do Anything," about an out-of-work actor.
In the opening episode of "The Critic," which finished among last week's top 20 shows, Jay Sherman interviewed a sexy actress on his program, and she followed him out of the studio and into his life, professing undying love - until he gave her movie a bad review. Do actors and actresses sometimes flatter critics in real life? Sure, but not as much as critics flatter them. As Siskel is fond of observing, "Warren Beatty always calls me when he has a new movie coming out. But he never sends me Get Well cards when I'm in the hospital."
In real life (in my experience of it, anyway), critics are never offered bribes for good reviews, and never wind up in bed with movie stars. (True, Joe Morgenstern of Newsweek married Piper Laurie, but that was true love.) There is, however, a subtle form of flattery that is not unknown: "Give us a good quote and we'll print your name real big in the ads." But reputable critics do not release quotes before their reviews appear, and when a quote appears a week before opening day, you know something about the critic's standards right away. (My guess is that "The Critic" will deal with this issue before long.)
Sherman seems honest. He cannot lie even to save what he thinks is his relationship with the sexy starlet. But Brooks and his writers have a good ear for the way Jay couches his negative review. He's only human. He pulls his punches, regretting that he has to say negative things about the starlet and optimistically observing that, after all, lots of good actresses have started off on the wrong foot ("Sally Field . . . Cher . . . those darling Olsen twins on "Full House"). It doesn't help. The heartless would-be actress, who really seemed to like him, slaps him in the face after the bad review and says, "You're short, you're fat - and, even for a movie critic, you're ugly."
Sherman gets his voice and some of his looks from Jon Lovitz, a funny actor who played the compulsive liar on "Saturday Night Live." He puts a quiet spin on the dialogue, which is more subtle than you'd expect; sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's wishful, because Sherman is smart enough to see the poignancy of his existence.
Is it surprising to see a TV series about a movie critic? Not really. It's a job that a lot of people are curious about, and it provides "The Critic" with good excuses every week to do parodies of hit movies. But the real key to "The Critic," I think, is Jay Sherman himself. Most of the people you see in prime time look great and sound like they have brains on order. Sherman has two qualities that set him aside. He's smart, and he looks ordinary. Just like some of your favorite critics.