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Prehysterical Times: Dinosaurs

This week in 1994 Henson’s Dinosaurs ended. Was it the most apocalyptic family sitcom ever?

An April 14, 1991 New York Times article titled All in the Modern Stone-Age Family begins: “For nearly a year reporters have been hounding Brian Henson with the same question: Can he handle Jim Henson Productions, the Muppet-based entertainment empire he took over soon after his father, Jim, died unexpectedly in May?”

Henson’s unexpected organ failure in May of 1990 left an immeasurable void after he built up an impenetrable puppet-opoly that pioneered animatronics. Dinosaurs – a germ of an idea that the Muppets creator flirted with before his death – became the first venture to get the Henson empire back on track. “He had the idea of a family of dinosaurs and that they live very irresponsibly, bigger than life, [and where] everything's reckless,” says Brian Henson in the Making Of documentary.

19 years ago this week, on October 19, 1994, the last episode of Dinosaurs aired, entitled “Georgie Must Die”. It wasn't the finale of the series. The series finale was episode 58 (“Changing Nature”). Episodes 59-65 were filmed but never shown during the original broadcast due to the series’ cancellation. They were dubbed the “lost episodes”, released through syndication.

What 90s breakouts with an all-in-the-fam cast like The Simpsons buried under the surface, Dinosaurs made salient. Earl Sinclair, the clunky father seemingly modeled after John Goodman in Roseanne, represented the everyman – caring and supportive, stern and silly, and never failing to bump noggins with the in-laws. And the deep-seated issues weren’t skirted over, but weaved into the dialogue of the show, most prevalent in jokes suited to a more mature audience that veiled social and political commentary. The New York Times wrote: “Early episodes will deal with such issues as neglect of the elderly and teenage angst: Earl will set about tossing his mother-in-law into a tar pit, and Charlene will fret over her tail, which refuses to grow and which she will someday need to seduce male dinosaurs.” Environmental issues were also a footnote underpinning the series, even on the most surface of levels. Many of the Dinosaurs character's last names are the names of oil companies: Sinclair, Phillips, Hess, and BP.

But the rubbery, doe-eyed dinos that appealed more to its youthful audience (the baby was voiced by Kevin Clash, the same actor who voiced Sesame St.'s Elmo) were the perfect vehicle to explore some darker issues. I remember an episode called “What Sexual ‘Harris’ Meant” where Monica, a friendly neighbour of the Sinclair family, got a job working as a treepusher at Wesayso – a testosterone-dominated organisation of tyrannosaurs. She was unceremoniously harassed by a coworker. The case went to court and although Monica made a fair argument, the jury whispered: “We gotta discredit her. Know anyone?” Earl mistakenly argues that a woman's place is in the home, and his wife, Fran, comes to both hers and Monica’s defense. It's feminism 101, mainlined through some pithy prehistoric puppetry. An encyclopaedia of topics made it to Dinosaurs' Friday night slot: mating rituals, aging, puberty, masturbation, religious fanaticism and war.

When the heavy-breathed and cranky wheelchair-bound mother-in-law Ethyl (also a nod to the gas and the inspiration behind Monsters, Inc.'s character Roz) finally kicks it, there are no less one-liners than its preceding episode that deals with marijuana, aptly titled "A New Leaf". One last conversation is had between Earl Sinclair (the father, whom Ethyl calls "fat boy") and Ethyl, his mother-in-law. Unbeknownst to Earl, Ethyl quietly snores away while he chats to her and mistakes her for being dead due to the lack of reaction.

[Earl had just gone into the kitchen to say hi to Ethyl]

Roy: How did it go?

Earl: It was one of the most pleasant conversations we've ever had. She wasn't rude. She wasn't obnoxious. She didn't hit me... Oh my God, she's dead.

Jokes abound about Ethyl's death during the duration of the episode, until she actually meets her maker. Most telling, however, is a snippet of dialogue that indirectly speaks some raw truths about Dinosaurs' raison d'être. The family is watching television in their living room when the father, Earl, questions why…

Earl Sinclair: And why are we watching this show anyway? I wanna watch the puppet show on the other channel.

Fran Sinclair: That's a kid's show.

Earl Sinclair: Not so. They do some very sophisticated juxtapositions of reality.

Fran Sinclair: It'll last a year.

Dinosaurs lasted four years. These meta observations are what made this show worth watching, apart from the slapstick humour of clumsy dinosaurs coming to terms with Jurassic life and poignantly embodying struggles with real life human problems. So when the series ended in July 1994 with the PG-13 finale "Changing Nature", nobody could have predicted its dense, weepy demise. It prompted discussions and debates, mostly because of the producers' decision to end the series in a brutal (albeit realistic) fashion of killing off not just the main characters, but the entire species. Dinosaurs literally went extinct. Now, 19 years on, this sitcom still holds a cogent message – and one not just about the environment. Major worries in the mid-90s about the end of earth being our own doing, or undoing, echo on today in headlines of environmental apocalyptic doom about how climate change is here to stay.

It's ending was a complete tear-jerker. Earl Sinclair has to answer to his family with an impassioned speech about the doomed planet and fleeting mortality due to global cooling (watch below with a tissue). The initial spark for the show – dinosaurs living recklessly and without consequence – came to a head in a historically accurate way. The final scene is of news anchor Howard Handupme, delivering a bleak message to end all days, an incredible run of one of the most beloved family series capped off with two final words: “Goodnight… Goodbye.”