Take the worst idea for a TV show that you ever heard and double it, and there you have "Father of the Pride," a diseased cartoon that jumps the gun on the fall TV season by premiering tonight on NBC. The jumping that should be done by "Father of the Pride" is right off the brown cliffs of Malibu and into the ocean below.
Based loosely or just sloppily on the famous "Siegfried & Roy" animal and magic act that was hot stuff for years in Las Vegas (until a tiger took a bite out of Roy, that is), "Father of the Pride" could also be called "The Two Jeffreys" since it represents an unholy alliance between vulgar Jeffrey Zucker, president of NBC Universal TV, and hotshot Jeffrey Katzenberg, who left Disney after a hugely embarrassing executive blowup with Michael Eisner.
As Wayne Friedman tells it in the current TV Week, a Los Angeles trade paper, the "idea" for this lame show came to Zucker after he "studied the success of DreamWorks's blockbuster theatrical film "Shrek." That's right, he didn't study the film, he studied its success. Zucker called Katzenberg, and the ghastly result will be unveiled at 9 tonight on Channel 4, sponsored by Toyota, which has magnanimously decided not to interrupt the show with commercials. Maybe it's just ashamed.
This is a show that yearns, longs and richly deserves to be interrupted but, on premiere night only, won't be. Oh perfidious irony, indeed!
Although the program's computer animation does resemble that of "Shrek," with an unusual sharpness and clarity, "Father of the Pride" lacks utterly the first "Shrek" film's charm, cleverness and family-friendly humor (I didn't see the second "Shrek" but heard it was too adult-oriented). Basically, the producers of "Father of the Pride" think they can rejuvenate stale old domestic sitcom cliches simply by having animals utter them, and that they automatically avoid the stigma of the kiddie cartoon by filling the program with dirty jokes.
Cable already blazed this unsavory trail in 1997 when Comedy Central introduced "South Park," an abrasive abomination about foulmouthed tots and talking excrement. "Father of the Pride" isn't as filthy as "South Park" but it isn't audacious, either -- just pandering. In the opening scene tonight, Larry the Lion, patriarch of the title, announces to one and all that he's on his way home to have sex with his wife. "She's in heat," he tells a friend along the trail.
Once inside the house, he proclaims his romantic intentions to the missus: "It may be 9 o'clock in New York, but right here, it's mountin' time!"
More objectionable, really, than the show's dialogue about monkeys' butts and lascivious pussycats is the fact that future episodes will incorporate product plugs as part of the program content, so that if, say, the hero gets hit in the face with a pie, it'll be a brand-name pie whose label is clearly visible. If he's hit by a car, then you can be sure it'll be a Toyota.
How low can you sink? Next week's episode may answer that question. The product being plugged is one of NBC's own -- the "Today" show, great-granddaddy of all morning infotainment programs (though when it started, it had something to do with news). Larry the Lion is booked on the show with trainer-magicians Siegfried and Roy, and he gets all aflutter about it. After all, this is the Cadillac of morning programs, someone says, and "45 million people" will be watching -- which, according to actual average ratings, is about 39 million more than usual.
Like Siegfried and Roy, "Today" cohost Matt Lauer is turned into an animated figure -- more animated and more lifelike than the real thing, actually. A dirty old lion, Larry's father-in-law, licks his chops and says of Katie Couric (who does not appear) that she has "that good-girl-but-probably-wild-in-the-sack thing going on."
No reference is made to the incident last year in which a tiger got ornery and attacked Roy; instead, the two men sort of amble around Las Vegas with occasional visits to the strange animal kingdom where most of the action takes place. Nor are there any jokes, at least so far, about the nature of Siegfried and Roy's relationship, which is not to say that there is a relationship, only that stand-up comics used to joke about it.
John Goodman, pouring on cuteness, supplies the voice of Larry the male lion, and Cheryl Hines, of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is the wife. Lisa Kudrow can be heard among the guest voices tonight and, naturally, Lauer supplies his own voice on next week's episode. "I'm a whore!" he shouts at one point. Oh no, wait, sorry, that was someone else. A tiger or something.
Hard to keep track, you know.
While the technical specifications of "Father" may be the same as those of "Shrek," the animals are not cleverly drawn and often seem to be in the wrong proportion to one another. Larry the Lion really looks more like a sofa. A panda has a purple nose for some reason. The father-in-law character appears to be a steal from the crudely rude, and hilarious, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a Robert Smigel creation for NBC's "Late Show With Conan O'Brien." But again, there is a crucial difference: Triumph is funny. The lion is not, especially when telling a lonely old woman, "Your ovaries are turning into concrete," or when pantomiming fornication.
What a smutty jungle this is; it has the ambiance of a Hollywood cocktail party. The show is too ugly for children and too silly for adults, but when screened for the two Jeffreys who brought it into the world, it must have had a very appreciative audience indeed.