Unless you lived through the 90’s as a pre-teen to early teenager, this sitcom is nearly inexplicable. In fact, probably all of the 90’s could be summarized by one phrase:
We Loved Puppets.
I don’t know why, but if something had a puppet in it, we ate it up.
We simply could not get enough. (There was even a cartoon based on puppets- Muppet Babies, anyone?) The strange thing is that it didn’t really even matter if the puppets were that interesting or not. Their hypnotic power over us was undeniable. I blame Mr. Rogers and his delightful yet intoxicating neighborhood for starting it.
Dinosaurs felt a lot like The Simpsons in many ways, but since some of us weren’t allowed to watch The Simpsons, Dinosaurs became our go-to show to see the dynamics of very dysfunctional families. After all, it had puppets. And it wasn’t just puppets with an arm up them. There were entire people in some of these puppets.
That’s taking it to a new and somewhat disturbing level.
As young adolescents we never really seriously questioned why all of the children in the Sinclair family were of different species. Nor did it ever occur to us that the impeccable reputation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex was severely sullied by its portrayal as Earl’s clueless friend Roy. (The whole ‘tiny arm’ nonsense that our teachers foisted upon us in school was also buttressed by this truly unfortunate caricature. Clear thinking people know that the T-Rex had massive and powerful arms that could tear smaller creatures from their terrified hiding places and deposit them safely in its gaping jaws of death… But I digress.)
Dinosaurs dealt with the truly big issues of our day- drugs, environmentalism, race relations, euthanasia, politics, coming of age, etc. The episode on drugs (which involved spiky creatures who functioned as a sort of steroid) even featured the morality music which meant that a moral lesson was about make its appearance. Dinosaurs went one step further by cutting to a behind the scenes shot where Robbie told us not to use drugs in a more relaxed and casual manner.
Most of us didn’t listen to him. I mean, come on, he’s a puppet.
The series only lasted a few years, and after it was gone no one really cared all that much. In the final episode we were treated to a thinly veiled reproach of industrialization along with the concomitant moralization of environmentalism as the end of the dinosaurs is brought about by corporate greed and the devastating effects of civilization upon the fragile ecosystem. Which is interesting since we were simultaneously being taught in school that the dinosaurs’ extinction event was a meteor crashing into the planet, bringing on an Ice Age the dinosaurs were not prepared to survive.
Needless to say, we were confused. And so we quickly filled up our recycle bins so we could avoid the same fate, hoping that global warming wouldn’t kill us like the dinosaurs, some of whose remains became the source of the very fuel that was going to make us extinct.
What made shows like Dinosaurs unique at the time was that they used puppets in a way that was meant to appeal to adult audiences. I think marketing people figured out that if they could get adults laughing and interested, the kids would be as well. They could then turn around and market products to kids, which would compel their parents to buy it for them.
In many ways Baby from Dinosaurs illustrates exactly what happened- the kids would whine and complain until they got the product they wanted. Faced with any reprisal or discipline, they could regress to the one perennial truth of the 90’s- I’m the baby, gotta love me!
The problem was that 11-15 year olds actually had this sort of attitude, and so Dinosaurs was essentially a pathology of American society.