Old Dog, No New Tricks

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THE BOTTOM LINE: After two years, a much touted cartoon show finally arrives. Question: What was all the fuss about?

Remember TV's animation boom? A couple of years back, snowed by the success of The Simpsons, the networks stormed the animation houses for other prime- time cartoons. Most of the promised shows never materialized (The Pink Panther) or came and went in a Road Runner minute (Capitol Critters, Fish Police). None, however, carried higher expectations than Family Dog, based on an episode that Tim Burton (Batman) directed for Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories series. So excited was CBS that it devoted much of its valuable commercial time during the 1991 Grammy Awards to promoting the show, which was scheduled to start that March.

But the series was postponed at the last minute when Burton and Spielberg were reportedly unhappy with the animation. Family Dog was sent back to the shop, and what followed was a two-year odyssey in which the missing series became a running gag between TV reporters and network programmers. Now, with a lack of fanfare that would be mystifying if it weren't so revealing, Family Dog is finally being let out of the kennel for a summer run, when the only significant viewer reaction is likely to be a puzzled, What was all the fuss about?

Not that Family Dog is awful. It's a perfectly amiable, perfectly inconsequential cartoon show that seems better suited to Saturday mornings. The concept is appealing: life in a suburban household as seen through the eyes of the ignored and abused family pet. And the pooch itself is amusingly drawn: a woebegone, teardrop-snouted creature, rendered in the spare lines of 1950s UPA animation (Mr. Magoo) .

The trouble is that this nameless Everydog doesn't talk, or even have many discernible expressions. That puts most of the comic burden on the characters around him, who are a dull lot. Mom and Dad (voiced by Molly Cheek and Martin Mull) have plain-vanilla marital spats, and the two kids are boring Bart-and- Lisa wannabes. The plots are thin (Family Dog goes to the zoo or befriends a homeless woman), and the dialogue, by sitcom veteran Dennis Klein (Buffalo Bill), is more garrulous than witty: "That was stealing, and stealing is bad . . . Ipso facto, Fido."

Before it rolls over and plays dead, Family Dog has a couple of lessons to impart. First, TV cartoons (especially The Simpsons) are largely dialogue- driven; a more stylized, visual cartoon like Family Dog is probably doomed without the sort of animation care that TV budgets don't permit. Second, big- name filmmakers venturing into TV need to do more than simply lend their big names. Burton and Spielberg, it seems, did little for Family Dog except use their clout to get it on the air. One expected more.