11 July 2003 | Victor Field
"Once upon a time in the projects..."
In one of the first of "The Simpsons"'s annual Halloween specials (incidentally, why is each episode referred to as "Treehouse of Horror" everywhere but in the on-screen credits?), we see a graveyard with tombstones for "Fish Police," "Family Dog" and "Capitol Critters," extremely shortlived shows that came up as a result of the first wave of animated shows in the wake of The Greatest TV Show Ever. "The PJs" would probably be included if such a stunt was to be tried again, but while many short-lived prime time cartoons deserve it ("Gary & Mike" and "Stressed Eric," anyone?), this one was more worthy of praise than most.
Set in the Hilton Jacobs Projects (the very name suggests the writers know their TV) in an unnamed city, this series focused on building superintendent Thurgood, wife Muriel, and the tenants - of which there seemed to be surprisingly few for such a big building; the series was fairly high on stereotyping with its characters (although one can't help noticing that one tenant, a Jamaican never clearly seen because of all his marijuana smoke, was soon dropped) and in the later episodes suffered from trying to emulate "The Simpsons" a bit too closely, and from shows like the spoof of season finales "Cliffhangin' With Mr Super" (that format doesn't really suit this show) ... the episodes where co-creator/executive producer Eddie Murphy didn't supply Thurgood's voice also suffered when Phil Morris subbed (it's impossible to not hear him and think "Jackie Chiles!").
But Will Vinton's Foamation technique, plus the simple fact that many of the shows actually were very funny, made up for a lot; the characters of Thurgood - loud, a couch potato ("Jack Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want to turn him down!"), lazy, but still somehow likeable - and the others, plus the fact that every character got at least one story of their own, made up for the rest. (It's interesting that the most intelligent character on the show is Smokey, a homeless recovering crack addict.) The series may have been weighed down by the promise of its credits (former "Simpsons" writer Steve Tompkins co-created the show with future "The Bernie Mac Show" creator Larry Wilmore; Ron Howard was one of the show's eight (!) executive producers), but it was better than many similar live action shows; an underrated pleasure.