Here’s the deal:
If you watch his body of work, you’ll realize that Jim Henson was a pretty weird guy and much darker than his Muppet legacy would lead you to believe.
From the supreme horror of the Grand High Witch to David Bowie’s Labyrinth codpiece (which I’m pretty sure is large enough to warrant its own billing via SAG rules) to the Muppet soul-sucking machine in The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson made his career by presenting dark tales masked in family entertainment, putting him in the ranks of Lewis Carroll, the Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl.
But even knowing this, it might come as some surprise that the ABC sitcom Dinosaurs probably features Henson at his bleakest.
The show, usually remembered with an “Oh yeah…” accompanied by a quick, annoying flash of “Not the Mama!” actually had more going on in it than its presumably young audience would recognize. Though at first glance a program about people walking around in big, funny dinosaur costumes, the story lines of the episodes would often tackle serious social issues, notably the role that big business plays in our daily lives. Evidence of this can be found in the names of key characters – Sinclair, Phillips, Hess, B.P., Ethyl and Richfield – all oil companies. This not only reinforces the big business concerns but serves as a reminder of the dinosaurs’ ultimate fate.
It’s this fate that is explored in the final Dinosaurs episode, “Changing Nature.” Though it aired in 1994 and Henson died in 1991, he was heavily involved in the creation of the show in his final months. So whether he had planned the ending or the show merely concluded with fitting Henson darkness is difficult to say, but what is more clear is that the finale is just batshit crazy.
The episode focuses on the plight of the “bunch beetle,” an insect that feeds on creeper vines across the dinosaurs’ world, and how all but one of them has been exterminated to make way for a wax fruit factory run by WESAYSO, the largely evil corporation the family patriarch, Earl, works for. So to clarify, we’re about seven minutes into the episode and a mass extinction has already taken place.
As the episode unfolds, without the bunch beetles to keep them at bay, the creeper vines start to take over the planet, so WESAYSO decides to poison the plants, but this leads to all plant life on Earth being killed as well. Trying to find a solution to the impending “everyone’s gonna starve” problem, WESAYSO drops bombs into volcanoes in a brilliant attempt to make clouds to produce rain for crops. This ultimately backfires and creates nuclear winter for the dinosaurs, because go big or go home.
The remainder of the episode satirizes WESAYSO’s continued interest in profit over the fate of the world, and their denial of the reality of the situation, while Earl and his family, dressed in winter clothing, brace for what’s ahead. And as if this wasn’t bleak enough, consider the following exchange at the close of the episode after Earl apologizes for helping to destroy the world:
Earl Sinclair: It’s so easy to take nature for granted because it’s always there. And technology is so bright and shiny and new.
Fran Sinclair: We understand, sweetheart.
Baby Sinclair: Understand what?
*All the dinosaurs exchange glances as if to say, “Fuck, is the show really going here?”*
Earl: Well, little guy, what happened was, Daddy was put in charge of the world and he didn’t take real good care of it. And now it looks like there won’t be much of a world left for you or your brother and sister to live in.
Baby: Are we gonna move?
Earl: Well, no, there’s no place to move to. This is the only world we got.
Baby: Well, what’s gonna happen to us?
*The dinosaurs again exchange glances at which point an assistant editor hangs himself*
Earl: Well, I don’t exactly know.
Robbie Sinclair: But whatever it is, nobody’s going to leave you.
Charlene Sinclair: That’s right, little guy, we’ll all stay together.
Earl: Yeah, and hey, I’m sure it will all work out okay. After all, dinosaurs have been on this Earth for 150 million years and, it’s not like we’re gonna just… disappear.
As we pull back from the snowbound Sinclair home we cut to a final shot of a newscaster signing off, telling us, “Good night. Goodbye.”
Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Walking Dead and The Wire are all notorious for brazenly killing off pivotal characters in spectacular fashions, but none of those shows had the balls to enact worldwide extinction. Walter White tried his best, though.
And while it seems inevitable that this should happen knowing what we know about the ultimate fate of actual dinosaurs, credit must be given to Henson and his team. What they did in the finale is obviously not the norm, and is closer to the sort of ironic joke someone later makes about pat, too-perfect family entertainment when a saccharine ending is forced upon the audience.
At its core, though, the ending isn’t a joke and doesn’t really play as one. It’s social satire at its bleakest and might as well be childhood’s version of Blackadder Goes Fourth’s final episode. In the end, it’s pretty damn poignant for a show about talking dinosaurs. Bedrock never got so bold.
But seriously, it’s not easy being green.