As a journalist, I’m always uncomfortable becoming part of the story. But I was met with an abnormally high amount of online dissent several days ago, after contributing to a Variety list detailing “The Worst Series Finales of All Time.”
My sole contribution was the 1991-1994 sitcom “Dinosaurs,” a show I watched religiously as a child. The series finale — titled “Changing Nature” — aired months before my ninth birthday, and I was not equipped to handle the tonal shift compared to previous episodes. What I wrote for the list:
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“Dinosaurs” was an interesting ABC sitcom experiment: What if you replicated the family vibes of “Step by Step” or “Family Matters,” but the whole cast is made up of big Jim Henson dinosaur puppets? Perfect for a child demo that would soon be scared to death by “Jurassic Park,” the four-season, 65-episode run of “Dinosaurs” delivered saccharine hijinks that could have been photocopied from “Full House.” Perhaps that’s why it was so distressing that in the 1994 series finale, the whole family dies. That’s right — all of your favorite characters, including the catchphrase-spouting Baby Sinclair, freeze to death thanks to the looming Ice Age. While historically accurate, it was perhaps the dourest episode of television to ever air. After all, there was no precedent — “Growing Pains” didn’t end with the slaughter of the Seaver family. So when patriarch Earl Sinclair tells his skeptical family, as snow is falling, that “Dinosaurs have been on this earth for 150 million years. And it’s not like we’re just going to … disappear …”, the music swells as we leave their concerned faces and cut to a news broadcast. The dino anchor, delivering a wintery weather forecast while shrouded in grey tones and wearing a thick coat, looks down the barrel of the camera and says, mournfully, “Good night. Goodbye,” before fading to black. Still don’t think this ending traumatized a generation of sitcom-loving Millennials? Consider a top comment on the YouTube rip of the ending: “What’s worse is that, realistically, the baby would probably be the first to die, followed by the other family members one by one until Earl (the one with most body fat) was the only one left, his final moments filled with guilt over what he did to the world and his family.” Thanks for the nightmare fuel, “Dinosaurs!”
As I learned, many people thought I was dead wrong. I received dozens of messages on social, aghast at the show’s inclusion on the list. But given the tone of the correspondence, I knew I struck a different chord, one more personal and emotional than other times I divided fan bases with opinions:
*”I would say one of the best endings, even if it was uncomfortable and kind of heartbreaking. Just like life itself.”
*”I never comment and this absurd and clueless tweet forced me. That is how absolutely wrong you are.”
*”Counterpoint: If it wasn’t for people who watched ‘Dinosaurs’ as kids frequently asking each other as adults ‘Was the final episode real? Or did I dream it?,’ the show would be talked about a lot less nowadays.”
*”Proud to have co-written this clarion call for environmental awareness. Those who watched it never forgot the experience.”
*”Sorry, @BeautifulBill, ‘Dinosaurs’ was never saccharine kiddie fodder like ‘Step By Step’ or ‘Full House.’ It was a dark satire cloaked in family comedy tropes, taking on many environmental topics, plus immigration, race, the Gulf War, the Clarence Thomas hearings, science denialism…”
The final two messages especially caught my attention, as I regretted alienating who I quickly learned were members of the creative team behind the show — and they’d felt proud enough to speak out.
I realized that perhaps I had been blinded by youth, and missed the satire completely. I asked my mother whether she remembered my fondness for the show or my mental state while watching it, yet she could only speak to my relationship to dinos in the macro sense: “When you were little, you were obsessed with dinosaurs, everything was dinosaurs,” she said. “You knew all of the names of them, and loved them, until you dropped them for ‘Ninja Turtles.'”
So I started rewatching episodes of the show (now collected on Disney+) and reached out to some of the creatives who’d dropped me a line. I was lucky enough to hop on a Zoom with veteran producer Tim Doyle, whose first big gig was writing on “Dinosaurs,” and Kirk Thatcher, who has worked on projects ranging from “Return of the Jedi” to “Muppets Haunted Mansion,” and was the credited writer on the “Dinosaurs” series finale.
The pair kindly accepted my digital olive branch, and spoke about the complex themes they included throughout the series run, how ABC reacted when they learned about the bold finale and why they think it made such a lasting impact on fans.
From the beginning, despite the cute puppets and funny moments, the creative team was able to make a show that would allow them to touch on contemporary issues they were passionate about, like LGBTQ acceptance, consumerism and, ironically, the importance of not watching too much TV.
“[The show] was never one thing,” Doyle says. “Baked into it from the beginning was this element of social satire, political satire. The whole concept started with that famous Gary Larson cartoon that showed a bunch of dinosaurs sitting around smoking and said, ‘Why the dinosaurs are extinct.’ That was the germ of this thing: To make a whole show about the dinosaurs being consumerist, to poke a stick at a society like ours.”
“Everything bad about humanity, as Jim [Henson, who developed the show] put it, dinosaurs are thinking, ‘Oh, we are the apex predator. We can do whatever the hell we want and the planet will adapt to us because we’re the biggest, meanest, baddest mofos on the planet,'” says Thatcher, who also designed the characters. “The idea was that kind of blinkered thinking and to satirize the ‘Ugly American’ or ‘Ugly Western’ culture where you’re not living for your descendants: ‘Our ancestors built us up here, we can do whatever the hell we want.'”
Despite the satire, ABC mostly left the team alone.
“There was certain amount of pushback initially, and then, because we were a children’s show, both Disney and ABC kind of lost interest in bothering us,” Doyle says. “The third-tier executives were the ones who were giving us notes on the scripts, and nobody was really giving us too hard a time.”
Additionally, they’d make sure to include a few episodes each season about Baby Sinclair or teen daughter Charlene in order to appease all audiences.
When it came to the series finale, the team wasn’t given much time, as they had to quickly convert their plan from a normal episode to a finale once ABC suddenly announced that they were canceled.
“[The writers’ room] decided to escalate it all the way to making [bumbling patriarch] Earl in charge of fixing the problem,” Thatcher says. “And of course he ends up destroying the planet, or at least creating a nuclear winter.”
Surprisingly, ABC didn’t have many notes for the unprecedented finale.
“They were like, ‘Great, you figured out how to wrap [the series] up,'” deadpans Thatcher. “I don’t remember any eyebrows raised or anyone going, ‘Well, you can’t.'”
“There might have been a little bit of pushback from somebody saying, ‘Well, what if we can maneuver another season or something?'” Doyle recalls. “But I think one of us said, ‘Well, they got frozen and then they get thawed.'”
Despite the dark themes of the finale — and its potential effects on the younger segment of the show’s audience — the pair points to previous generations’ struggles in relation to environmental protection.
“We grew up with the threat of nuclear annihilation,” Thatcher says. “I very clearly remember that as a kid. That existential angst about, ‘We’re all going to die.’ I remember my dad saying World War II, before the nuclear bomb, they just thought this was the war to end all wars. The planet was going to be just devastated, particularly Europe. Every generation sees its imminent demise — and we had fun with it.”
While Thatcher does disagree with one commonly stated critique — “I do take exception when people say, ‘You killed them.’ I say, ‘Nope, they were still alive in the last frame.'” — he has met people who react strongly about it to this day.
“[Fans say] it devastated them, and how it was so ballsy,” Thatcher says. “They usually say ‘They ruined it!’ and then they’re smiling and laughing… ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you did that.’ And I always respond with, ‘Well, we didn’t kill them. They’re just chilly, you know? We didn’t actually show them dying, we let the other shoe drop in your mind.'”
“It’s a powerful message,” Doyle continues. “We did easily a dozen episodes about the environment in one form or another, and they were all kind of toothless because by the end of 22 minutes we kind of fixed it. And here is one where the consequences are not fixable, we’ve fucked up the environment and we’re going to have to deal with the fallout of that. I would like to think six- or seven-year-olds might have been upset, but it also might have made an impression on them.”
While there have been discussions about doing a spin-off movie or revival series — which both Doyle and Thatcher would be happy to participate in — the below-the-line costs of the series’ costumes and puppets, as well as complicated rights ownership, makes it tough to get off the ground. But the duo says that “Dinosaurs” has a mighty group of committed fans who love to regularly visit the Sinclair family.
“I’ve been involved in 25, 30 shows over the years, and this is one of the ones that has stuck the most in the culture,” Doyle says.
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