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Bob and Margaret: An Ordinary Couple Goes Prime Time Worldwide

Maureen Furniss reviews Bob and Margaret, the new,prime time animated series based on the 1995 Oscar-winning animated short, Bob's Birthday

Courtesy of Comedy Central.

This summer, a new animated series, Bob and Margaret, is appearing on the air in England, Canada, the United States and elsewhere. It features a husband and wife in their mid-40's who, along with two pet dogs, manage to deal with the day-to-day stresses of their ordinary lives. Created by Alison Snowden and David Fine (aka Snowden Fine), the series is based on the creative duo's 1995 Academy Award winning short film, Bob's Birthday. In the United States, Bob and Margaret debuted on Comedy Central on June 22, 1998. It airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m. (ET/PT), following another animated series, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. Judging from "Burglary," the one episode I had seen as I wrote this review (which was before the show's debut in the U.S.), it seems that the series has promise. The dry humor I generally associate with British comedy is certainly there, with unexpected narrative developments adding twists to the story in interesting ways. I laughed out loud several times, which is either an extremely good sign or an extremely bad sign, as most of the series I have laughed at have been canceled because no one else seems to think they are funny. The Broadcasting Hurdle In an article from the January issue of Televisual, a commentator posed the question: "Is this the U.K. answer to The Simpsons?" In more ways than one, this is an interesting point to query. As practically everyone knows, The Simpsons has been instrumental in demonstrating that prime time animation can be a success. In the United States, King of the Hill is perhaps the most fortunate beneficiary of this `revelation', having reaped its own rewards as a huge prime time hit on the Fox Network, where The Simpsons also airs. Nonetheless, at the 1997 International Animated Film Market (MIFA) held in conjunction with the Annecy festival, a panel of international animation executives discussed the viability of prime time animation in their own countries, which included the United Kingdom, Germany and France. They lamented the fact that it remained difficult to convince broadcasters that an adult-oriented animated series had a place in a prime-time slot.

Margaret, Bob and their dogs,William and Elizabeth.Courtesy of Comedy Central.

However, within recent years British television has broadcast many innovative animated works aimed at older viewers, including two series: Crapston Villas (created by Sarah Ann Kennedy) and Pond Life (created by Candy Guard), both of which were launched in 1996. These series were given support by British television Channel 4's Clare Kitson. For some time, it seemed that the fate of Bob and Margaret's position in British programming was uncertain. The Televisual article quoted Fine as he explained that "the slot C4 gives the series could make or break it. I hope that they don't put us out at 5:30 or something like that, but I think they are clear that it's made for adults, and should be shown at around 9 p.m." If broadcasters are willing to support it, Bob and Margaret may become the first series produced outside the U.S. to gain financial success and international attention in prime time. I'm not sure Bob and Margaret would ever rival the success of The Simpsons,but I think it has the potential to make a strong showing.

The Best of Two Worlds?

To me, the appeal of Bob and Margaret falls somewhere between the American series The Simpsons and King of the Hill, and the British Crapston Villas and Pond Life. Like the American works, it centers on domestic family life as experienced by a rather ordinary couple who don't accomplish much. Fine says, "Real people just keep doing the same dumb things over and over. Real people don't always develop, real people stagnate, just like Bob and Margaret." Well, that formula worked for the immensely popular American live-action series Seinfeld -- and to some extent the same formula is employed in both The Simpsons and King of the Hill, though they also tend to tackle `issues' of some sort.

However, within the United States, differences in the exhibition of the three series affect their content to some extent. In contrast to the two American animated series, which are shown on public airwaves by a network broadcaster (Fox) and thus are subject to the government Broadcast Standards and Practices regulations, Bob and Margaret is being aired on a cable network, which is not bound to the same level of censorship. As a result, it can be somewhat more `broad' in its comedy than even The Simpsons and King of the Hill, and the Fox network pushes the limits of network television. For example, the Burglary episode manages to work in nudity, bathroom humor and at least the possibility of gruesome violence during a scene when Bob is shown disrobing and sitting nude on a toilet. Since he's taken off his glasses (those 40-somethings don't see as well as they used to), he doesn't realize that the burglar robbing everything in his house, while the sleeping Margaret drools on her pillow, may at any moment bludgeon him with a meat cleaver! I know it doesn't sound funny the way I write it, but I swear it works in the show.

Other things struck me as humorous just because of how they are played out. A great example occurs in an exchange between two lethargic cops who are supposedly investigating the burglary. At one point, one of them gets a toffee from her colleague and finds it's all fuzzy with lint -- but she eats it anyway! It really does play more funny the way Fine writes it. For American audiences, the Britishness of the characters alone is likely to earn the series some points. The police officers and the robbers are particularly appealing; I thought the supporting characters in the episode provided most of the humor. It will be interesting to see whether Snowden Fine's decision to make each episode a `stand alone' show, without links between the episodes or the supporting casts (which add so much to the popularity of The Simpsons), has any affect on the series' success overall.

A mouth's eye view: Bob the dentist. Courtesy of Comedy Central.

The comedy in Crapston Villas and Pond Life and the overall appeal of those two series would seem to be a lot more specialized than that of Bob and Margaret. There was some concern among `consultants' that Bob and Margaret would not be of interest to young viewers, due to its focus on an angst-ridden couple who are in their 40's. Based on seeing one episode, which admittedly is not much of a sample, but with the benefit of knowing Bob's Birthday and other works by Snowden and Fine, it seems to me that the series actually has the potential to attract a fairly wide audience. In any case, it seems a wider range of `family' viewers would be drawn to the everyday experiences of the characters in Bob and Margaret, than to the raucous raunchiness of Crapston Villas (see the AWM article "Jill McGreal's `Out of the Animation Ghetto: Clare Kitson and Her Muffia" for a bit of dialogue), or the female-centered narratives of Pond Life, which is subject to that old `men won't watch women's stuff' argument.

The Fine Print and Details

Technically, the work in Burglary looked fairly good. I saw what appeared to be smudges and fuzziness in images, but overall the animation is smooth. Compared to King of the Hill, it almost looks like full animation. Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement, considering that these characters are anything but the lively singing and dancing types one might find in a Disney feature, but thank goodness for that!

The history of the series' development is interesting. As the story goes, Snowden and Fine were bombarded with calls following their win of an Academy Award for Bob's Birthday in 1995. Although they had visions of working with an American studio, the artists, who are British and Canadian, decided against a partnership with Universal Pictures because it wanted the characters in Bob and Margaret to be more `Americanized.' Fine says Universal was concerned about the series' "Britishness and wanted to change it. They wanted to have it set in the US, or make Bob and Margaret have loads of American friends."

Snowden Fine had developed a relationship with Channel 4, which picked up 25 percent of the series' production costs, and then sealed a deal with the Canadian production house Nelvana, which paid for the remaining 75 percent of the costs. The series was pre-sold to Channel 4 in the UK, Comedy Central in the U.S., and Canada's Global Television. Each of the thirteen 22-minute episodes currently in production is budgeted at U.K. £270,000 (at a June 1998 conversion rate, approximately U.S. $440,000 each). Layout, design and story boarding, as well as digital painting and compositing using the Animo system, is being done by Nelvana, while animation is being completed in the Philippines. Fine says he is happy to be removed from the production details, explaining that he wanted more time for the creative work and voice recording, which is done in London: "We are avoiding the drudgery of animation, like painting cels. I hate all that."

It is certain that many eyes will be on the Snowden Fine series as it airs this summer, including those of investors who will be interested to see if the series can indeed attract audiences in prime time.

Visit Alison Snowden and David Fine's web site which includes images from the Oscar-winning animated short Bob's Birthday.

Maureen Furniss is the editor and publisher of Animation Journal, a scholarly journal based at Chapman University, in Orange, California, where she is an assistant professor in the School of Film and Television.