I’m not the world’s biggest fan of THE FLINSTONES. I’ve always felt kinda guilty about that – there is a lot to love about the show, especially the earliest episodes. In a lot of ways, it shows glimpses of how to do limited animation right, how you can mix sitcom and exaggerated cartooning, how strong personalities and character matter more than almost anything to an audience. And the team at Hanna-Barbera used the restrictions of working in limited animation to advantages – with very abstract, stylized character designs, cheating the boring stuff like walking and talking, and saving the frames for the funny takes, falls and runs. Oh, and of course the simplified painting techniques of artists like Art Lozzi and the layouts of Ed Benedict are the stuff of legend.
But all that being said, the show really lacks pretty much my favourite thing about animation and cartooning; imagination. Wonderful, magical, mind blowing imagination. The whole concept of the show is The Honeymooners in prehistoric times, yet instead of seeing a caveman version of Jackie Gleason getting lost inside volcanoes or riding Pterodactyls, we get the exact same show as THE HONEYMOONERS except a bunch of terrible ‘LOOK THEY WASH DISHES/OPEN POP CANS/CLEAN GARBAGE/ETC WITH A DINOSAUR’ gags at least four times an episode. And that’s the only thing that makes it a show about prehistoric times. Oh, and everything has rock in the name (though I’ll admit, Cary Granite is clever as all get up). This is akin to me starting a new animated series with the cast of THE BIG BANG THEORY, setting it in Atlantis, and just taking the exact same plots, situations, characters and even lines of dialogue from the show, but then adding a bunch of mermaid puns. Building off of someone’s idea is great, combining different elements and different ideas is great – we all know that ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ – but I don’t know… I guess I’ve just never been able to give THE FLINSTONES a break simply for it being so lazy as a concept.
That being said, the eleventh episode of season 1, THE GOLF CHAMPION, is actually a pretty good piece of entertainment. And here’s why. (be warned, this is probably the most in depth, ill informed, rambling, boring essay you’ll ever read on a specific Flinstones episode. Not for the faint of heart)
The episode opens in a really unique way. An ominous, whispering voice, almost like Godard in his late 60’s stuff, explains the plot to the audience over images of Fred and a rival at a golf tournament. Shots of the course and the path the players balls take are shown on the screen – a very clever way of not really doing much animation, but keeping the audience engaged in a very visceral way. We also get to see a fantastic walk cycle for Fred – he looks like he’s just come out of a ditch, drugged and mystified as to how he got where he is. Which is almost how I felt the first time I saw this episode – the opening was so different as to surprise me. Anyway, it’s one of the best dopey walk cycles of all time, and it just pure personality animation, limited though it may be. As far as I know, Carlo Vinci is credited for animating this episode (let me know if I’m wrong). If you don’t know about Vinci, more info can be found here. Anyway, soon a real surprise comes. Fred wins the tournament, when Barney shows up demanding the trophy from him. I want to stress that it’s incredibly rare a sitcom, specifically a cartoon sitcom form the ‘60’s, tells a story in a unique or interesting way. Yet, here we go. Instead of set up, set up, set up, we’re getting thrown into something, questioning what happens next and being engaged, on the most basic level. David Mamet says the best films are just a matter of wanting to know what happens next – literally what scene comes after the present one. This episode does that.
Okay, so then there’s the craziest scene. That eerie narrator straight up asks a member of the crowd at the golf tournament to explain to him what happened. Talk about breaking the fourth wall! Here we have a character in the show, looking at the screen, talking to the voice over narrator. It’s a really unique way to get through the necessary exposition, and it almost laughingly destroys the story we were engaged in, and reminds us it’s all for the sake of entertainment. The nameless crowd character gives the necessary expositon and then – get this – stops telling the story part way through, leading the narrator to question, ‘Oh, so I’m assuming they’re fighting because of something over the back dues…’ to which he replies ‘You get the picture.’ It’s as if the show is mocking the idea of exposition – that none of it really matters, and the important part is that we get the plot moving. And so, we move forward.
So now, as is there wont, Barney and Fred hate each other. As our friend the random bystander pointed out, it doesn’t really matter why. So they go back and forth trying to get stuff from each others places – actually this part is pretty unmemorable and not funny. But next comes Fred’s big scheme – a party so fantastic, so great and fun, Barney will be so jealous he wasn’t invited as to become depressed and move away forever. This is hilarious to me on every level, for one because Fred is sadistic, and for two because Fred is so bizarre he thinks this plan makes sense and is awesome. The party actually happens and it has this really creepy sadness to it – almost like the infamous orgy scene in LA DOLCE VITA. Fred’s friends sing this bizarre, non-rhyming off key song about Fred in the background, an overly enthusiastic oaf dances with a limp Wilma, and Fred stomps around crying about how happy he is. Clearly, without Barney, Fred is a mess.
One thing I really respect about THE FLINSTONES, and mentioned earlier, is that it’s a sitcom that doesn’t abandon the idea it’s a cartoon. You see that in early episodes of THE SIMPSONS, too. This episode has a great example. Fred shoves the cup onto Barney’s skull and gives him a triangle head. It’s as broad as Looney Tunes gag. Vinci was pretty known for his cute girl animation, and that’s what makes me think this episode is done by him. There’s some really cute animation of Wilma saluting at Betty’s door. Even her march is really sweet and full of personality. The animation in this show is better than limited TV animation normally gets to be.
Also, this episode features probably my favourite gag on THE FLINSTONES ever. Fred and Barney are fighting over a hammock, Fred ends up getting hammock-capulted through his door, into his home, and into the fridge door. Wilma walks home and asks what in the goddamn hell happened. The fridge door slowly swings open and Fred, his body HALF IN A FRIDGE through the sheer momentum of a hammock, has a giant piece of meat in his hands and says, dryly, ‘Never mind, pass the salt.’ Best. Gag. Ever.
The conclusion is really sitcom-y and really unfunny. Wilma and Betty pull the old ‘you tell him not to say anything and I’ll tell him not to say anything and neither will say anything and gee hope this doesn’t blow up in our faces’ – soon the boys are back to fighting, but Wilma and Betty realize fighting is what guy friends do, and at least they are talking to each other again. That’s the conventional end of a really unconventional episode.
Overall, THE FLINSTONES isn’t great. It’s a sitcom, and that’s a rule about sitcoms. They can’t be great. But, as ‘The Golf Champion’ shows, sitcoms can be pretty good. And this episode, with its meta comments on cinematic storytelling, creepy Fellini party scene, strong gags and some pretty memorable animation, can proudly display itself along with the other ‘pretty goods’ out there.