Even Dinosaurs Have In-Laws
A clash of personalities really isn't a reason to be tossed into a tar pit, now, is it?
How do you make a television family of anthropomorphic dinosaurs resonate with kids, dads, and grandmas? You make "Hurling Day," an episode devoted to the exploration of multigenerational familial relationships. More to the point: you make an episode about the joy a man feels at the thought of throwing his mother-in-law into a tar pit. It's an acerbic premise, but it neatly matches the sting of Dinosaurs humor: of all the family sitcoms made for multigenerational viewing that were on the air in 1991 -- including but not limited to Full House, Family Matters, and Who's The Boss? -- Dinosaurs stands out, and not just because it's about a bunch of overgrown reptiles.
The show's commentary on social and familial issues has a bite to it, a winking outreach to the audience that surpassed the previous standard of Jim Henson Company productions. Unlike the Muppets, the Dinosaurs family -- Earl, Fran, Robbie, Charlene, and Baby Sinclair -- are recognizable on a personable level. They have personality traits, feelings, and attitudes that reflect the stereotypical norms of the time period they were created in, not the 60,000,003 BC setting of the show. And while most of the tropes featured feel so '90s in hindsight (no one thinks malls are that cool anymore, Charlene), some of the the topics that felt unusual for sitcoms at the time -- including civil rights, drug abuse, sexual harassment, and global warming -- still feel fresh and relevant. That said: "Hurling Day" is my dad's favorite episode of television, ever, and what it comes down to is the familiarly antagonistic relationship between shlubby Earl and his nagging mother-in-law Ethyl.
You see, in 60,000,003 BC, Hurling Day is considered a mixed blessing. A dinosaur's seventy-second birthday is also be his/her last, as his or her loved ones later get to murder him or her -- benevolently -- via a toss into the local tar pit. (Some genius elder dinosaur came up with the concept a million years earlier, so that old dinos wouldn't slow down their herd and make them easy prey.) So does this mean that my dad wants to toss my grandma? Probably not...though I'm sure he has fantasized about it from time to time, and that's exactly what makes the idea of the episode still universally applicable. Everyone has that one relative they dream of killing. (Unless that's just an Italian thing?)
Earl and Ethyl's relationship isn't established prior to "Hurling Day" -- the episode is literally the third of the series -- but the dynamic between them as soon as they share a scene is mutual distain. Ethyl doesn't believe Earl is good enough for Fran and the kids (and let's be honest: he's a tree pusher, so it's not like he has a lot going for him), while Earl...well, Earl just doesn't like that Ethyl attacks him all the time. Yet his excitement over Hurling Day is still somewhat understandable -- he'll finally get to use the Hurling Day gloves his father passed down to him as a wedding present! -- until you realize that Ethyl's a pretty bangin' old lady dino, with adorable tortoise-and-diamond cat-eye glasses and a motorized wheelchair, and she just wants the best for her daughter and granddinos.
But as much as the push-and-pull between Earl and Ethyl spices up the Sinclair cave, "Hurling Day" is also about the special relationship that exists between grandparents and their grandkids. Though Charlene is woefully, pre-teenager-y oblivious to everything, fourteen-year-old Robbie challenges the convention of having to toss Grandma. To him, she's a sweet old lady who gives him $5 every time she comes over, so tossing her would be a waste. That Ethyl's affection skips a generation is also a point of contention between her and Earl, and the two have very different reactions to Robbie's wanting Ethyl to live. Though they both argue in favor of the tradition, the way in which they choose to communicate speaks stereotypical volumes; Earl yells, while Ethyl reasons and guilts as only a grandma can. It's not until the very end, after she's nearly over the cliff, that Ethyl changes her mind about going, and it's only because Earl confesses that he doesn't want her to move in and make the rest of his life miserable. The challenge is just too tempting for her to pass up.
Ethyl's (now permanent) presence as a doting grandmother who's also a pain in Earl's ass completes the dynamic of antagonism that exists in all families. Baby hitting Earl with his frying pan would have gotten older a lot quicker without Ethyl's grounding, grouchy remarks giving voice to the obvious: that Earl is a dimwitted, lazy megalosaurus. It's that kind of obnoxious behavior that resonates with audiences, and that the heart of the show is built upon. Family members are naturally critical of one another, and in that larger context, the idea of being excited for Hurling Day makes complete sense. Yet Earl and Ethyl are still two sides of the same coin, dinosaurs brought together in a shared love for Fran, Robbie, Charlene, and Baby. They may not be able to stand each other, but they keep each other on their toes and make for watchable, relatable television.