Of the weird failed prime time cartoons of 1992, the one that intrigued me the most was Fish Police. I recorded the episodes that aired on VHS. I used to rewatch these all the time. Maybe a part of me thought that this would be the next big hit on par with The Simpsons, as it would be foolish not to record the show for posterity. It turned out the series was cancelled after only three episodes, taking up on the space of one forlorn video cassette. A total of six episodes were produced, all of which are now available on YouTube.
Having revisited the show, a new thought crossed my mind: I just couldn’t figure out why anyone thought this project would succeed in capturing the much coveted adult animation audience. Or, if we were to take The Simpsons as an example, the adult cartoon that kids would also watch and hopefully buy bootleg T-shirts of. I can understand the hubris of a Steven Bochco with Capitol Critters or a Brad Bird with Family Dog… but Fish Police?
The show itself played like a repurposed Saturday morning cartoon, only “raunchier”. Let me tell you what adult audiences like to see… fish puns! OK, they might have been onto something there, given the popularity of Spongebob Squarepants. But these gags are extremely hacky. In the opening scene, a dead body is rolled up into a sardine tin. See? That’s silly kids jokes and horrific murder rolled into one! This ain’t your daddy’s Snorks!
The quest over why anyone thought Fish Police could work is indeed a mystery worthy of the world’s slipperiest detective. Perhaps the biggest clue comes at the end credits, when we get a list of executive producers. One name that pops out: Michael Uslan. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the one of the guys who managed to buy the movie rights to Batman. (The other one, Benjamin Melniker, is also listed as a producer. He passed away in 2018.) Everything from the Tim Burton movie to the Halle Berry Catwoman to The Dark Knight must have his name in the producer credits. He also created and co-produced Dinosaucers, which I can now see is a distant cousin of Fish Police. That show featured heroic anthropomorphic dinosaurs.
Uslan was an early proponent that comic books have to be considered serious art. He even ran a class about comics. That whole theory that comics are basically modern day folklore? Uslan was the guy. (He also called media outlets, pretended to be a crank caller outraged that there was a class about comics just so he could get media coverage.) It makes sense that he would latch onto Fish Police, which was based on a 26-issue comic series by Steve Moncuse that was published during the black-and-white comic boom of the 80’s. In a 2010 interview, Moncuse expressed his dissatisfaction with the animated series.
There’s where I think the other piece to this mystery puzzle fits in. Why would CBS think that they might have a Simpsons-sized hit on their hands, especially with something so thematically opposite to what The Simpsons was going for? Well… you know what else was published in the 80’s that featured a bunch of anthropomorphic aquatic critters? A little thing called the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Which may explain why our hero, Gil (voiced by the late John Ritter) bears a slight resemblance to certain heroes in a half-shell. Not that long ago, CBS had added the Turtles to their Saturday morning line-up. Could Fish Police be a similar risky play that turned out to be a surprise hit?
Fish Police, in fact, feels very much like a distillation of everything going on in animation in the late 80’s to early 90’s. The underwater scenario is reminiscent of that first movie of the Disney Renaissance: The Little Mermaid. Te undersea world is rendered in a blue palette with the cityscapes springing out of coral.
It’s not the only Disney influence, either. The series femme fatale, Angel (voiced by JoBeth Williams), is essentially an aquatic Jessica Rabbit.
I find Gil and Angel’s relationship kinda nice. He refuses to believe that she’s a criminal, because he has known her for a long time and thinks she good deep down. Sadly, the show provides zero proof that he’s right about that. Angel’s resting face is set to “vamp.”
Here’s where the show tries to earn it’s “cartoon for adults” cred. The show’s play at adult audiences was that it was chock full of crude sexual innuendos… most of which were at Angel’s expense. The third episode of the show is the beauty pageant one, which gives the animators an excuse to design a whole dozen more noseless sexy fish people. And also one sexy jellyfish. So we get a ton of jokes about how Angel is promiscuous and “hilarious” slip-ups. How many times do you we know that Gil is “on top” of things? A lot.
And yet, the most disturbing part doesn’t involve Angel at all, but rather her romantic rival Pearl (voiced by the great Megan Mullaly). She and Gil make up and close up shop at her diner. It is implied, through a third party observer (a crab voiced by Buddy Hackett), that they are spawning like salmon. And on the diner counter. So, if their mating habits are almost exactly like fish, does that mean that….
This means that… at some point… there’s a string of fish eggs…
I will say that as much as I found Gil’s relationship to Angel sweet, I think that Pearl’s relationship to Angel might be a little more fun. Pearl wants Angel out of town because she’s jealous. Gil plays it off, every single episode, that they’re just friends. But come on, Gil. COME ON. Anyway, in that beauty pageant episode, Angel confesses that Pearl is her only female friend. This leads to what is the show’s most hacky episode ever.
You thought the beauty pageant plot was dumb? How about… Gil accidentally invites two women to the same Policeman’s Ball and has to figure out how to take both of them there without the other one knowing! Yes, they did the stupidest sitcom plot of all time! It also comes right after another dumb plot: the one where our villain finds a guy who looks exactly like Gil and there are a lot of comic misunderstandings. More than the animation, the plots are the huge indicators that this show was made in the early 90’s.
If there was a redeeming aspect to the Gil-books-two-dates episode, it’s that Pearl and Angel find out about it early and team up to try to humiliate Gil. Had the show kept going, I’d imagine you’d have a fun ecosystem where everyone was both an enemy and a friend. Gil, for example, has a similar relationship with the main villain, who treats him with more respect than Gil’s own superiors.
If you’re looking at respectable actors demeaning themselves in Fish Police, Robert Guillaume is here is a catfish who dresses up in silly undercover costumes. Tim Curry, Hector Elizando, and Ed Asner were also doing voicework, showing that at least the vocal casting was on point. That would be Kris Zimmerman, whose casting credits now include The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Regular Show, and Ben 10.
Of the voices, Curry is especially good as the fast talking lawyer shark. The man is a chameleon, disappearing into his role and delivers a patter of fast-paced clipped diction. A year earlier, Curry had voiced Captain Hook on Fox’s Peter Pan & The Pirates. You would have the hard time believing both characters were voiced by the same talent.
Also in a guest appearance: the late Phil Hartman, who stars as a rival detective to Gil. There’s got to be a name for the sadness you feel when characters voiced by Phil Hartman and John Ritter are occupying the same space.
Take out the crude humor, and this could probably play decent to the Saturday morning crowd (and more than likely not be cancelled after three episodes). Ramp up the raunchiness, though, and you might not have a show that could play well on networks but could be a hit on cable (a la Duckman). Fish Police just could not figure out what it wanted to be, and was forever banished to the world of Treehouse of Horror tombstone gags.
In conclusion… Fish Police was probably made so animators had an excuse to draw sexy fish people with boobs.