Warner Bros. // 2000 // 145 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 27th, 2004
"Don't call me a hack, okay? You hole, I wrote for Carrot Top!" -- Adam Reed (Adam Reed), "Swimming in Oblivion"
Everyone said they were making a big mistake. When they sent that crew down to Sealab in 2020, remember? They said those guys were going to go crazy faster than Chopper Dave can turn into a werewolf. They said the whole project was doomed. Nobody could take that pressure, that isolation. The crew was going to go nuts.
They were right. Thank Alvis.
Atlanta-based animation crew Williams Street had their first cult hit in the mid-1990s, when they recycled Alex Toth's artwork from the ponderous superhero epic Space Ghost and plugged it into a maddeningly surreal talk show. Space Ghost Coast to Coast almost looked normal for its first couple of seasons, but as Williams Street came to realize that nobody was watching them in their dead-of-night time slot -- other than fellow lunatics -- they started to experiment. They made episodes where dunderheaded Space Ghost would crawl along the ground for 10 minutes before a punch line would finally appear. In one episode, a surveillance camera watched a live action table read by the voice actors. Somewhere in the bowels of the Cartoon Network, where Turner network executives toiled away in their business suits, the memo came down: these guys had really lost it. They had gone stir crazy from artistic isolation. We need to find them a new job, said the Turner executives, and we need to find it fast.
And so came Adult Swim. Work therapy for the frayed nerves of the Williams Street team. After all, you have to keep animators busy, or they become like rabid animals, wandering the streets biting people. And they frown on that sort of thing in Atlanta, at least nowadays. Adult Swim would keep Williams Street busy and out of trouble. And nobody would need to see what they were doing, since it would be relegated to late-night weekends, when everybody was out getting drunk at fraternity parties.
Except Adult Swim became a big hit. Dammit, thought the Turner executives, now we have to actually send money to these guys, so they can make cartoons and things. So, they thought of a clever idea: split Williams Street into a bunch of production teams. Send those guys over there to make some cartoon about, say, a talking Happy Meal. Send those guys over there to do a sitcom about Brak. That'll show 'em. And what about these guys over here? Why don't we give them the worst Hanna Barbara show we can find: a pompous environmental message show about intrepid explorers working under the sea?
But Adam Reed and Matt Thompson remembered their days toiling in isolation on Space Ghost. They remembered the cramped quarters, the oppressive quiet, the whispery voices telling them to run outside and bite more tourists looking for the Coke Museum. And they sympathized with the poor crew of Sealab 2020, that 1972 shipwreck notable mostly for keeping Ross Martin employed in the lean years after Wild Wild West. He had a problem with biting too, you know.
Reed and Thompson imagined what might have happened to the intrepid pioneers of that undersea research base if they were left alone too. Madness, violence, sexual tension -- all the stuff of good comedy. So, Sealab 2021 was born, notable mostly for keeping Erik Estrada employed in the lean years after Dos Mujeres, Un Camino.
* Captain Hazel "Hank" Murphy (Harry Goz): Commander of Sealab. Prone to capricious schemes, unbounded appetites, and unprovoked violence. Desperately fears the plague. Sexually attracted to mops.
* Marco (Erik Estrada): Packing a full day's supply of Vitamin M, this Latino stud loves himself more than enough to compensate for the fact that his friends all find him a muscle-bound freak.
* Sparks (Bill Lobley): This conniving communications officer never seems to leave his chair. Is he paraplegic, or just too busy plotting world domination?
* Dr. Quinn (Brett Butler): The most stable member of Sealab, but nobody pays him any attention. He thinks this is because he is the only black man on the station. It is really because he is insufferably smug.
* Debbie (Kate Miller): Her affair with Quinn is an open secret on the station, but she easily distracts everyone by showing off her breasts constantly. If only they were not so pixelated.
* Stormy (Ellis Henican): The dimmest member of Sealab. Perhaps overuse of the hairdryer to create that '70s "dry look" has cooked his brain. He constantly mixes Debbie up with that other Debbie (Angela Gibbs) on the station. You know, the, uh, black one?
Other recurring characters on the show include the gibbering Dolphin Boy and nuclear engineer Hesh (hip-hop novelty act MC Chris). And a crew of interchangeable -- and often expendable -- extras. There are essentially four types of Sealab stories, as evidenced by this first DVD collection of the first 13 episodes of the series (encompassing Seasons 0, 1, and part of Season 2).
* "The Science Fiction Cliché"
"My nipples are hard just thinking about it." -- Murphy
The first episode sets the tone here: "I, Robot" involves an increasingly pointless argument among the Sealab crew about transferring their brains into robot bodies -- while the station collapses around them. Actually, the first few episodes of Sealab always ended with the station exploding, which like the death of Kenny on South Park soon became tiresome and appeared rarely after the first season. But the show's reliance on standard science fiction tropes -- always twisted into perverse shapes -- continued. In "Lost in Time," Quinn and Stormy are trapped in an increasingly chaotic and violent temporal paradox that leads to a room full of mutants, a paranoid Murphy ranting about doppelgangers from "Queen Doppelpopolis," and a thunderous gladiatorial climax. In "Predator," an invisible monster invades Sealab, eating most of the crew in horrible ways.
* "The Mad Crewman."
"Take it easy there, Tamburlane. Sir." -- Sparks
This one usually involves a crazy scheme by Captain Murphy. In "Happy Cake," an episode of the original Sealab 2020 show is redubbed so that Murphy sends the crew into mortal danger in search of his toy cupcake oven. In "Radio Free Sealab," Murphy starts a pirate radio station and runs afoul of a militant FCC. Debbie's biological clock sends her on a mad quest to make a baby -- even if the prospects on Sealab are less than perfect -- in "Chickmate." And everyone goes a little mad when they are trapped "In the Closet," a prime example of how Sealab can take a simple premise (sticking everyone in a closet together) and milk it for eleven minutes.
* "The Scam."
"I've got to up his saltpeter dosage." -- Sparks
This type of story usually involves Sparks (who pads out "Happy Cake" with his first onscreen plan for world domination). In "Stimutacs," the chair-bound grifter passes around an "herbal dietary supplement" with freakish side effects. But Sparks can just as easily be taken in by scam artists. In "Little Orphan Angry," an adolescent con man convinces the crew that he is dying of a rare disease, so he can take them for all they have. In "Murphy Murph and the Feng Shui Bunch," a fake interior designer drains the coffers once again.
* "The PoMo Show."
"Ah, mercury. Sweetest of the transition metals." -- A pensive whale
This sort of show is the hardest to describe. Sealab 2021 tends to be more literate than its wilder Williams Street cousin, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Often, entire episodes are built out of self-referential "high concept" gags. For example, "Waking Quinn" works as a deft parody of Richard Linklater's philosophical dream-film Waking Life, with bits of Apocalypse Now and a few Chubby Cox jokes (read it aloud) to keep it from getting too pretentious. "All That Jazz" builds on a simple concept: Murphy is trapped under a soft drink machine for months, while the crew is off at an MC Chris concert. Throw in a friendly scorpion and a nasty robot who looks suspiciously like he walked off the set of Disney's The Black Hole and you have the makings of a damn fine cola commercial. Cartoon Network wraps up this particular Sealab collection with one of the show's strongest pieces of writing: "Swimming in Oblivion." The episode plays as a "behind the scenes" look at the making of the show as if it were a live action series, with the show's creators mocking themselves and a great shot at racism in science fiction shows (check out Quinn's Stargate SG-1 costume).
Extras on this set are fairly modest, but if the Aqua Teen Hunger Force collections are any indication, Williams Street is saving all the good stuff for the next DVD set. There are a handful of deleted or alternate scenes. We also get to see the fabled rejected pilot episode made with stolen vault footage after Reed and Thompson were fired from Cartoon Network for the first time (no, really). Basically it is a regular Sealab 2020 episode (the footage was reused to better effect in the episode "Frozen Dinner") with some awful dubbing. When Reed and Thompson reconceived the series later, they clearly took a freer hand with the material, departing further and further from the show's 1970s roots as the seasons progressed.
This leads to my overall assessment of Sealab 2021. Like most Adult Swim original shows, this one did not find its footing until its second season. So many of the episodes on this first collection (which is called "Season One" on the package, even if that is not entirely accurate), are not as funny or inventive as the show would soon become. On their own, they are pretty good, even if as I noted above they tend to repeat plot ideas. But the earlier episodes are not nearly as densely packed as the latter half of this collection, as cast and crew became more comfortable with the series. There are hints in some of these episodes of the sort of dense layering of gags and intertextual references that would mark the second and third seasons of the show; "Stimutacs," and "Swimming in Oblivion" (both from Season 2) are the best examples. Sealab 2021 is a show that continues to improve in its writing and comic performances. Still, this "Season 1" two-disc set gets you in on the ground floor -- or is that sea floor? -- of the best written show in the Williams Street stable.
If you dig straight-up, low-brow humor, check out the hilarious antics of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force. If your tastes run toward a piquant balance of potty jokes and art film parodies, you might prefer the sophisticated ensemble of -- oh, hell -- Sealab 2021 is a damn funny show that seems to get better with each season. The voice cast's marvelous timing, combined with strong writing, will have you quoting punch lines for days. And in spite of the lack of significant extras and the uneven quality of some of the earlier episodes on this first DVD collection, you can rest assured that not only is there plenty of great comedy here, but that Sealab 2021 will only get better with future collections. So check this one out.
Hesh wants some sex!
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted and Alternate Scenes
* Pitch Pilot
* IMDb: Sealab 2020
* MC Chris Official Site