"Everybody down, he's becoming disgruntled."—Pointy-Haired Boss
In the 1950s, Herman Miller designed steel frameworks to surround their bulky metal desks. They called the semi-portable furniture "Action Office." Competition from other manufacturers (such as Steelcase) combined with Marcel Propst's theory of a "facility built on change" led Herman Miller to create a new modular office structure called AO2. The concept of cubicles really took hold in the 1960s, where clunky office furniture was eschewed in favor of occupant-tailored workspaces.
In 1970, the first open-plan building was created in the United States. Freehafer Hall at Purdue University is almost completely free of interior walls. Aside from a handful of conference rooms and fringe offices, the three floors are doorless and windowless. Artificial white noise is pumped in through overhead speakers to keep conversations from carrying across the vast rooms. Cube walls are all you see, making Freehafer Hall resemble a three-story rat maze more than anything. You can almost detect the odor of cigarette and marijuana smoke in the dingy fabric, a leftover from chain smoking programmers in the '70s. The bottom floor is particularly grim: a despondent reality of concrete, carpet, fabric, and fluorescence where no natural light penetrates.
This is precisely the type of environment that Scott Adams is railing against in Dilbert. I know it well. In five years as an analyst/programmer at Purdue University, I spent many days in my cube at Freehafer Hall. Scott Adams' insights are uncomfortably close to that daily professional existence.
Facts of the Case
If you've read the Dilbert syndicated comic strip, you're already familiar with the basics of the story. Dilbert (Daniel Stern) is an earnest, frustrated, and bland engineer who works in a cubicle farm at an evil corporation. His co-workers are hopeless: Alice (Kathy Griffin) is bitter and hostile while Wally (Gordon Hunt) gave up any pretense of work long ago. That's okay, because their blustery and clueless boss (Larry Miller) couldn't be bothered to notice. At the end of the day, Dilbert likes to vent to his dog Dogbert (Chris Elliott). Dogbert hardly listens because he is intent on ruling the world.
Dilbert: The Complete Series is quite a puzzle. Dilbert was the most popular syndicated cartoon of the 1990s, and with good reason. The acerbic satire was shocking in its honesty, admirable because it discussed computer engineering in-jokes and didn't stop to see if non-engineers were keeping up. The books were bestsellers; Dilbert merchandise flew off the shelves. It seemed that Dilbert could do no wrong, because it was true and so close to home for most white collar workers. The next logical step was TV. The hurdle of bringing a comic strip to life through action and voice had been met successfully many times. It seemed like the Dilbert series was a shoe in for instant success.
Then something extraordinary happened. They got it right. The voice actors were well-cast across the board. The boss sounded like the boss. Wally sounded like Wally. Who else to give Alice her dry-yet-tinged-with-malice bitter edge than Kathy Griffin? Who does detached sarcasm better than Chris Elliott? Dilbert, the center of this mad universe, sounded capable yet gullible. The animation was right on target, with the animated Dilbert seeming like a natural incarnation of the static comic strip. They brought in Larry Charles of Mad About You and Seinfeld fame to write and produce. No corners were cut in the genesis of this series. Everyone brought their "A" game.
Then something even more extraordinary happened. The series flopped. It got mediocre but promising ratings in the first season—nothing to write home about, but enough to warrant a second season. UPN buried the second season in a poor time slot, and that was the end.
Having watched both of the seasons that comprise Dilbert's short lifespan, I'm not completely surprised that the show was cancelled. This series has some of the most potent humor I've ever seen in an animated series, moments of absolute comic brilliance. Yet the brilliance comes in spurts and does not carry across all of the episodes. Any given episode is powered primarily by a single gag, so it is hit or miss. If the gag doesn't hook you, the episode can be an exercise in tedium. If you are hooked, the episode flies by in spastic fits of hilarity.
The series starts off with promise. The opening episode stays true to Dilbert's roots by emphasizing the conflict between office politics and engineering acumen. Dilbert is tasked with the deliverable of selecting a name for the new, unspecified project. Dilbert disdainfully points out that the name is the least important aspect of a product launch. Need for the product (based on research or opportunity) should drive the project. But he is forced to provide a name for the unspecified product and to build a prototype. Along the way, Dilbert begins to resemble an angry chicken. The episode is quirky but based on astute white-collar observation. There is some unpleasant business of seeing Dilbert naked and discussing rather personal details; the series promises to be even more brutal than the comic. The second and third episodes throw in more office absurdity (love those marketing guys), reinforcing the strong opening.
Though promising, these first few episodes establish disturbing trends. First, Dilbert seems to have one mode: subdued outrage. He reacts in pretty much the same way to his boss, co-workers, mother, dog, and garbage man. Even in these scant few episodes, I sensed the series was getting into a rut (call it Falling Down lite). Second, the series seemed to be slanted towards the absurd and metaphorical rather than the harsh reality of white collar life, which needs no embellishment. The spirit of the comic was there, but it was eclipsed at times by weirdness such as a time-traveling garbage man or dismembered heads in jars. To be fair, this weirdness is often present in the comic, but is not the main thrust.
The subsequent episodes in Season One form a sometimes uninspired jumble of "Office Seinfeld." These episodes have good moments, but aren't consistently cohesive or incisive. The characters are constrained by their personalities, which makes them predictable. The boss is funny when he's interacting with others on the fly (Larry Miller shines in these situations), but too often we see him alone and bumbling (an easy target). Dilbert and Wally are pathetic and have little chance of scoring? Okay, we get it. Alice is angry and might hurt someone. Yuk, yuk. I laughed many times, but entire episodes went by where I would sit and wait for some obvious inanity to conclude. (The best example is Bob Bastard the unfair tester. I "got it," having confronted testers myself from time to time, but the episode was a one trick pony.)
I was just about to make up my mind that this show simply didn't measure up. The nadir was Episode 12, "Holiday." Dilbert is outraged this time because there are too many holidays. Dogbert campaigns Congress as a representative of APWDBUD (The Association of People Who Drink Beer and Use Dynamite) to collapse all holidays into Dogbert Day. First of all, what? Too many holidays? Second, APWDBUD didn't do it for me. This episode was a stretch in every way, causing me to grit my teeth until it wrapped.
Then came "Infomercial," the finale of Season One. It was the polar opposite of Episode 12. Sublimely spoofed marketing guys send Dilbert's Gruntmaster 6000 prototype to a family of toothless trailer trash in Texas. The problem is that the Gruntmaster 6000 has components that could open a rift in space-time. Dogbert hijacks Stephen Hawking to avert the tragedy and repair the rift. Though it contains some of the surrealistic elements I found irritating in previous episodes, the plot was rife with piercing caricature that kept me laughing nonstop. This one episode erased all of my previous discontent. The best part is that Season Two picked right up at the same level of witticism. There were some clunkers ("Art" and "The Security Guard" come to mind), but each clunker is balanced by a gem. Guest stars enrich the season, such as Jeri Ryan as an aloof Seven-of-Nine alarm clock. Clock tease.
After viewing Dilbert: The Complete Series, I reached three conclusions. One: the actors and animators put great effort into crafting a series they could be proud of. Quality is evident in the concept and execution. Two: writer/producer Larry Charles has a great comedic talent and a distinctive voice, but might not have been the best choice for this series. I could sense the incongruity of Seinfeldian devices set within Scott Adams' vision. Three: the series just didn't know where to go with such a long running time. The strip works because it is so brief. The three frames convey a world of meaning and an incisive wit. Certain scenes in each episode capture that vibe, but the rest is too nebulous.
Even with those issues, this series leaves indelible images behind: Dilbert dancing naked in his office, the marketing guys wanting "Dilby" to make some teensy-weensy changes, Dogbert manipulating the Supreme Court, and many more. Each episode delivers something of worth. The show perfectly plays on phobias of cubicle life, such as spreading germs and stapler wars. Some of the most outrageous gags are buried in the backgrounds, so keep a sharp eye out.
As a DVD boxed set, Dilbert: The Complete Series fares well. The packaging is minimalist while effectively capturing the heart of the series. The DVDs are anchored in clear plastic that reveals amusing images when each DVD is lifted out. A handy booklet describes each episode.
I'm puzzled by the division of material among the DVDs. Disc One holds seven episodes and all of the extras, while Disc Two contains six episodes. Disc One predictably suffers from more compression artifacts since it has much more material.
Video quality on the whole is average. Constant anti-aliasing persists throughout the series, which gives the characters jaggedy outlines. The transfer becomes soft at times. Otherwise, the show looks good enough, with flat areas of color and few effects to interrupt the simple presentation. A notable exception is the three-dimensional opening credits with blazing fires, spinning walls, and a spooky theme song by Danny Elfman that is a throwback to Forbidden Zone. The mono sound suits the nature of the comic strip. It gets the dialogue and inflection across perfectly, but doesn't offer much else.
The extras are oddly placed. "Making Dilbert Work" is just what you would expect, a behind the scenes look at Dilbert's conception and execution. Scott Adams discusses everyone's involvement, from the animators to the producer to the actors. We hear Larry speak on why he wanted to do the project and hear from some of the voice actors. It is informative and less fluffy than it could have been, with much of Scott's dry wit in evidence. The other extras are four clip compilations selected by Scott Adams that capture the essence of the characters. It is a ménage of the series itself, which means it contains nothing but spoilers. Scott could have discussed what he thinks of these characters without the clips, or they could have placed these clips on the last DVD. Dilbert fans get to hear about the characters from the creator, which is worthwhile.
Animated series cannot possibly be funny all the time. Fans have their favorite and their least favorite episodes, and Dilbert is no exception. I love the comic strip; I liked the series also, though in spurts.
In any case, it is irrelevant to fans of this series. Dilbert is here in its complete form, with extras to boot. Aside from compression artifacts on disc one and low-level jaggies, the set doesn't have any major problems to disappoint Dilbert fans. Seize this set and join the ranks of the DNRC.
Perhaps this court expected too much; how much variation in personality can one expect from a potato-shaped engineer and a cynical dog? For giving me some of the biggest laughs in recent memory, I'll let some lame episodes slide. The defendant is fined twenty dollars and sentenced to 80 hours of community service in Elbonia.
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Scales of Justice
• "Making Dilbert Work" Featurette
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