Judge Mike Rubino knows a thing or two about private ducks.
"What the hell are YOU staring at?"
Back in the days when USA Network was still a fairly small cable channel, before the likes of Monk and Burn Notice, they took a chance on a crude little cartoon called Duckman. With a strong leading man and a fearless approach to social satire, the show lasted four seasons and then disappeared…now it's finally made it on to DVD.
Facts of the Case
When it comes to solving crimes, scoring dames, coming out on top, and all that other noir detective stuff, Duckman is the polar opposite. He's anti-noir. He's also anti most other things. Voiced by Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Duckman is a sad, angry will man (er, duck) who just can't seem to do anything right. His detective business, which he runs with the help of his faithful and increasingly talented partner, Cornfed (Gregg Berger), is barely breaking even. And that's not even saying much about his home life.
Duckman's family is, believe it or not, more unbearable than his job. After his wife died, Duckman was forced to live with his sister-in-law, Bernice (Nancy Travis), and his mother-in-law, Grandma-ma (who only communicates with farts). Despite Duckman being at constant odds with Bernice, she helps raise his three children, Ajax (Dweezil Zappa), Charles, and Mambo (the latter two children are actually two heads on one body). And so somehow, amidst the twisted detective cases and his obsession with lap dances and sex, Duckman tries his very best to be a family man. Did I mention this show is a little twisted?
Duckman is based off of a comic book by Everett Peck (who also worked on The Critic).
Duckman is a series that, while lasting four seasons, didn't have the easiest time breaking into the mainstream when it debuted back in 1994. USA Network was constantly moving it around to various timeslots, making it almost impossible for casual viewers to follow; on top of that, its edgy and subversive subject matter may have held it back from the same runaway success that The Simpsons enjoyed. Despite this, the show earned a cult following and, after much begging, has finally arrived on DVD. I admit to not being a huge fan of the show when it was first on (I was probably too young to really "get it"), but having revisited it, I can assure you that this is a cartoon worth rediscovering.
Duckman is certainly an adult cartoon; each episode is brimming with double entendres, innuendos, and mature themes. But it's also filled with biting socio-political satire, cynical existentialism, and timely pop culture references. This is all delivered with a very loose, textured art style reminiscent of an early MTV cartoon or Nickelodeon's series Ahh! Real Monsters. I guess you could say it's pretty fitting for the mid-90s in both substance and style. What's surprising is how quickly this is all established and executed in the first season of the show. Unlike The Simpsons, which took a few seasons to really hit its stride, Duckman nails it by the second or third episode.
In the pilot episode of the show ("I, Duckman") we're introduced to the duck via an elaborate dream sequence, which exhibits both Duckman's idealistic perception of himself and the grim reality that he's a complete loser. And while it has its necessary exposition dumps here and there, the pilot sets in to motion a theme and style that will remain throughout the two seasons included in the set. The show is constantly commenting on various interest groups, establishments, and authorities, while keeping nothing sacred. In the second episode ("T.V. or Not to Be"), Duckman takes on a conniving televangelist and a league of pretentious post-modern artists. In "Not So Easy Riders," Duckman must evade the IRS because of years of back taxes. And in one of the best episodes in the set ("American Dick"), Duckman is featured on a parody of C.O.P.S. while essentially lambasting the entire reality television genre before it got as bad as it is today.
The second season, which was only nine episodes, is just as strong. The first episode ("Papa Oom M.O.W. M.O.W.") finds Duckman at the center of a media circus after he accidentally saves the life of the president. Not only does the episode come out swinging in terms of how it portrays the news media, but it also features a brilliant segment in live action. The season continues with episodes about celebrity rehab clinics, Vietnam, and a "heavy handed and over-obvious allegory" about the state of the Union in the mid-90s. The season, and the set, concludes with a clip episode (aptly named "Clip Job") featuring guest star Ben Stiller as a deranged advocate for family-friendly television.
If it isn't painfully clear by now, Duckman doesn't shy away from social satire. In fact, at times it goes well out of its way to make a point or scream a statement. While most shows may not be able to get away with such brash and obvious preaching, it doesn't feel out of place coming from the already outrageous Duckman. And for those who aren't looking for that kind of cerebral junk, don't worry. There's some sort of fart or sex joke right around the corner.
And while the art direction and writing certainly drive the show's style and attitude, it all rests on the shoulders of Jason Alexander. He auditioned for the show without even knowing what it was called, and I can't imagine it being successful without him. His vocal and emotional range as Duckman is like an extreme, unhinged version of George from Seinfeld that matches the angular world of the show. Of course, that's not to diminish the great voice actors surrounding him, including the excellent Gregg Berger as Cornfed. Berger's monotone, Joe Friday voice is perfect for Duckman's low-key partner. Aside from the main players, the show also featured an impressive line-up of guest stars, including recurring roles for Ben Stein and Tim Curry (who played Duckman's Murdoc-like nemesis, King Chicken).
This DVD release of the show, for all its excellent packaging, leaves much of the video and sound untouched. The show was done completely with cel animation, a process that, at the time, was on the way out. This resulted in a lot of grain, dust, and scratches on the picture. There are slight shadows around each of the animated characters, and a lot of the colors are in constant, if minor, flux. Many of the visual defects are ironed out, however, by the time the second season rolls around. While some videophiles may be turned off by this, I didn't really mind so much, since the show itself feels very grungy and textural. The sound fairs a little better, coming in clear and well-balanced with a unique soundtrack (much of which references Frank Zappa tunes).
Season one is spread across the first two discs of the set, and the second season is housed on the third. Accompanying these 22 episodes are a handful of well-produced special features. The best of the bunch is "What the Hell Are You Starin' At?," a retrospective look at the series with the show's creators, producers, and voice actors. Everyone has some keen insights on the development of the show, and they provide real insight into what the series was trying to accomplish. The second featurette, "Designing Duckman," is about Everett Peck's development of the Duckman character, from comic strip to television series.
Also included in the set are some lackluster character bios and a commentary track for the pilot episode. The bios, while occasionally funny, are billed as "interactive." All this really implies is that you have to click through a lot of menus to get to the biographies of the show's recurring characters. The commentary track is more entertaining, featuring recollections by Alexander and Peck. It overlaps a bit with the featurettes, but does feature some cool insights into the making of the show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If it isn't clear by now, I'm a fan of the show's satirical and loose story structure, but it certainly isn't for everyone. Duckman may have been a uniquely insane show when it first debuted, however today it's something that would fit neatly into Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. It's certainly not a show for everyone, and can often seem bizarre for bizarre's sake.
A large contributor to the show's strange factor is Duckman's family dynamic. More often than not, I found his family to be responsible for dragging down any given episode. His children are fairly un-likeable archetypes, his sister-in-law is one-dimensional, and his mother-in-law can only fart. In turn, they cause Duckman to wobble between carefree bad-parenting and bluntly sappy sentimentality. Their inclusion in the show certainly adds to Duckman's horrendous life, but I just wish they weren't so flat (although the two-headed son does add a nice twist).
Duckman is a gem from the surge of mid-'90s animated television. It's a hysterically bleak and surreal show filled with satire that is proving to be pretty timeless. Duckman is billed (excuse the pun) as half-detective and half-family man, but he's really neither. He's just a sad, angry duck who can't catch a break. Luck for us, we get to watch.
These first two seasons get a great treatment from Paramount. The special features aren't groundbreaking, but they're decent enough to check out. For fans of the series, this is obviously a must have; for anyone who missed or doesn't remember it, you might be surprised at how well it holds up.
What are you crazy? &%#$ing GUILTY!
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