Judge Mike Rubino learned a lot from watching this show, the least of which was the definition of "lagomorph."
Sam: Remember, kids, we're professional cartoon characters. Don't try this at home.
Did you ever get the feeling that the animated-law enforcement genre of children's television was missing something, but you could never quite put your finger on it? Perhaps the hole in this sub-sub-genre of television is meant to be plugged by a 6-foot dog and a 3-foot rabbity-thing! Enter: Sam & Max: Freelance Police, an hysterically adult Fox Kids show that survived just 13 episodes, but now lives forever on DVD thanks to Shout! Factory.
Facts of the Case
Sam and Max had their start in the black and white pages of the indy comic scene in 1987 from the hand of Steve Purcell. It wasn't long before the folks over at LucasArts became obsessed with the comic, and they adapted the characters into a hit PC adventure game called Sam & Max Hit the Road. The game's success (I can remember playing the DOS version with six floppy discs…) led to the creation of a Fox Kids Saturday morning cartoon series.
The show stars two "freelance" police officers: Sam, a tall fedora-clad anthropomorphic dog resembling classic detectives like Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, and Max, a lagomorphic hyper-sadistic bunny-thing. Together, these two take on cases so strange and paranormal that any average, salaried, police officer would be hard-pressed to do the job right.
Each episode, with the exception of the first and last, features two 10-minute adventures per installment.
I like to think of Sam & Max as the forgotten, crack-addicted cousin of The Tick, which also aired in the Fox Kids programming block in the mid-'90s. Both feature a dynamic duo fighting crime in their own, often ridiculous ways. Also like The Tick, Sam & Max was an adult-oriented show shoe-horned into the otherwise kid-friendly Saturday morning lineup. Unfortunately, Sam & Max had an even shorter run…but what's here is comic gold.
Being a fan of the original point-and-click PC game, I was part of Sam & Max's installed fan-base upon its arrival to television. Watching it all over again some 10 years later, I am certain that I didn't appreciate it fully back in the day. Sam & Max spits out puns, one-liners, and gags faster than a Tommy Gun pumps out lead. Sam, the hyper-intelligent hound, is the calm, people-friendly member of the team. He handles the business, interrogates witnesses, and acts as the nonchalant voice of reasoning when the literal crap hits the proverbial fan. His "little buddy," Max, the hyper-violent bunny-thing that's ready to drop a nuke at a moment's notice, acts as the bad cop, always getting the duo into deeper troubles. Not that they mind.
The beautiful part of Sam & Max is that the story isn't all that relevant, but the jokes surprisingly are. Each episode begins with a phone call from The Commissioner, the faceless boss who loves sub-contracting the pair for his extreme cases. From there, Sam and Max usually visit The Geek, a pre-teen girl genius who works out of their Sub-basement of Solitude. Then, the duo shoves off to whatever crazy world needs their help, whether its a Vietnamese-jungle-esque portion of Central Park or Mt. Olympus. It's a pretty simple formula that speeds by quickly in each 10-minute tale. But like I said, the story isn't that important. Sam and Max are perfectly content to stick to the canned scenarios so long as they can crack wise about whatever they feel like; it is rather odd to see a kids show tell jokes about global warming, consumerism, processed foods, and Apocalypse Now, but Sam & Max pulls it off without thinking twice, employing a style of cut-away jokes that pre-dates anything Family Guy is doing.
Adding to the humor is the ingenious dialogue, which is as snappy as the pulpiest Dashiell Hammett story. Part of the show's humor is the characters' habit of unabashedly spewing exposition whenever the opportunity arises. Max is more than happy to remind the audience that convenience has struck and everything wrapped up rather nicely (Max: "Our highly improbable plan worked, Sam"); meanwhile, Sam is constructing elaborate similes to interject whenever trouble arises (Sam: "I'm just tossing darts in the dark here, but I'd say this whole transdimensional mess is the combined result of you storing toxic oozes in leaky zippy lock bags in a freezer that's as neglected as Quasimodo at a Sadie Hawkins dance"). The two characters are great complements to each other, even if their quirky bluntness may be too much for some. The same goes for the show's self-awareness, which can be stifling at times, but usually hilarious. It's not for everyone, but in this case, it is for me!
It's worth noting that while this show may have aired on Saturday mornings, I don't really find it that great for kids. There's nothing blatantly offensive in it, but the humor is so out-there, and the references and violence so unique, that tots probably won't enjoy it. But those who watched it back in the day, and grew up with the video games, have formed a hearty fan-base that surely had a hand in the show coming to DVD. This cartoon is another one of those brief flashes of animated brilliance whose life ended too soon (e.g., The Critic, The Tick, and Clerks: The Animated Series).
Shout! Factory has compiled these 13 episodes into an extremely impressive DVD release. The episodes are spread over two DVDs held within a single slimline case; the second slimline case holds a bonus disc and a Sam & Max sticker. The video quality for these episodes is above average, with bright colors and excellent animation (especially for a weekly television cartoon). The only noticeable issue is with the digital character animation used in the show, which can cause some pixilated edge issues when the camera zooms close. This isn't a detriment, and is more of an issue with the animation technique employed back in '97. The sound is also excellent, with a great jazz soundtrack and wonderful voice work. While Sam and Max (voiced by Harvey Atkin and Robert Tinkler, respectively) are strange, the minor characters that surround them are even stranger—and they are all filled with the exaggerated absurdity reminiscent of Ren & Stimpy.
The bonus disc has some great special features that pay admirable respect to the show and the franchise. Steve Purcell has an insightful interview, taped at the San Diego ComicCon, where he discusses the evolution and history of the characters. There are three animated Sam & Max shorts that are brief and funny (these shorts also appear in the episodes themselves). The disc also includes a new animated short film by Purcell called "Sam & Max: Our Bewildered Universe." The short is nice, but the lack of any voice acting or fluid animation makes it feel like an unfinished project.
Sam & Max returned last year to the world of PC gaming with episodic adventures created by Telltale Games. Included on the bonus disc is an interview with some people involved with the game, as well as a playable demo of one of the episodes (which only works on PCs, so sadly I can't tell you if it's any good).
The bonus disc also includes some PDFs of original concept art and the show's original "bible." The series bible is a great document to sift through as it outlines all of the thoughts (both implemented and forgotten) for the Fox Kids show. It's a nice touch that I haven't seen in too many other releases.
Holding all of this Sam & Max goodness together is a great package with original artwork by Steve Purcell. All of this adds up to an excellent DVD treatment for an almost-forgotten show. Shout! Factory continues their reputation as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to releasing nostalgic cartoon shows on DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One might be concerned with how self-aware the show is. While I found it hilariously charming, the frequent acknowledgement that you're watching a cartoon might be lost on those unfamiliar with the series' brand of humor. Like other less-than-successful 'toons, Sam & Max has a specific style of comedy that isn't going to be for everyone (if it did, it would still be on the air).
Sam & Max: Freelance Police is a well-rounded and thorough release of a great cartoon. The humor, while 10 years old, is surprisingly fresh and fits right in with the current crop of adult cartoons on TV today. If you've played the classic PC game, read the comics, or love fast-paced irreverence, then you'll surely love this show. Shout! Factory has put together a thorough package that has everything short of the original game.
Guilty of police brutality and wanton disregard for common decency. Good
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Interview with Steve Purcell
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.