Pudding can't fill the emptiness within Judge Paul Corupe, but it will help.
Our reviews of Sealab 2021: Season Four (published September 6th, 2006), Sealab 2021: Season One (published September 27th, 2004), and Sealab 2021: Season Three (published August 4th, 2005) are also available.
You can call them "cartoon remixes," "post-modern animated shows," or simply "too bizarre for words," but the Cartoon Network has found surprising success by plundering their vaults to rehash and recycle old Hanna-Barbera toons for their late night "Adult Swim" programming block. One of their more popular entries, Sealab 2021, repurposes animation from Alex Toth's mundane multi-cultural rescue show Sealab 2020 into a bewildering experience that plays out somewhere in between the off-the-cuff voice acting and slothful heroism of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the surreal tone and minimalist animation style of Space Ghost Coast to Coast. With an idiot Captain fond of liquor, guns, and getting even with those bastards from Pod 6; a lone, sex-crazed female crewmember who's shacking up with the smug science officer; and, uh, the rest, Sealab 2021 is a show that could be considered either inspired or insipid, but it's frequently both.
Facts of the Case
On a futuristic multimillion-dollar laboratory under the sea, the grossly unqualified Captain Hank Murphy (Harry Goz) goes through the paces of leading a crew of misfits perhaps even stupider than himself. Stormy (Ellis Henican) certainly qualifies in that category, despite—or perhaps because of—his California good looks. Dr. Quinn (Brett Butler) is the only reliable crewmember on board, which usually means he is stuck doing all the work. The pathological exhibitionist Debbie (Kate Miller) is Quinn's girlfriend, but only by default, because she's pretty much the only female member of the crew—except for "Black Debbie," her African American counterpart. In the muscle department, Murphy usually turns to sole Latino crewmember Marco (Erik Estrada), all while Murphy's sidekick, the permanently chair-bound communications officer Sparks (Bill Lobley) tries to screw things up as much as possible. He usually doesn't need much help.
You know the drill: Two discs, thirteen episodes, ten minutes apiece:
• Der Dieb
• The Policy
• Legend of Baggy Pants
• Hail Squishface
• Feast of Alvis
• Article 4
• Return to Oblivion
This is usually the part of the review where I talk about how characters have grown since first the first season, how, after a shaky start, the wrinkles have ironed themselves out and this new self-assurance resulted in a stellar multi-season run. With Sealab 2021, none of that is applicable. In a show where all formal elements of episodic television like basic plot and character development take a backseat to meaningless and eccentric humor, there's little reason to care about such trivial matters. Instead, the real question becomes simply: is the show as wryly funny as the first season? I'm happy to report that although many fans consider the first season the pinnacle of the show, the second season is often just as hilarious and off-putting, and it's to the writers' credit that they can keep coming up with increasingly insane new situations and gags to prove that Sealab 2021 is far more than just a one-joke concept.
The best thing about Adult Swim shows like Sealab 2021 is that they constantly keep you guessing—you simply never know what's going to happen. In this season, the episodes run the gamut from "7211," a straight-ahead Sealab 2020 adventure with newly dubbed voices and only one gag at the very end, to episodes like "Der Dieb," in which crotch-whacking and subplots about low butter supplies take prominence over the disjointed and often pointless story. Also of note is "Fusebox," which uses only one cell of the outside of the lab to tell the story of Quinn's attempt to change a fuse in the face of Murphy's stupid interjections. But just when you think you've figured out Sealab and the relationships between its off-center inhabitants, the show yanks you out of your comfort zone with "Tinfins" is a mock-MTV infotainment show advertising a Sealab movie of the same name, and "Return to Oblivion," a sequel to the first season episode "Swimming in Oblivion," is a fictional look at the making of the show, with the voice actors playing themselves—well, sorta.
Besides the wonderfully absurd humor, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the show is spotting the Hanna-Barbera in-jokes and the re-use of their other infamous cartoon characters. "Bizarro," perhaps one of the best remembered episodes from this season, sees a Bizarro alternate universe Sealab team, a concept borrowed from not only the original Superman comics, but also H-B's Challenge of the Superfriends show. "Hail Squishface" takes the amorphous Gloop from The Herculoids and recasts him as a endlessly multiplying gasbag in an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles" episode. Also look for a cameo by H-B bit player Wally Gator in "Fusebox."
It's amazing how many of these shows that simply reuse decades-old animation cels end up looking so great. Even though dirt and grain can occasionally be seen on the source material for Sealab 2021: Season Two, detail is quite good and colors remain deep and solid, all which make this set quite a pleasure to watch. Audio is always clear—at least when it's supposed to be—on the otherwise no-frills Dolby 2.0 Surround track
Carrying on an Adult Swim DVD tradition of wholly worthless commentaries, Sealab 2021: Season Two starts out with relatively typical, yet distinctly uninformative tracks by the show creators Matt Thompson and Adam Reed and their staff, but these quickly degenerate into complete nonsense—field recordings of the guys bowling, skeet shooting, and playing air hockey. Needless to say, you have to be a pretty big fan of the series to even bother with the majority of these. It's a good joke, but one that gets tired pretty quickly.
The rest of the extras are housed on Disc Two, headlined by "Ronnie," a never completed episode that has Captain Murphy as a blues singer who lands his job on Sealab by pledging his soul to Ronnie…er, the Devil. The show hasn't been animated, so it's akin to watching a series of minimally animated storyboards with voiceovers by a few staff members. There are a few scattered laughs, but it's not one of the better episodes they've done. Fans of the show might still get a kick out of it.
If you thought "Ronnie" was a rudimentary version of a Sealab episode, then the included rough cut of "Der Dieb" will give you an even more accurate peak behind the scenes. Apparently, even before a show is animated, the show's tireless creators work out everything in live action with bikini models before heading to the drawing board. Seriously, this is a pretty funny and unexpected little extra as the girls try their best to make it through the lines while the crew howls with laughter. The bikini models also stick around for two more special features: "Take a Tour of 7030" has the girls showing the viewer around the 7030 offices where Sealab is made, and on "20 Questions With the Cast," one model manages to read off interview questions (with some degree of difficulty) to real cast members Brett Butler, Kate Miller, Bill Lobley, and Ellis Henican. Even though some cast members are conspicuously missing, this is probably the best feature on the disc. The actors, seen as their animated counterparts, answer serious and ridiculous queries with the same spontaneous humor and energy they display on the show, which results in an interesting and—dare I say it—even informative feature.
The last feature isn't meant to be humorous at all—it's a ten-minute tribute to Harry Goz, the voice of Captain Murphy, who passed away in 2003. Matt Thompson and Adam Reed, as well as fellow voice talent Bill Lobley and Michael Goz (Harry's son) offer up heartfelt memories of working with Harry, making this a good, if slightly out-of-place feature in view of the general insanity of the rest of the set.
With such brief runtimes, I'd be willing to argue that like many of the other Adult Swim shows, Sealab 2021 is best experienced on DVD. This way, viewers can absorb the off-kilter humor in large doses at a time, which greatly improves the shows over late-night blink-and-you'll-miss-it airings. As a result, Sealab 2021: Season Two is hard to suggest as a blind buy, but for anyone who enjoys the show and wants more Capt. Murphy in their lives, this is another high quality release that will absolutely not disappoint. Recommended.
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