The last of the great newspaper strips, Scott Adams’ Dilbert exploded into popularity in the 1990s, thanks to its frank, on-the-nose satire of the workaday cubicle life. The strip was such a sensation, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking. Upstart network UPN had high hopes for Dilbert the series, only for it to get middling ratings, barely hanging in there for two seasons.
Still, the show has since developed a cult following, with its fans still arguing for its brilliance, all these years later. Mill Creek has snatched up the rights and is now re-releasing Dilbert: The Complete Series (Mill Creek) on this three-disc set.
Dilbert (Daniel Stern, Home Alone) is an engineer/inventor spending all day in a cubicle working for a huge company, putting up with his acerbic coworkers Wally (Gordon Hunt) and Alice (Kathy Griffin, My Life On The D-List), and his pointy-haired boss (Larry Miller, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). At home, Dilbert’s pet/roommate Dogbert (Chris Elliot, Get a Life) has various evil plots brewing and involves himself in whatever’s happening in Dilbert’s life.
Hopes were beyond high that Dilbert would be a monster hit, taking all of television by storm. Take a look at the opening theme. It begins with the big bang, showing Dilbert-like amoeba, separating and rapidly evolving into various life forms, eventually becoming a Dilbert caveman and then Dilbert himself. If that were not enough, we then get an elaborate 3-D animation sequence following a paper airplane zipping all around Dilbert’s office, culminating in a massive overhead pan out, revealing the gigantic cubicle maze transforming into the Dilbert logo. You can almost hear the animators saying, “Dude, this gonna be soooo epic!”
The problem is that “soooo epic” is not what Dilbert needs. The comic strip succeeds thanks to its sharp wit, not far-out concepts or elaborate art. The TV series, however, wants to be a big blockbuster show, so visual gags and over-the-top absurdity rules the show. Instead of merely a mid-level office drone, Dilbert is now an “inventor,” which means we get a lot of “Here’s my newest invention” jokes. There are crazy dream sequences and elaborate spoofs. One episode parodies The Wizard of Oz with Dilbert and his coworkers dancing down the Yellow Brick Road and side character Catbert (Jason Alexander, Seinfeld) acting as the Wizard. When the show goes this far into pop-culture wackiness, it loses the biting satire that made the original comic strip so successful.
I’m reminded of Mike Judge’s successful King of the Hill, which debuted two years before Dilbert. That series had a low-key sense of humor and mostly kept things very realistic only going “cartoony” on rare occasions. Dilbert would have benefited from King of the Hill‘s character-based humor, toning down on the screwball wackiness. Instead, we get stories like people forming a religion based on Wally, Dilbert getting pregnant (!) after being impaled by a space probe, and Dogbert convincing Congress to replace all holidays with a single “Dogbert Day.” When stuff like this happens, I’m not laughing, and I’m instead wishing the show would be the workplace sitcom it was meant to be.
It doesn’t help that the characters are so one-note. Wally is lazy, Alice is grumpy, the Boss is incompetent, and so on. Even Dilbert, our star, doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s trying to be good at his job, only to be blocked at every turn by the cluelessness and/or apathy of everyone around him. On the plus side, the voice actors jump into the show with enthusiasm. Daniel Stern and Chris Elliot carry the show nicely, blending into their characters. Kathy Griffin downplays her usual jokey shtick and instead plays Alice with a harder edge. Guest voices include well-known names such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Eugene Levy, Jeri “Seven of Nine” Ryan, and even Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Despite a variety of ambitious set pieces, the animation style remains simplistic, in attempts to match Adams’ art style. The visual quality on the DVDs, then, is clean but unimpressive. Ditto for the stereo sound, which has no defects but is hardly immersive. There are no extras, even though a previous release contained a number of interviews and other bonus content.
I can’t fault the creators for their ambitiousness, but in trying to make Dilbert the biggest show on TV, they lost some of what made this property so popular to begin with.