All of y’all better wrap your heads around this little piece of cheese right now.
Of all the in-house original series produced for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, Sealab 2021 has built a reputation for being the most experimental. Sure, the other series might have talking food, an evil praying mantis, or a lawyer with wings. But Sealab’s creators took the simple premise of underwater sci-fi adventure and completely twisted it around. As a result, it’s the strangest show on TV. And, when at its best, it’s one of the funniest.
In the future, at the bottom of the ocean, the crew of Sealab has gone insane. Constantly at each other’s throats, and with some sort of get-rich scheme always in the works, the various characters aboard Sealab have a knack for fighting, chaos, and blowing themselves up. On board are the clueless Captain Murphy, the genius Quinn, the frustrated Debbie, the hunky Marco, the sinister Sparks, the empty-headed Stormy, and the always adorable Dolphin Boy.
In this volume, tourists pay a visit, a submarine rescue leads to cannibalism and Pac-Man, radioactive mutants form a rock band, everyone replaces their bodies with new robotic bodies, a Hollywood actor seduces everyone with his velvety voice, and the crew discovers the joys of high-definition TV. Meanwhile, a new captain, Tornado Shanks, makes his debut. Stirring things up, Tornado experiments with education, enlists everyone in a lethal football game, and is the source of a fantastic voyage.
Sealab 2021 is a hard show to describe. The humor is very much its own style, filled with odd, unexpected beats. Conversations and even entire plotlines take turns into strange new directions at a drop of a hat. For example, the episode “Frozen Dinner” starts out with a submarine rescue plot. But about a third of the way through it, we meet a violent German submarine captain who more or less takes over the episode. “Dearly Beloved Seed” starts with a look at Shanks’ family history, then suddenly it’s about a wedding. After a little while, it takes another turn and becomes a movie parody, and then just before the credits roll there’s yet another twist. Numerous other examples like this are in each episode.
During its second season, Sealab developed a reputation as Adult Swim’s experimental show. That’s when we saw the “blackout” episode, the Grizzlebee’s episode, the “uh-oh” episode, and the “7211” episode. This time around, however, the creators went back to more stories driven by interaction between the characters. “Splitsville” is one of the better efforts, with a focus on the old on-again-off-again between Quinn and Debbie. But if you loved the more outlandish experimental episodes, there are a few of those here for you to enjoy, notably “Red Dawn,” which spoofs cold war paranoia with its emphasis on communist philosophy. The creators are clearly enamored with this one, because the packaging and menu designs are based around it.
Now it’s time for the big controversy. Halfway through the season, Captain Murphy departs, to be replaced by the new CIC, Tornado Shanks. Behind the scenes, actor Harry Goz had passed away, so the creators developed a new character to take his place, to be voiced by Michael Goz, Harry’s son. Murphy was a sometimes clueless leader who always thought before he acted, and was often a slave to his odd impulses. Shanks, meanwhile, is an abrasive former football coach with a hillbilly upbringing. Many fans have railed against the change, saying the series didn’t need a new character, let alone a loudmouthed football-playing knuckle-dragger. If viewers are willing to be a little open-minded, though, there can be some possibilities for the character, best seen in his leading Sealab’s youth astray in “Chalkboard Jungle.”
Other highlights during this season include the return of Hesh (voiced by MC Chris), who died last season. Debbie Love, formerly known as “Black Debbie,” gets a lot more screen time, and in turn becomes more than just a one-note joke character. Despite the change in captains, it’s clear that the creators were looking back to the show’s first season, and trying to reclaim what made it so initially popular. The wild experimentation of Season Two is notable, but they couldn’t sustain it forever. As a result, there’s a nice variety in the episodes here.
So how does this two-disc set play for those who have never seen the series before? I’m going to guess “not well,” because a lot of what happens here relies on knowledge of inside jokes from earlier episodes. “I Robot Really,” for example, is a direct follow-up to a first season outing. Various character traits and catchphrases are spoofed, and to get the humor in these moments, a viewer will need to know where they came from.
The animation for Sealab is horrendously low quality, but the digital transfer is not. Colors are bright and intense, and there are no signs of scratches or grain. Even the recycled 1972 footage looks good. Sound is top notch. Although this is a mostly dialogue-intensive show, the occasional rock or rap number fills the room with music. Likewise, when the German bullets start flying during “Frozen Dinner,” it sounds like they’re really zipping around your head.
And then we have the extras. Like the series itself, they are hard to describe. “The Gert Pilot” is an early pitch pilot, which failed to land them a series. If you find Sealab unfunny, wait until you see how unfunny and sloppily made this is. “Kitty Fun-fun” features a puppet interviewing homeless people about Sealab. It’s not as outrageous as I just made it sound, but suffers from being too repetitive. “Stormy Waters, Pundit” is a short cartoon featuring Sealab’s resident dolt pontificating on a number of political topics. See, the joke here is that the dumb guy is acting smart all of a sudden. This is abstract humor at its most abstract.
That same abstract feeling carries over to three of the four commentaries. These have almost nothing to do with the episode in question. How much you enjoy this depends on how patient you are, how much you enjoy strange non-sequitur humor, and perhaps how drunk you are. The fourth commentary, though, should be required listening for any lover of animation or comedy. The creators brought in the message board moderator of an anime fan site, one who was especially critical of this season. On “Tornado Shanks,” the episode that introduces the new captain, he takes the character and the entire series to task, railing against every allegedly bad decision made by the creators. No doubt we’re supposed to think this is funny, and giggle about this guy’s nerdishness behind his back, but he actually makes a lot of good points. The track brings up the age-old question of what is and isn’t humor, and the commentator makes a good argument for his case.
A little more on the disappointing side are two unaired episodes. “Dearly Beloved” is just an early version of “Dearly Beloved Seed,” which recycles most of that episode. The creators pulled the plug on “Quinnmas” during production, resulting in an episode made up of full color unanimated stills. It didn’t seem to me to be worse than any other episode, but then I’m not a TV producer. Seeing it told with characters frozen in place makes it kind of hard on the eyes, though. It’s too bad the creators couldn’t dig up enough cash to finish it properly for this DVD.
This is comedy? It’s all a bunch of unlikable characters being cruel to each other. It’s nothing but lowbrow sex and violence. When it’s not being too weird for its own good, it’s just a bunch of cheap gags. Where’s the humor that the audience can relate to? Where’s the social satire? Where’s the well-timed slapstick? In other words, it’s not for everyone.
If you’re a fan, then you’ve already made up your mind about the direction Sealab went during this season. If you’re a newcomer to the world of Sealab, we suggest you begin with the first season, and take it from there.