Monkey banana raffle!
Adult Swim’s strangest show splashes onto DVD one more time for its fourth season. The characters and their interactions are what initially caught the eyes of viewers when Sealab 2021 debuted, but then the creators got experimental as the series went on, with a number of perplexing “gimmick” episodes that delighted some viewers but turned off others. Let’s see what surprises are in store for us this time around.
It’s the future, and the crew of the underwater research station Sealab has gone insane. The genius Dr. Quinn is barely keeping the place running, and it’s not easy, thanks to his on-again off-again relationship with the blonde Debbie, the evil schemes of communications officer Sparks, the ineptitude of assistant Stormy Waters, and the obnoxious crudity of Captain Tornado Shanks. Things get more complicated when the Latino superhunk Marko returns from the dead, only to be confronted by his unholy offspring, Sharko. Then, as this fourth season progresses, the crew faces a deadly plague, a buy-out by a crazed trillionaire, an island of flesh-eating creatures, jealous rivalries, corrupt restaurateurs, and whales with cancer.
This is a comedy, by the way.
Sealab 2021 is a pretty tough show to describe. There’s a certain off-kilter tone to it all, but it’s one that makes both the laughs and the weirdness somehow work. Because the animation is either reused from or based on the crudity of the old Sealab 2020 series from the early 1970s, the look of the show and the characters tends to be pretty flat. Their faces are mostly expressionless, with almost all of the emotion or comedic timing coming from the voice actors. Then, throw in the fact that any sort of random weirdness could occur at any given time, and you’ve got yourself a show that’s about as far from normal as you could get.
That being said, the creators have mostly gone back to basics with this season, especially in the latter of these episodes, by keeping the focus on the characters and their interactions with one another. That doesn’t necessarily mean Sealab becomes a dry, drawing room comedy (although that would be interesting), because with these characters, you never know what they’ll say or do next. The good thing is that keeping the action focused on dialogue and character means we get our laughs, without an overabundance of random weirdness, such as a string of characters showing up out of nowhere saying, “Uh-oh!”
But, this is still Sealab. This set does feature a few gimmick episodes, notably “Shrabster,” which is told in a backwards style like Memento and that one episode of Seinfeld (also the excellent play and film Betrayal, which more movie fans should familiarize themselves with). Fortunately, “Shrabster” has a few asides from a hilarious narrator and some ribald laughs keeping things moving nicely. Other episodes do have sprinklings of random humor, with a running joke of a character pulling guns out of nowhere and shooting another. Like before, the characters have a habit of dying at any time in any given episode, only to have everything back to normal by the next episode.
Speaking of which, this season is also notable for introducing a new recurring character, one that seems to have divided the fans. Sharko is the result of an unnatural union between Marko and a shark. Sharko is half human, half Latino, and all cartilage. Sharko’s only shtick is that all he wants is acceptance and love from his father, but never gets it. We’re supposed to laugh at how lowly and pathetic he is, but mostly he just comes across as whiny, and he tends to slow down scripts whenever he shows up. Although he’s prominently featured in “Sharko’s Machine” and “Return of Marko,” he tends to show up all over the place. I would have preferred it if the creators had told Sharko’s story in a single episode and then been done with him. But, apparently, they hoped Sharko would be the show’s new breakout star, so a lot of episodes have to have a gratuitous Sharko scene.
Overall, though, the good outweighs the bad, and most of these episodes stand easily next to the best ones that fans remember from the first season. “Joy of Grief,” “Green Fever,” and “No Waterworld” take sci-fi and horror conventions and spoof them. “Butchslap” and “Cavemen” put the focus more on character interaction, while “Isla de Chupacabra” and “Casinko” let the characters run loose in a new setting. In “Monkey Banana Raffle” a new character shows up to mess with the others, but unlike Sharko, he doesn’t overstay his welcome.
Although the animation tends to be flat and low budget, the digital transfer here is not, with plenty of clean, bright colors. The stereo sound is mostly impressive, although this is not a series with a lot of booming sound effects. Sadly, the extras are not as plentiful as they were for previous seasons. The surreal commentaries and oddball featurettes from before are not to be found here. You can watch “Shrabster” reedited into the right chronology, there are deleted scenes for one episode, and an alternate ending for another, and the “Sunken Treasures” feature is a quickly-made “clip show” of favorite moments and one-liners from past episodes. The only other extra is “Nightshift,” which appears to be an unaired episode about what all the other, previously unseen Sealab crewmembers to at night when the regular characters aren’t around. It’s an amusing idea, but it goes on for a little too long.
For years, there’s been an unspoken rule in the world of comedy, that you don’t make jokes about cancer. This would seem to be a given, because chances are there’s someone in the audience whose life has been tragically affected by the deadly disease. Of course, this also means that the more offensive and/or attention-starved comedians and writers out there have sought to break this rule, with varying results. Sealab takes this route as well, never one to be politically correct. There are a few mentions of cancer here and there, and we’re supposed to laugh at how mentioning the disease creates an awkward situation for the characters. Then, the episode “Moby Sick” devotes an entire episode to making fun of a cancer sufferer. The show’s fans will take this in stride, because they’re already familiar with its “nothing is sacred” style of humor, but the more sensitive and easily-shocked among you might not like this.
This season concludes with “Legacy of Laughter” a spoof finale looking back at the previous four years. Is this really the end for Sealab 2021? After all, the folks at Adult Swim previously told us that Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law were cancelled, only to produce more episodes. They even brought back the anime Big O from a years-long purgatory of cancellation. So perhaps there’s hope that Quinn and company will return to the depths someday. Until then, know that this fourth season is a real gem and a must-own for anyone who loves “out there” comedy.