With the long-awaited cinematic release of Watchmen looming on the horizon, the time has never been more appropriate for a DVD release of Frisky Dingo. They are both, after all, extended meditations on the same basic question: “What would these spectacular heroes really be like?” But whereas Zach Snyder’s response keeps an intentional foot on the ground at all times, Frisky Dingo feels no such obligation to reality.
This ends up being both the show’s biggest asset, and, ultimately, its weakness…but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Frisky Dingo is the story of two characters. The first is Xander Crews, who has all of Bruce Wayne’s money, charm and sex-appeal, but none of that bothersome honor, morality or ingenuity. His crime-fighting alter-ego is Awesome X, a gadget-enhanced hero who oversees an army of inept assistants known as the Xtacles. (Don’t worry…this schoolyard-level pun tells us more about Crews than it does about the writers of Frisky Dingo.)
Our second character (easily the spotlight-stealer) is Killface, a skull-white, fanged, talloned, alien beast who plans on rocketing the Earth into the sun. It’s a classic setup (one hero, one supervillain, billions of innocent lives at stake) and our familiarity allows the show plenty of room to expand upon the idea and undercut our expectations. In this respect, without question, Frisky Dingo succeeds.
The show was created by Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, two Adult Swim stalwarts who made a name for themselves with Sealab 2021, a comedy of nonsense and irrelevance that—to put it lightly—inspired some pretty heated debates among viewers as to whether it was brilliant and subversive or utterly worthless.
And I will confess to you that I was in the latter camp. I find Sealab 2021 to be boring at best, and grating the rest of the time. Which is why I (intentionally) overlooked Frisky Dingo on its first airing. Looking back at it, I have to say that it was entirely my loss. In terms of style and presentation, Frisky Dingo doesn’t stand significantly apart from other Adult Swim originals. The characters are stylized and simple, the animation minimal, and the comedy usually to be found not in what’s happening, but in the disinterested dialogue between characters while it’s happening. In this respect, it sounds a lot like Sealab 2021. But it succeeds because of one thing: the superior quality of the writing, and the fantastic performances by the voice actors.
I’ve already set up for you the basic idea of the show: there is a hero, there is a villain, and there is a plot to destroy the world. If you take about 30 seconds to think about it, you can work out everything—and I mean everything—that should follow from this arrangement, right up to, and including, the ending. What you can’t predict is how quickly the show gets sidetracked from its own classic narrative thrust.
The ‘world in danger’ plot is itself in danger of irrelevance by episode two, which sees Xander Crews facing financial hardships that lead him to merchandise an Awesome X vs. Killface line of action figures. Killface, meanwhile, is trying to get his warning of mass-destruction out to the world via daytime television appearances and direct mailings.
So far so good, but before long the show allows itself to lapse into a series of further digressions, losing sight of previous digressions as it goes, and never really tying up loose ends before moving on. Whether or not this is intentional is not the question; how it feels watching it is the question, and the fact is that it feels like we’re watching a show with such a short attention span that it can’t even keep track of itself.
While most of the diversions are entertaining (the emergency room episode is a definite highlight), a few of them, particularly toward the end (with a naked Xander and Killface wandering through the sewers), just seem to indicate that the show has lost its way. You will begin to wish that Frisky Dingo had kept one foot (or at least a toe) on the ground after all, if only to keep them from floating away from interesting plot developments and into disappointing, empty ones.
But these are all plot-centric complaints, and (with few exceptions) we shouldn’t really be taking plot into account at all when it comes to Adult Swim. The real appeal of this show lies in the interactions between the characters: Xander and his emotionally-crippled girlfriend Grace, Killface and his disaffected son, Awesome X and one sexually aggressive Xtacle, and, eventually, Xander and Killface themselves.
Witnessing these interactions is a delight, and you really do get the feeling that there is some real depth of character beneath their simple banter, particularly in the case of Killface. He’s cruel, and he’s bloodthirsty, and he wants us all dead, but he’s not heartless. Indeed, some of the show’s best moments would be impossible if we didn’t feel at least some empathy for the character…even if we aren’t sure why. When he sticks his hand into a rotting corpse that has been severed from the waist down and uses it to perform an impromptu puppet show (complete with expectant pause for laughter), we have to realize that however awful this creature is, he really does, on some level, just want to be liked.
In comparison to Killface (and even in comparison to some of the very minor characters, such as his twin brother, Nearl) Xander comes off as pretty limp in terms of characterization, and that’s a disappointment. We’re given a few Batmanish hints about his parents and his past, but overall he’s just a flighty, self-important braggart, and that’s a little too basic a character type compared to the richer developments that this show has to offer. (It will eventually get to the point that you wouldn’t mind ditching Xander altogether. Sad, but ultimately true.)
But that’s a slight niggle, if it’s a niggle at all, and it’s always nice to see Adult Swim attempting something grander and more epic than French fries and a milkshake arguing about who’s going to mow the lawn.
A much larger niggle is the complete (underline complete) lack of bonus features on this disc. I understand that Frisky Dingo was created under a very tight production budget, but even a single Reed/Thompson commentary track would do much to recommend the disc, and it’s a shame that they didn’t put the effort in.
As such, I’m forced to end this review feeling a bit contradictory: Be warned that this disc contains only the first season of Frisky Dingo. But hey, on the bright side, this disc contains the first season of Frisky Dingo!
Frisky Dingo is out now.