Most of the output of Adult Swim, it has to be said, is an acquired taste. Much of its most famous original programming tends to be surreal, often almost nonsensical, and deeply referential toward pop culture. Sealab 2021 exemplifies this at the same time as it champions a less expected – and occasional – strength of the Adult Swim network: low production values.
The show was first devised by writers Adam Reed and Matt Thompson when they worked at the Cartoon Network and chanced across a tape of the show Sealab 2020, a 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon considered by some to be among the dullest concepts ever committed to animation. It was canned before the first season was fully aired.
Reed and Thompson saw opportunity: they copied and re-dubbed the tapes with their own, comedic dialogue (and voices) over the top before pitching the show to Cartoon Network. The network declined: they didn’t think it was funny.
Some years later, according to the extras on this DVD, Reed and Thompson were fired from the Cartoon Network. When they walked out they took with them the tapes, made their dialogue even more surreal, and offered the show to Adult Swim (ironically enough, a sister channel of the Cartoon Network). Adult Swim accepted, real voice actors were hired, and the rest is history.
Season 1 is perhaps the ‘golden age’ of Sealab 2021. Most of the animation is original Sealab 2020 material, with only relatively small parts redrawn or added. The scripts derive a lot of humour from the poorly-drawn and cheaply-animated settings and characters (a later episode in season 2 took this even further with a word-for-word redub of a Sealab 2020 original episode, only to end it with a single subversive stroke). But it is the characters, dialogue and voice acting that really shine.
The principle of the show is simple (and often quite loosely defined from episode to episode). Sealab is an underwater research station that is funded by the government but run autonomously, allowing its commander – simpleton, idealogue and lunatic, Captain Hank Murphy, – to pursue his plans to the deranged letter.
Variously serving below and opposing him are a cast who both embody and subvert the archetypes on whom they’re based: the brilliant Doctor Quinn, who usually acts as the voice of reason; the idiotic and cheerful ‘Stormy’ Waters, usually to be found perpetuating whatever disaster is ongoing; shallow sexpot and sometime marine biologist Debbie; Sparks, the evil genius masterminding most of Sealab’s most nefarious schemes; Marco, a strong, loyal, over-confident and somewhat dim engineer who speaks appalling pidgin Spanish; plus various others (Hesh, Debbie Love, Ilyad Virjay and Dolphin Boy, all of whom played larger roles in later seasons).
Each episode picks a theme that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with underwater research stations and runs with it: in one episode, Murphy turns Sealab into a pirate radio station, eventually winning the acclaim of the world and the murderous attention of foul-mouthed FCC privateers. In another, a dying orphan is sent to the facility by the Final Wish Foundation, only to turn out to be a fraudster wanted by Interpol who intends to fleece Sealab out of millions.
I, Robot, one of a small number of episodes that actually seem to have something to do with the facility itself, features Sealab slowly disintegrating due to severe leaks while the cast stand around and argue about the strengths and weaknesses of installing their minds into robot bodies. Is possessing the strength of five gorillas or x-ray vision really worth the cost of the Three Laws, or the inevitable war with the humans?
Then there are episodes that push the postmodernist angle even further, such as Murphy Murph And The Feng Shui Bunch – which begins as a cautionary tale of Feng Shui rip-off merchants and ends with the show’s cast reimagined as avatars in a videogame played by characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, one of Adult Swim’s most popular properties.
At the end of most episodes Sealab is destroyed, and in many episodes characters are gleefully killed off. Don’t come here looking for continuity: Sealab 2021 is defiantly episodic, taking advantage of the freedom a reset provides to continually up the ridiculousness of its cast and scenarios.
It’s a formula that works, partly thanks to the fantastically irreverent stoner dialogue, partly thanks to the great voice acting imbuing the show’s characters with a lot of warmth and humour, and partly thanks to how much panache the show has in tearing down everything that it builds up.
DVD extras are a mixed bunch, the best being some alternate endings to I, Robot and the original pitch pilot of Sealab 2020 re-dubbed by Reed and Thompson and offered to Adult Swim. There’s not a great deal on offer but you’re unlikely to be buying this for the extras anyway.