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Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Re-Animated #4: Duckman

*cracks knuckles*

Okay, Women in Horror Month kind of threw me off my overarching plan for the blog, and then when it was over I had a backlog of interviews, etc.  Now I'm back (for good or ill) to the point of having to generate original content again, so here we go.

First of all, I should say as I dig deeper into the Re-Animated series, I'm remembering more and more things that I want to cover.  So forgive me if it seems to keep ballooning, or, maybe "ballooning" isn't the right term, but more like forgive me if it seems to keep rambling.  I'm not strictly committed to a chronological schedule with this series, which would likely be impossible anyway, but for a while at least I'm going to keep things chronological so I can keep my head wrapped around them.

Last Re-Animated you may recall we covered "The Critic" which was a bit of a queer duck, but in many ways is of a piece with "The Simpsons" and many of the later screwy adult comedies that would come after.  Today's entry is even stranger, in a sense, and it represents what I can only describe as a dead branch in the adult animation family tree.  There's a fairly clear line from the common ancestor of "The Simpsons" to the progeny we have today.  But there's also the weirdness that is "Duckman."

I'm inclined to say there's really not a whole lot else like "Duckman."  I can't think of any later shows that make me say, "Oh, yeah, that show clearly owes a debt to 'Duckman.'"  It's like the Cro-Magnon man that split off from the simians and never quite took root.

"Duckman" aired on USA, a network which today I describe as a network of ironing shows.  They're shows you can watch while concentrating on the ironing without really missing a whole lot of what's going on.  Things like "Suits," "Burn Notice," and "Royal Pains" don't really require significant brainpower to watch, but aren't quite soap opera-level dumb.  They're pleasant non-entities.  (Of course, with the inception of "Mr. Robot" I may be eating my words soon, but I digress.)

In the '90s, USA wasn't even that advanced.  What original programming it had teetered on the brink of low-budget softcore porn ("Silk Stalkings") and micro-budget shows cobbled together from clips of marginally better shows ("Airwolf.")  Their Sunday morning cartoons were junk created by a company called Klasky-Csupo which has a distinct (and distinctly cheap) aesthetic.  Klasky-Csupo had success in the early '90s with some Nickelodeon shows which would go on to become the legendary NickToons (perhaps the subject of a future installment, but I'll leave it at that for now) and finally had the juice to propose a primetime adult show.

Also, it being the '90s, "Seinfeld" was ineluctably the most important show on TV.  Jason Alexander, who you probably know better as George Costanza, was cast in "Duckman" shortly before "Seinfeld" became a breakout hit.  And then, of course, it largely had a "big name" actor to coast on in marketing.

What was the show like?  Well, if I'm being kind I'd say it had a stylized appearance.  If I'm being realistic, I'd say it was ugly.  It wasn't "God, I have to look away from the screen" ugly (we will eventually cover a few shows like that) but it was ugly enough that I'm sure many viewers tuned out before ever finding out what the show was about.

So what was it about?  Well, there lies "Duckman's" redeeming qualities.  "Duckman" was ridiculously and consistently funny.  It was also dark, deranged, and misanthropic.  Duckman himself barely even rises to the moral level of anti-hero most episodes.  Despite being the protagonist, he can be downright villainous, and only his straight-as-an-arrow partner, Cornfed Pig (a pitch-perfect parody of Joe Friday from the old "Dragnet" series) as well as memories of his beloved dead wife keep Duckman from being an outright monster.

Actually, now that I think about, maybe "Duckman" isn't a complete outlier on the adult animation family tree.  Shows like "Rick and Morty" and "BoJack Horseman" (which, trust me, we'll get to in due time) which have been described as sadcoms may owe more to "Duckman" than I initially thought.

Because, despite being outrageously funny at times, "Duckman" is a deeply sad show.  Duckman himself is clearly manic-depressive, and so dyspeptic that he gives fellow avian forebear Daffy a run for his money.  (I guess there must just be something inherently amusing about watching ducks lose their cool...)  His family, despite loving him in the obligatory filial sense, largely despises him as a person.  As a detective, he is so incompetent that if it weren't for his much-abused partner and staff, he would likely be a pauper.  Duckman is someone who never got over the loss of his wife, which is a dark place to start a show, and simply doesn't care about the things he has left, like his professional and family life, except in fits and starts.

For being an adult cartoon on a basic cable channel at a time when there really weren't that many adult cartoons to begin with, "Duckman" was weirdly successful.  It lasted four seasons, from 1994-1997, and then pretty much became a piece of '90s arcana, along with Crystal Pepsi, The Rachel, and The Spice Girls.  Should you seek it out on DVD?  I would give a yes to that.  This was a clever, subversive, dark show, ahead of its time in a lot of ways, and definitely worth a watch if you've never seen it.

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