It wasn't my intention to take such a long break, but actually, unexpected though it was, it happened at the perfect spot in our written history of adult animation. The last entry I did was on the subject of the animated short "Rejected," which marked, in a way, the opening of a new chapter in our story. Although I've been hinting at it all along, the history of adult animation could very easily be broken up into the segments "pre-adult swim" and "post-adult swim."
And today we will cover our first proper adult swim show.
Now, as I mentioned in previous entries, adult swim was a strange sort of "half a network" which aired at first late-night Sundays and was treated by Nielsen as a separate entity from Cartoon Network on which it aired. Much of the time was taken up by anime and old canned and cancelled (and sometimes later revived) cartoon shows from other networks. But the original flagship for the network was a one-hour block of original shows: "The Brak Show," "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law," and today's entry: "Sealab 2021."
A word on the term "original."
In the '90s Ted Turner acquired the old Hanna-Barbera library. If you're not clear on what Hanna-Barbera was, just picture all of the crummiest cartoons of the '60s and '70s - "Scooby-Doo," "Huckleberry Hound," "Snagglepuss" and the like. Yes, truly if "Looney Tunes" was The Rolling Stones of cartoons and Disney was The Beatles, then Hanna-Barbera was The Monkees.
So I'm sure it wasn't cheap, per se, but Turner probably got a lot of material for his buck, so to speak. And he started playing all of the old Hanna-Barbera junk on his networks, Cartoon Network and later Boomerang. So there was a little money to be made in playing those old reruns from the '60s. But the people at Cartoon Network began to experiment with the catalog to see if they could get even more money out of it.
And out of one such experiment, "Sealab 2021" was born.
"Sealab 2020" was a Hanna-Barbera produced show, so I imagine it was grim to begin with, but it was also supposed to be an educational program about oceans and nature, so I can only imagine it was doubly grim. (I've never watched it, except for the episode of "Sealab 2021" that I assume was an unretouched episode of the original.) The Cartoon Network suits who were putting together what would eventually become adult swim, however, thought perhaps the animation, which was expensive to produce, could be paired with a new soundtrack and dialogue, which was easy to produce, to create a new, clever, perhaps avant-garde show, considering the dialogue would have to be tailored to pre-existing animation.
The result was, apparently, unwatchable. But the concept had set wheels in motion, and it wasn't a huge leap from using pre-existing animation with a new soundtrack to heavily editing pre-existing animation to make a still fairly cheap-to-produce show. The avant-garde nature of the original experiment, of course, survived, and "Sealab 2021" became a pilot program of what would eventually develop into the adult swim ethos.
So the show itself was "about" a team of cracked scientists and pseudomilitary types living in a lab on the ocean floor. Perhaps in homage to "Aeon Fluxx" the actual Sealab blew up at the end of every episode, with no reference to its loss in the official canon. Rather than deal with actual sealife and interesting adventures a la "Seaquest," "Sealab 2021" focused on the stupidest possible antics of the crew. In one episode, Captain Murphy is trapped under a vending machine the entire time and makes friends with a scorpion. In another, they bicker over which of the men would be best to father Debbie's baby.
The writing was searingly hilarious and satirical, hanging in that odd grey area between being stupid, sexist, and racist and mocking stupidity, sexism, and racism. If it clarifies anything: the creators would go on, in a few steps, to create "Archer," which shows much of its "Sealab" DNA to this day.
"Sealab" also was part of adult swim's rather unusual episode lengths. Episodes clocked in at eleven minutes (fifteen with commercials) allowing for a single, unbroken viewing of each episode. This allowed for a certain almost whiplash-fast speed for jokes, and densely plotted stories jammed into half the running length of a usual sitcom. I suspect it meant that coming up with a full half hour of material and then being able to slice out half of the chaff allowed for only the best and brightest gems of humor to make it on the air.
Overall, "Sealab" is well worth a rewatch. It remains a clever, transgressive show, and at eleven minutes an episode, watching a whole season is more akin to watching a long movie than binge-watching a show. Definitely worth checking out.