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"Sealab 2021" Season 2: The Beginning of the End for Adult Swim?

Sealab, arguably, is the show that started the decay in quality among the Turner-produced Adult Swim originals.

After a fantastic first thirteen episodes, the slide in quality was slow but quickly accelerated. The trend is on display on Warner’s second Sealab 2021 DVD release.

When watching these episodes, you’re confronted with a mixed bag of quality. Some episodes are a laugh riot, with interesting original ideas and solid writing and character work. Yet a growing number of the episodes – about half the set – show the change in focus that marked the show’s decline, and something that has tended to seep into a lot of Williams Street projects of late.

That is, the creators are throwing ideas on the screen to see if they work or not. The character-based episodes begin to fall by the wayside as these more experimental attempts work their way in. Witness “Tinfins,” a bizarre episode styled to be a “making of” of a film being constructed at Sealab, or “7211,” a more-or-less straight dub of the original “Sealab 2020″.

Unfortunately, most of these concept episodes are pretty tedious and really do nothing for the show. Moreover, it gives the impression that the staff at 7030 Productions, the subdivision of Williams Street that produced the show, was more interested at shoving whatever they think of onto the air every week instead of putting on a more cohesive, coherent show.

But when the show is on, it is really on. “Feast of Alvis” is probably the episode here closest to the tone of the show’s first season, with the rapid-fire writing, the ludicrous and borderline tasteless situations, and just overall fun. Also good: “Bizarro,” which is just 11 minutes of insanity. It would have been interesting to see how the show might have developed had the staff not grown fond of gimmickry and instead stayed true to the original promise of the show.

Perhaps the decline of the show at this point can be compared to a more well-known animated program: The Simpsons. While, granted, Simpson episode consists of a shot of the family’s with voiceover, this same abandonment of character-based humor for a more “wacky” style is prevalent. The difference is there’s proof that the current Simpsons staff cares about what they’re producing; the Sealab crew’s mantra seems to be “this is our crap, where you like it or not.”

The DVD of this show has a surprisingly significant amount of extras. Adam Reed and Matt Thompson comment on all thirteen episodes of the season. However, this is an example of quantity trumping quality because the commentaries are poorly recorded (low volume, lots and lots of echo), filled with dead spots, and refer more to the on-screen action than to what happened behind the scenes.

The second disc has all the video-based extras, which, aside from a sweet tribute to the late Harry Goz, also spring from the “let’s see if this works and air it regardless” mentality. Most of the extras are centered around a joke that the staff of Sealab is entirely composed of hot, bikini-clad women. Moreover, while the extras sound impressive, they’re not – intentionally. The “tour” of 7030 is a 30-second fluff featurette filled with the bikini-clad women working on Sealab and is basically a “thank you for watching the show” message. The “interview with the cast”, again conducted by a bikini girl, has the actors identified but doing the interview in-character and off-screen (the interview is conducted with the actual animated characters). The “Rough Cut” is not a rough cut at all, but a re-enactment of “Der Dieb” with – you guessed it – bikini girls. The joke wears very thin very quick.

Alas, the whole atmosphere pioneered by this has spread to many other corners of Williams Street, from promotions to shows (I think most other networks would have killed 12 oz. Mouse at the pitch stage). Adult Swim just seems more concerned with pushing out things that appeal to them, but appear to the general viewer as too absurd, too incoherent, or simply too boring. And that’s sad because there’s a lot of squandered potential here.

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