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Adult Swim Busts Boundaries With "ATHF," "Sealab 2021"

by on July 20, 2004

Yeah, okay, I know: Praising an animated series for its dialogue is like praising a landscape painter for his musical ability. It’s not what the art form is about. So maybe it’s best just to be up front about it and assert that Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021 are “cartoons” by courtesy only. Sure, they’ve got animated figures sliding across the screen. But actually they are a series of brilliant short films that use the animated form to tell stories that couldn’t be told in any other way. Destroying established conventions is what these shows do best, so why not admit that they also dispense with the idea that animated shorts have to be, you know, “cartoon-like.”

ATHFAqua Teen Hunger Force is supposedly about the adventures of a trio of giant fast food items (a milkshake, a bag of fries, and a wad of hamburger meat) who are interstellar crime fighters. Actually, that conceit disappeared really early on in the series’ run. Now, Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad are just roomies living in New Jersey who meet stupid people and who do stupid things. Each of the episodes has a “hook”: irritating Moon-things come down to visit and gloat; a robot from the future (or is it the past?) appears and spins some nonsensical yarn about his mission. But they don’t really have a “story.” Things happen; and then other things happen; and then some more things happen; and then the credits roll. No, the brilliance lies in the characters themselves. Meatwad is good-hearted but naïve; Shake is evil-minded but stupid; Frylock is smart and well-meaning but hopelessly overwhelmed by the idiots he has to deal with. It’s like Abbott and Costello Meet The Three Stooges: violent, knockabout comedy underlined by intricate crosstalk and misunderstanding. There are very few jokes (as such) but the show has the fastest and funniest dialogue since the golden age of screwball comedy. It’s impossible to pull any of the dialogue out of context and have it be funny; I’ll only admit that an early warning from Master Shake’s to Meatwad has made its way into my personal repertoire: “You will find the back of my hand very displeasing.” No back of the hand to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, though. It took me awhile to get used to this show and its anarchic urban sensibility. Now, I can hardly go an evening without a fix from it.

Sealab 2021Sealab 2021 is more straightforward: a parodic quasi-remake of an old Hanna-Barbera show. The episodes generally feature something resembling a plot, but again, the fun comes with watching the crew: the Queeg-like Captain Murphy; the brilliant but ineffectual Dr. Quinn; the cheese-brained Stormy; the lusty but rigid Debby (“White Debby,” that is, who is not to be confused with [sotto voce]”Black Debby”[/sotto voce]). Sometimes the jokes go on for a little long (“Radio Free Sealab” could have done with a subplot to keep the story moving). But when it gets in a good groove, it can go. Highlights of the first season (and the episodes you should check out first if you’re new to the show) are “Chickmate,” “Lost in Time” and “All That Jazz.”

The two season-length DVDs just released by Warner Home Video are not rich in extras: there are the usual deleted scenes and a couple of commentaries. But they do come with some smart bonuses. Sealab 2021: The First Season comes with the show’s pitch pilot (an interesting exercise which will make you wonder how the show ever got a green light), while Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume Two includes a fake documentary about the origin of the series as well as a full-length Space Ghost: Coast to Coast episode that shows the main characters as they were originally conceived by their creators.

Both are definitely worth picking up if you’re an Adult Swim fan: These are “signature” series for the Cartoon Network bloc. If you can’t get both, I would give the edge to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, both for the show itself and for the superior choice of extras.

Episodes included on Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume Two
“Mail Order Bride”
“Super Birthday Snake”
“Universal Remonster”
“Super Bowl”
“Super Hero”
“Super Squatter”
“Super Spore”
“Super Model”
“Super Trivia”
“Super Sir Loin”
“Super Computer”
“Meat Zone”
“Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future”

Episodes included on Sealab 2021: The First Season
“I, Robot”
“Radio Free Sealab”
“Lost in Time”
“Little Orphan Angry”
“Waking Quinn”
“All That Jazz”
“Murphy Murph and the Feng Shui Bunch”
“In the Closet”
“Swimming in Oblivion”

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