Duckman - Seasons One and Two Review

Part of a new renaissance in animation that was intended more for adults, Duckman should have its place as a seminal show among other '90s cartoons like The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, and Beavis and Butt-head. Those who came of age that decade seem to particularly regard The Simpsons with a mythic stature usually reserved for Biblical texts or the early throes of pornography addiction. Yet, one could argue that it's Duckman, in far fewer episodes, that presented a more coherent, affecting, and original view of the real world via its entirely animated existence. Not to disparage The Simpsons any further, but what we find in Duckman is something both funny and sad, a reflection of life in garish colours. It has aged remarkably well and holds up favourably against the more overtly preachy South Park and has far more substance than Family Guy. Both shows, as well as nearly all of the [adult swim] originals owe a debt of irreverence to Duckman.

The protagonist is the title character, a private detective without a winning hand in love, at home, or on the job. He's vulgar, stupid, lazy, angry, inept, and unhappy. Essentially, Duckman is the epitome of all our worst parts. His wife has just recently died, leaving him with three sons that occupy just two bodies. Conjoined twins Charles and Mambo are both brainiacs while their older brother Ajax is a slow-witted sweetheart who talks in surfer speak. The family are forced to live with Duckman's sister-in-law Bernice, a leotard-wearing layabout who inherited the house from her dead twin sister Beatrice, and comatose, but flatulent Grandmama. They live on possibly the worst piece of real estate imaginable - right below the freeway, beside train tracks, and near an airport. The message repeated in all these little details is that Duckman's life is utter crap.

The character originated in a comic book from Dark Horse and was created by Everett Peck, who then provided his talents to the television show that aired, improbably, on the USA network beginning in 1994 and lasting four seasons. Peck's thematically dark and visually carnival-like world combined to form a cartoon series that was both grotesque in its exaggerated imagery and still appealing as a peek into some colourfully seedy side of America. The show starts out in the pilot as giving Duckman his own inflated ego and sense of importance, but just as quickly knocks him down into irrelevancy. It's a promising start and a good way to share how wrong everything in this manfowl's life is. Voiced by Jason Alexander, and ranking below Seinfeld but far above The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Bob Patterson in his career, maybe just ahead of a certain McDLT commercial he did in the eighties, Duckman is a boiling ball of rage ready to burst at any moment. He manages to hold little insights into the human condition amid all this bile, but he's otherwise mostly an angry and bitter character struggling through middle age.

It's this almost intolerable acting out that becomes endearing with Duckman. Once you establish that's he's so incorrigible, and that such brusqueness is part of the point, it becomes much easier to enjoy the show. Those who absolutely cannot get past how repulsive the character can be will never be persuaded. The season two finale is for those people. In the episode, Duckman is kidnapped by a media critic named Medfly, who's clearly modeled in name and appearance after conservative commentator Michael Medved, and forced into watching clips from his own show. The second season is far more self-referential than the first, but allowing Duckman to realise his life is a television series, three years prior to The Truman Show, is itself an interesting development and used here to ram home the point of context. Selectively choosing lines and moments from the show do indeed make it seem rather vulgar by American television's standards. However, paying attention long enough reveals Duckman and its title character to be more than just hyper provocateurs. He doesn't have to be someone we like, and he's usually not, but there's nonetheless an everyman quality to the way he's portrayed. For all of his inadequacies and loathsome qualities, there's a feeling that no one who's at least somewhat entrenched in the cogs of society should have the kind of screwed up life Duckman does. You feel for the guy even when he's a raging asshole because of how beaten down he is.

As a means of contrasting Duckman's total failure at life, the character of Cornfed Pig exists to be strong, likable, intelligent, and successful in his actions - the opposite of Duckman. Cornfed is the show's mortar, solving most every case that gets solved and leading an enviable, if mysterious life. He's a warrior poet who sticks with his billed detective boss out of some sense of obligation, but, presumably, too from knowing that no one else will carry Duckman in his dysfunctional life. Reading sentences, including this one, the previous one, and the next one, with Cornfed's staccato monotone in your head can, I've found, improve even the most banal observations. His rants on the show manage to reduce life's perpetual frustrations into succinct and humbly profound comfort, a view to share and aspire to as we navigate our way through the hairpin curves of daily existence. The cute contingent gets Fluffy and Uranus, a pair of stuffed animal assistants who work at Duckman's office. Fluffy and Uranus are mostly comic relief, but they're so itty-bitty precious cute that the nursery rhyme music that's often played for their appearances will likewise become attached to the viewer's happy smiling image of the pair. Plus they're frequently destroyed in some violent way that's equally horrific and hilarious, only to pop up again in the next episode.

More than just funny and memorable characters, though, Duckman serves now as a snapshot of a decade teetering near the cliff. Before the internet allowed for total sensory saturation via distractions passed off as news stories, the nineties were content with letting the explosion of cable television be its needy brat of a child. Duckman both aired on cable and felt free to take aim at targets as worthy and varied as televangelists, reality television's law enforcement shows, and bottomfeeding tabloid talk shows. It also didn't have a very sizable audience, airing late at night on a weekend as a break from the USA network's usual breast-dominated programming, so Duckman was able to go beyond the lowest common denominator demographic catered to by the broadcast channels. The result was something more strange and less inviting, but nonetheless emblematic of its time.

To equate a half-hour cartoon, especially one that unapologetically melds humans and various animals for a truly desegregated, if unrealistic, society, with other great entertainment of an era can be risky. From a different angle, though, Duckman now feels synonymous with its decade in a way that other television shows do not and much of that is due to how relentless the writers were in planting social commentary. The primary function of entertainment is unavoidably to entertain, but when you have 22 minutes to establish a plot and further the development of the main characters, all while trying to be funny, the balancing act usually fails. Attempting to comment on issues of the day without being self-righteous or cloying almost never works. At its worst, that type of series usually ends up unwatchable and filled with treacly monologues that do more harm than good. But when a show like Duckman can share a frustration that brings to light some form of madness too often ignored or even endorsed, it doesn't have to be subtle so much as well-intentioned and independent of the episode's primary requirement to entertain.

The social commentary ultimately works because the show is (still) funny, and not just full of gag-heavy bits without any connection to the plot at hand. Some of the most successful comedy situations are the result of Duckman's abrasive behaviour and how unhinged he becomes for no apparent reason. His preferred phrase of paranoia, "What the hell are you starin' at?," is a demented mantra for all the Duckmen of the world. Yet, when he's portrayed as more inept than angry, as in the episode "American Dicks," the character loses what little empathy he had. It keeps even the most humanist (fowlist?) of viewer in constant conflict as to how much sandpaper can be rubbed up against. The show then seems to answer with an episode like "About Face," where Duckman falls for a 911 operator's voice only to find out she's physically unattractive. It's here, more so than anywhere else in this set, that the pathos running through the series is most effective. The ending to "About Face" is sort of heartbreaking and it takes the viewer somewhere that's abrupt and entirely unexpected. Duckman's depth of character, which engenders a fair bit of goodwill among the audience, keeps his otherwise terrible actions mostly forgivable. It certainly makes the show more interesting as a rounded portrait of a guy who just happens to be a duck.

The Discs

Though early cover art photos seemed to indicate Duckman would be released in a regular size keepcase, the R1 three-disc set is actually packaged in two transparent slimcases that slide into a slipcover box. Housed in the first case are discs 1 and 2, containing the initial season's 13 episodes. The remaining 9 episodes, the entirety of the second season, are found on another disc. All episodes are presented in broadcast order, with dates of air listed on the back of the cases, as well as the actual production order. Thus, episode 11 actually aired before episode 10 and comes up right after episode 9 on the disc.

CBS DVD and Paramount have included their expected disclaimer that reads: "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions. Music has been changed for this home entertainment version." I really can't say what exactly may or may not have been altered and the studio is obviously not willing to cite specifics. CBS/Paramount includes the same disclaimer for all or nearly all its releases without any clarification. Season one notably included Frank Zappa's music when it originally aired. It's possible some of this may have been replaced, but, again, I don't know for sure. The episodes do consistently run between 22 and 23 minutes so it's doubtful any significant cuts were made.

The three discs are dual-layered, but all 22 episodes are interlaced. The combing from interlaced transfers always seems most noticeable on animation and it's quite obvious throughout the set. The show is presented in its normal 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The earliest episodes contain the most dirt and speckles, and look surprisingly unclean. This does improve and the animation in season two looks smoother overall. Indeed, season one is actually full of faded lines and less vibrant colours. Some shots even seem way too bright at times. An extremely crude comparison with poor quality versions of some episodes on YouTube does seem to indicate that the faded lines are inherent in the source material and not something gone awry on this DVD. Nonetheless, part of the show's charm is its relatively harsh style of animation and the presentation here appears consistent with how it originally aired, aside from the combing. If you've been watching those really terrible YouTube versions, this will seem like a total makeover. Sticklers for pristine, Disney-like quality will be less impressed, but I don't see any better alternatives. The sharpness is never distracting and the colours do gradually improve.

Audio is mostly dialogue and given a satisfactory English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. It sounds clean and has good, consistent volume. I didn't encounter any problems really. The absence of subtitles, however, is always a disappointment. As mentioned above, a disclaimer on the back of the case states that music has been changed for the release, but gives no indication as to what or how much. That the word "has" instead of "may" is used obviously makes one think something's been replaced.

The back of the box is a tad misleading in terms of special features. It promises "What the Hell Are You Starin' At?" and "Designing Duckman," both of which are present and more than welcome. It also mentions "Six Degrees of Duckman," "commentary by Everett Peck and Jason Alexander," and concludes with "and more!," though there's really just one commentary and the "more" is limited to a few promo spots. The USA Network ads for the show run a minute and a half and are found on the first disc. The Peck and Alexander commentary for the pilot episode "I, Duckman" can also be found on that disc. The commentary is disappointing because neither says a lot and most of the information is repeated in the longer featurette. Nice to have in theory, but largely unnecessary.

Disc two contains the majority of the bonus material. Fans of the show should probably be thankful that there's anything here at all, much less that it's actually substantial. "What the Hell Are You Starin' At?" (29:45) is basically a retrospective featurette, but it has almost all of the show's principals. Peck and Alexander are here, as are series creators Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn. All the main voice actors, including Nancy Travis, Gregg Berger, Pat Musick, and E.G. Daily, are present as well, with the notable exception of Dweezil Zappa. The use of clips tends to be excessive, but it really is great to have so many of the people responsible for Duckman here and discussing a show they're clearly proud to have done.

A second featurette "Designing Duckman" (12:53) begins with Peck trying to draw his famous character, but ultimately traces a bit of history of the character and the show. There's also the interactive "Six Degrees of Duckman," the type of thing that's more suited for children's DVDs. A menu screen allows you to highlight each character and explore text screens on his or her bio, and what he or she loves and hates. You can also play a short clip of the character from the show. Pretty silly stuff. On the upside, the package art is top notch and the main cover photo is perfect.

Based on content alone, I'd recommend the set strongly, but those who don't absolutely have to own it right now might wait until early 2009 when the final two seasons are scheduled for release. All four seasons will apparently be packaged up at a price slightly cheaper ($90 retail) than purchasing the two individually. The second release should carry 48 episodes compared to 22 here.

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