Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law Volume One Review
Although it might seem like a thrilling lifestyle choice, things can be tough for your average superhero on the streets. While those costumed crusaders in the premier league, your Supermans and Batmans and Spider-Mans, get all the kudos and glamour of the deadliest villains, sexiest broads and most lucractive franchise deals, for most running round in a cape saving people is an endless drudge of chasing down common or garden muggers, removing ungrateful cats from trees and, if you’re lucky, occasionally opening a new supermarket. Just ask Harvey Birdman. Star of Hanna-Barbera’s late Sixties show Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, he’s had to watch bitterly from the sidelines as his fellow crime-fighters have risen from their own small-screen origins to become the stars of some of the biggest movie properties in the world – hell, even Aquaman had a supporting role in Entourage - while his own career has plummeted to the ground faster than a speeding bullet. So bad have things become that he has had to turn to a second career to make ends meet, and these days works as a rather incompetent lawyer in the firm Sebben & Sebben, run by his old comrade-in-arms Falcon 7. Now he works a dull nine-to-five job, alongside other former heroes and villains who have also found that the exciting world of superheroics not nearly as profitable as they had been led to believe.
Such is the premise of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, [adult swim’s] affectionate tribute to and parody of Hanna-Barbera’s extensive canon. While the jokes are of a rather more grown-up nature than those of their source, everything else about the show harks directly back to the studio’s output, with the characters and voices all approximating as closely as possible their late Sixties equivalents, with episodes often incorporating (and ingeniously reinterpreting) footage from the old shows almost seamlessly. Each episode a different character from an HB show turns up at the law firm with a problem, often stemming from the urban myths that grew up around the characters – for example, Scooby Doo and Shaggy are busted for being stoners – which are then tried by Birdman and lawyers who in the old series used to be his arch enemies, such as Vulturo and Myron Reducto (although fairly often you need virtually an encyclopaedic knowledge of HB's work to know just who is who as some of the regular characters used are fairly obscure, not least Birdman himself!)
Each episode is eleven minutes along, and as such the pace is extremely fast, the tone anarchic, and the humour hit and miss. Unsurprisingly, the best jokes come from the re-interpretation of the classic characters along new lines, with the best example being the episode in which Fred Flintstone is recast as Tony Soprano, complete with clips from The Flintstones illustrating his illegal activities. There are many running gags, such as the hilariously paranoiac Reducto, running round with his shrink ray and nervously barking at everyone “Back off!” but curiously Birdman himself is one of the weaker characters – his basic shtick is incompetence, but he usually just does whatever is demanded of him in the episode. His partner, the sinister Peanut, is far more amusing, as is Falcon 7 (or as he's known here, Phil Ken Sebben - do you see?) who constantly blurts out non sequiturs and Mentok the Mind-reader ("Oooo-eee-ooo!") who presides over most of the cases. Harvey’s clients are more one-note – once we get the initial gag, such as Jonny Quest’s father and science partner fighting a custody battle over him, there isn’t much more to it – but the clever use of old footage always works well, and the short length of episodes means that nothing more is particularly needed. There's a case to be made that the earlier episodes, which rely more heavily on the old footage, are the best - as the series develops, the tone gets even more frenetic, but some of the best premises, such as the Flintstone one or the episode in which Boo-Boo is accused of being a terrorist, are also the simplest.
But because it's so quick, its flaws are much easier to forgive than if the episodes were the more normal twenty-two minutes long. The intense bursts of silliness are good fun, as are the voice cast – an unrecognisable Gary Cole voices Harvey, while a pre-Daily Show Stephen Colbert voices Reducto and Sebben and usual suspects of people like Billy West, Tress MacNeille and Mark Hamill all guest star. Most pleasingly of all, they got in Frank Welker to voice Fred in the Scooby-Doo episode – you couldn’t really have a HB tribute show without his appearing at least once, and his voice adds an extra dimension of authenticity to that particular instalment. It’s a sign of how much the show worships those that it parodies (most episodes even end with everyone standing round laughing) and while it is occasionally over indulgent, its freewheeling humour and frenetic style make for a fitting, if slightly bizarre, tribute to the great HB stable. Although goodness only knows what Bill and Joe would have made of it...
This first release contains thirteen episodes of the series, spread over two discs. The first DVD holds, correctly, the first eight episodes aired, but the selection of episodes on Disc Two is a bit more haphazard. The last episode of what is classed as Season One correctly appears first, but the next four (in order SPF, The Devlin Made Me Do It, Trio's Company and High Speed Buggy Chase) are not the first four episodes, chronologically speaking, of Season Two. The first show of that season, Blackwatch Plaid, is missing entirely, and while the next four episodes are present, they are not in the order they originally aired, which should be Trio's Company, The Devlin Made Me Do It, High Speed Buggy Chase and SPF. This is exactly the same as the Region One, although why I don’t know.
The Main Menu is a simple picture of Harvey's door, with the options Episodes, Play All and Subtitles along the bottom, with a cool jazz song about Harvey playing. The Episode submenus are illustrated to look like case files on Harvey’s desk, complete with coffee mug stains and scrawled notes which raise a smile. There is one complaint, however, namely that the commentaries aren’t exactly advertised well – there are no clues they exist unless you choose to individually watch one of the five episodes which come with one (Very Personal Injury, The Dabba Don, SPF, The Devlin Made Me Do It and Trio’s Company) and thus get an option to turn the commentary on and off. Presentation of the episodes is fine. You can always tell when footage from the original HB cartoons is being used as the quality of the Video drops noticeably – the colours are far less bright and vivid, and the prints look dirtier, but that aside there are no complaints with either that or the Audio. The episodes are subtitled, but the extras are not.
Speaking of which, the Extras are for the most part slight but fun. The Commentaries are very enjoyable, as a slightly more serious than you would expect collection of writers talk about their show and give lots of insight into its making. In addition, The Devlin Made Me Do It has a second track, in which members of the legal department talk about some of the issues involved in clearing an episode for broadcast, which is an unusual and welcome feature. There are also a collection of very short Deleted Scenes from Trio’s Company and Deadomutt, the former in animatic form only.
The rest of the extras all have an opening spiel which gives them some context. I’m not sure if either Stephen Colbert or Todd Barry really were considered for the role of Birdman, but their interpretations are offered in two short Alternative Casting scenes (1:12 and 1:03) taken from one of the real episodes and show why the producers were wise to go with Cole. There’s a brief Pencil Test (0:53) from Shaggy Gets Busted which split-screens the original animatic with the final version, an extra which seems to be obligatory on all TV animation DVDs these days and is too short to be especially revelatory. Far more fun is the Live Action Opening (0:51) and Fake Movie Trailer (1:29) which aren’t very different from each other but feature the guy who briefly appeared in one of the episodes running round the streets as Birdman. He also appears again in Tab Can Redux (1:20) which sets the live action sequence from one of the episodes to an Ukrainian love song. As you do. Finally, as the opening caption freely admits, The Wind Beneath His Wings (0:54) is a shameless indulgence which features photos of what look to be the entire production crew.
One of [adult swim's] best shows gets a DVD release which, a slightly non-intuitive menu system besides, does it proud and makes one want to give its makers a great big man kiss.