It’s been a couple years since I wrote my review of Courage the Cowardly Dog, so it’s about time I once more shared my thoughts on one of the Cartoon Network 90’s classics. Namely the first one out of the so-called Cartoon Cartoons, created by one Genndy Tartakovsky – Dexter’s Laboratory.
Like Courage (and Family Guy, believe it or not), this show was based on a short film from the What A Cartoon Show, which starred a boy genius named Dexter and his idiotic big sister DeeDee, as the latter ventured into the enormous secret laboratory that the former has somehow managed to construct in and around and even below the quaint suburban home where his family resides.
The show itself is the dream cartoon for science geeks and sci-fi fans alike. Dexter, voiced by the late Christine Cavanaugh, likes to sit in his lab and build things, research both the cosmos and the microcosmos, and sometimes save the planet with the help of giant robo mechas à la Power Rangers. DeeDee (Allison Moore/Kathryn Cressida) likes to annoy Dexter, trash his lab, play with “Darbie” dolls with her friends LeeLee and MeeMee, and watch My Little Pony parodies. Basically, they’re two very different siblings. Their parents (Kath Soucie and Jeff Bennett), known simply as Mom and Dad, remain oblivious to the technological metropolis that their son has created, even at times when it should be pretty obvious that Dexter’s no ordinary kid. Dexter, meanwhile, goes on all sorts of weird adventures, many of which are inspired by classic science fiction and even certain Japanese animes that Tartakovsky seems rather fond of. Maybe that’s why he would later move on to do Samurai Jack?
There are more characters worth of note. There’s Mandark (Eddie Dezeen), who is Dexter’s arch rival and an evil boy genius; there’s an imaginary friend of DeeDee’s who looks odd and is voiced by Dom DeLuise; there’s a Mr. T/John McClane parody known as Action Hank (Kevin Michael Richardson), and then of course, there are the characters that had their own segments in-between the Dexter’s Lab shorts.
See, back in the Tartakovsky era, two extra segments would air alongside the main show: Dial M For Monkey and The Justice Friends. The former would chronicle the adventures of Dexter’s lab monkey voiced by Frank Welker, who would secretly turn into a powerful superhero by night when his master wasn’t looking. The latter, meanwhile, was basically an Avengers parody, starring such lovably quirky characters as Major Glory (Rob Paulsen), Valhallen (Tom Kenny), and the Infraggable Krunk (also Frank Welker).
These segments disappeared when, well, the show was originally meant to end. Tartakovsky obviously created season 2’s Last But Not Beast as an epic finale, where a giant monster is released unto the world, all the characters we’ve grown to love over the years (including the ones from Justice Friends and Dial M For Monkey) are united for one big final battle, Dexter’s parents finally learn about his lab, Dexter himself learns the truth about his pet monkey, and Tartakovsky gets to do his ultimate love letter to Japanese robot animes and kaiju movies. On that note I would just like to point out that my favourite episode is probably Monstory, where Dexter tries to make DeeDee shut up but accidentally turns her into a giant monster, which ends with both of them step-by-step turning into even bigger monsters until they’re both almost as big as the Earth itself. Those were the days.
But even after a show ends on such a high note, there’s always going to be “people upstairs” who won’t let the show die, which in this case resulted in two extra seasons that Genndy Tartakovsky had exactly nothing to do with. On top of a much flatter and less appealing animation style, we got these really lazy storylines like “DeeDee babysits Mandark”, “Mom goes to buy gloves” and “Dad literally just gets into a good golf-playing posture for 5 goddamn minutes”. And that’s not even to mention that one mind-rapingly illogical episode where Dexter has to save one of DeeDee’s imaginary friends, and by extension her entire imaginary world, from a bizarrely out-of-place anime villain that wears a cape, oversized shoulder pads and a golden thong (???). Something tells me that random nonsense like this is not what Tartakovsky had in mind when he said he likes to incorporate anime tropes into his stories, guys. Sorry.
Also, to make up for the lack of Justice Friends and Dial M for Monkey segments in seasons 3 and 4, the new writers decided to give the fans a tactful slap to the face in the form of A Quackor Cartoon, a season 3 episode where Monkey finds out that his arch-enemy, an evil duck called Quackor, is a female and promptly starts making out with him… her… on top her newly laid egg. Not really an image I needed on my retina, like, ever but thanks anyway.
The first two seasons are the ones you’ll want to check out if you’re unfamiliar with the show. They definitely had the best occasional sense of black comedy (such as the ending to Let’s Save the World You Jerk), the most inventive storylines, the certainly more competent references, and an overall better knack for creating a tone, be it a comical one or a touching one. Another episode I enjoy from that era is one that tells Dexter’s origin story… in song.
Basically, the reason I won’t rate this show as high as Courage the Cowardly Dog is simply due to how much seasonal rot and derailment took place after Tartakovsky bailed and the network squeezed two more seasons out of Dexter’s Lab. With Courage, at least John R. Dilworth stayed for the entire show’s run, leaving the tone, character likability, and animation style completely intact throughout. So yes, Dexter was great when it was great but boy did things get weird in the end. Even so, let us remember the show for the good nostalgic memories it left us with, for there are plenty of those.
That’s about it. Now I’ll just sit here and wonder why I didn’t make time to write this review in 2013 when Dexter’s Rude Removal came out. Yeah. That was a thing.