4 out of 5
Created by: Genndy Tartakovsky
The bombastic character design and energetic voice acting make Dexter’s Laboratory perfectly entertaining to the youngsters; the general hijinx – when boy genius Dexter’s inventions inevitably get corrupted by his sister Dee Dee or his own overreach – fit the mold of any given youth-geared cartoon’s antics. So the show is easy to overlook: it can be noisy and busy and be brushed off as just that noise and fury. And admittedly, the character dynamics aren’t progressive, or offer the type of depth we might ask for from today’s cartoons: Dexter’s parents fit the traditional dad-works / mom-bakes setup, while Dee Dee is annoying and empty-headed vs. Dexter’s brilliance.
However, accepting the show as something of a tweaked presentation on the “perfect” family, and that it’s set up in a sketch format – which doesn’t really lend itself to anything too deep – it’s easier to see its flaws as pretty surface level and appreciate how smart and funny it is. The humor here will undoubtedly catch you off guard, not only for its somewhat old-fashioned Looney Tunes sensibilities and its kids-won’t-catch-this references (years before that became more commonplace), but also because of how outlandishly inventive its moment-to-moment logic can be, and how the direction – Genndy either directs or co-directs almost every episode – avoids the easier nonsense that would normally accompany the sound-and-fury approach and works with that inventiveness to frame episodes, and to pace them, in an always creative and often unexpected manner.
So while watching Dexter’s Laboratory, I would turn away for moment, thinking I’d gotten the gist of any given episode’s “Dexter wants to improve something / cheat his way through something” premise which justifies that ep’s invention, and then turn back and suddenly be caught up in how funny and strange things had actually turned out – not quite subverting the direction of the plot, but absolutely the path it takes to get to where it’s going. This is maybe even more true in one of the interstitial sketches – Dial M for Monkey – in which a super-powered monkey saves the day from various villains, as the ooking, ekeing main character requires Tartakovsky to rely purely on the visual storytelling that was more common in the forthcoming Samurai Jack; and it’s maybe less true in the other insterstitial ‘Justice Friends,’ which pitches a Justice League parable as a sitcom, laff track included, a gag that gets a old rather fast… but these bits showcase a very self-aware kind of humor that, again, would prove incredibly popular in cartoons to come.
The DVD season one collection is a total budget affair, oddly split with eight episodes on one disc and five on the other, but there are at least chapter breaks between sketches, and the slipcase has, uh, embossing. Fancy.