A staple of my misguided youth, Underdog (1964-1973, though the last new episodes aired in 1967) was a cartoon series I was anxious to revisit, especially in the lovingly compiled and packaged Complete Collector's Edition, new from Shout! Factory.
The set itself is impressive, though in retrospect I confess to being a trifle disappointed to discover that doesn't really hold up all that well, especially when compared to the similar Rocky & Bullwinkle. Underdog's creators took a clever concept, essentially a parody of Superman (two years before TV's Batman), and ran it into the ground with almost zero variation episode-to-episode. Once you've seen one Underdog show, you've truly seen them all.
That said, the nostalgia factor is undeniable and palpable. The memories came flooding back, vivid little moments seared onto brain cells but not recalled in 40-plus years. Further, while I was quickly satiated after a few episodes, my four-year-old daughter couldn't get enough. ("'Nuther one, Daddy. 'Nuther one.") Possibly she found the extreme repetition of the program appealing, or maybe the simplicity of the stories. Whatever the case, for small children it seems to work just as it did when it was new.
Shout! Factory has gone the extra mile in preparing this series for DVD. Originally broadcast on NBC , then CBS, and then NBC again, Underdog was subsequently syndicated and repackaged multiple times, and the individual cartoon segments making up each half-hour episode were shuffled about like a deck of cards. Shout! Factory commendably has reconstructed the network versions, with the correct segments in their original broadcast order. Some of these film and/or video master elements are missing and, as a result, the video quality varies greatly from segment-to-segment, within each episode. Quality is all over the map, from poor-to-excellent. This was a bold and risky move on the part of disc producer Cliff MacMillan, but the right one I'd say, a decision animation buffs and historians by all rights will genuinely appreciate.
The nine-disc set, running 21 ½ hours, also includes bonus cartoons, an original featurette, lots of audio commentaries that include several of the show's original producers/creators and voice actor George S. Irving, and a well-researched booklet essay and detailed episode guide.
The series spoofs Superman and his ilk, with 98-lb. weakling Underdog (voiced by Wally Cox), and his Milquetoast alter ego, Shoeshine Boy, battling criminals mostly based on Hollywood icons. Mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister (Allen Swift), talks just like Lionel Barrymore at his most Barrymorian, while Riff Raff (also Swift), a wolf in gangster's clothing, is a dead ringer for George Raft (with an incongruous dash of Bela Lugosi). Naturally, there's a virginal damsel in distress, Sweet Polly Purebred (Norma MacMillan, in real-life the mother of actors Stefan Arngrim and Alison Arngrim), a Lois Lane-type television reporter.
Just as a big part of Rocky & Bullwinkle's charm was the humorous narration by William Conrad, Underdog opts for a similar approach, this time featuring evocative narration by George S. Irving.
Most Underdog stories are presented as four-episode serials, with two segments per half-hour episode, a format similar to Rocky & Bullwinkle. The remainder of the show is filled out with other segments: for the first two seasons, it was "Go Go Gophers" and "Commander McBragg," while in season three "Klondike Cat," "Tooter Turtle," and previously broadcast segments called "The Hunter" joined the program.
As with Underdog, the supporting characters are patterned after Hollywood icons with, for instance, Commander McBragg being an especially amusing tribute to British character actor C. Aubrey Smith.
Although the format and animation are remarkably similar to Rocky & Bullwinkle, Underdog was not the creation of Jay Ward and Bill Scott, whose talented writers included people like Chris Hayward and Allan Burns. The latter pair did a lot of great live-action comedy post-Bullwinkle. Instead, Underdog was basically the creation of Mad Men-types. W. Watts "Buck" Biggers, Chet Stover, and Joe Harris all worked for Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, an ad agency that was managing the General Mills account. Joined by Treadwell D. Covington, they teamed to create cartoon shows in order to sell General Mills cereal, later breaking away from the ad agency altogether to form Total Television.
Underdog, their crowning glory, had a similarly deconstructive, flip approach to its material a la Rocky & Bullwinkle, but the format all but vaporizes its possibilities.
For starters, Underdog speaks only in verse ("I am a hero who never fails; I cannot be bothered with such details") and what little character he has is due primarily to Wally Cox's uniquely whispy, nebbish voice. (Cox himself was the antithesis of his screen image, however.) The stories offer virtually zero variation and even famous lines are repeated again and again within a single segment, e.g., "Look! In the Sky! It's a bird!" "It's a plane!" It's a frog!" "A frog?!" "Not bird nor plane nor even frog, it's just little ol' me...Underdog." Only the amused, self-satisfied villains (Swift is excellent in a wide variety of voices) bring any measure of sustained interest.
The supporting cartoons are equally repetitive, though "Commander McBragg" occasionally has a gloriously Munchausen-like outrageousness that's hard to dislike.
Video & Audio
Underdog - Complete Collector's Edition comes packaged in three standard DVD cases, one per season (of original episodes). Season One has 26 episodes on four discs; Season Two has 22 episodes on three discs; and Season Three has 14 episodes on two discs. As stated above, in reconstructing the show's original network broadcast versions, elements of varying quality are sourced, from excellent to poor. This is occasionally jarring but nonetheless forgivable. At least some of the Underdog segments appear not to include scenes of Underdog eating vitamin pills - his equivalent of Popeye's spinach - scenes excised in the name of political correctness, lest kiddie viewers get hooked on drugs. The audio, English only with no subtitle options, is adequate.
Supplements include an 18-page full color booklet that features an excellent history of the show by animation historian Mark Arnold, as well as a detailed episode guide. "There's No Need to Fear...Underdog Is Here" does much the same in a nearly 30-minute featurette that includes on-camera interviews with Biggers, Arnold, Irving, and Alison Arngrim, among others. There's an interview with co-creator Joe Harris, who narrates a never-before-seen storyboard and, finally, audio commentaries galore, nine separate tracks covering all three seasons.
Underdog may not hold up as well as Rocky & Bullwinkle but that doesn't diminish its strong nostalgia factor, nor its continuing power to enchant small children, even now. Shout! Factory's presentation is admirable and the set comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.