My memory may be faulty, but I recall Scott Adams' "Dilbert" cartoon suddenly becoming a bit of a national phenomenon in the mid-'90s (possibly thanks to Adams' written book The Dilbert Principle, a New York Times bestseller). Calendars, shirts, dolls, further written books, and other merchandise followed, with the big media push capped by an animated TV show. The program attracted some heavy-hitters, namely "Seinfeld" scripter Larry Charles, who helped Adams develop the show. "Dilbert" landed a strong comic cast, including Daniel Stern, Chris Elliott, Kathy Griffin, and Larry Miller. Danny Elfman was even roped in to record a theme by someone apparently hoping "Simpsons" magic would rub off. Then the program ended up on now-forgotten UPN, and the show was basically done for. Although it ran for thirty episodes, many people don't seem to remember a show ever existed.
Watching these episodes in 2014 (some of which amused me in 1999), it's hard to argue with them. "Dilbert" is a toothless, aimless bit of workplace goofiness, which drifts far from the specific frustrations of engineers and into a bland, broad wackiness that suggest something focus-grouped to death by network executives in search of a wide audience, unable to understand how a cartoon could focus on details of the real world. The pilot episode of "Dilbert" involves the character (Stern) worrying he's having a mental breakdown that will end with him believing he's a chicken man, illustrated in multiple scenes where he becomes so frustrated he begins to squawk or flap his arms like a bird -- potentially funny, perhaps, but not really the kind of thing that drew people to the comic strip.
Although Stern and Chris Elliott are not necessarily "big" names, they and many of the other voice actors are surprisingly perfect for their roles...as laid out by the original comic strip. In execution, one of the main weaknesses of "Dilbert" is the way it dilutes those characters. Considering the strip is about an engineer's daily grind against dim bosses wrapped up in micromanagement and misinformation, it makes no sense how dumb the television version of the character is. In one episode, Dilbert is presented with an offer to work at NirvanaCo, where employees are treated with respect, given great workspaces, and projects go forward without a fight. Instead of scripting a situation that would force Dilbert back to his punishing home office by the end of the episode, Dilbert botches his good fortune all on his own, preferring the comfort of his old cubicle and the management of the Pointy-Haired Boss (Miller). The show may not "side" with management, but it doesn't side with anyone else, either, portraying Dilbert as a naive dope, Wally (Gordon Hunt) as a lazy dope, Alice (Griffin) as a disillusioned dope, and the Boss as the dopiest of them all. When Dilbert's workday is plagued by other dopes, there's no longer a reason to sympathize.
The show's supporting cast doesn't fare much better. Elliott doesn't amount to much as Dogbert when his jokes aren't any sharper; he struggles to breathe life into mid-level snark that's never particularly biting. A character I have a faint memory of from the strip, Loud Howard (Jim Wise), gets a major upgrade here as one of the show's core supporting characters, because I guess there's nothing quite as funny as someone who's really loud and annoying all the time. Dilmom (Jackie Hoffman), The Garbage Man (Maurice LaMarche), Catbert (Jason Alexander), and Ratbert (Tom Kenny) also make recurring appearances, as well as guest stars that range from Jon Favreau to Jerry Seinfeld, but any inspired performances feel trapped, forced to cater to each episode's canned storylines. As the show progresses, the writers begin taking some weird turns (in one episode, Dilbert is impregnated), but the show's laugh ratio doesn't improve. Crude jokes are of great fascination (nobody ever resists the chance to add "Dil" to the beginning of something in order to make it sound lewd).
The strip was never known for its visual complexity, and the show sometimes struggles with the challenge of translating Adams' style into characters that can move (I remember it was sort of a big deal that the TV version of Dilbert has a mouth, which the cartoon version doesn't). The show has a fairly spectacular opening credit sequence (Elfman's tune is aggravatingly catchy, but apparently it isn't even specific to the show -- a reader informs me he originally composed it for Forbidden Zone in 1982), complete with flashy, (then) state-of-the-art cel-shaded animation, but the final product displays none of that slickness. Through both animation and scripting, jokes are frequently over-explained and aggressively telegraphed, with cartoon exaggeration always winning the day over any sort of subtlety. It's not really fair to compare, but it speaks volumes that "Dilbert" premiered in 1999, the same year as Mike Judge's Office Space -- 15 years later, the film, rightfully, has the cult following.
"Dilbert": The Complete Series arrives in a standard-width DVD case with a stack hub holding the set's three discs. The original DVD release by Sony had pretty uninspiring cover art -- the simplistic face of Dilbert staring at the consumer with a read background -- but Mill Creek has entirely transformed the artwork by adding the rest of the characters peeking down at him from above a "fold" that splits the art into two colors! Wow! The back cover is even blander and makes the fatal mistake of using Comic Sans. There is no insert inside the case, but each disc label contains a list of episodes contained within.
The Video and Audio
The original Sony release of "Dilbert" was four discs. I didn't see that release, but anyone wondering if it's a good idea to cram what was once on four discs onto three, it isn't. Although Mill Creek's technicians have done a pretty good job minimizing compression artifacts, every section of solid color on screen is positively swarming with very tiny, extremely subtle blocks if one studies the picture closely. Aliasing is also a constant issue on nearly every moving curved line or non-straight angle. Furthermore, color distortion is fairly constant, based on whatever colors are most prominent on screen. For a mostly-forgotten '90s cartoon packed into a bargain release designed to be sold for less than $10, the PQ problems are probably not that important, but they are noticeable if anyone is looking.
Sound is a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack. The show's most expressive moment, sound-wise, is the catchy opening title sequence -- the rest of the program is basically just audio and the occasional simplistic, cartoonish music cue. The previous Sony package displayed a Closed Captioning logo, but this set has no subtitle or closed captioning streams.
Once again, the Sony set was superior, offering a making-of featurette, four compilations hosted by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, and trailers. This set contains no bonus material at all.
Revisiting "Dilbert" was an underwhelming experience. If you liked "Dilbert", the previous release of the show was superior to this one on pretty much every front. Skip it.
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