Almost impossible to watch with a straight face if you're a fan of the later Adult Swim parody. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Warner Archive Collection, which caters to movie and TV lovers looking for hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released another series in their Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection: Sealab 2020: The Complete Series, the underwater adventure/ecology/environmentalist toon that originally aired on NBC's 1972 Saturday morning lineup for 13 episodes. Certainly not a particularly memorable H-B effort, with action sacrificed for lame, feel-good "educational" content. No extras (like the three unaired episodes) included here in this good-looking transfer.
Earth, 2020. Below the surface of the sea, on the top of the Challenger Sea Mount, Sealab rests. A fantastical city beneath the waters, Sealab is populated by 250 men, women and children dedicated to conducting scientific experiments in the Earth's last, greatest frontier. Authority over Sealab's security and operations lies with Captain Michael Murphy (voice talent of John Stephenson), a crusty, hard-nosed pragmatist who thinks about the safety of his personnel before any scientific considerations. Authority over Sealab's experimental missions lies with Dr. Paul Williams (voice talent of Ross Martin), a measured, reasonable scientist who sees Sealab and its inhabitants as co-existing with nature, not conquering it. Young scientists Hal (voice talent of Jerry Dexter), Gail (voice talent of Ann Jillian), and Ed (voice talent of Ron Pinkard) help out with the daily experiments at Sealab, along with the aid of youngsters Robert and Sally Murphy (voice talents of Josh Albee and Pamelyn Ferdin), the grandchildren of Captain Murphy. Together, this team fights to preserve the purity of the oceans from whale hunters, nuclear waste dumpers, and other spoilers of nature.
I'm not reviewing Sealab 2021, the hilarious Cartoon Network Adult Swim series from 2001 that I used to watch religiously...so I'll refrain from turning this review into a compare and contrast. However, it was impossible for me to watch Sealab 2020 without constantly giggling at episodes I remembered from that beautifully surreal series ("Bizzaro! I love you!"). So, tuning those associations out as best I can, the original Sealab 2020 didn't strike me as the most entertaining 70s Hanna-Barbera offering I've ever seen, that's for sure (there are so many more entertaining ones from that second golden period of H-B animation, such as Harlem Globetrotters, Help!...It's the Hair Bear Bunch, Super Friends, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, Hong Kong Phooey, cripes even Jabberjaw, and the list goes on and on). I only dimly remember catching Sealab 2020 when it originally aired back in '72, and nothing about it stood out in my recollections when I peered at that DVD case. If I must have my Hanna-Barbera toons with "educational value," as the know-nothing do-gooders demanded back in the late 60s, I'd much rather watch something like Valley of the Dinosaurs, where the action was as plentiful as the "science" was interesting (you can read my review of that fun show here).
Sealab 2020, however, is pretty dull and far, far too earnest for a Saturday morning toon. Its measured tones and calm, reassuring manner completely infuriated me (hee hee!) before its ecology message and its "can't we all just get along?" message bored me to tears (can anyone say, Captain Planet?). I guess there will be people out there who like a cartoon about treating the ocean well and the animals in it well and each other well...but personally, I'd rather have a blunt object crashing down on someone's skull, or someone slipping on a banana peel. I don't need toons to teach me a lesson in civics or ecology or sociology or animal husbandry, for that matter. I want to laugh. I grew up on the hard stuff: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tom & Jerry, Popeye, Yogi Bear (surprising amount of violence in those). And while I also loved the flip side (Casper's gentle humor is a good example), obvious, calculated, and mealy-mouthed post 1968-1969 animation attempts to "school" me in right livin' and right thinkin' left me cold then and now.
So when Sealab 2020 just noodles around with little or no action, you have to actually listen to the dialogue...where you may find some unintentional laughs if you're of a mind to. Most amusingly, some of Sealab 2020's then-liberal viewpoints are completely out of whack with today's left-wing agenda, while others are unfortunately spot-on. In Backfire, someone laments the need to drill undersea for oil...since we have all that nuclear power up above (someone didn't get the memo about nuke plants at H-B...). In the too, too perfectly titled Green Fever, techie Wilbur gets "brain fever" and claims all the maladies befalling Sealab are retribution for tampering with nature (and no one disagrees with him). In The Shark Lover, a shark expert's answer to aggressive sharks threatening the Sealab scientists is to let them do what they like: it's we who don't belong down there, so we deserve what we get. And in Backfire, Ed the proto eco-terrorist sounds the drums of today's scientific intolerance when, not getting total compliance with his extremist methods of protecting Mother Earth, defiantly states, "There can be no compromise with ecology!" Thank you, Al Gore and Congressional and U.N. global warming scammers (what was rightly lunatic fringe eco-paranoia in '72 is now hard currency in the new religious orthodoxy of global warming). Those kinds of comments usually guarantee a few nasty emails, but what else is there to discuss in Sealab 2020? The color of the squids? The lack of one decent chuckle in the whole waterlogged, soggy mess? After all, that plodding environmentalist angle is the raison d'etre for the series in the first place. And more's the pity.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.