When I was in high school, the cool kids were playing Grand Theft Auto III and watching Adult Swim: a bunch of crazy late night, “mature” shows on Cartoon Network, y’know, a kids’ network. I didn’t get into it until college, but between Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Futurama reruns, some passable anime, and their other original content, I was sold. My favorite show was Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, another satirical re-envisioning of Hanna Barbara’s rubbish old cartoon programming after the success of Space Ghost: Coast-to-Coast, the progenitor to all this madness.
This is the part where I discuss the conventional aspect of the show. Harvey Birdman is former action hero and current lawyer for Phil Ken Sebben, who served as his boss in the original cartoon. Most episodes open with a different Hanna Barbera cartoon in a situation that leads to litigation. Cops pull over Shaggy and Scooby-Doo for erratic driving and through a series of cleverly cut coincidences, it’s obvious that these two are high on the “Scooby doobie”. In another, Fred Flintstone plays a mob boss who will cast a mean eye or involuntarily launch into a yelling tirade, even against witnesses in the courtroom. Harvey, played by the always-amazing Gary Cole, is there to take the case. Far removed from his action role, his assistants are the dictation-taking eagle Avenger and the sexually-frustrated teenager Peanut who keep the hapless Harvey on the straight and narrow while his boss (a before-he-was-famous Stephen Colbert) needles and patronizes him.
One thing I’m encountering is that some things just aren’t meant to be marathoned. At twelve minutes long each, the whole series can be digested in nearly seven hours, but that’s hardly the way they were meant to be enjoyed. This is the part where I discuss the unconventional aspect of the show. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law is batshit insane. Sure, many of the episodes have a similar starting point and the same shell template, but anything that happens between A and B is random. This is absurd humor at its most taut with the show’s animated format being used to full effect: the producers can engineer three gags into a shot at a time and will proceed to do so, like a finger being held down on a calamity button. Those used to more pedestrian television may suffer whiplash. If a reference can be made to a sixties-era H-B cartoon, it will, with recurring characters dredged from shows I’d never heard of, like the barely-functioning reboot of stunt-jumping Ernie Devlin. Every regular in the show is a retooled version of character from the original Birdman cartoons, including the most rubbish of villains: in particular, Mentok the Mind Taker, who presides over most of Harvey’s cases, enjoys an endlessly amusing act as mind reader and manipulator.
Compared to the lo-fi production of the rest of Adult Swim’s lineup, Attorney at Law’s is pretty slick, relying a lot on the remastered rotoscoping of the original footage, but unlike SG:C2C, isn’t completely bound to it, either. Each of these characters are fleshed out and given their own lives and personalities. They aren’t merely shifted around the frame, but actually re-animated as much as the limited budgets will allow. Persistent bright colors are as ambulatory as the show’s pacing reminding you, once more, that this is meant to be enjoyed in twelve-minute increments.
One thing marathoning the show did allow me to observe was that not only did the animation get better in their transition to Adobe Flash (they admit working with traditional mediums took forever), but the show’s pace slowed and became more serialized. I’m not sure if someone complained, but the change in formula didn’t sit well with me watching it all at once. I’d seen most of the second season episodes and they didn’t seem as out-of-pace watching them in their original run. I’d also never seen any of the third season at all, so much of that was a surprise. While the voice talent and animation maintain, it’s obvious that the six years required to produce three seasons of the show kneaded the dough a little too far out. I’m sure if I’d watched any of the newer shows out of context, I wouldn’t have as big an issue, but it seems to me that in working so hard to produce the original episodes, they seemed intent on getting the most bang out of the package.
Still, Harvey Birdman is a very clever contraption. I felt for Harvey’s plight as a lawyer because much as he seems like he’s a fish out-of-water (despite being one for many years before we meet him), we relate because we’re hardly lawyers ourselves and somehow, strangely, that works. Just like the show, despite its disparate components, it somehow, strangely, manages to work.