Creatures of the great black-and-white comic book boom of the 1980's, heroes in a trio of comic adventure videogames, Steve Purcell's Sam & Max: Freelance Police perhaps had their greatest mainstream mass moment in 1997 as a Fox Kids' animated TV series. Though only lasting one season, the series sits with other classic short-lived samples of kid-vid wackiness like The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley as a stellar example of great boneheaded programming decisions. A loud and frenetic absurdist funny animal series crammed with jokes aimed miles above the heads of its prime target audience? Why didn't this do as well as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again?
But Sam & Max's status as best-selling videogame heroes has happily helped both the comics from whence they came (recently reprinted in a spiffy new paperback collection) and their too-soon-snuffed animated teleseries. Those merry pop culture obsessives at Shout Factory (also responsible for the release of the collected SCTV – as well as such lesser lights as The Super Mario Bros. Super Show) have released a three-DVD set collection of the complete animated series. All fourteen shows are featured on the set's first two discs, with an "Exclusive Hyperkinetic Bonus Disc" featuring all the extraneous bonus disc brouhaha (including a Comic-Con set monologue with series creator Steve Purcell). I slept through the cartoon series during its original Fox Kids broadcast – though I was aware of the b-&-w comics – so I'm happy to have the chance to experience this inspired silliness for the first time.
For those unfamiliar with the characters, Sam and Max are a funny animal duo comprised of a trench coat wearing dog who delivers his patently ridiculous dialog with deadpan earnestness ("A world of roach-like leviathans lumbering through a gargantuan city-state!") and a willfully childlike hyperactive "rabbit-thing" with a love of pointless destruction. The twosome works in the vermin-infested big city as "freelance police," answering to the beck and call of an unseen Commissioner whenever big danger threatens the city. Abetting them is a redheaded girl genius named Geek (created for the show as a sop to the kiddies), who mainly serves to provide our heroes with elaborate Q-styled gadgets.
Our heroes' adventures range from basic comic book hero parody (as with a giant-headed intergalactic villain named Lactose the Intolerant) to more out-there fare like an episode where our duo are drafted into acting as marriage counselors for the Olympian gods ("Zeus, you're blocking!") after the Greek deities' marital discord wreaks climactic havoc on Earth. In "It's Dangly Deever Time," the star of an old Howdy Doody-styled puppet show crawls out of the teevee from rerun perpetuity, bringing evil versions of a variety of recognizable Golden Age of Television kid show icons with him. Though Purcell and his fellow scripters significantly toned down the violence of the original comics, they definitely worked to maintain the absurdist flair of the Sam & Max universe. "My mandate," Purcell states at one point during his Comic-Con interview, "was keeping the weirdness quotient up to snuff." In this, he arguably succeeded.
The 'toon's writers also managed to sneak in jokes that probably were beyond the ken of the younger Fox Kids audience members. In a prison-set Christmas episode, for instance, we see a "Do Not Open Until Christmas" label covering Max's derriere as he stoops to pick up a conveniently placed bar of soap off the floor. In a sequence set outside the city sewers, Max jubilantly describes all the baby alligators he saw down below. "They're buoyant and log-shaped," Sam states, "but I don't think they're alligators."
As with the comics, the tone in Sam & Max is noisy and ultra-frenetic, yet also oddly sweet at times. Still, this is not a show to watch if you're worried about waking anybody in the house. I view a lot of my review discs on Saturday mornings while my loving spouse is still asleep, so if I have any one criticism of Shout's DVD set, it's with the absence of subtitles or closed captioning. So there I was, sitting in the living room, torn between my desire to hear all the choice lines and my wish to let my wife sleep late on the weekend.
Guess which need ultimately won out?