Stuck at Childhood: Dexter’s Laboratory

Dexters-Lab

In the “Stuck at Childhood” series, I’ll be taking a monthly look at the television shows that shaped my childhood. Let’s see what made them special, why they appealed to me and if they hold up as art or entertainment. 

Everybody has a short list of people they truly admire. I’m not talking about people you think are great at their work, or people you admire in the sense you admire your dad or your mom. These are people you believe to be amongst the true 1% of human geniuses. The ones that blow your socks off and make you stand in wonder of their creations. You would give anything to have at least a percentage of the talent they have. I’m talking about that kind of admiration. I want to start this post by making something clear, my short list of people I absolutely admire includes such personalities as Charles M. Schulz, Anthony Browne, Leon Tosltoy; and the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, a man by the name of Genndy Tartakovsky.

Not that many people regard him as highly as me, but Tartakovsky is one of the great figures of animation in the twentieth century. His has one of the most original, economic and eye-popping styles I’ve seen on network television. As a recent Vulture article on great tv shows you might not have watched points out, he is also one of the best action directors currently living. Not only in animation. Of all kinds of film. Just watch some of the visually striking work he did in the brilliant Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts or in -the show that is most probably his masterpiece- the post-apocalyptic Samurai JackThrough his television work, Tartakovsky made some of the very best work seen by any visual medium between the mid-nineties and the mid-aughts. Dexter’s Laboratory was the hit that started it all for Tartakovsky. It also launched the career of other prominent animators like Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCrackenFairly Oddparents creator Butch Hartman and one man by the name of Seth MacFarlane. I’ll let you decide if that last one’s prominence is a good thing, but for now, let’s enter past our own peril past the bolted door and take a closer look at one of the best animated shows of the nineties…

the 1990s saw a boom in animation both on the big screen and on television. After decades of cheap animated shows by such companies as Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, the late eighties saw major studios bringing their properties to the small screen with high-quality animation in shows such as Disney’s DuckTales and Warner Brothers’ Tiny Toon Adventures. But perhaps more significantly, at least for the history of Dexter’s Lab, is the year 1991 when a cable channel dedicated to children’s programming by the name of Nickelodeon premiered its first original cartoons. The success of Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show and Doug over at Nickelodeon made the guys behind Cartoon Network -a competing channel that up to that point was dedicated to old cartoon reruns- hungry for an original show of their own. In order to develop its new pilots in-house, Cartoon Network created the What a Cartoon! show, a compilation series that showcased the work done by many young animators. Most of Cartoon Network’s early original shows found their start on this show; including The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Laboratory, which was the first to be picked up for series. It wasn’t an immediate thing, though, there were four different episodes/pilots for Dexter’s Laboratory that aired on What a Cartoon! 

Those four episodes introduced the world to Dexter: a boy genius with a secret laboratory in his own home. There, he comes up with the most amazing inventions, but unlucky for him, his work is constantly interrupted and destroyed by his carefree sister Dee Dee. As the show went on, it expanded its view on ways I will talk about later, but all throughout its evolution, the heart and soul of the series remained the relationship between Dexter and Dee Dee. The very first episode, “Changes”, has Dexter and Dee Dee fighting over a remote control that turns people into animals. Aided by the voice-over performances by Christine Cavanaugh (who played Dexter with a fantastic russian accent) and Allison Moore (who defined the voice of Dee Dee, although she was later replaced by Kathryn Cressida, who also did a fantastic job), this first installment already has the dynamic between stubborn Dexter and the annoyingly unaware Dee Dee nailed down, preparing us for the ways in which the relationship would evolve throughout the show’s run.

The other thing this earliest episode foreshadows about the show, is its love for all things nerdy. It could be expected from a show about a boy inventor, but the extent to which Dexter’s Laboratory relished on science-fiction narratives as well as movie, television and other geeky references was almost unprecedented on a children’s tv show. Surely, The Simpsons did a lot of that, but it wasn’t a show primarily for children and it wasn’t as willing as Dexter’s Lab to change its structure and the rules of its reality to pay homage to all the things that had influenced its creator. I believe Dexter’s Lab is without a doubt a precursor to the kind of experimental episodes we would see in shows like Community and Futurama. If you don’t think that’s possible, then just look at the way “Changes” is influenced by the magic duel in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone

That was, of course, just the beginning. If you have not seen the entire run of Dexter’s Laboratory and you’re a movie/television fan, then you’re in for a treat. One of the show’s expertise was breaking its mold in order to do all kinds of crazy homages. Take for instance, “D & DD”, in which Dexter and Dee Dee clash when she becomes Dungeon Master during a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The episode is one of the show’s best moments at playing with fantasy archetypes and storytelling structure (something they did constantly). Sometimes they went a little too deep, like in “Dexter’s Wacky Races”, which is such a close homage to Speed Racer that I’m not sure someone who isn’t familiar with that show would admire it as much (although I find it to be a really good episode). My personal favorite -and I bet a lot of other fans’- is “Lab-Retto”, the penultimate episode of the show, which tells the story of Dexter’s birth and the origin of his tense relationship with Dee Dee in the form of an opera.

Great executed homages and isn’t everything that makes Dexter’s Laboratoy great, though. The show is also notable, as many of the best shows of the 90s are, for spending a lot of time in world building. Even though Dexter and Dee Dee are the only “main” characters of the show (their parents and Dexter’s nemesis, an evil genius named Mandark, also get showcases, but don’t appear in nearly as many episodes), almost every element Tartakovsky introduced to this world was treated as part of the show’s continuity. A great example of this is the show’s first season, where Dexter shorts aired alongside other segments: Dial M for Monkey starred a monkey superhero that was actually an experiment created by Dexter, while The Justice Friends was a sitcom that asked what if The Avengers shared an apartment. These shorts stopped airing after a while, but that didn’t stop the show from referencing the existence of those characters within Dexter’s world. That approach made me really admire the program, as it showed an amount of commitment to every single episode of the series on a level that my young self hadn’t seen up to that point. It made me feel like these guys weren’t just doing a cartoon; they knew what they were doing.

All these daring and geeky aspects of Dexter’s Laboratory are wonderful, and they made the show so awesome it would have secured a hardcore fanbase no matter what, but they are also not make for the kind of show that becomes a huge success (just ask the people working on the similarly daring Community). Amongst all the craziness, Dexter’s Lab managed to connect with children. And the reason, as I said before, is very much the relationship between its characters. First, you have the idea of the boy genius, which appeals to a very primal fascination children have with creating stuff. You know, that thing that makes them play with legos and empty all the shampoo bottles in the bathroom because they’re doing an ‘experiment’. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you have an incredibly relatable dynamic at the center of the show: sibling rivalry. The frustration Dexter feels when Dee Dee ruins his creations is the same any child has when his sibling breaks one of their toys. The episode I alluded to before, “Lab-Retto” presents this relationship in its inception, as baby Dexter comes up with simple inventions his older sister Dee Dee is simply too curious and eager not to break. Its one of the best remembered scenes in the show’s history and I really wanted to have embed on this post, except I couldn’t find any acceptable version of it.

Everything that made Dexter’s Lab great came together in what was supposed to be its final episode. Not only was it one of the few animated shows to actually end with an episode inteded as a finale, but Tartakovsky and his collaborators really brought it together as Dexter accidentally awakes an evil Japanese kaiju-monster. The episode makes allusion to all the world building it had done before, having both Monkey and The Justice Friends try and fail at defeating the monster. It also plays with the whole arch of the show, as proud Dexter, must reveal the existence of his laboratory and turn to his simpleton family to pilot a giant robot against the monster. Not many people talk about it, but I think it’s one of the most satisfying finales of all time, from its epic-scale fan service to its paying off of the show’s very own premise of a secretive boy being annoyed by his sister.

Tartakovsky ended Dexter’s Laboratory in amazing fashion, but it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Dexter. There was the appropriately sci-fi heavy made for television special “Ego Trip”, which features Dexter traveling through time and recruiting his future selves to avoid an dystopian future ruled by Mandark, and is actually pretty enjoyable. But in 2001, Cartoon Network actually decided to revive Dexter without Tartakovsky’s involvement. Christine Cavanagh also didn’t return to voice Dexter, a fact that paired up with the different design and art direction, make it feel like a very different show. The episodes of this “new Dexter” aren’t bad, but they are also very different and focus on a more basic kind of humor. They still feature structurally quirky episodes, like one focusing on Mandark’s laugh, but they aren’t nearly as rich in their experimentation as the original run of the show.

For his part, Genndy Tartakovsky went on to other projects, like executive producing The Powerpuff Girls and creating Samurai Jack. For the longest time he tried to get a feature-length Samurai Jack movie greenlit, but he obviously didn’t succeed at that. His last work was as director of Sony Pictures’s animated comedy Hotel Transylvania, which is, amongst other things, one of the worst movies I saw last year. I am deeply saddened that such a rich mind as Tartakovsky had to turn to directing cheap Shrek-knock-offs and I just hope he gets the money and credibility necessary for him to do whatever crazy awesome projects are stored in his mind. He is currently attached to direct a movie starring Popeye, so who knows, that might turn out good. At least we’ll always have his early television work.

The entire original run of Dexter’s Laboratory is available on Netflix, so you can watch it right now. If nothing else, why don’t you take a look at this video featuring another of Dexter’s best moments, in an homage to both Stephen Hawking and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

Next Month: Ghostwriter

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