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30 Years of Cartoon Network: "Dexter's Laboratory"

Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.

Intro

At the height of television animation's Golden Age, Hanna-Barbera Studios was considered the king of Saturday morning cartoons. It was gifted with a limitless library of shows and characters that shaped history, and its legacy continues to this day. As the late 70s and 80s decades hit, their popularity steadily declined, both in quantity and quality. Due to financial difficulties and competing networks, Turner Broadcasting bought Hanna-Barbera and launched a new channel exclusively dedicated to cartoons. That channel is Cartoon Network.

Founded in 1992, Cartoon Network grew from an associate division at Hanna-Barbera to a full-fledged studio producing an ongoing library of original programming. Whether it is their concepts, characters, animation style, etc., these shows have changed and aspired to new generations. Despite a few hiccups here and there, Cartoon Network always found its way back up thanks to the creative efforts of newcomers and aspiring animators.

  1. I will not discuss the acquired content from Warner Bros. or Teletoon. For example, Teen Titans GO! or Total Drama won't be in this retrospective since they originate from their own respective studios. The same applies to classic cartoons.
  2. If any of these shows receive a sequel or reboot, I will briefly discuss them because talking about them individually would make this retrospective much longer.
  3. This is just my personal opinion. As I am aware, some of these shows have huge fan bases as well as some controversy surrounding some of their creators. As someone who likes to separate from art and artists, I cannot speak for other people. I deeply understand and respect others' opinions, no matter whether you love or hate these shows. Having said that, I am more familiar with the olden days and the 2000s than the current era. No, I am not criticizing the current programming. In fact, I really enjoy them. I need more time and research to watch these shows to fully express my opinion. Feel free to point out any mistakes I make, and I will definitely correct them.

Let me proceed to my favorite cartoon on Cartoon Network, Dexter's Laboratory, the one that started it all.

Background

The idea began when CalArts student Gennedy Tartakovsky developed a drawing where a thin, tall ballerina girl stood alongside a short, blocky boy. Tartakovsky developed the idea of these two characters over time, based on his relationship with his older brother, Alex, and created a thesis film based on these characters called "Changes.". Hanna-Barbera producer Larry Huber later submitted Tartakovsky's thesis to the new Cartoon Network division. Tartakovsky accepted the offer to turn the thesis into a seven-minute short. There is no other way of putting it: "Changes" was changed to "Dexter's Laboratory". Upon its debut on World Premiere Toons (later known as What A Cartoon! Show), Dexter was chosen as one of the most favorite shorts, and the show became a series. At the age of twenty-seven, Gennedy was also considered one of the youngest animators at that time. He helped his former classmate Craig McCracken pitch his own series The PowerPuff Girls to the network, and the two would go on to collaborate on each other's projects. The production also brought in new directors and writers, including Butch Hartman and Seth MacFarlane.

1/2 Classic Format...

When Cartoon Network was still a division of Hanna-Barbera, the show's format was similar to the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons, consisting of three segments of seven minutes each. It primarily focused on the genius boy and inventor Dexter, who worked in his secret lab without his parents' knowledge. Every day, he deals with his older sister Dee Dee, who inadvertently foils his inventions and rivalry with Mandark.

Due to the genre being science fiction, the writers needed to think outside the box so they could create some scenarios a typical boy genius would go through in his daily life. In one episode, Dexter is constantly bullied with dodgeballs during physical education class. To defend himself, he has created a robotic exoskeleton. Before the series was greenlit, shorts played around with some familiar sci-fi experimentation. Stories may include changing into different animals, growing to enormous sizes, or aging with mixed results. The writing has a mad scientist motif, with the only difference being that the scientist is a mere child. This helps elevate the comedy on the show. I find it both funny and sad to see a child's scientific invention backfire in unexpected ways. The humor also applies to certain characters' personalities, depending on their motivation and situation, as we shall see later. The show would throw in some subtle adult humor that kids would not understand until years later. They are, however, more palatable at the moment than what two episodes later provided.

In the first season, two different segments featuring superheroes were simultaneously aired since Gennedy was a comic book fan. The first was "Dial “M” For Monkey". It involved Dexter's pet monkey who turns out to be a superhero after being put through "failed" experiments. With his partner Agent Honeydew, Monkey works for Global Security. In every episode of the segment, Monkey faced memorable villains of the week. One of the most famous episodes is “Rasslor", in which Monkey and a bunch of superheroes have to face an intergalactic wrestler for the fate of planet Earth. A remarkable aspect of the episode is that the titular character was voiced by the late professional wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage. Oh, yeah! Other than that, each episode provides some great action sequences and a few emotional moments. In one episode, Monkey had to reform a mutated chimpanzee to his senses after he had become bent on planning his revenge against humanity. Agent Honeydew and Global Security's head were likable enough, but not enough to be fully developed during the show's run. Then again, it's only a nitpick.

The second segment is "The Justice Friends" where three superheroes live together under an apartment building. This sounds more like a sitcom from the synopsis. There is even a laugh track, which makes it seem more like an homage to prime-time Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Flintstones. As opposed to "Dial "M" For Monkey", this segment focuses more on the characters and their situations. Each character is a parody/spoof of a famous superhero comic character. Major Glory, for example, is based on Captain America, but is more prideful and patriotic. Even their everyday lives seem simpler than just fighting crime. In one episode, the Justice Friends try to keep a bee from buzzing around their apartment. Neither a mutant bee nor a person dressed in disguise as one. An ordinary bee, just like any other. This...is one of those shows that was never meant to be taken seriously. It actually kind of follows what both The Tick and Freakazoid! did at the time. For comic fans and those seeking a good laugh, the segments alone are worth watching.

When season two aired, the format began to change. Sometimes, the episodes would be divided into three seven-minute segments. Other times, they did two episodes of eleven minutes each. Season two was a massive improvement when it expanded the world of Dexter’s Laboratory. There were not only science fiction episodes but there were also fantasy, action, and anime episodes as well. Occasionally, it featured fiction and non-fiction guest stars. In one episode, Dexter is taught piano by Professor Williams, who is voiced by Paul Willaims. A second episode involves the Hanna-Barbera superhero character Blue Falcon enlisting Dexter to fix his sidekick DynoMutt. Not only did this episode bring back the original actors, Gary Owens and Frank Welker, but it also demonstrates that this show belongs to the same universe as Hanna-Barbera. Though Hanna-Barbera made crossovers before, this was unique at the time. Once in a blue moon, the show would also have musical numbers. The “Golden Diskette” episode was more of a parody to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory where certain characters break into songs like “Who is Professor Hawk?” or “Your Brain is A Creative Computer”. Listening to these songs is fun and catchy. Even so, this season's second-to-last episode, "LABretto", is truly outstanding. The episode is not only opera-themed but also tells the story of how Dexter's lab came to be. It is obvious they were having fun making this from the writing, storyboarding, animation, and the voice actors' singing.

The "Dial "M" for Monkey" and "The Justice Friends" segments appeared less often, and Dexter's Laboratory itself was more often the focus. There are not many changes to "Dial "M" For Monkey", but it is notable that the laugh track is omitted from "The Justice Friends". Tartakosky was also disappointed about the outcome of the segment and wished it had been funnier and fleshed out. It looks like we're on the same page. Despite that, their moments began to shine when the season two finale aired.

"Last But Not Beast" was not only a half-hour episode but was also meant to be the series finale. In the episode, Dexter accidentally releases a giant monster that causes havoc throughout Japan. After Monkey and Justice Friends failed to stop it, Dexter sought help from Dee Dee and his parents as a last resort. In addition to paying homage to Japanese genres like Kaiju, Tokusatsu, and anime, this episode brings all the characters together and makes it as epic as possible. Afterwards, Genndy wanted to work on another Dexter project before he decided to move on with Samurai Jack. In 1999, he produced Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip, the first television movie made for Cartoon Network. I already reviewed the movie months ago. But, to save you some time, the short version is: It is a satisfying television movie with a familiar but creative story, limited but elevated production values, and simple but diverse characters.

...+ 1/2 New Format = A Mixed Concoction

After Cartoon Network became its own studio, however, Dexter was announced to be revived with 13 episodes. With Tartakovsky unavailable, a new creative team was assigned to the project. The director of the team was Chris Savino, who would later become the creator of The Loud House on Nickelodeon. A new team also meant new changes. A revised art direction, a new cast, and rethinking continuity were among the changes. The results were hit-and-miss. The third season would mostly return to the original format of three seven-minute segments. Both "Dial "M" for Monkey" and "The Justice Friends" segments were omitted and were replaced with short "cartoons" centered around certain characters. For example, the first (and my personal favorite) "Dad" cartoon has Dexter's Dad cleaning the family car, but he keeps breaking it in the process. As for the absent segment characters, they occasionally make cameos in select episodes.

The third season had its moments, including Dexter attending college, Mandark disguising himself as Dexter’s Mom, how Mom and Dad met, and two episodes involving intergalactic rescue. Some were weird like Dexter and Douglas going into the girls’ bathroom or the U.S. army mistaking Dexter’s lab for an alien base. But, the most interesting episode of that season was “A Boy Named Sue” where we learn the origin story of Mandark before he became an evil genius and Dexter’s rival. In fact, we never knew much about Mandark’s family in the classic seasons. Sure, he had a younger sister as DeeDee’s rival, but that was only one time and never appeared again. With his parents being hippies, it is kind of funny how they are soft and peace-loving while Mandark was born cruel and dark-hearted.

Season four, while offering some witty episodes, is, unfortunately, the weakest. Despite the stylized title cards, some episodes don't live up to their potential. There is an episode where Dexter and Dee Dee form a tag-team but end up inadvertently causing trouble for their parents. There was almost something going on, but it felt dull. The original intent is spiced up from time to time by some episodes. There are two episodes that come to mind: "The Lab of Tomorrow," which is a tribute to Tex Avery's "...Of Tomorrow" cartoons, and "Dexter's Wacky Races," where the main cast and the segments race together. Seeing these characters again was impressive, but I wish there was more like that. Unfortunately, the final episode doesn’t live up to “Last But Not Beast”. The first segment was about karate, the second was about Dexter impressing a girl with poetry, and the last is about an obnoxious Dee Dee “saving” an ostrich from the zoo. ...Epic. Way to end the show with a bang, Savino.

Abstract & Creative Animation

At Hanna-Barbera, the first two seasons of the show carried the character design and limited animation the company was known for. But, thanks to Gennedy’s direction, the simplistic and abstract look of the characters is effective since it was easier to animate and influenced by the UPA cartoons and Chuck Jones’ The Dover Boys. You could tell how square-like Dexter is or tall and skinny Dee Dee is.

However, as mentioned earlier, not only the writing, but also the art style were influenced by anime, comics, and sci-fi. The Justice Friends, for example, are visual parodies of Marvel comic characters. There are a couple of episodes where adult human characters appear realistic and proportionate when compared to the simplistic looking main characters. In the episode “Mock 5”, which is a parody of Speed Racer, not only are the characters dressed like the show’s characters, but the character animation is more limited than the regular animation of their show itself! As you can tell, there is a variety of animation and art styles throughout the series. My favorite is "Dexter and Computress Get Mandark." In this case the story was submitted by a young fan and the artwork is crude and pencil-like, which sort of fits a kid's mindset. Not to mention, the shaky microphone and bad audio quality give the impression that he directed the episode himself. Though the art direction is simple, the animators definitely make the most of it, especially with the action sequences.

In the second half, the creative team keeps what Gennedy intended but has stylized it. The characters are more round and abstract than before. Dexter's Dad is an example where in the original, he looked a lot like a regular human, but in this version, he is skinnier and less detailed. Even the backgrounds look more like paintings, which kind of compliments the abstract style. Every once in a while, they do display their own visual flair when they take on a different genre. Dexter invents a machine that shows a world in panels like a comic book, complete with word balloons when he speaks. There’s another episode where Dexter and Koosie fight an evil alien overlord where his design and the cinematography around him are anime-style. Though it is not the same as before, it is pleasing enough that Chris and his team did the best they could do.

A Variety of Characters

When it comes to a boy genius concept, this show really provided a lot of characters, whether they were from the main show or segments.

Our list begins with the titular character, Dexter. He is a young boy who spends most of his time in his secret laboratory inventing or building machines. On the one hand, he has a high IQ and a lot of inventions that could help him out of a sticky situation. His ambitions and inventing, however, would give him a superior complex, despite his age, and whenever his inventions backfire, he gets his karma. It is understandable that some people could be split with this kid. Then again, he is still a kid and it is kind of funny how they play this mad scientist trope onto him. His personality quite fits into the comedic aspect. The same would apply to older sister Dee Dee. She is the optimistic ballerina-like girl that constantly likes to unintentionally cause mischief in her brother’s lab. Sure, some people would find her annoying and bubbly. Yet, she is kinder and does have her moments in the show. She can ironically be as smart as Dexter is. Of course, let’s not let Dee Dee push any buttons. In other words, these characters are likable in their own rites. Apart from not knowing of their son's lab, Dexter's parents are the loving, but germophobic and perfectionist mother who always wears gloves, and the clueless, yet caring father. On a side note, Dexter’s dad is the funniest character in the show. You can guess where Dexter and Dee Dee get their personalities from.

The most recurring character in the show is Dexter’s rival, Mandark. He is a devious boy genius with a goal of destroying Dexter’s lab and has an obsessive crush on Dee Dee. Complete with a more high-tech laboratory and corrupted demeanor, he will stop at nothing till he gets what he wants. Once the second half aired, we learned that he comes from a loving, hippie family, consisting of his parents Oceanbird and WindBear. A few others appear in the piece, including Dexter's teacher Mr. Luzinsky, the imaginary Koosalagoopagoop, his classmate Mordecai, the action hero Action Hank, and Dee Dee's friends Lee Lee and Mee Mee. While not complex, they are simple and fine enough characters.

Monkey and the Global Security were already discussed. Even so, this week's villains are still the highlights. Besides Simian and Rasslor, there are also Magmanamus, Huntor, Peltra, Orgon Grinder, and Quackor the Fowl, who happens to be Mandark's pet duck with a similar backstory. The rest of the Justice Friends are the laid-back rock god Val Hallen and the child-like Infraggable Krunk. Sometimes they run into other characters, including enemies like Comrade Red and She-Thing or allies like Living Bullet and White Tiger.

Besides the recurring and segment characters, certain episodes feature one-time characters that leave such a lasting impression or are wasted potential. There are characters including Chubby Cheese security, shoe-fixing gnomes who love feet, school janitor Johnny, and more.

Lastly, I enjoyed the voice acting. From Frank Welker to Tom Kenny, we have veteran and upcoming voice actors. The voices of a few actors had to be changed. The late Christine Cavanaugh gives an unforgettable performance as Dexter, and Candi Milo carries on her legacy well. Allison Moore voiced Dee Dee in seasons one and three, and Kat Cressida stepped in for seasons two and four. Both actresses perform well but Kat Cressida is personally my favorite. Eddie Deezen’s high-pitched and nasally voice gives Mandark his identity. Occasionally, guest voices would be heard. Besides Paul Williams and Randy "Macho Man" Savage, others included Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn, and Fred Willard. Even Mako provided narration for the end credits song. That’s a neat bonus.

Two Controversial Experiments

Because the show gained so much visibility and recognition, it is surprisingly full of secrets that are more hidden than Dexter's secret lab itself. Two episodes were either banned or controversial for a variety of reasons. It's true that the show has some subtle adult humor and innuendos that kids wouldn't get, but these two episodes went way beyond the intended boundaries.

The Dial "M" for Monkey segment "Barbequor" is the first and the lesser of the two evils. Monkey must save the solar system (and his birthday party) from a galactic entity known as Barbequor. It's simple but epic enough for Monkey to handle. In addition, it is kind of cute to see Global Security and The Justice Friends attending the party and trying to stop Barbequor on their own without Monkey's help.

Why was it banned? Remember when I said it was "lesser than the two evils"? Well, it was removed for an entirely different reason than everyone appeared to think. For a while, it was believed that Krunk's drunken behavior at his birthday party and his forced driving home meant that the episode was controversial. The message behind this imagery is obvious. Barbequor's assistant, The Silver Spooner, was also considered a gay stereotype due to his flamboyant personality and the spoon he's riding looks...symbolic. Having seen this episode on television, I thought it was okay. The main defense for this episode is that, in case you forgot, the villains were meant to be comic character parodies. Silver Spooner is a parody of the Silver Surfer, and Barbequor is a parody of Galactus. In terms of writing, they were never meant to be taken too seriously, like the Justice Friends. Speaking of comic books, the episode was banned because the creators of Silver Surfer threatened the studio for mishandling the character they parodied and plagiarizing it. Due to this, not only was the episode never broadcast again, but it was also removed from the season one DVD releases (except for those in Region 4) and HBO Max streaming services. It is a shame, but the episode wasn't that bad when compared to the latter episode.

“Rude Removal”l is the most infamous and controversial episode in the show's history. In this episode, Dexter invents a machine that can extract both his and Dee Dee's "rude" sides. As a result, Dexter and Dee Dee became very polite, while the machine cloned them as rude clones. By "rude," I mean constantly using profane language. You read that correctly. You thought the substitute coach character in the “Dexter’s Dodgeball" episode was mature enough to use the "c" word. However, it is child's play in comparison to the evil clones saying the 'f' word over and over! Even the title card indicates what the viewer can expect.

Out of all the kids' shows around that time, this episode achieved more than Ren & Stimpy. It is not the first time a character on a kids' show has sworn. Fowlmouth, the Tiny Toons Adventure character based on Foghorn Leghorn, is one example. There was an instance when he tried asking Shirley to the school dance but was constantly swearing when he was frustrated. Despite sounding inappropriate, it was passable and clever for the time. Because the character himself was minor and the show knows it is just for comedy. Sure, their self-awareness doesn't excuse them from the banned beer episode; that's another issue altogether.

Getting back to the topic, the episode was originally intended to air with the swearing censored. But the standards wouldn't allow it. The episode was shown exclusively at animation festivals and conventions for a while.

It wasn't until 2013, when Adult Swim released the censored episode online to the public. In my opinion, Adult Swim's decision was a smart one, because it not only caters to its target demographic, but to existing fans. My personal experience was...fine. I understand what the writers and animators were trying to achieve. I don't think it's a bad idea to have the good clones speak in British accents and the bad clones speak in New York accents. Is it stereotypical? In short, yes. Then again, it is just a joke. In terms of profane language, it really stood out. For those who may be interested, the censored version of the video can be viewed here.

Watch it at your own risk. Viewer discretion is advised.

Conclusion & Legacy

In conclusion, Dexter's Laboratory still holds up. Both Cartoon Network and the contributing animators' careers were launched by the show. This concept mixed different genres, had unique segments, simple but creative animation, and many memorable characters. The classic format stands tall, but the second half also had its highs and lows. The show also won three Annie Awards, a Macy's Thanksgiving parade balloon, and a huge list of merchandise, ranging from comics, toys, to video games. Dexter’s Laboratory is highly recommended for sci-fi fans and those looking for a laugh. As of 2021, only the first season is available on DVD, with later seasons appearing on compilation DVDs. Luckily, for HBO Max subscribers, all the episodes (excluding the TV movie and the controversial episodes) are available to watch. Though animated television shows have evolved, this show holds a nostalgic place in my heart. But, this is only the beginning of a growing television network.

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