|In the early days of Cartoon Network, Ted Turner's broadcasting rights did not encompass the entire Warner Bros. library, and there was a need for new cartoons. There was only so much Tom and Jerry and The Flintstones the world would take before changing the channel. So a new forum was born: the What A Cartoon Show. This showcase of sample cartoons from new animation talent was intended to find Cartoon Network's next original series (their only other at the time was Space Ghost: Coast to Coast). It wasn't long before a man named Genndy Tartakofsky introduced the world to his latest creation: Dexter's Laboratory.
Dexter's appeal was immediately apparent. The pint-sized lab rat brought the 1950's Late Late Show movie, modern speculative fiction, and the classic chase cartoon together with destructive force.
The original short ("Changes") introduced us to a small redheaded boy with a penchant for melodramatic scientific pontification and an inexplicable Carpathian accent (in the context of the show, at any rate -- Dexter's foreign-ness was a clear nod to mad science in all its glory) who was capable of creating in his marvelous laboratory a string of technological wonders, each more fantastic than the last, if not for his one weakness: his ballerina sister, Dee Dee. What Dexter creates, Dee Dee destroys in a blithely ignorant fervor.
The cast of characters is certainly strange and colorful, and the best way to express that is through description:
Dexter: Of course there's the titular character, a pre-adolescent mad scientist. Never seen without his laboratory coat, purple gloves and black boots, Dexter should be far richer than he is. He's designed and presented to the public a vast array of giant battle robots and his annual science fair projects, not to mention the giant laboratory he somehow manages to keep secret from his parents, the massive crays sporting voice recognition and artificial intelligence that run the lab when he is at school, the myriad secret entries into the lab secreted in various unassuming places throughout the house, and the various time machines, shrink rays, interspecies translators, and other yet-to-be-achieved scientific advances. He is irritable, arrogant, and perpetually at the mercy of his big sister...
Deedee: She's presented as more a force of nature than a character. An idiot savant, she has no difficulty entering the lab, and for some unexplained reason, never enjoys herself more than when she is causing random destruction in the lab. More often than not, Dexter tries frantically in vain to chase her from the lab, though they do work together from time to time. Deedee is a ballerina-in-training, a girly-girl (plays with the equivalents of Barbie and My Little Pony) and a perennial big sister (she's better at every physical activity that doesn't involve battling monsters than her brother and is constantly there to remind him). Sometimes accompanied by her friends, Mimi and Lee Lee, she is there to endlessly torment Dexter.
Mom and Dad: Dexter's parents' given names are Mom and Dad. This is an old joke, but not a tired one. Mom and Dad are oblivious to the laboratory, the secret entrances, the various experiments Deedee becomes subject to (including being turned into a car and a giant), or anything that would be considered out-of-the-ordinary, really. Dad cheerfully strides past the gaping acid burns in the front yard and sees the destroyed buildings caused by the latest monster rampage as business-as-usual, and Mom tends to be at the store when the latest scientific mishap sends half the house into orbit.
Mandark: Dexter's rival. Voiced by Eddie Diesen (who is bizarrely perfect for the role), Mandark is also in possession of a secret laboratory beneath his house full of scientific innovations light years ahead of modern convenience. The two of them are constantly one-upping each other, and aside from Mandark's penchant for cheating, the two are nearly identical in personality. Mandark, being an arch nemesis, is really little more than an evil carbon copy of Dexter without his distinguishing characteristics: An oddly-syncopated laugh and an unrequited love for Dexter's sister. The latter also figures into the equation as his weakness, as he becomes visually lovesick every time she passes by him. The Dexter/Mandark rivalry is best exemplified in Ego Trip, the Dexter movie, featuring four time-travelling Dexter's from different periods of his life battling four time-travelling Mandarks, one to rival each stage of Dexter.
Having changed very little since its inception, and hardly at all since the introduction of Mandark, Dexter's Laboratory is still on the air, and shows no signs of stopping as its sixth season draws to a close. Armed with a gift for gushing parody, the colorful backup features Dial 'M' for Monkey and The Justice Friends, and a direct-to-video movie, Ego Trip, Dexter's Laboratory will likely be kept on Cartoon Network for a long time.
But I hope not. Don't get me wrong, I love Dexter. As cartoons go, it has both refreshingly modern sensibilities as well as a healthy respect for what came before. It handles both softcore sci-fi and anime-style action with the same obvious dotage. Genndy Tartakovsky is a man who wears his inner geek on his sleeve. Various Dexter episodes have referred to Shaft, Peanuts, Dungeons and Dragons, and Fantastic Voyage, all with equal reverence. It also makes wonderful use of action sequences. The giant robot battles, Dexter's various instances of superheroism, explosions, and the violent rivalry of a pair of mad scientists.
So why, then, do I want Dexter to end? It's been on too long, and the show has lost its edge. What 5 years ago was crisp and exciting has now become unsatisfying. The stories lately have been straying too far from the original premise. We've seen a beach movie episode in which Mandark tries to win Dee Dee's heart by cheating at a surf contest ("Sun, Surf, and Science"), an unnecessary love letter to music featuring Paul Williams ("Just an Old Fashioned Lab Song"), and Charlie's Angels ("G.I.R.L. Squad"), none of which were even all that clever. There have also been a number of episodes that were more disturbing than anything else, chief among them "Dimwit Dexter," in which Dexter's brain overloads and he spends half a day humiliating himself, running around the neighborhood in nothing but his underwear and his hair in pigtails. It was more uncomfortable than anything else. Further, Genndy Tartakovsky has made it clear that he finds absurd repetition to be the highest form of humour.
Essentially, the show has some very strong points and some extremely weak ones. When the show leaves its sci-fi premises for too long, it gets uncomfortable. Dexter belongs in a lab, creating the next world-saving robot. If it stays on for much longer, I can only hope its creators begin to see that as well.
It may sound like I'm trashing the show, but I simply think it should be put to rest. Cartoon Network's golden boys (Tartakofsky and Craig McCracken) can do no wrong in the eyes of Turner Broadcasting, this much is clear. I just wish they would take it easy. When they rush themselves, they turn out an inferior product, and nobody wants that.
While I'm on the subject of the golden boys, I'd like to commend them for their handling of the superhero genre. While The Justice Friends has an all-too painful laugh-track, it is otherwise a great show with obvious parodies of classic characters (The JF are quite clearly a scaled-down, cartoony representation of the Avengers). Dial 'M' for Monkey is even better: It's a real superhero cartoon. JF is a sitcom-flavored piece (ixnay on the aughtracklay, thank you), but Monkey is just plain cool.