Unlike most of the classic animated shows that in recent decades became popular through syndication, Underdog has always lingered dangerously between being a beloved, if small, mainstream creation and remaining an obscure, cult show. From 1964, the year when it first aired, and up to the early ‘90s when networks tried to revive it through re-runs (let’s not even mention that live action version from 2007) Underdog has remained present in popular culture without people really knowing why (remember that episode on Friends with the balloon?). It can be said that this little-show-that-could has, well, been trying to overcome the limits of its title.
Underdog started as a purely commercial creation; during the ‘50s CBS executives were working with General Mills in the hopes of creating a cartoon series that would help the company sell more cereals. W. Watts Biggers and Chet Stover, two of Dancer Fitzgerald Samples’ (one of the top tier advertising agencies in the Madison Avenue glory days) top artists teamed up to create several shows and characters including Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog, which undoubtedly became their most iconic figure.
The beauty of Underdog is its charming simplicity. One can say that the entire series is a ripoff of more famous ventures like Superman, given that its premise is that of having an average Joe—in this case a dog who goes by the mortal name of Shoeshine Boy (voiced by Wally Cox)—turn into the caped superhero of the title whenever danger strikes. Underdog, who only speaks in rhyme, has to battle twisted villains like the wicked Simon Bar Sinister, a mad scientist who talks like Lionel Barrymore and acts like Dr. Frankenstein, or the George Raft inspired gangster-wolf Riff Raff.
At the center of most of Underdog’s missions lies damsel in distress, Sweet Polly Purebred, an anthropomorphic dog reporter, inspired by Marilyn Monroe, who never hesitates to cry out for our hero’s help.
A regular Underdog episode is divided in four chapters. The first begins with one of Underdog’s adventures, always ending in a cliffhanger that makes you wonder whether he’ll be able to save the day or not (he always does) but the stories are so tightly constructed and so well written that they never fail to put you right on the edge. After the first chapter ends, we see an episode of “Go Go Gophers”, a delicious Western parody featuring two mischievous Indian Gophers on the run from two US Army members, Colonel Kit Coyote and Sargeant Okey Homa. This cartoon evokes the jolly menace presented in the Road Runner adventures from Looney Tunes, but adds a riskier layer by satirizing the very notions of American masculinity, given that Coyote is inspired by Theodore Roosevelt and the lanky Homa - who often breaks the fourth wall addressing audience members—is John Wayne reduced to brutish, literally animalistic traits.
After the exhilarating “Go Go Gophers” we are treated to an episode of “The World of Commander McBragg”, in which the title character delights viewers with highly improbable tales of Imperialist conquest. McBragg was inspired by English character actor C. Aubrey Smith and is a remarkable representation of classic adventure movies (think Sabu and Gunga Din) that innocently dealt with Western influence in places where it was unwanted. Then again, nothing in Underdog is that innocent or accidental. Years before Pixar gave us a glimpse of the chaos created in the wake of superheroes’ missions, this show was already asking us about the fiscal responsibilities of famous heroes. Is it OK for Underdog to save a child if he must destroy half the city in the process?
The canine savior’s cry of “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!” more often than not acquires a new meaning considering he is sloppy despite of his good intentions. Children watching the show might still not get all the references to gangster movies or the more adult jokes, but in retrospect Underdog should give the people who grew up watching him an added value, perhaps this little show influenced their tastes and made the transition into the satire-filled nature of adulthood a bit easier.
Shout! Factory has done an impressive job putting together every single episode of Underdog for this set. The episodes are spread over nine discs filled with beautiful artwork, an informative booklet and a decent amount of extras including a fascinating documentary on the show’s origins. What remains most astonishing though is the intention behind the set. Shout! Factory meant to restore each episode to how they were originally envisioned. This is quite the thrill for animation completists who can now recreate the experience of watching the show like people did when it aired originally but this very scholarly mission works as a double edged sword because it also means that from a visual level there is much to be desired.
The episodes were transferred not from syndicated copies but from the original source which means they lack the clarity we’ve come to associate with “best” quality. Is it more important to preserve the series as an historical document or to stress about the way it looks? That’s strictly up to viewers because Underdog would say “I am a hero who never fails, I can’t be bothered with such details”.