“YYYYYAAAAGH! BLACK AND WHITE PROGRAMMING! LOOK AWAY SAM! AVERT YOUR EYES! CHANGE THE CHANNEL! WHERE’S THE REMOTE?!”
—- Max, to Sam, in “It’s Dangly Deever Time”
To try and find modern relevance in the animated adventures of an anthropomorphic dog and his overexcitable rabbit pal over ten years after the show (which lasted only a single season) was cancelled would seem all but futile. At least, it would be futile if the Sam & Max brand wasn’t seeing an unexpected (and entirely welcome) upswing in popularity thanks to Telltale Games’ revival of the franchise via a series of serial games. There have been two “seasons” of the modern Sam & Max game now, and its percolating, rising visibility, a throwback to the old days of point ‘n click adventures, has given way to an interest in the origins and other adventures of the titular duo.
Sam & Max started as a comic book in ‘87, and its kinetic artwork and unique sense of humor made it a quick hit in the independent comic community. This eventually led to the first video game incarnation of the comic, Sam & Max Hit the Road, being released by LucasArts in ‘93, when Steve Purcell (the creator of and driving force behind all things Sam & Max) was an employee of the LucasArts game development division.
While it wasn’t exactly a commercial hit, those who did play it near-unanimously loved it, generating enough positive buzz to convince the folks at Fox to give them a shot in one of the FOX Kids programming blocks. Thus, The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police was born.
As previously noted, the series didn’t last long, a fate that could have been for a number of reasons, but one that most likely came about due to a confusion on the creators’ parts as to who their audience was. Despite its overtly cartoony style of the art and the slapstick that much of the humor manifests itself as, Sam & Max was really a book for adults. Sure there are some kids who would get a kick out of it, but the humor often took shots at targets only adults would recognize.
The problem, then, is translating the sort of sense of humor that comes up with that sort of more mature subject matter to a cartoon that will go over well on FOX Kids. The result is a cartoon that ratcheted up the slapstick to the point where it was the primary source of laughs. That, and the amount of stuff happening in any given episode is turned up to the point where you barely get a chance to breathe for trying to catch every joke and reference.
It’s loud and it’s brash, presumably for the sake of catching the Cocoa Puffs crowd, but it also makes the sorts of obscure references to pop culture that will only be understood by the adult crowd. Rather than being everything to everyone, however, this combination of target audiences translated into a show that gives grownups headaches and confuses the kids…although the frenetic pace and copious pratfalls would still be enough to entertain the latter.
Still, and I suppose this is a SPOILER, canine detective Sam quite literally eats his adversary in the very first episode of the series. Not only that, but said adversary wants to be eaten. Now, the fact that this particular adversary happens to be a walking, moaning, and growling TV dinner gone out of control thanks to too many months in a freezer dulls the impact of these ideas, but still—one episode in, and we’re already flirting with themes like cannibalism and assisted suicide? And this was on FOX Kids?
It seems odd that Purcell and the rest of the team behind The Adventures of Sam & Max would keep this sort of humor in the show, and yet make concessions like the kid-oriented pace or the inclusion of a brand new supporting character named Darla (a.k.a. “The Geek”) who is to the Sam and Max what Q is to James Bond. That is, she handles the technology. While occasionally amusing, her presence is largely superfluous, and seems a bit like a peace offering to a certain demographic of potential viewers.
That said, The Adventures of Sam & Max did offer quite a few moments of brilliance that transcended the muddled mess that the series generally resembled. Many of these moments foresaw the popularity of certain devices now attributed largely to Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy; particularly, jokes that waddle between the obscure and the surreal for a few seconds before returning to the plot and the “real world”, as it exists within the cartoon.
For example: For no particular reason, upon seeing their arch-nemesis for the first time in “They Came from Down There”, Sam and Max are pictured lounging in a beach scene, complete with duck-headed innertube and umbrella table. There’s no reason for it, it just kind of…happens that way, for the sake of a cheap laugh. I’m almost ashamed to say that it’s a technique that actually works more often than not.
For fans of the series who aren’t seeing these cartoons for the first time, the DVD set offers plenty of extras, including a demo of Season One of Telltale’s most recent gaming take, an interview (though, unfortunately, no running commentaries) with Steve Purcell, a small pile of concept art, and even a few old bonus cartoons, no doubt used as time fillers during a block of Fox Kids programming. It’s not a ton of stuff, but for the sake of augmenting a more-than-ten-year-old TV series that only lasted one season, it does the job pretty well. It’s bonus material that feels like bonus material, rather than the sole reason to buy the set.
Perhaps the most desirable bit of content on the disc, however, is the episode “Fools Die on Friday”, which centered around a plot to crash a blimp into the Statue of Liberty. For obvious reasons, this episode had not been reprinted since its original air date in any form until now. As far as episodes of The Adventures of Sam & Max go, it’s fairly average, content to rely on the oddity of old characters, but fans will doubtless be happy to see its inclusion here.
More than an entertaining cartoon extravaganza, this DVD edition of The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police is an indicator of just how much television has changed in the last ten years. Ten years ago, despite the continued success of The Simpsons, there still wasn’t all that much of a market for cartoons marketed toward adults. Ten years ago, you could get away with cartoons that portrayed terrorism and marital strife in slapstick sorts of ways. And ten years ago, a cartoon based on Sam & Max could be greenlighted on a major television network.
Obviously, as an archival study piece, there’s a lot of interesting material to be derived from this DVD set. As entertainment, though, there are better cartoons out there, and better wielders of the Sam & Max name out there; seek out the comics or the computer games if you want a sense of the true spirit of Sam & Max.