Yield to Dilbert’s Technical Superiority

[6 February 2014]

By J.C. Macek III

Dilbert debuted in 1999 on the UPN network (back when that was still a thing) as an award-winning and initially high-rated adaptation of Scot Adams’ popular comic strip. The great thing about Dilbert is that it is still quite funny, almost fifteen years after its debut. Like a deadpan, animated version of Office Space, Dilbert deals with the frustrations of office life, especially in technical departments, all seen through the eyes of the semi-Everyman title character (voiced by Daniel Stern, the narrator from The Wonder Years).

However, the problem with Dilbert, when viewed from what Dilbert himself would call “The Future”, is that the prime time cartoon often feels quite dated and a time capsule of its 1999-2000 initial run. Dilbert debuted in the same year as Family Guy which, like Dilbert, also features an intelligent talking dog. However, while Family Guy was rescued from cancellation hell by Fox, Dilbert was not so lucky.

Thus, episodes dealing with the impending (mythical) catastrophe of Y2K, storylines about the uniqueness of cellular phones and frustrations surrounding then-current technologies (the backdrop of all of the show’s comedy) don’t quite hold up today. Comparing the Internet to The Terminator’s planet-dominating Skynet seems remarkably foreign in an time when we all carry the internet in the palms of our hands.

Indeed, Family Guy survived to make fun of its once limited animation, while Dilbert’s first season is equally limited, but didn’t have a chance to improve to 2014 levels. The opening credits sequence does feature some cool CGI, which doesn’t carry over into the initial few episodes.

Still, once these conceits are accepted, the show’s merits shine through. For one thing, the characters, though increasingly 3D as the show progressed, truly look like those in Scott Adams’ comic strip. Fans of the strip will find more to love as the characters come to life. Daniel Stern captures the misanthropic title character quite well, especially as he reacts to the bizarre world around him (all set in an ostensibly dull office) and as his everyman veneer cracks to reveal the equally bizarre Dilbert at his core.

Dilbert is surrounded by the super intelligent and almost omni-capable pet Dogbert, hilariously voiced by Chris Elliot. Dogbert strangely becomes a common deus ex machina in the misadventures of Dilbert and his friends, while Ratbert (Tom “Spongebob” Kenny) is the silly hanger-on in Dilbert’s house. Strangely, the middle of this ostensible food chain, Catbert (Jason Alexander) is actually the evil and sadistic director of Dilbert’s company’s Human Resources department. The main cast is rounded out by Dilbert’s “Pointy-Haired Boss” (Larry Miller), his nerdy co-worker Wally (Gordon Hunt) and his strange and consistently annoyed work friend Alice (an uncredited Kathy Griffin).

Aside from the alternately deadpan and wildly surreal delivery and storylines, Dilbert is at its best with its recurring themes. The company’s product, The Gruntmaster 6000, originated as a name (with no actual item yet conceived of) and underlies much of the first season. The company itself goes through varied names, mergers and takeovers throughout the 30 episodes of the series, with one particularly funny episode comparing merging companies to dating couples looking for their match. Dilbert’s boss even visits a singles bar where other CEOs hit on him.

Although the animation is improved in the second season, the story arcs are largely removed and the recurring themes don’t extend to recurring storylines. The impoverished nation of Elbonia (from the comics and introduced here in the first season) is re-visited in the second season for one of the funniest returns to form.

The complete series of Dilbert was released a decade ago by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment with such impressive extras as commentary tracks, trailers and clips. The 2014 release by Mill Creek, however, is as bare bones as it gets. The three discs are laid on top of each other in the clamshell with no inlay card or booklet. There are no special features included (unless you count the fun of listening for the impressive guest voices in the cast). While the picture and sound are both very good, and the set is bargain priced at around $10, true fans of the series who care about DVD extras will want to spend a few bucks more on Amazon to purchase the 2004 release.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178759-dilbert-the-complete-series/