[18 January 2009]
In a lot of ways, the late night USA Network cult hit Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man was ahead of its time. It featured a foul-mouthed duck (voiced by Jason Alexander) who slept with well-endowed blow-up dolls, forgot his kids’ names, and worked as a private eye when it’s painfully clear he couldn’t solve a case if his life depended on it. The show was rife with obtuse pop cultural references (like copious Joe Walsh, Bob Guccione, and Ice-T cameos, random shout-outs to old movies, and winking nods to classic shows and films through plot), and in-jokes that are repeated with little regard to whether or not the viewer has ever seen an episode.
It also made time to mention the fact that no one was watching the show, that the budget was shoestring, and the stories made no sense. In short, it was an Adult Swim cartoon. But its finale predates Adult Swim by four years. Call it bad timing. Thus, Duckman was relegated to viewing blocks dominated by stoners, and destined to land in the cult fave bin of history, alongside 3-South, Undergrads, and Daria.
But thanks to DVD, the show can try to find a larger audience (albeit probably in vain), as it’s third and fourth seasons have been released as a mammoth 7-disc, 48-episode set, that captures the show in all of its ramshackle glory. The set’s extras are rather paltry, comprised mostly of old animation boards, but with 48 episodes, extras are hardly a concern.
Like most animated shows, there really isn’t a “typical” episode of Duckman—the episodes bounce around between: focuses on Duckman’s family (he lives as a widower with his sister in law Bernice (voiced by Nancy Travis), his dimwitted son Ajax (voiced by Dweezil Zappa), and his brilliant conjoined twin sons Charles and Mambo (voiced by E.G. Daily); between Duckman trying to solve a case (he never does anything but slow down his partner, Cornfed Pig (voiced by Gregg Berger); between Duckman messing up a community (whether it be his own, or a Latin American country he becomes the dictator of), and; between Duckman trying to get laid. There are also Dostoevsky-referencing episodes. But the plots are really meant to set-up Duckman to do his “you thrust you pelvis, hah” dance and hopefully by episode’s end, learn some valuable life lesson.
While watching Duckman, it’s immediately striking how much Family Guy is indebted to the exploits of Duckman. Duckman proved that you could do subversive cartoons tailored towards adult audiences, and they didn’t have to be The Simpsons. It proved you could commit to spending too much time on in-jokes (think of the chicken and Peter fight in Family Guy), and that no pop culture reference is too random for the audience.
But there’s one crucial difference: while Family Guy seems content to coast along in its nihilistic pursuit of randomness and nothingness, Duckman actually had heart. Sure, Duckman is a lout and a pervert—he tries to design a bra that makes women’s breasts look bigger, watches Ukrainian bondage videos regularly, refuses to wear pants, and should be under arrest or dead for a bevy of sexual harassment charges—but the show makes him into a sympathetic character, thanks to him worrying he’ll never find another woman to love him.
(There are a couple of particularly heart-felt episodes revolving around this topic, including one where Duckman dates Courtney Thorne Smith.) He also worries that he’s not a good father, and that he might not be good at his job. Duckman is more than a two-dimensional duck, he’s a fully fleshed out character that you may gross you out, but you can’t help but acknowledge he has a conscience—a trait you don’t often find in the heroes of animated shows.
The set ends with the series finale, which was purposefully a cliffhanger meant as one final joke on the part of the series’ writers. In the episode, it is revealed that Duckman’s wife has been alive all along, and his partner knew the whole time, after Duckman has married his arch-nemesis’ ex-wife. The writers never intended to write a follow-up (as evidenced by the closing caption “To Be Continued?”)—thus the series ends with an enormous question mark, the revelations left to go unanswered.
Overall, Duckman is a solid animated series that deserved better attention than it received. This DVD can’t change that, but it does highlight the fact that Duckman is an underappreciated precursor to the current subversive animated TV shows fans hold dear.