Sealab 2021: A Retrospective

Yup, it's already time to feel nostalgic about Captain Murphy & Co.
June 13, 2007

Oh, what a difference a few years make. When Sealab 2021 first hit the air in late 2000, it debuted on what the TV industry would call “less than prime real-estate”. Adult Swim tested the waters* with a series of three unannounced midnight pilots as an experiment. Apparently, the shot callers found whatever they were looking for and the unlikely series was given the thumbs up.

Adult Swim is now a far cry from the anonymous cult it once was. Hell, it’s the go-to spot for the most sought out and fought over demographics in TV land. And of course, Sealab 2021 is nestled cozily in its watery grave*, with all four seasons already released on DVD. It was never the best show on TV, but there has never been another quite like it…and I for one find myself missing the days when Sealab 2021 made its first splash*.

The eleven minutes of madness known as Sealab 2021 almost defy explanation. Presented as a “remix”, the show takes its characters, style, and often its animation from the hokey 1960’s cartoon, Sealab 2020. It’s then redubbed / edited to tell a different and hopefully funnier story. Interestingly enough, the original episodes of Sealab 2020 actually clocked in at twenty-five minutes apiece.

Save for the phrase “motley crew”, the cast of this show defied description: a respected veteran Broadway actor, a liberal freelance writer, a C-list 80’s TV star, a Groundlings improv alumni, a white rapper who helped boost the visibility of “nerdcore”, and a struggling young mainstream actress. It seems impossibly unlikely, but unlikelier still is that this troupe was placed under contract by Adult Swim and further, under the command of two pot-smoking slackers named Matt Thompson and Adam Reed. They themselves have admitted they couldn’t believe that Adult Swim actually bought the show. Well, maybe there is one other description: bizarro.

And yet, they made it look like having your own TV show was like shooting fish in a barrel*. Said co-creator Thompson of signing Erik Estrada: “We just called his agent and he was into it.” To give you an idea of the kind of ship being run here*, Kate Miller, who voices Debbie (you know…white Debbie), revealed that line recordings were done over the phone. There was even one episode that barely made it on-air because a laptop with crucial footage went missing hours before go-time.

Unprofessional? Maybe. Fun as hell? Definitely. The fan base of this show had ridiculous access thanks to openly known blogs and websites of crew/cast members. I remember exchanging e-mails with MC Chris. It blew my mind that someone on my favorite TV show would take the time to e-mail me back later in the day.

The big question that will always be debated by the show’s loyal fans is when the show actually “jumped the shark”*. For most people the show simply died with Harry Goz and his Captain Murphy character, who was the face of Sealab 2021. Personally, I point to the time when Flash animation and random self-indulgent humor became the rule and not the exception. For some, the show stayed quality until the end. Or at least longer than the first two seasons and change.

The fans may still disagree, but ultimately it was decided that the show had become hit and miss…with misses weighing the ratio. Either Adult Swim or (according to popular belief) 70/30 Productions themselves balked at the idea of a fifth season sometime in early in 2005 and the show run aground* that spring.

The understated writing and deadpan comic timing of Sealab 2021 kept me in tears when I first saw the show. It was like I was discovering sunken treasure* in the deepest, darkest timeslots of my TV. Sealab 2021 was to television what the Ramones were to rock music. Even before YouTube, there was this hilarious low-rent show that made you feel like you could not only make your own show, but that you were also part of theirs.

RIP Sealab, we hardly knew ya.

* Final Aquatic Pun Count: 8
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