Synopsis: In the criminal justice system there are two opposing but equally important – wait.
Wrong DVD, OK, start over.
Who’s the man in the suit? Who’s the cat with the feet?
He’s Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, defender of cartoons in legal trouble. Whether it’s cute, bow-tie wearing Boo Boo Bear accused of being the “Unabooboo,” or Shaggy and Scooby busted for possession, there’s just one ex-superhero manbird to see. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. And this is his DVD.
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law: Season One 7.75
eyelights: its irreverent, nonsensical humour. its concept.
eyesores: the more esoteric aspects of the humour. its incoherence.
“Debbie, we’re going to need some law books. With pictures this time.”
A lawyer friend of mine introduced me to ‘Harvey Birdman’ one day. I had no idea what he was talking about, having not made any connection with the old ‘Birdman’ cartoons that I ignored when I was a kid. However, he was an extremely funny guy and I took his recommendation very seriously; I was sure that, if he thought it was funny, it surely would be.
It was more than that: ‘Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law’ was absolutely hilarious!
I don’t remember if he had lent me some of his DVDs or if I ended up buying the first season, but it wasn’t long before I picked up the second season and progressed to the equally madcap ‘Space Ghost, Coast to Coast’ and its offshoot, ‘The Brak Show’. My initiation into the Adult Swim cartoon shows was just beginning.
As with many of the original Adult Swim shows, ‘Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law’ took familiar Hanna-Barbera characters and transposed them into entirely new contexts and settings, essentially stripping them of their previous allure and recreating them as wacky shadows of their former selves – in this case transforming the former superhero into a lawyer.
As the titular Attorney at Law, Harvey Birdman is now engaged in the defense of characters from other Hanna-Barbera cartoons. He retains all of his original superpowers and weaknesses, but now has to use what little wits he has to get to the end of a case – and to get his clients off the hook. Thankfully, he retains the able assistance of his faithful bird Avenger, now his personal secretary.
However, he now faces his old arch enemies in court. Ironically, they are lawyers for the prosecution, and they cause all sorts of mischief and misery in and outside of the courtroom. Further complicating things are the demands of Birdman’s boss, Phil Ken Sebben (originally Inter-Nation Security liaison Falcon 7), who is absolutely insane.
The first season serves up a meager baker’s dozen minus four episodes, but it sets up the series quite well, establishing the main characters and tone within the first three episodes:
Harvey Birdman: “I want you to know that your father loves you both very much.”
Jonny Quest: “But he throws like a girl.”
Harvey Birdman: “So did Martina Navratilova, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t macho in a many other important ways.”
1. Bannon Custody Battle: This episode left me unimpressed and still doesn’t do much for me now. I suspect that it’s my unexposure to Johnny Quest that limits my ability to enjoy it, because I didn’t really understand the character dynamics nor did I get the satirical aspects of it. Even today, familiar with the Harvey Birdman genre of humour, I don’t really dig it that much. I believe that I’ll have to watch Johnny Quest before I ever do. Or maybe it’s just not funny. Yeah, right!
Reducto: “What kind of stinking superhero loses his powers to a cup of coffee in the crotch?”
2. Very Personal Injury: While I haven’t seen an episode of Superfriends in over three decades and don’t at all remember Apache Chief, I mostly got the references. Sure, he’s a lame character with a lame power, but it was conducive to a number of noteworthy double entendres. I particularly enjoyed the appearance of Black Vulcan… um… Supervolt, railing about his retirement from the Superfriends. In my pants.
Fred: “We’ve got a bit of a problem, the gang and I.”
Harvey: “Gang stuff. Listen up. What happened?”
Fred: “Last night, we were at this old abandoned cotton mill, and-“
Harvey: “I know. One of your homies took one in the bo-bo.”
Fred: “No. Actually, Shaggy and Scooby were arrested. It was awful.”
Harvey: “Now you see why banging doesn’t pay? I’ll take the case! But first you’re gonna have to lose the colors.”
3. Shaggy Busted: This is one of my favourite episodes because it riffs off the Scooby gang to such perfection. Plus which it introduces Peanut for the first time (who, in his previous iteration was ‘Birdboy’), Birdman’s nonsensical, selfish, ADD-addled side-kick. He would forever cause no small amount of grief for his boss. But, mostly, he adds to the nonsensical aspect of the show by being the ultimate random element.
Phil Ken Sebben: “I’m keeping my eyes on you.”
Harvey Birdman: “Eye.”
Phil Ken Sebben: “I didn’t know you were Scottish!”
4. Death By Chocolate: I have mixed feelings about this one. While I like the idea of using Boo Boo Bear to make a statement about the post-911 hysteria with respect to possibility homegrown terrorism, I don’t know that it quite succeeds. Really, the best jokes and gags came from the sidelines, outside of the context of the actual case.
Harvey: “So, you are a musical group correct?”
Jabberjaw: “… Nyuk nyuk nyuk!”
Mentok: “Oh for God’s sakes…you, the shark. No more from you today, okay?”
Harvey: “Who writes your music?”
Neptunes member: “Someone with something yummy in his tummy?”
Mentok (to steinographer): “Those guys over there, they’re gonna lose this one. Pretty sure of it. No, I know it.”
5. Shoyu Weenie: I honestly have no idea who these characters were, but I remember ’70s cartoons featuring teen groups that played music, so I got the gist of it. Mostly, though, I liked that they tackled copyright infringement, because, as a HUGE music lover, this is an issue that comes up daily. Hourly. Minutely. Maybe even secondly. The highlights were undoubtedly Peanut and Mentok’s peculiar behavior and comments.
Phil Ken Sebben: “If you’re not careful, you’ll get us all whacked. Ha ha. Body in a woodchipper.”
6. The Dabba Don: While I don’t find this one especially funny, I adore the concept of Fred Flintstone as a mob boss – especially since the show recontextualizes a lot of familiar scenes from The Flintstones in a manner that makes him seem rather suspicious. This was also what worked best with the ‘Shaggy Busted’ episode, except that it’s done much better here. It may not be as funny, but it nonetheless brainwashed me into saying “Ha ha… dangly parts.” from time to time.
Blue Falcón: “Gracias.”
Phil Ken Sebben: “Ha ha… sissy European lisp thingy.”
7. Deadomutt, Part 1: I have such a strange feeling when I think of this episode. While I love the basic conceit, that Harvey is passed over for promotion for new recruit Azul Falcone and subsequently tailspins into a washout, I get this creepy vibe from the episode – perhaps due to its ending. And yet there were a lot of amusing bits. I just can’t get over that en ding. And, to make matters worse, it’s one of two parts.
Blue Falcón: “Oh, you Americans and your “logic”.”
8. Deadomutt, Part 2: I found this episode just too “all over the place” for its own good, jumping from Harvey being on trial for murder to doing jail-time, to losing his powers, …etc. There are amusing bits, certainly, but the show merely contributed to the overall unpleasant feeling I had since the first episode. The ending felt like a cheap rip-off, but Birdman ending always are random anyway, so I guess that’s okay. Why this was a two-parter is beyond me; it’s just not that great an idea and it’s not delivered in a particular clever way. Meh.
Harvey Birdman: “You wanted to see me?”
Phil Ken Sebben: “Yeah, I need your… help.”
Harvey Birdman: “Really?”
Phil Ken Sebben: “On my way to work, I hit a guy.”
Harvey Birdman: “Oh, that doesn’t seem so bad.”
Phil Ken Sebben: “Every day this week.”
Harvey Birdman: “Oh. Any witnesses?”
Phil Ken Sebben: “Some kids.”
Harvey Birdman: “Nobody believes kids!”
Phil Ken Sebben: “And a nun.”
Harvey Birdman: “Nobody believes nuns!”
Phil Ken Sebben: “Someone’s suing Phil Ken Sebben, dammit!”
Harvey Birdman: “I’ll take the case!”
9. X, The Eliminator: By far my favourite episode of the lot, I love how desperate X is after so many years of being unable to complete his mission, which is to get Birdman’s crest. I love that he’s now and out-of-shape middle-aged supervillain living in his mom’s basement, that he’s still using ’70s technology, and that he’s so needy that it makes Birdman uncomfortable. I also adore the side story with Phil, who is completely out of control; his manic escape from the law offices splits my sides every time.
Frankly, having never watched ‘Birdman’, I wasn’t attached to the original characters – so I wasn’t jarred or offended by this new spin; I could easily enjoy it for what it is. On the flip side, this also means that I likely missed a lot of the subtle references to shows from his previous incarnation. But it was funny enough as is that I didn’t mind one bit.
What helps tremendously is the voice acting. With Gary Cole as the voice of Birdman, we get an appropriately superheroic vocal – but also uncertainty and cluelessness. He’s brilliant. Stephen Colbert brings ebullience and zaniness to two key characters, Phil Ken Seben and Myron Reducto, and John Michael Higgins is pure genius as Mentok the Mindtaker.
My only major gripe about the show is its incredibly lame theme song – which may or may not have been devised this way on purpose. If only I could skip it to get to the meat of the show: even at 30 seconds in length I find it totally unbearable. And that’s not even accounting for the DVD’s menu, which has a grotesque jingle that annoys me beyond reason.
Still, these caveats aside, ‘Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law’, was a terrific discovery. I adore the non sequitur aspect of the show, its many pop culture references, as well as its irreverent spin on so many familiar characters. It’s a unique show and I wish there were more of it and more like it. The only reason I don’t rate it more highly is because some of it is over my head. But someone who truly gets it would lap it up.
Date of viewing: June and August, 2013