Here it is, the show that UPN is counting on to rescue it from the depths of Nielsen nothingness. Is “Dilbert” strong enough to singlehandedly reverse the tide of primetime failure that continues to hogtie UPN? Probably not. But it’s surely the wittiest thing the netlet has ever had the good fortune to schedule, and based on the opening two installments, it has the potential to score with the same upscale auds that flocked to “The Simpsons” and transformed Fox from a wannabe to a player a decade ago.
One can’t quibble with the Dilbert brand’s soaring profile and profitability. The hapless corporate drone is syndicated in comic strip form to newspapers in 57 countries and is said to be read by 150 million folks every day. He is on coffee mugs. He is on mouse pads. He is on boxer shorts and calendars, and he stars in a highly trafficked Web site (www.dilbert.com).
I have never quite gotten what everyone sees in the guy (Wow! No mouth!), but the good news is you don’t need to love the strip to appreciate the show.
Executive producer Larry Charles, who co-created the series and co-wrote the “Dilbert” pilot with strip creator Scott Adams, said in a recent interview that he sees the show less as a workplace comedy than as a Kafkaesque epic. “Epic” would be stretching it, but Kafka is clearly an inspiration for this eccentric, ambitious half-hour that doesn’t so much try to expand the bounds of adult animation as it does intellectualize them.
Its incongruously wrought blend of flat animation and absurdist exaggeration catches you off guard more often than not. You think you’re getting another lame adult-themed cartoon, then suddenly you discover that the company where Dilbert labors as a lowly cubicle-dwelling engineer has just marketed a throat lozenge laced with anthrax spores, causing thousands to drop dead on the spot.
Welcome to a new kind of 8 o’clock cartoon, boys and girls.
The show ups the cerebral ante from the strip while retaining the same basic setup and characters. Dilbert (voiced flawlessly by Daniel Stern) is still an exasperated twit surrounded by moronic colleagues like slacker Wally (Gordon Hunt), the acerbic, caffeine-pickled Alice (standup comic and “Suddenly Susan” regular Kathy Griffin), his evil ignoramus of a boss (Larry Miller), his wisecracking canine roommate Dogbert (great work from Chris Elliott) and Dilbert’s techno-geek, Scrabble-playing mother Dilmom (Jackie Hoffman).
In the pilot, massive budget cuts at Dilbert’s dysfunctional company — brought on by all of those anthrax deaths — lead to actual rioting and looting in the office.
But it’s the little stuff that makes “Dilbert” so surrealistically offbeat. During a brainstorming session designed to target a new flagship product that may or may not be named “Salmonella,” we suddenly, inexplicably see a couple smooching up a storm in the middle of the boardroom.
The following conversation ensues:
She: (breathlessly) “Lie to me!
He: (passionately) “Our next upgrade will solve the problem!”
She: (lustfully): “Ooooh!!!”
Opener penned by Charles and Adams is awkward at points, illustrating a premise that hasn’t quite got all its conceptual ducks in a row yet. But the script and the wiggy execution reveal a show that’s aiming high in its sensibility and dialogue. That’s also clear in the second episode penned by Ned Goldreyer that improves on the premiere with some choice interludes of derangement.
You’ve got to root for a comedy that features clips from a tabloid show called “America’s Favorite Media-Generated Disasters” and finds Dilbert’s company adopting a policy of martial law, with badges triggering the reminder, “You have entered a no-merriment zone. Discontinue your job satisfaction now.”
With “Dilbert” on board, the no-merriment zone that has been UPN may suddenly be forced to endure a few snickers from the rank and file, not to mention an unthinkable increase in ratings points and network stature. The suspicion is that UPN chief Dean Valentine could figure out a way to get used to it.
Animation on the tech side is clean and crisp.