The simple genius of Underdog is underscored by the fact that the series came about almost purely by chance. Developed by Total Television in response to an executive’s request for “something super,” creators W. Watts “Buck” Biggers and Chet Stover began with the idea of a satire in which the indestructibility of an anthropomorphic superhero resembled less the portrayed strength of the man of steel than that of an unassuming weakling. With an impending deadline further intimidating their inability to assign a species or name to their idea, it was the inadvertent use of the titular noun in conversation that turned on their collective light bulb. The rest—epitomized by the titular pup’s inclusion as a balloon in the 1965 Macy’s Day Parade, a scant year after his television debut—is history.
From thriftiness often comes ingenuity, and the tightly budgeted productions of The Underdog Show, which typically included two Underdog chapters bookending the cartoons Go Go Gophers and Commander McBragg (later Klondike Kat and Tooter Turtle, all of which are presented here in more or less their original broadcast form), were most conducive to the focused energies of its small band of creators. The template was a distillation of the superhero serial formula to its very essence, and the ceaseless supply of dastardly plans by a motley crew of imaginative villains (a favorite: Simon Barsinister, a cheeky send-up of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s crotchety Mr. Potter) ensured no shortage of material. From Godzilla-sized invaders to all manner of weather-altering inventions, supernatural affairs, and transmogrifications, Underdog, who disguises himself as the much-loved Shoeshine Boy, both voiced by Wally Cox, is never without reason to protect his beloved Sweet Polly Purebred (Norma MacMillan), Marilyn Monroe’s canine counterpart. The unlikely crusader intones exclusively in rhyme, and frequently wreaks destruction in amounts comparable to the antagonists he dispatches. Nearly a half-century later, Marvel Films is still frequently struggling to match it for clever complexity.
Watching the series again in what must be at least a dozen years (I became familiar with it during reruns on Nickelodeon in the ‘90s, when it was incorporated with the earlier Total Television series Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales), it was positively jarring to encounter something so relatively low-key in style and tone, yet also a clear forerunner to everything from the warm embrace of Jim Henson’s creations to the pop-culture potpourri of The Simpsons. Many of its trappings are dated beyond repair, but that’s unfortunate only insofar as its recurring marketability is concerned—a crappy Disney movie adaptation notwithstanding. The public world might have outgrown Underdog, but it’s still a vital, critical show, even from a historical distance.
The character of Underdog was the meat and potatoes of the show’s popularity, but the series pushed more buttons through its additional mini-shows and supporting characters. If the depictions of culture or race might smell of naïvete, or even the condescension one might expect of an American cartoon of the era, they’re frequently, if not completely extinguished, by their amusing point-counterpoint relationship with the portrayed status quo and the context in which the two interact. Running Board (George S. Irving) and the babblespeak-impaired Ruffled Feathers (Sandy Becker), the two indigenous western natives of Go Go Gophers, are blatantly regressive Native American stereotypes, but they’re still whiplash smart compared to the imperialistic bullheadedness of Colonel Kit Coyote (Kenny Delmar, doing a spot-on Teddy Roosevelt impersonation) and his John Wayne-inspired sergeant, Okey Homa (also Becker), to whom he occasionally must remind, “You’re not supposed to think, you’re in the army!”
The fabricated chest-beating of Commander McBragg, then, comes off as reheated leftovers to this gentle criticism of the military elite, illustrating to open minds that the correlation between might and right is a dubious moral quagmire, while also holding a candle to Looney Tunes‘s Coyote/Roadrunner pantheon. Though it ran in syndication for an additional six years, Underdog ceased production after only three seasons, the result of parent company General Mills’s policy of no more than three years’ worth of material for their archives, and subsequent abandonment of sponsorship. Such damning handicaps have plagued many a great series, but one can’t help but wonder if a less constrained environment would have encouraged such quality in the first place. More than most and not unlike its central hero, Underdog far exceeds the sum of its parts.
This set is utterly comprehensive, reassembling every original Underdog episode to its original presentation, so it's easy to forgive the sporadically fluctuating quality found within some of these episodes, the result of re-edited versions of the series having been dispersed through syndication remixes over the decades. Some elements only existed on tape when this set was prepared, but those episodes represent a slim minority of the material, and tends to affect Commander McBragg more than anything else. The handicapped remainder is as pleasantly modest as the show has ever looked or sounded. It won't utilize your current entertainment equipment, but it'll give it a healthy dose of nostalgia, and maybe even remind you of what it was like to have a VCR at the center of your living room setup.
Most enjoyable are the eight episode commentaries scattered throughout eight episodes on this nine disc set, hosted by animation historian Mark Arnold and featuring the likes of Alison Arngrim (the late Norma MacMillan's daughter) and narrator (and Broadway veteran) George S. Irving. On season one's third disc, you'll find an unproduced episode, "The Nug of Nog," presented as an animated storyboard and acted by animator Joe Harris, as well as about five minutes' worth of commercial bumpers and promos. Disc four holds the meatiest feature, the half-hour featurette "There's No Need to Fear…Underdog Is Here," which details the production and history of the series with a generous volume of enthusiastic interviews. Rounding out the set is a preview for the DVD release of Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Screw you, Scooby Doo: The greatest animated canine in television history gets a fitting treatment in yet another excellent package from Shout! Factory.