Whatever its Saturday-morning permutation, Scooby-Doo has never been all that good. The animation is persistently clunky, the jokes are lame, the mysteries moronic. The show connects primarily with viewers who are sugared-up and senseless, and its only real entertainment value comes not from watching, but from having watched. It's a nostalgia trip, and a short one. But Hanna-Barbera almost got Scooby-Doo right once in 1972, when the series was redubbed The New Scooby-Doo Movies, and "those kids and that dog" solved crimes with the help of guest stars like Don Knotts and Cass Elliot. Always stupefying, Scooby-Doo became downright surreal, as the ghost towns and rogue bankers and superfluous laugh tracks intersected with the likes of the Three Stooges—not the actual Three Stooges, but the versions from the Three Stooges cartoon.
Today's TV cartoons are so self-aware that it's hard to imagine something as unforced in its bizarreness coming around again. When the Best Of The New Scooby-Doo Movies DVD set is seen back-to-back with the first Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law set, both come off dopey, but for different reasons. Where Scooby-Doo is honestly dumb, Harvey Birdman is incomprehensible in a clever way, designed for college students who, if not actually high, are at least very, very tired. Harvey Birdman isn't as aggressively bizarre as its Cartoon Network "Adult Swim" companions Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but even though it leans on actual stories and fairly straight pop-culture parodies, Harvey Birdman is still the kind of show where a clown can lean into the frame, make a balloon animal for the hero, and then wander off without comment.
Like Space Ghost Coast To Coast, Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law repurposes a forgotten Hanna-Barbera cartoon hero: While Space Ghost became a talk-show host, Birdman becomes a lawyer, handling cases for fellow 'toons like Super Friends giant Apache Chief, who sues when he spills hot coffee in his lap and can no longer "enlarge." A lot of the humor is based on characters breaking character, as when Apache Chief's colleague Black Vulcan complains that the Super Friends always paired him with a white hero because they were afraid he'd start "super-lootin'." The jokes are generally hit-and-miss, but the hits are inspired, like the smash-up of the openings to The Flintstones and The Sopranos, and Fred Flintstone's angry outburst at a bird-appliance that testifies against him. ("You're dead to me, can opener!") Maybe it would be funnier if it wasn't so consciously "funny," but at least it's trying actively to entertain. Scooby-Doo, even at its best, just tried to fill the space between cereal commercials.