Feel bad for the animators who got stuck turning Scott Adams’s Dilbert into the series that debuted on UPN January 25. With Adams overseeing the TV version, inventiveness was plainly in low demand. To antiquarian types who persist in loving newspaper strips even in the age of graphic novels, the creator of the decade’s No. 1 cartoon icon—Adams’s peeved but docile white-collar nebbish has more fans than Bart Simpson ever did—is the Jeff Koons of the funnies, a smug mediocrity whose merchandising flair doesn’t count as a sellout only because moolah was this M.B.A.’s unapologetic goal all along. “You can’t get to overexposure without getting to filthy rich first,” he told Inc. in 1996. Among send-ups of the information-age workplace, Bill Holbrook’s On the Fastrack is more imaginative if too cutesy, and the venerable Blondie remains a funnier, deeper take on middle-class striving and bumbling. Yet it’s Dilbert whose impassive face adorns magazine covers, office walls, and refrigerators worldwide—as a symbol of protest against depersonalization, yet. The strip’s static look and all but featureless characters supposedly enhance its satire of corporate drudgery, and if that approach jibes handily with the fact that the only thing Adams can draw is a paycheck, he’s neither troubled by his limitations—why bother, when 150 million readers in 57 countries will stay loyal even after the TV spin-off stiffs—nor lacking company in today’s comics pages. But say what you will about Garfield, nobody ever mistook it for a trenchant commentary on our times.
Dilbert isn’t. But its popularity may be. A couple of years ago, Norman Solomon published a useful little book called The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh (Common Courage Press, $9.95, and still in print if you’re interested), which earned a predictable aw-lighten-up from the mainstream press insofar as it got noticed at all. With Ariel Dorfman’s contra-Disney How To Read Donald Duck an acknowledged inspiration, Solomon not only unearthed any number of Adams quotes as breezily repellent as the one above, but testily debunked the strip’s populist, antibusiness rep: “Dilbert challenges corporate dysfunction but never corporate function.”
Solomon points out that the ultimate target of Adams’s ridicule is inefficiency, a message most CEOs can happily endorse. That’s why the likes of Xerox rent Dilbert’s image for their in-house propaganda, no ethical quandary for a franchise owner who not only vaunts himself as an exemplary entrepreneur but favors downsizing as a way of clearing out deadwood. In his strip, he’s more circumspect. But while mocking middle-management ineptitude, he lets the big wheels off the hook, and depicts Dilbert’s fellow drones as scheming idiots—not exactly an inducement to solidarity. The way Adams stands up for the little guy is by telling him he’s different from all the other little guys, a cretinous bunch he’d be better off—i.e., more productive—without. What proves he’s different is that his passivity is more sardonic than theirs.
It’s difficult to attack a comic strip without sounding shrill, and Solomon’s capacity for pop pleasure does seem meager. Then again, he keeps insisting he finds the strip clever, putting him one up on me even if the claim is just this polemicist’s idea of placating fans who’ll never read his book in any case. But I can’t imagine that he, or anyone, will have the stomach to say the same of the TV show, because what’s barely tolerable at four frames a day is unendurable at 24 per second. Even bizzers must have known the series was a bad bet; it’s telling that a property with this kind of brand-name recognition has nevertheless wound up on UPN, no producer’s first or fourth choice of venue.
One problem is that fidelity to the malnourished original, whose human ciphers never change expression, doesn’t give you a lot to look at. The premiere tries to compensate for the drabness with arbitrary excess—a meeting where everyone gets naked (can’t tell you why, too demoralized to hit rewind), an office riot complete with laid-off workers looting VCRs, ho ho ho—whose miserably unfunny, from-hunger contrivance exposes the concept’s shallowness and lack of de tail. This side of the subutilitarianism of old Hanna-Barbera, it’s not like TV animation has to be visually rich to connect. When King of the Hill goes arty it usually just slows things down, while Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz makes an inept look betoken human frailty even if those wobbly lines can give a viewer migraines. Even Matt Groening isn’t exactly Winsor McKay. But all those shows have a real point of view, one where tartness co exists with other qualities—curiosity, sympathy, surprise. Adams is only interested in scoring off the dummies trapped in a bleak environment he’s been cunning enough to escape, nubbins he sets up by denying them any personality. It’s a humorless man’s idea of a good joke, repeating the same cheap putdowns about everyone else’s crumminess into infinity.
True, Adams doesn’t sentimentalize Dilbert the sad sack. He leaves that to the consumers. Maybe they identify, but he sure doesn’t; if they’ve internalized their employers’—and Adams’s—contempt to the point of making Dilbert their mascot, that just means they’ll buy more tchotchkes. But as lots of more talented creative types have yet to learn in these spiteful times, cruelty hardly guarantees insight, especially not when it’s this small-minded. Nor does it help that the series’s casting is so déjà entendu—with Daniel Stern, boomerdom’s John Cameron Swayze, doing Dilbert, putz-for-all-seasons Chris Elliott as his evil-genius pooch Dogbert, and Suddenly Susan‘s Nancy Griffin laying into Alice the office harridan with all the freshness of a vending-machine bagel. Yet even if the execution were less dreary, Dilbert-the-series would still seem stale, because Adams’s dingy vision has long since become a TV readymade—with Drew Carey widely perceived as a Dilbert type when his show hit the air, a comparison I found invidious but Carey himself sucked up to, and ABC’s Working a full-fledged live-action imitation of the strip. The best you can say for the belatedly transcribed original is that it’s more unpleasant than the wannabes.
The cultural moment that let the strip pass for incisive was as specific as a snowflake—one of those rare interludes when, in this case thanks to downsizing and NAFTA, suspicion of corporate America was in vogue among nonpinkos. But its avatar was Pat Buchanan, a spokesman not for empowerment but for revanchism. In ways the series’s longueurs give you plenty of time to mull, Dilbert‘s ostensible populism harkens to classic angry-white-male bile. Not only is Dilbert no assembly-line laborer, he’s not even a clerk: he’s an engineer. Yet the locus of class resentment in this country has traditionally been petit-bourgeois rather than proletarian, one reason its manifestations tend to be reactionary even when the petit bourgeoisie wears a blue collar. Adams’s treatment of women adds a vicious physical disgust to his usual scorn, and even on the comics pages—which make prime time look like multiculti heaven—his workplace’s all-vanilla cast jumps out at you. The one possible exception is subliminal—the petty tyrant known as “the Pointy-Haired Boss,” whose twin horns of kinky black hair, in a strip so short on individuating attributes that each one functions talismanically, keep striking my eye, at least, as suggestively African American. I know, I know: aw, lighten up. Still, I wonder just who Adams thinks is keeping who down.