The Daily Stream: Panic!!! It's Sam & Max: Freelance Police!!!

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The TV Series: "The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police"

Where You Can Stream It: Tubi

The Pitch: It all started with "Fish Police." Fans of 1990s cult television may recall "Fish Police" as one of the stranger, failed animated shows of its era. In 1985, comic book artist Steve Moncuse created an unusual sendup of film noir, set underwater and populated entirely by anthropomorphic sea creatures; think "Law & Order: Bikini Bottom." The comic book was enough of an underground hit to eventually warrant a high-profile TV adaptation in 1992, produced by Hanna-Barbera Studios, and starring John Ritter, Tim Curry, Buddy Hackett, Héctor Elizondo, and Ed Asner. The show's theme was written by James Horner, whose work has been attached to countless movies and shows since 1978. As one might glean, the "Fish Police" TV series was far too odd for mainstream audiences, and was canceled after only three episodes. But the "Fish Police" comic book held strong as a cult oddity. Indeed, Moncuse's creation would go on to aid in the careers of future "The Maxx" creator Sam Keith, and one recent CalArts graduate by the name of Steve Purcell

When Moncuse asked Purcell to create his own comic book to accompany "Fish Police," Purcell created "Sam & Max: Freelance Police," a very, very bizarre police procedural starring a chummy, McGruff-like dog (Sam) and a shark-like, ultraviolent rabbity thing (Max). Using their lack of wits, Sam and Max violently stopped very strange crimes as their whims dictated. Their world was replete with UFOs, Bigfoots, volcano cults, and 20-foot-tall cockroaches that lived on the moon.

Why it's essential viewing

Given the antisocial nature of the comic, not to mention its utter chaos, it's perhaps surprising — maybe even alarming — that "Sam & Max" caught on in a cult capacity. The characters are perhaps most notable for their complete lack of moral standpoint. They don't seem to operate out of a sense of righteousness, nor are they evil, necessarily. Sam and Max are, by the best definition, agents of chaos in an unstable universe. Their credo seems to be "In a world of glycerin, be nitro." The only emotions that Sam and Max seem to feel are detached whimsey, mild sadistic satisfaction, and unquenchable joy. They're like Bugs Bunny without the undergird of humanity.

In 1992, the same year as the "Fish Police" TV series, Lucasarts released "Sam & Max Hit the Road," an acerbic point-and-click adventure CD-ROM game that not only cemented the game studio's signature style, but also solidified the characters into a fun-loving, oddball trench of the pop culture firmament. "Sam & Max" video games have been released regularly ever since. 

In 1997, Steve Purcell made a bold attempt to adapt Sam and Max into a Saturday morning television series. Sam and Max, voiced by Harvey Atkin and Robert Tinkler, retained much of their bemused detachment, but a lot of the comic's violence and sadism was dialed down for a younger audience. To give the show a human element, Sam and Max were also granted a computer expert sidekick named Darla "The Geek" Gugenheek (Tracey Moore). They would receive strange missions from an unseen — perhaps hallucinated — commissioner, and travel to the moon, underwater, to Germany, or to Hell, to dole out their version of justice. 

Creepy alien foreheads

"Sam & Max: Freelance Police," while not as edgy as its comic forbear, is definitely as chaotic. Atkin and Tinkler quickly found a fast-talking, vivacissimo joke style that allowed for very little silence or reflection. When they weren't chattering, smoky, atonal jazz would blare on the soundtrack. The show's theme song (by John Tucker) was a sax-smashing improvised cocaine riff, fast enough to make your eyes cross. After that, Saturday morning kids were thrust into a weird world of aliens, bigfoots, ultra-spies, a supervillain who is naught but a talking goldfish, and a villainous fanboy named Lorne. Their adventures may be as normal as wrangling an omnipotent eight-year-old, or serving as a marriage counselor for Zeus and Hera. Sometimes they'd face off against a wicked Galactus-type space deity named Lactose the Intolerant. 

When faced with the Lord of Darkness, Resisilobus, their response is merely "Let's hang a beatin' on him. I'll get the tools." 

It's easy to see why "Sam & Max: Freelance Police" lasted only a scant 13 episodes. Its chaos and propensity for kitsch weren't appealing to the average elementary school-age audience, and none of the still-drunk-from-the-night-before college kids who managed to catch a few episodes were buying the toys and cereals that the advertisers had hoped for. 

The show belongs in a miniature pocket of ultra-arch, kid-friendly animated genre spoofs that seemed to exist only in the mid-1990s. Its peers include shows like "The Tick," "Earthworm Jim," "The Defenders of Dynatron City," and "Freakazoid!" Comparatively, "Sam & Max" might be the strangest and least accessible of the lot, making it a rare and special animal indeed. 

Have a shot of gin, accept that we live in an absurd universe of nonsense, and fire that puppy up.