"It's hard to play dumb," Roger Ebert once wrote. "There's always the danger that a little fugitive intelligence will sneak out of a sideways glance and give the game away." The genius (if I might use that word) of Space Dandy is how it plays just dumb enough for the part of the audience that's not looking all that deeply. At the same time, it plays very, very smart indeed for the part of the audience that is so looking. On the surface, the show is broad, unpretentious, cheeky fun, all the things one could ask for in an entertainment. Then you scratch that surface even a little bit-- whether by way of its compulsive use of pop-culture references from both sides of the Pacific, or by any number of other means — and out comes a wizard, a true star.
I laughed a great deal at Space Dandy, but also spent at least as much time admiring its sheer audacity. It's easy to make people laugh, but much harder to use humor of any kind as an entry point to something transcendentally outlandish. Part of the gag is how the show doesn't just go over the top, but keeps going over the top — by having the hero die (or have the whole planet blow up, or the whole universe incinerate itself), and then continue merrily along in the next episode as if nothing had happened. Even crazier is how there is in fact an explanation of sorts for this waiting at the end of the show -- albeit one that explains exactly nothing, and is right in line with the rest of the show's non-logic. This isn't about why, it's about the fact that they get away with it and have a great time doing so.
Space is the place, baby
Given how freeform Space Dandy ends up being, I'm amazed the show's creators — chief among them none other than Shinichi Watanabe, he of everything from Cowboy Bebop to Samurai Champloo and tons more — even bothered with anything like a consistent episode-by-episode premise. But hey, we need an anchor of some kind; look how much anarchy Doctor Who gets away with just by dint of having a charming personality at its center. Hence, the titular Dandy himself.
The Dandy of Space Dandy isn't as effortlessly charming as any of the Doctors, but he has a charm — okay, maybe smarm -- all of his own. With the punch-permed looks of a 1950s greaser, the libido of Captain Kirk, and the devil-may-care of Lupin III, he's the kind of guy you know will try to get away with anything — even when he almost certainly won't, and especially when he has a snowball's chance in a smelting furnace of doing so.
Dandy flits around the universe in his
hot rod spaceship the Aloha Oe (all it's missing is the splash guards with the bikini-girl silhouettes on them), where he bounty-hunts hitherto unknown alien species and turns them in to be registered for a reward. Most of the cash he accrues from those sojourns, he blows at BooBies, a restaurant that's not quite at the end of the universe but still a fair ways off. His sole sidekick through these (mis)adventures is his manservant/robot, QT, a cross between a canister vacuum cleaner and a long-suffering step-parent.
One day Dandy snares what he thinks is a rare find, a catlike alien with the demeanor of a slacker college student freshly back home from having flunked out. His name is Meow—well, that's the closest thing a human mouth can produce that sounds like his name, anyway—and he's not rare at all; he's a Betelgeusian, and he resents being treated like mere bounty fodder.
The rhubarb brewing between the three of them is promptly interrupted by the arrival of the gorilla-esque Dr. Gel, a scientist working in the employ of the Gogol Empire, with orders to capture Dandy delivered by his superior, Admiral Perry (ha!). And so Dandy and his new, uh, friends go scurrying across the universe with Gel and his minions in not-so-hot pursuit, with both parties stubbing their toes, getting lost, getting stranded, and getting sucked into black holes, timewarps, and every imaginable (and unimaginable) variety of nonsense.
Style over substance over style
Summed up like that, the show sounds like a throwback to the animation, Western and Japanese, of the 1970s, where the concept of a seasonal plot arc didn't exist, the function of any episode was to get everyone into trouble, and no matter what happened, everything somehow always managed to be rolled back to its factory-default settings by the beginning of the next episode. Whether the show in question was Yatterman or The Smurfs, the same dynamic applied. What's different here, though, is that a) the show is aware of it, b) is winking more or less directly at the audience through it, and c) using it as an excuse to go on one absurdist excursion after another.
It's the c), not the a) or the b) that's the most important part of this formula. Consider an episode where Dandy ends up on a planet covered with sentient vegetation, where the art and animation style are pure Sixties psychedelia (courtesy of Eunyoung Choi, of the magnificent Tatami Galaxy and also the Adventure Time episode she co-directed with the inimitable Masaaki Yuasa). What little plot there is amounts to a shaggy-dog story, akin to the one about the kid born with a golden screw in his navel; it's all about what kind of trip we can have along the way. Given that the conclusion of each episode really doesn't matter one way or the other, this sets the crew free to show us any manner of nonsense with a straight face.
The risk there, of course, is in having the show be nothing but a giant in-joke. I knew full well I would be one of the few people in the audience who would most likely get such an in-joke. (When they flashed a blink-and-you'll-miss-it visual gag that referenced Yoshiharu Tsuge's seminal avant-garde manga Neji-shiki, I broke up and fell out completely.) But I also know full well that's not reason alone to think highly of something; a story constructed out of references is less a story than an act of cliquish insularity. This is true even when many of the in-jokes in Dandy are aimed as much at Western audiences as at anyone else — e.g., a truly hilarious "zombie" episode where references to Dawn of the Dead and the like zip past at warp speed, and where even the narrator himself (who, it's implied, is God) gets zombified.
Some miracle, then, that Dandy adds up to more than just a one-note gag. Some of that I attribute to the way it gradually fuses its stock-in-trade nuttiness with moments that give its character a chance to be characters, and not just repositories of stock reactions. At least two episodes are set aside for QT and Meow each. In the former, QT ends up having a romance with another appliance; it starts off in a sweetly absurdist vein, akin to one of Stanisław Lem's Star Diaries, and then by degrees turns tragic. In the latter, Meow drops back in on his parents, gets stuck along with them (and everyone else) in a time loop, and the resulting Groundhog Day/All You Need Is Kill experience gives Meow a new appreciation for the family and the homeworld he once disdained.
The cosmic joke is on us
So what about Dandy himself? His personality's far closer to the Holy Jerk than the Holy Fool a story this picaresque might have at its core. In fact, I'm not sure Dandy is meant to be a "hero" — he's more like the guy we happen to have in the airplane seat next to us when a wing breaks off. He's not supposed to be special; his highest ambitions in life revolve around female body parts and quick scores. But that very attitude winds up seeing him through any and all manner of world-wrecking, when those far more ambitious, powerful, or intelligent than him are laid low. By the end of the show (warning, spoilers), he's offered the opportunity to become the master of all creation — but he turns it down, because the messy and enjoyable business of daily life is more than enough for him. The part of me that has studied Buddhism and theology is tempted to call that profound; the part of me that has seen too much anime knows full well that's more just the creators nudging us in the ribs and winking at us.
Comedy in science fiction is not rare, but philosophical SF comedy — where first you go a-ha-ha! and then you go a-ha! — is harder to come by, and even harder to get right. The ones that get it right are an eclectic batch: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (which I think worked better in its original literary and TV incarnations than it did in its ill-fated cinematic version); Dan (Alien) O'Bannon's underappreciated Dark Star; Buckaroo Banzai; many of Philip K. Dick's black comedies about miserable futures where everything goes stubbornly wrong, and I mentioned earlier Stanisław Lem's Chaucer-esque cosmic comedies. I add Space Dandy to that list just behind Guide, because Dandy has the same fundamentally flip approach even if some of what it touches on is far from flip. But I also place it there because Dandy stands half a chance of being enjoyed by folks who aren't nominally anime fans, in the same way Guide was one of those few crossover works of SF that non-SF readers enjoyed as straight comedy. (It's hard not to laugh at lines like spaceships hanging in the air "exactly the same way bricks don't"; it's even harder not to laugh at Dandy more or less re-enacting that Star Trek episode with the two aliens who are half-black and half-white.)
When Dandy gets it wrong, though, is mainly in the way it deals with its two (count 'em: two) recurring female characters. One is Dandy's favorite BooBies server, an airhead straight from a '70s sitcom; the other is the stern, matronly type at the alien registration center who gives Dandy a hard time whenever he brings in aliens that are not the slightest bit rare at all. The latter gets a fairer shake than the former — at least she can hold her own, as it were — but it's annoying how Dandy's leering attitude about both of them just gets unthinkingly relayed along to the viewer without the show using it as an opportunity for commentary. It's the superficial, throwaway sort of funny that this show normally deploys well, but not here.
What does work, and what pushes the show into the realm of a near-term classic, is how Space Dandy's innate smarts sneak up on you a piece at a time. At most any turn you could think of, the show never seems to be aiming very high or trying very hard, and that makes it all the easier to giggle at (or with). By the halfway mark, you've seen enough hints that in fact it is aiming a little higher and trying a little harder. And by the end .... well, even the end really isn't an end. Let's just say there's a reason every episode of the show concludes with the words "To Be Continued."