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‘Dilbert’ . . . at Cutting Edge

“Show me to my box,” says a new corporate cog in “Dilbert,” the adult comic strip whose edgy musings about the white-collar workplace extend to 1,900 papers across the planet.

Much of television, too, suffers from cubicle-of-the-mind syndrome, a contentment with clinging safely to the first or second rung of the ladder instead of reaching higher for alternatives whose greater possibilities entail greater risks.

In fact, those gaudy Nielsens for NBC’s “Friends” and “Frasier” notwithstanding, Monday’s arrival of prime time’s “Dilbert” affirms that the slender baton of cutting-edge sitcomedy has been passed to animation.

A drift started in the ‘90s by Matt Groening’s wickedly subversive Fox comedy, “The Simpsons,” has widened at decade’s end into a full-blown trend exemplified by this humorous UPN version of the satirical “Dilbert” strip created by Scott Adams.

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In between have come the Nickelodeon channel’s “Ren and Stimpy,” MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-head” and Comedy Central’s “Dr. Katz,” “South Park” and “Bob and Margaret,” then most recently on Fox, “The PJs,” its funny “foamation” antics taking place in a black housing project whose likable superintendent, Thurgood Stubbs, is voiced by Eddie Murphy.

Premiering Jan. 31 in the prized post-Super Bowl time slot, moreover, is “Family Guy,” another largely bent animation from Fox whose characters include a power-mad, insane genius of a homicidal toddler who constantly targets his parents for assassination. So much for traditional family values.

And for conventional TV--any similarity between such animations and that earlier, pioneering Hanna-Barbera franchise, “The Flintstones,” being purely inadvertent.

Necking through a business staff meeting in Monday’s “Dilbert,” for example, are two colleagues from promotion who speak a sort of carnal corporatese. Urging the male to seduce her, the female gasps: “Lie to me!” Him: “Our next upgrade will solve the problem.”

Just how “Dilbert” attacks UPN’s audience problem remains to be seen, though it’s by far the strongest pulse yet in that young network’s sickly lineup. It’s NBC’s uneven workplace sitcom, “Working,” to a much higher power, animation being able to transport viewers to exotic realms and fantasies that are well beyond the reach of live-action comedy.

In addition, “Dilbert” confirms how well TV animation can speak the dialect of the counterculture. That shouldn’t be surprising given that “Dilbert” executive producer Larry Charles was behind some of the darkest, funniest segments of the late, great “Seinfeld,” whose reputation for being “about nothing” belied its affinity for dissidence.

And then there’s “The PJs.” Accused by some African Americans of racial stereotyping, it boldly deploys humor in places where previous sitcoms have feared to venture. On Tuesday, Thurgood’s rickety, crime-ridden Hilton Jacobs project is snowed under by a storm titled El Negro. “They’re finally naming one after us,” he says.

Later he’s arbitrarily stopped outside by two cops who, not wanting to leave the cozy warmth of their squad car, order him to lie face down in the snow and frisk himself. Before driving off they add: “Rough yourself up a bit and make it look like black-on-black crime.” It’s a hoot.

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Yet this is a perilous minefield. As the widely acclaimed theatrical film “Life Is Beautiful” does so delicately in a story about Italian Jews in a Nazi death camp, “The PJs” finds laughter in a grim setting. If the poverty is institutionalized, Tuesday’s episode says with pointed levity, so is the abuse.

How embedded in U.S. culture are some of these animated characters? It’s too early for “The PJs” crowd. While writing this, however, I have before me my clock commemorating the 200th episode of “The Simpsons,” my paperweight featuring the characters from “South Park” and my “Dilbert” mouse pad, a mere speck in a Dilbertdom marketing universe that also advertises calendars, beach towels, key chains, umbrellas, T-shirts, memo pads and. . . .

Well, you get the idea. Not yet Snoopy, but so vast that you half expect some day to see a rack of Dilbert condoms.

Meanwhile, I’ve been checking out the eclectic Dilbert Web site where the promotion-minded Adams has been ticking off the days to Monday’s “Dilennium,” his marketing title for the start of the UPN series.

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What is a mouse pad, by the way? The question is asked in the premiere. The reply: “Feminine protection for mice.”

Like the strip, “Dilbert” the series is a witty kick in the boom-boom that yields rewarding results at times by having its nerdy characters juxtapose conflicting emotions and make screeching U-turns that comment subtlety on the thinking of various ants in the labor force.

Voiced by Daniel Stern, Dilbert is a hapless technophile and cubicle-bound engineer toiling in an impersonal labyrinth of anonymity with his colleagues Wally (Gordon Hunt) and Alice (Kathy Griffin), whose face is framed by a great pyramid of brown hair. In fact, hair is as distinctive here as the comedy. The character known as the Pointy Haired Boss (Larry Miller) has twin tufts rising above his ears like evergreens.

Yet the real boss of this strip and series--and its smartest character--is Dilbert’s despotic canine, Dogbert, a self-serving control freak voiced by Chris Elliott.

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Dogbert understands all, but tells little. As when a puzzled Dilbert responds to an 11 p.m. news headline (“Could a giant squid really eat a major metropolitan area? Find out how to protect your family.”) by asking his brilliant pooch: “Why is the news always the same as the miniseries that was just on?”

Dogbert: “There are some things you are not meant to know.”

In the first couple of episodes, Dogbert manipulates Dilbert and his co-workers at their nameless corporation into doing his bidding.

It turns out that the corporation is as much a hologram as the empty suits who run it. What does it produce? Uh, nothing. Yet the employees valiantly proceed with promoting it, and in Episode 1, the nothing gets a name: The Gruntmaster 6000. And do things get ugly in the second episode when a competing company names its own non-product the Gruntmeister 7000? Don’t ask.

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There are some things you are not meant to know.

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* “Dilbert” airs at 8 p.m. Mondays on UPN. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be inappropriate for young children).


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