The Very Strange ‘Duckman’ Got Even Stranger in its Nihilistic Bottle Episode
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“It means a lot to hear you drunkenly slur that. I never just wanted to kill you. I wanted your respect.”
Duckman is some crazy lightning-in-a-bottle television. A number of shows have been covered through this feature, and whether they’ve been mega-hits like Friends or Bewitched, or fringe favorites such as Psychoville or Frisky Dingo, they’ve likely been shows that registered to some degree on your radar, whether you had seen them or not. The general public has a weird blindspot towards Duckman though, with people either fondly remembering the belligerent cartoon, or having no idea that the anomaly even existed, which is a little surprising considering the talent involved with the show and the number of episodes it ended up producing.
Duckman aired on the USA network for four seasons with Jason Alexander (during the height of Seinfeld’s popularity, no less) being perfectly cast as the ornery, short-fused Eric T. Duckman. The series balanced its time with Duckman at home with his sister-in-law Bernice and off-kilter children Charles, Mambo (who share a body), and Ajax, and solving crimes at his detective agency with his deadpan pig partner, Cornfed. The series managed to be deeply prescient for its time, lampooning topics like reality television and the declining state of sitcoms before they became commonplace targets, while also churning out impressive “concept episodes” on unique topics like war films, Hamlet, Marx Brothers movies, and even Dostoyevsky’s library. Duckman was very clearly interested in doing its own thing, and as a result, the show has largely held up nearly two decades later.
With all of that structural experimentation, a bottle episode certainly doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities for the program, so it’s even more exciting when they take the concept and marry it with a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runner and create a bleak, contemplative dinner party for our characters. Directed by Bob Hathcock and Donovan Cook (who is also the creator of 2 Stupid Dogs, which is some very tasty food for thought), “Cock Tales for Four” feels like you’re watching a tense stage play the entire time.
The episode feels quite simple in scope when it begins — Duckman and Bernice are accompanying Ajax to have dinner at his new girlfriend’s house — but upon reaching their destination they discover to their horror that Ajax’s date is none other than King Chicken’s (Tim Curry) daughter. King Chicken is Duckman’s bitter recurring rival — think of him as his Sideshow Bob equivalent — and this entry does much to further the back story and rivalry shared between he and Duckman. Their mutual hatred for each other is arguably the richest vein of continuity in the series, so if any storyline is going to be delved into with this sort of setup, it makes sense for it to be this familiar one. Especially when you consider that this is also the season’s finale, and as a result this episode does feel a little more grandiose than normal.
Duckman can be a particularly noisy show at times, but the bottle restraints here immediately start to get rid of the clutter. Characters like Charles, Mambo, and Cornfed are absent from the episode, as it tries to truly do something minimalistic rather than attempting to shoehorn characters into this story (which it’s done before, treating them like walk-on cameos due to contractual agreements, complete with studio audience applause). While calling back to that cameo gag wouldn’t have weakened what this episode was saying too much, “Cock Tales” really is strengthened by stranding these characters and having their familiar safety blankets be taken away. This episode is concerned about going into unfamiliar territory, and so trying harder here to do something that feels different is essential.
The episode’s tie-ins to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were alluded to before, but this episode is all about head games, with these people feeling trapped in here (whether it’s Duckman and Bernice physically at the Chicken residence, or King Chicken and Honey psychologically in their marriage), even if they aren’t actually. The social niceties of dinner and caring for their children have kept them going through the motions as the night gets increasingly tense and everyone just wants to get out. The evening acts as a pressure cooker of everyone’s relationships as there is some pre-existing drama going on between all of these people that slowly marinates through the episode — the bottle turning into a crockpot — until you wait for it to all come to a head and explode.
As busy as this episode becomes by the end, it does some great work with the tiny moments in between. While the characters wait for their food, the episode makes a meal out of the awkward, incestuous relationship that they’ve all found themselves in. Silences linger. Stammering reigns. Drinking becomes a welcome sanctuary from all of this, which only becomes more prominent as the installment continues. Subtle work both in the animation and voice acting is indicative of how sloshed everyone is becoming (particularly Honey), with it adding another “time bomb” sort of element through all of this that keeps building through everything else. Bernice and King Chicken having crazy, loud sex in the kitchen while Duckman and Honey make small talk in the living room, for instance, is a marvelous scene that plays entirely with the episode’s limited geography and forced constraints, with this pre-dating Step Brothers’ similar take on the idea by over a decade.
Through all of this emotional rawness, this also becomes an important bonding episode for Duckman and King Chicken, with the restraints of their situation here inevitably forcing them to have a deeper understanding of each other. It’s significant that this is the bond that’s explored here, rather than making this an episode that furthers along the Duckman and Ajax dynamic (a seldomly explored one), but the angle the episode adopts is perhaps the more interesting of the two, especially when you stop to consider that Duckman might connect more with his bitter rival than his own son.
King Chicken bears his soul to Duckman, revealing how tortured his life has been, only for Duckman to commiserate all to well (he was the second most unpopular kid in school), and with this root of insecurity spilling over into them trading parenting tips and seeing how they’re all too similar. It’s an enlightening episode that sheds new light on their tumultuous relationship — it even sees them going decades back through the many feuds they’ve gone through — yet the fundamentals of their rivalry remain unchanged through the rest of the series. Duckman was a show that had a very sincere, emotional core to it that it would let loose every so often, and this episode acts as a nice reminder of that.
It’s telling that the entire reason that they go over to the Chickens’, Ajax’s date with Tammy, happens entirely off screen. We see none of it, instead wallowing in the conflict of their parents and letting the dissolution of several relationships overpower the burgeoning one that brought them all here together. There’s even a rather nihilistic note that the episode goes out on where Ajax, still basking in his time with Tammy, asks when they’ll next be able to do this. Duckman and Bernice can’t even muster up an answer for him. This isn’t a “love conquers all” type of episode, but instead almost a “love corrupts all” sort of thing. Tammy is never heard of again in Duckman’s tenure, so it’s perhaps safe to say that this bile killed off what could have been something sweet here.
The question is posed early on in the episode to Duckman and King Chicken, “Can’t you set aside your blood death feud for one evening, for the kids?” And apparently they can’t, just like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are doomed to always repeat their fight. Maybe if they had freedom and they weren’t forced to be so close to one another, but not like this.
Where’s Cornfed when you need him?