Dexter’s Laboratory (commonly abbreviated as Dexter’s Lab) is an American comic science fiction animated television series created by Genndy Tartakovsky for Cartoon Network, and the first of the network’s Cartoon Cartoons. The series follows Dexter, a boy-genius and inventor with a secret laboratory in the basement of his house, who constantly battles his sister Dee Dee in an attempt to keep her out of the lab. He also engages in a bitter rivalry with his neighbor and fellow-genius Mandark. The first two seasons contained additional segments: Dial M for Monkey, which focuses on Dexter’s pet lab-monkey/superhero, and The Justice Friends, about a trio of superheroes who share an apartment.
Tartakovsky pitched the series to Fred Seibert’s first animated shorts showcase What a Cartoon! at Hanna-Barbera, basing it on student films he produced while attending the California Institute of the Arts. Three pilots aired on Cartoon Network from 1995 to 1996; viewer approval ratings convinced the network to order a half-hour series, which ran for two initial seasons from 1996 to 1998. In 1999, a television movie titled Ego Trip aired as the intended series finale, and Tartakovsky left to begin work on his new series, Samurai Jack. However, from 2001 to 2003, Cartoon Network revived the series for two more seasons, under Chris Savino and a different production team at Cartoon Network Studios. From season 1, it was owned by Cartoon Network Studios and Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. From season 2, it was owned by Hanna-Barbera Cartoons and Warner Bros. Animation. The rest of the seasons were kept by Cartoon Network Studios.
Dexter’s Laboratory received widespread critical acclaim and high ratings, and became one of Cartoon Network’s most popular and successful original series. During its run, the series won three Annie Awards, with nominations for four Primetime Emmy Awards, four Golden Reel Awards, and nine additional Annie Awards. The series is notable for helping launch the careers of several animators, such as Craig McCracken, Seth MacFarlane, Butch Hartman, and Rob Renzetti. Spin-off media include comic books, DVD and VHS releases, music albums, collectible toys, and video games.
The series revolves around Dexter (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh in seasons 1–2; Candi Milo in seasons 3–4), a bespectacled boy-genius who possesses a secret laboratory hidden behind a bookcase in his bedroom. The laboratory is filled with Dexter’s inventions and can be accessed by speaking various passwords or by activating hidden switches on Dexter’s bookshelf (e.g. pulling out a specific book). Though highly intelligent, Dexter often fails at what he has set out to do when he becomes overexcited and makes careless choices. Although he comes from a typical all-American family, Dexter speaks with a thick accent of indeterminate origin. Christine Cavanaugh described it as “an affectation, some kind of accent, we’re not quite sure. A small Peter Lorre, but not. Perhaps he’s Latino, perhaps he’s French. He’s a scientist; he knows he needs some kind of accent.” Genndy Tartakovsky explained, “He considers himself a very serious scientist, and all well-known scientists have accents.”
Dexter manages to keep the lab a secret from his clueless, cheerful Mom (voiced by Kath Soucie) and Dad (voiced by Jeff Bennett), who never take notice of it. However, he is frequently in conflict with his hyperactive older sister, Dee Dee (voiced by Allison Moore in seasons 1 and 3; Kat Cressida in seasons 2 and 4). In spite of Dexter’s advanced technology, Dee Dee eludes all manner of security, and once inside her brother’s laboratory, she delights in playing haphazardly, often wreaking havoc with his inventions. Though seemingly dim-witted, Dee Dee often outsmarts her brother and even gives him helpful advice. For his part, Dexter, though annoyed by his intrusive sibling, feels a reluctant affection for her and will come to her defense if she is imperiled.
Dexter’s nemesis is a rival boy-genius from his school named Susan “Mandark” Astronomonov (voiced by Eddie Deezen). Just like Dexter, Mandark also has his own laboratory, but his schemes are generally evil and designed to gain power while downplaying or destroying Dexter’s accomplishments. In the revival seasons, Mandark becomes significantly more evil, becoming Dexter’s enemy rather than his rival and his laboratory changing from brightly-lit with rounded features to gothic-looking, industrial, and angular. Because Dexter’s inventions are often better than his, Mandark tries to make up for this by stealing Dexter’s plans. Mandark’s weakness is his love for Dee Dee, though she ignores him and never returns his affections.