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"The Venture Brothers" Makes Campy a Family Affair

Imagine a wedgie-crippled Jonny Quest screaming as he hobbles through the jungle. Picture the Hardy Boys on acid. Hazard Tom Swift or Danny Dunn (if your memory goes back that far) put through the Williams Street thunderblender. Now you’ve got a fair idea of what Adult Swim’s newest series is like.

Mummy dearest Brock fights off the undead in The Venture Brothers.

Okay, the parodying of pop-culture icons isn’t the freshest idea out there. But when the target has it coming, freshness doesn’t matter. The Venture Brothers brutalizes the “whiz kid” genre with glee and perversity. Jonny Quest comes in for most of the abuse, with the Venture family modeled more or less directly on that moldy old show. There’s Dr. Venture, a dagger-bearded pepperpot whose scientific credentials and truckload of inventions can’t quite pay the bills; title characters Hank and Dean, Dr. Venture’s idiot sons; and the laconic, hard-as-nails Brock Samson, their personal bodyguard. There is also the robot H.E.L.P.eR (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), who looks like a hat rack on wheels. What with one thing another, the Venture brood is constantly jetting off to rainforests, castles and space stations, where they usually have the bad luck to be captured by one of Dr. Venture’s numerous archenemies. That, or they battle some self-manufactured crisis brought on by their own fatal lack of common sense.

The premiere episode, “Dia de los Dangerous!” finds the crew in Mexico, where the boys are kidnapped by the Monarch (a bad guy with a thing for butterflies), Dr. Venture has his kidneys stolen, and Brock is buried alive. In “Careers in Science” Dr. Venture must figure out why the “Problem” light on Gargantua One, the space station built by his father, is blinking. In “Eeny Meeny Miney … Magic!” the Ventures rent out lab space to a necromancer who takes exception to Dr. Venture’s virtual reality machine. The jokes come in fast and low, usually from left field: Dr. Monarch’s gender-bending S.O. is the gravel-voiced Dr. Girlfriend; Gargantua One might (or might not) be haunted by “Phantom Spaceman.” But the thirty-minute format gives the show time to develop full-blown plots so that it is not completely dependent on scattershot jokes and character routines. Family problems seem to be a recurring, melancholy theme in the show. Dr. Venture can barely abide his sons—threatening, at one point, to kill them “in front of Brock, H.E.L.P.eR. and God” if they don’t behave—and he has issues with his own (late) father. On the other hand, the Monarch comes close to adopting the Venture boys, having lost both his human and butterfly families.

Geeks on Bikes Hank and Dean’s hoverbikes are so hip they’re square.

But the show hasn’t the fully worked out stories of, say, Futurama; with its quick dialogue, surreal plot twists and risqué behavior, The Venture Brothers is a closer match to such other Adult Swim comedies as Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The series is not, in fact, a Williams Street production, and while it definitely has a Williams Street sensibility to it, it has its own unique style. It is also fully animated, which gives it a richer look than other Adult Swim comedies. It also boasts striking design work on the characters.

The series is also aided by a topnotch voice cast. James Urbaniak (who played Robert Crumb in American Splendor) excels as Dr. Venture, sounding like a peevish version of Michael Gross’s father in Family Ties. Patrick Warburton gives a, well, highly Warburtonian performance as Brock. Beside these two, Christopher McCulloch and Michael Sinterniklaas as the Venture brothers do not especially stand out, but they get the job done. McCulloch, a veteran of The Tick, King of the Hill, and Sheep In the Big City, also created and produces the series.

The show might not be cut out for the cult status of, say Aqua Teen Hunger Force—it’s a bit too straight-on for that—but it has plenty of attitude and deserves to be a hit. Check it out.

The Venture Brothers premieres on Saturday, August 7, at 11:00pm (ET/PT) on Cartoon Network.

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