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"Venture Bros." Season Three: They're Not Dead Again, Are They?

During its first season on the air, The Venture Bros. quickly became one of the most surprising and least predictable shows on TV: a Johnny Quest parody that overflowed the banks of mere pastiche and filled the screen with a riotously inventive world of absurdist comedy and cockeyed dramatics. It was the kind of show that could throw in a splendidly outrageous character like Girl Hitler and kill her off after only five minutes, because its creators were so confident in their ability to replace her moments later with someone just as good if not better. It teasingly suggested vast horizons and unexplored back stories, and hinted that what we didn’t see was even more lunatic than what we did.

I have to confess that I found the second season a let down—though almost anything would have been a disappointment after thirteen episodes that seemed to purposefully exemplify what a “cult” series was supposed to be like. In the sophomore session the show creators spent an inordinate amount of time filling in back stories; in giving follow-up appearances to a lot of one-shot characters (some of whom we had thought were dead); and in resolving their most tantalizing puzzles in ways that didn’t (and probably couldn’t) measure up to the perversities they had dangled before us in the first season. And if they scored with some big successes in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills” and “20 Years to Midnight,” they also had some dire failures. Overall, the second season suggested contraction, retrenchment, a hedging of invention, and an increasing preference for coloring inside the wild, loopy lines they’d drawn in the first. Even the two-part finale, “Showdown at Cremation Creek,” despite its ending cliffhanger, suggested sunsets and resolutions more than promising new vistas.

It’s always dangerous to trust initial impressions, but the third season premiere and episode that follows suggest this trend will continue. So whether you’ll love “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny” and “The Doctor Is Sin,” or merely like them a lot, will probably depend on how erotically stimulated you are by great slatherings of backstory jelly. “Shadowman 9″ in particular is like a febrile session with the continuity courtesans: everything you always wanted to know about the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend gets answered. I’m sure it will leave a lot of people in ecstasies, even if they notice that a lot of it is just i-dotting and t-crossing, and that little of it is, y’know, actually funny. Even as continuity, several of the revelations are lame: It is, for instance, very hard to watch the flashback scenes between the Monarch and his two most famous henchmen without being reminded of Anakin Skywalker’s building C3PO in The Phantom Menace; and it’s harder still to admit that Lucas’s unintentional joke is funnier—because more insane—than its equivalents in “Shadowman 9.”

“The Doctor Is Sin,” meanwhile, brings back Dr. Henry Killinger. Now, Killinger is arguably the greatest supporting character the series ever introduced, but his brilliance in “Caged Bird” stems from his jaw-dropping unpredictability; you never know from moment to moment what this peculiar combination of Metternich and Mary Poppins means or intends. His appearance in “The Doctor Is Sin,” though, is little more than a recapitulation of “Caged Bird”; and now that we know his trick, he is much less impressive. He even uses the phrase “silly billy” again.

Killinger’s reappearance is emblematic of what is wrong with these two episodes: they tell us and show us things we basically already know about the characters. So, “Doctor” includes a Freudian dream sequence that is far more explicit than the similar sequence in “Careers in Science,” but adds nothing to it, and is much less funny than its earlier, eerier predecessor. “Shadowman 9″ shows us two early assassination attempts against Dr. Venture, but we already knew the Monarch has long nursed a grudge against Venture; and, anyway, we already saw one of these attempts in “Caged Bird.” (Hi, Myra!) Even the jokes are thinner, and some of them, amazingly, feel like pale imitations of jokes done by other shows: Futurama had a lot more fun with its council of meanies shouting “Silence!” and does so without working it nearly as hard as “Shadowman 9″ does.

None of this is to say that these episodes are entirely laughless; on the contrary, there is quite a lot to enjoy in them. But they feel shriveled. Even now, several years after they premiered, such classics as “Tag Sale—You’re It!” and “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean” astonish with their easy, graceful brilliance. There is still copious talent on display in “Shadowman 9″ and “The Doctor Is Sin,” but it feels more like the work of people who are tapping out the finishing details on a completed work of art, not making something new. Almost every series reaches such a point eventually, but it’s not an auspicious impression for the first two episodes of the new Venture Bros. season to convey.

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