"The Venture Bros: Season 4, Vol. 1" - Ignore the Haters, This Season's Great
I voiced vague disappointment at The Venture Bros Season 3, since it relied heavily on two extremely overplayed story tropes: origin stories and a big, overarching conspiracy. Fortunately, The Venture Bros Season 4: Volume 1 has largely restored by faith in the series. The eight episodes on this disc form the first half of the show’s fourth season, and I find it all significantly funnier than season 3 and often turning in episodes that are as good as anything the show has ever done in the past.
If season 3 is a bad place to start a show, as I mentioned in that aforementioned review, then season 4 is even worse, so really take my word for it and start at the beginning. Season 4 picks up almost immediately with the closing minutes of the explosive season 3 finale, as super-agent Brock Samson turned in his resignation as the Venture family’s bodyguard, all the clones of Hank and Dean were destroyed, and poor Henchman 24 bit the dust. “Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel” ensures that this new status quo is for real, replacing Brock with former Venture arch-enemy Sgt. Hatred. The episode also begins chronicling a schism between the Venture Brothers themselves, with Hank attempting (and mostly failing) to emulate the absent Brock Samson while Dean seems to finally accept the family mantle of super-science with even less success than his father. It takes a good amount of guts to shove one of your most popular characters off-stage for the first half of a season, but the surprise is in how little we miss him.
Like most other seasons of The Venture Bros, season 4 manages to produce lots of individually satisfying episodes that reveal a larger plan if you can sit back and watch them in bulk. The Venture Bros has always been remarkably easy to swallow in huge chunks when it’s on DVD like this, without commercials and with the help of a “Play All” option. Among the twists to expect this season are the slow mental dissolutions of both Hank and Henchman 21, the latter of whom becomes a bona fide badass among henchmen; the schism between Hank and Dean; a temporary solution to Sgt. Hatred’s, er, “urges” (and the hilarious results when that solution fails him at a very inopportune time); and something of a resolution to that big conspiracy theory. While all the episodes on this disc are riotously funny, there are a few real standouts. “Handsome Ransom” guest-stars Kevin Conroy as Captain Sunshine, a caped superhero with a penchant for teen sidekicks that borders on…well, on Sgt. Hatred’s schtick, and who adopts Hank as the new Wonder Boy with hilarious results. “Self-Medication” sends Rusty Venture into a therapy group for child sidekicks, including Captain Sunshine’s former Wonder Boy, the Hale Bros. (subbing for the Hardy Boys), a very Tezuka-esque Ro-Boy, and the return of Action Johnny; keep an eye on the credits for the assortment of nerd celebrities providing voices. Meanwhile, Sgt. Hatred has a hilarious relapse triggered by a familiar-sounding fantasy movie. “The Better Man” features the return of the Order of the Triad, letting Dr. Orpheus get some much-deserved time in the spotlight along with H. Jon Benjamin turning in an unbearably funny performance as Orpheus’ mercurial master. The final episode, “Pinstripes and Poltergeists,” manages the remarkable feat of pulling the seemingly disparate earlier episodes together and teasing something big coming for the second half of the season.
As a DVD, The Venture Bros Season 4: Volume 1 is about as puzzling as the scheduling of the show itself, which also broke up the season into two halves that aired separately (with the second half about to wrap up). The eight episodes on this disc look and sound great, with a terrific anamorphic widescreen presentation and a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that makes generally subtle use of those extra speakers. As with all the DVD releases since season 2, we get commentary tracks from series creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer for all episodes. Like all those other volumes, the commentaries here are like sitting in on a Venture Bros. panel at a comic convention: short on actual information but very very long on entertainment. They’re often as funny as the episodes themselves, and special note has to be made of the commentary for “Return to Malice,” which gives way way way WAY too much information and even calls back to behind-the-scenes information from season 1. The remaining bonuses are deleted scenes from several episodes in animatic form; the San Diego Comic-Con trailer; and a “Lost” Open that I find baffling but I’m guessing is hilarious if you’ve ever watched Lost. I don’t often find much reason to comment on packaging, but it’s worth noting that this season’s release is consistent with the others in being completely visually inconsistent, and that the gag doesn’t really become obvious until you slip the DVD case out of its cardboard sleeve.
From the commentary tracks, it seems that these episodes got a lot of hate from the Internet, which I must admit baffles me. It’s not the same show as it has been in the past, but it really seems that The Venture Bros has never really been the same show as it was in the past in any of the seasons it was on the air. But hey, who would really make the effort to give serious intellectual consideration to the half-baked rantings of some random schmuck with an Internet connection and too much time on his hands?
Uh…bring on volume 2? And maybe a Blu-ray?