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Go Team Venture!

by on June 7, 2006

I don’t know about the rest of you kids, but I’ve about had my fill of animated parodies. Harvey Birdman was a clever extension of the Space Ghost model, and Sealab 2021 had its moments. But c’mon already. Is there any good excuse for Robot Chicken, Moral Orel, Drawn Together, Family Guy, and a bunch of other contemporary animated comedies, aside from using them as mortuaries for dead-but-unburied gags at the expense of other, better movies and TV shows?

Now, I like a good parody as much as the next guy, but let’s face it: Parody is about the laziest form of comedy there is. Not that good parodies are easy to write, but too many animated shows just try to slide through by slapping a “grin” on some old piece of business out of Citizen Kane or Superfriends and calling it an “homage.” The technique is not improved by stretching it out to ten or twenty minutes and calling it a TV episode.

So, I’ll admit to having harbored a prejudice against The Venture Bros. when that show premiered back in 2004, and my original review of it was, well, unenthusiastic. With a sufficient lack of ambition, I suspect, you can parody almost anything, and a parody of Jonny Quest, following so closely on Space Ghost, Harvey Birdman, and Sealab 2021, seemed to me at the time especially unnecessary.

Well, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I thought that Venture had some virtues, but nothing prepared me for the subtle, ingenious, and emotionally rich satire of that series that Chris McCulloch and Doc Hammer served up during that first season. The Venture Bros. might have sprouted from a parody-sitcom idea, but it is much more than that, and its example shows just how uninspired most of its competitors are.

Now, I don’t want to make too much of this, and Lord knows I don’t want to speculate about what kind of psychological issues Publick and his co-producer Doc Hammer are working out through their show. (Beware of trying to connect a cartoonist’s pen to his dark unconscious; if you do, never mind cigars being not just cigars—what are we to make of the cross-dressing wabbits?) But I can’t help but wonder what kind of psychotic father and sibling issues these two suffer from. Okay, I’m really not being serious when I say that, but jeez: We hardly ever see father-son or brother-brother issues, especially the negative ones, get hashed out on TV with the passion that they get treated in this show. But when you sit down to watch the first season of The Venture Bros. from start to finish, it’s the problems of a family that lacks women—and especially the problems of single-dad Dr. Thaddeus Venture—that leap out and grab you by the throat.

If you haven’t seen the show, then by this point in the review you’re probably totally lost, so here’s a recap that will both bring you up to speed and illustrate what I just said. The Venture Bros. is an Adult Swim comedy about the misadventures of the Venture family: a middle-aged superscience researcher, Dr. Venture; his two idiot teenage sons, Hank and Dean; and their bodyguard, Brock Sampson. The family relationships resemble those of Jonny Quest, but the dynamics are completely off-kilter. Dr. Venture leads a miserable, failure-filled existence in the shadow of his late father, the brilliant, athletic, and charismatic Dr. Jonas Venture; he regards his own sons with barely concealed loathing, and when possible dumps them onto the broad shoulders of the taciturn Brock; and he survives an assassination attempt by his own twin brother, a deformed, fetus-like creature that he had absorbed while they were still in their mother’s womb. Meanwhile, his archenemy, the butterfly-obsessed Monarch, is an orphan; personality-wise, as some of the other characters have noticed, he comes off as another long-lost Venture twin; and, feeling the twinges of childlessness, this archenemy on at least one occasion tries to become a surrogate father to Venture’s sons. Barely disguised fantasies of fratricide, parricide, and filicide lurk just below the show’s surface. Saturn, after devouring his children, could take this show as his after-dinner entertainment, and even he might be a little disturbed as its poisonous undercurrents.

The show would be too much to take if it weren’t at the same time consistently and murderously funny. It doesn’t feature many jokes as such; the comedy grows out of eccentric characters who pursue their peculiar obsessions with the implacable logic of the truly deranged: in “Home Insecurity” a band of assassins, foiled in their attempt to infiltrate the Venture compound, get their revenge by T.P.ing the place. Then they’re slaughtered by a robot. The scripts don’t feature the elaborate cross-talk of, say, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, But Dr. Venture and his enemies express themselves through strong, idiosyncratic dialogue that is impeccably delivered by a strong cast. Best of all are the visuals: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an animated show where the “acting” expresses so vividly such a range of emotions. The storyboarding is equally brilliant; without being either ostentatious or static, the composition and juxtaposition of shots often have the impact and beauty of a good comic book. Many of the images, even just captured as screen shots, can provoke a smile.

The Venture Bros. also is very good at suggesting the presence of a much larger world, giving us glimpses of subplots and realities that never feature directly in the action. Some of these obscurities resolve themselves as the show proceeds. Many of the early episodes, for instance, feature as a running gag Dr. Venture’s recurrent nightmares of being trapped in the womb. These fragments are resolved in the season finale, “Return to Spider-Skull Island,” when Jonas Jr. appears. Until then, though, they work brilliantly at evoking Dr. Venture’s claustrophobic subconscious anxieties. Other hints—such as the persistent suggestion that the two Venture boys might not have had a natural conception and birth—do not come to fruition in this season. But they create the uncanny feeling that there is more to the show than just the stories we have been given. This might be a virtue of Publick and Hammer’s preferred creation method. In their episode commentaries, they remark that most of their characters developed by chance: they’d write a joke, and it would become backstory. If so, it’s more evidence of the fertility of their imagination and inability to trap themselves inside parody conventions.

The weakest episode in the first season, “Ice Station—Impossible,” is a good (though negative) example of everything the series as a whole does right. It’s the only story that seems limited by its parodic genre—it’s basically a one-joke premise at the expense of The Fantastic Four, and is quite funny at that level. But the other episodes feature so much more: the comedy-horror when a real ghost appears in “Ghosts of the Sargasso”; the Freudian fantasy sequence of a father-son argument in “Careers in Science”; the frustrations of college dorm life in “Past Tense”; the romantic bust-up between the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend that plays across “Tag Sale—You’re It!” and “The Trial of the Monarch.” It’s always a let-down when a Venture Bros. episode ends; you like the characters so much you want the stories to keep going. The producers’ clever idea to tack on a short scene after the end credits roll sweetens the pill a little, but not enough.

The Season One DVD set brings together the thirteen regular episodes plus the pilot, “The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay,” and the Christmas special, which are welcome additions indeed. There are also a handful of deleted scenes: bits that were cut when an episode ran too long. These and the commentaries on selected episodes (“The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay”; “Mid-Life Chyrsalis”; “Eeeney, Meeney, Miney … Magic!”; “Tag Sale—You’re It”; “Ghosts of the Sargasso”; and “Return to Spider-Skull Island”) are the highlights of the extras. There are also two pseudo-documentaries, one about the making of a live-action Venture Bros. movie and another on the animation process. These are amusing, but they don’t add much to the collection. But the collection itself is the point.

The Venture Bros. returns later this month with a new season. I don’t know if the new episodes will make much sense if you haven’t seen the first season, but that’s not really relevant. You should buy the first season simply on your account and for your own enjoyment.

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