It hasn’t really been three years since the last release of The Venture Bros on home video, has it? That’s long enough that The Venture Bros Season 5 lands in a slightly weird space where it’s highly familiar and clearly building on older material, but my memories of that older material have decayed enough by now that I don’t fully remember it any more. I think this might be the root cause for why this season feels even more insular than earlier seasons, and although I don’t find this season quite as inaccessible as season 3, I also have to admit that I tried checking how far back I’d have to re-watch to get all the references made this season and found myself starting somewhere in the middle of season 2.
As I’ve said in reviewing FX’s Archer, it’s not normally a compliment to say a show is offering “more of the same,” but The Venture Bros‘ fifth season offers that for the show’s longtime fans and I think that’s a good thing. Admittedly, “more of the same” is an odd way to describe a season that kicks off with “What Color is Your Cleansuit?”, a double-length episode that picks up almost exactly where season 4 left off and centers on the extended Clan Venture dealing with a crowd of mutated college interns who have established their own nerdy, savage civilization, and where the major long-term effect on the show is to give Sgt. Hatred breasts. This is definitely not something the show has done before, exactly, but the combination of the outrageous and the ridiculous certainly feels familiar, and better than the show has done in years.
Besides, I think it’s easier to forgive a show in its fifth season for getting more insular, and The Venture Bros manages to mine as much or more humor from their own in-jokes as they do from new material. It still has the same transgressive, subversive spirit that it’s had since the start of the show, and if the theater of the absurd that drives episodes like “SPHINX Rising” or “Bot Seeks Bot” is familiar, it is also still quite capable of drawing laughs. However, I find a lot of this season’s funniest moments are of the type where those familiar with the show already know about them, while novices will require so much explanation that it would kill the joke. Some of the plot threads and characters that figure prominently in this season haven’t been seen since season 2, like Venturestein in “Venture Libre,” and Billy Quizboy nemesis Augustus St. Cloud (a character the show clearly finds funnier than I do, judging by his prominent role this season). I also remain dazzled at the way the show can manage to pack so much into a single episode and tie it all together so neatly, especially in the told-in-reverse story of “O.S.I. Love You” (which is also the only episode this season that uses Brock Samson to any significant degree). And yet, I find I’m appreciating this season of The Venture Bros more than I love it in the way I loved the earlier seasons of the show, and I’m still not entirely sure I can identify what I feel is missing.
The Venture Bros season 5 is only 8 episodes long, although there are two “bonus” episodes included on this set. I’d suggest watching “A Very Venture Halloween” before starting the season proper; despite its placement in the bonus features, it was originally broadcast before season 5 premiered, and the commentary track for “What Color Is Your Cleansuit?” identifies the commercial break where the Halloween episode is supposed to happen. The disc also includes “From the Ladle to the Grave: The Story of Shallow Gravy,” which spoofs the Behind the Music specials by focusing on Hank and Dermott’s band. Like the Halloween episode, this special aired well before season 5’s premiere, but it doesn’t color the season’s plot threads the same way. One throwaway bit might explain a little about Dr. Venture’s actions towards Dermott this season, but it’s not anything you’d miss if you watched it after the rest of the season.
This season is the first time I’m experiencing The Venture Bros on Blu-ray, and while the show has always looked good on DVD, it really seems to take advantage of high-definition more than I expected it would. This is easily the best looking season of The Venture Bros ever, and some offhand remarks on the commentary tracks suggest that Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer think Titmouse really upped their game on this season as well. The show’s updated Jonny Quest aesthetic, with its thick line work and relatively flat color palette, might be one reason why it looks as good as it does in high-definition, but there still seems to be more in play than just that. The entire season comes on one Blu-ray disc, with a solid 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, and the transfer is absolutely flawless.
Like all Venture Bros releases since season 2, every episode gets a commentary track from series co-creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. Like all of their commentary tracks in the past (and their infamous convention panels), the pair joke around with each other as much or more than they talk about the episodes, and are occasionally funnier than the show they’re commenting on. As long as you’re willing to get more information about stuff like the pair’s, uh, “me time” habits than about the show or the specific episode, you should be fine. The other bonus features include a set of deleted scenes in various stages of completion, a music video of Shallow Gravy’s “Jacket,” and an extended gag from the recording session for “SPHINX Rising.” It’s also not a bonus feature as such, but I’m tickled by the Hardy Boys-style packaging, which is a spot-on parody and continues the theme of not having a consistent theme in Venture Bros home video packaging.
I’m left feeling oddly ambivalent about The Venture Bros Season 5. I still enjoy the show and found plenty to laugh at this season, and the show remains highly addictive. Twice while reviewing this set, plans to sit down for one or two episodes turned into marathon sessions. However, I also can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s taken a good step down from its high point (which, to my mind, was season 2). However, as I’ve said before, lesser Venture Bros is still way better and funnier than a lot of other shows, but it seems that overall, FX’s Archer is proving better at giving more of the same without losing steam.