Posted by: dougery | October 15, 2010

An Ode to: The Venture Brothers

Welcome to “An Ode to:” which I will try my best to turn into a regularly occurring feature here on my blog. “An Ode to:” is where I celebrate some piece of the pop cultural landscape that has made a significant impression upon me. This can be anything from a television series to a webcomic, from a musician to something more nebulous like say, fantasy football. The goal here is to offer up a tiered discussion on the topic at hand. We’ll begin with “Venture Brothers 101” move on to a more intermediate level discussion of themes and problems and finish up with an advanced section for those well versed in Venture lore. This way those of you out there who are ignorant of a particular phenomena (for shame!) can get a grasp on why something is awesome before diving in to the roots of said awesomeness.

 

Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick

 

Venture Brothers 101

The Venture Brothers is an animated comedy now in the second half of it’s fourth season on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. It is written by a pair of men with the improbable names of Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer and due to it’s topic matter and insane time-slot (11:30pm on Sundays) is primarily watched by young men in their teens and 20s (otherwise known as ‘fanboys’). Which is very odd seeing as the Venture Brothers is a veritable pop-cultural landfill for the 80s and 90s, and a great many of the references should fly over the viewing audience’s head. This is not to say that the show can only be enjoyed by men, far from it, merely it is say that it is written by men and full of what they grew up loving from cartoons like Johnny Quest and the Herculoids, G.I. Joe, Voltron, comicbooks, Indiana Jones and James Bond, Scooby-Doo and on and on. What the Venture world accomplishes so well is to treat the insane situations these tales of adventure and suspense were built upon as actual happenstance. In other words it asks the question: how messed up would you be if your father was a super scientist and made you solve adventures instead of go to middle school and kiss under the bleachers? Where you are more likely to ride on the back of a pterodactyl than hang out with your friends in the back of a Nissan Stanza. This is world where Super Science and the Supernatural exist, and we’re all the worse off for it.

The plot revolves (loosely) around a pair of young adult boys named Hank and Dean Venture. Hank and Dean have never gone to school (they are educated in ‘Learning Beds’ which instruct them subliminally as they sleep) have never interacted with others their own age and yet have had pretty extraordinary childhoods. The reason for this is because their father is Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, himself the son of famed Super Scientist Dr. Jonas Venture. Jonas was a brilliant man but a less than stellar father (to be charitable) leaving Rusty scarred from a childhood of being a boy adventurer. When Rusty then inherits the family business, he is put in the double bind of attempting to live up to his father’s accomplishments while simultaneously avoiding perpetrating the same kinds of trauma on his own sons. Needless to say is unsuccessful on both accounts.

The Ventures’ main ally is the show’s most famous character, Brock Sampson, a figure who could have easily been a one note but through the genius of Jackson and Doc, has transcended his origin. Brock is the Venture’s bodyguard, an enormous killing machine who listens to Led Zeppelin drives a Charger, has a mullet, is prone to wearing jean cut-offs and wringer t-shirts, and shuns firearms for his knife or bare-hands. The Ventures being who they are, attract all sorts of unwanted attention from the deranged community of super villains that populate this world. It is Brock’s job to protect them and he is very good at it. However along the way we see that he is also invested in the boys, and it is his constant metamorphosis from dagger wielding death’s head to babysitter and back again that give his character a surprising depth. As we move into some of the figures that plague the Ventures it is as good a time as any to step up to:

Intermediate Venture

Writers Jackson and Doc provide essential commentary to most episodes (each of them from Season 2 onward) and in one of them let the following point slip. Keep in mind I am paraphrasing (probably badly):

“Whenever a character gets to talk about their failures I end up writing 8 pages. When its time for adventure I simply write: Cool Stuff Happens.”

To understand this is to better understand the Venture family. Failure is the lynch-pin of the Venture Brothers and why it is relatively unique among it’s peers. For a very long time the heroes on this type of show and in comics were terribly good, damn near perfect. Then came an equally uncomfortable turn toward gritty ‘realism’ where figures like Batman got old and cranky and brutal. To be a modern hero meant a different set of things and characters like Wolverine took center stage, stone-cold killers, boozers, cigar chomping manly men with a more ‘complex’ set of morals. What some of these anti-heroes forgot was that the Watchmen were a bunch of losers who barely saved the world (and then only through the help of an insanely powerful God figure who promptly exits stage right). Jackson and Doc latch on to this sense of never being able to live up to the heroes that came before us and build an incredibly rich foundation upon it.

At the show’s core revolve two characters who exemplify this theme of failure: Rusty Venture and The Monarch, his self-proclaimed nemesis. We’ve already detailed Rusty’s handicaps at length above, but what we find in the Monarch is just pathetic gold. Here is a grown man who willingly dons a latex butterfly suit, tools around in a giant flying cocoon fortress and employs wave after wave of inept cannon fodder henchmen with only numbers to differentiate them from one another. Who is in love with his ‘number 2,’ a gravel voiced woman by the name of Dr. Girlfriend who by all accounts is much better at this whole supervillainy thing he is. Through careful exposition doled out along the course of the show we learn why the Monarch behaves the way he does and a remarkable equilibrium is established. We actually care and sympathize for a guy who is by all accounts a sociopath.

Failure also manifests itself in the form of Dr. Byron Orpheus, who rents out a few rooms at the Venture compound after his wife leaves him and his daughter Triana for a younger necromancer. Here Jackson and Doc take one of Marvel’s strangest creations–Dr. Strange, a self-obsessed neurosurgeon who, when his hands are crippled, turns to the dark arts for solace and power) and kicks him in the nuts. Orpheus is a much better father than Rusty, if not a bit dundering and smothering, but in many ways has simply packed it in, giving up on the very real power he has. Soon he is teaching conjuring at the New School instead of fighting evil, and his character development throughout the show’s run is one of it’s most fascinating.

Advanced Venture

To say that the Venture Brothers is the greatest animated show on television is to do it a bit of a disservice seeing as it might very well be the best TV show period. If the uncommonly brilliant second season were airing for the first time today, there would be no question about it. Like the critically acclaimed HBO darling The Wire (and certain moments in more wildly uneven fare like Lost and Dollhouse) the Venture Brothers demands a lot from it’s audience. The show’s creators pride themselves on back-story, and it is easy to be drowned in the details. Yet nothing is superfluous and casual names dropped in early episodes end up playing major roles down the line. Like the comicbooks from which it derives so much wealth, much of the ‘action’ in the show occurs off screen or even between episodes. In “Return to the House of Mummies: Part 2” we have an entire sequel thrust upon us with only a spastic ‘previously on’ montage to help us out. Part One was never made or at least never aired. The idea is that there are adventures going on all the time, time travel, intergalactic invasions and the like, but you don’t get to experience them, not any more. What you’re going to get instead are the quiet, pathetic moments between the action, because these moments are what make these characters different.

There is definitely a self conscious and sometimes cruelly calculated defying of expectation about the Ventures as well. Jackson and Doc admit as much when they relate the story of being “warned off” using particular characters (in this case the hydrocephalitic Billy Quizboy and his partner an albino named Mr. White) because fans weren’t responding very well to them. This only made the writers want to use them as much as possible and in season 3 we get a full treatment of Billy in particular. Certainly nobody could accuse them of pandering to the show’s target audience which again hearkens back to the Ventures being written for 30-somethings and watched by teenagers. At another moment in the commentary one of them says, “When it comes time to cut things down when we’re running long the jokes are the first to go.” And yet you still get fantastic absurdist stretches such as this (featuring Billy and ‘the nozzle’):

Lastly it should be pointed out that women are conspicuously absent from much of the show. It might be argued that perhaps they are just smarter than our heroes and know better than to engage in such a lifestyle as these men prefer. The women that do appear are largely victims of their own poor decisions, chief among them Dr. Girlfriend who really should know better by this point and Sally Impossible who for too long suffered under the hubris of her husband Richard (voiced originally by Stephen Colbert). Triana, like Hank and Dean themselves, is sort of off the hook, born into this mess and looking for a way out. Marriages are few here, and broken households many (when one your warmest relationships is between the Venture version of the Six Million Dollar man and a female sasquatch, well…) but these guys are too busy messing up their own lives that they may as well not ruin anyone else’s in the meantime. Venture pain is often the viewers fun and it is at least comforting to have a show where there is a bloody, bruised beating heart behind all the ultraviolence and ‘catch-the-geek-reference.’

Where to Start: The beginning. At only 13 episodes a season it’s easy to hop on and navigate the whole series.

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Responses

  1. you men and your adult swim. tsk, tsk!

  2. I de-tsk your scolding. Unlike some of their other adult swim programs this one isn’t purposefully ugly (a la Aqua Teen) or absurd (like, well, everything else). It is beautiful to look at and has some of the best adventure music around.

    But I could see how it *might* not be up your alley, Miss O.

  3. i’m not going to say that i would ever want to watch adult swim again but i am intrigued by how polarizing it is to women. and i’m sure there are some women who watch it but the ones i know who don’t are surprisingly vitriolic in their dislike. is that because one too many boys in college said, “you’ve GOT to watch this! you’ll LOVE it,” when really we weren’t ever meant to? or because there’s truly something about it that beyond or above or below “female” (though i’m leery of genderizing this) humor? i wonder that and then i wonder if, in wondering about any of this at all, somewhere candace and jay are smiling…

  4. Well there certainly isn’t any help for having something forced on you and being told you’ll love it. And your comment about Candace and Jay is funny but I do wonder myself. I always go back to the Mr Show litmus test. I’ve never once watched an episode with a woman who has found it funny, and yet, there are women who do like it, who do exist, at least online, which I suppose is a single step above hypothetical to the ‘unicorn’ level of do-they-exist-or-not-itude.

    All I know is I find the Venture Bros hilarious AND heartwarming all in one fell swoop. Which is more than I can say for Mr Show (as funny as it is).


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