I’ve been reluctant to write about this show because it’s so densely layered with stuff that I was sure I’d miss something and totally get called out on it. Well, after Brian’s lukewarm reaction to season 1 I can keep my silence no more.
The Venture Bros. chronicles the misadventures of the misanthropic Dr. Thaddeus Venture, his empty-headed sons Hank & Dean, and their murderous bodyguard Brock as they thwart the dastardly schemes of the butterfly costumed Monarch and his concubine, Dr. Girlfriend. What it’s really about is a miserable so-called super-scientist who will never live up to his father’s example, followed around by a pair of brothers home-schooled to the point of potentially lethal ignorance and a ludicrously overqualified government killing machine serving as their glorified babysitter.
Created by Jackson Publick (aka Christopher McCulloch), a former writer for The Tick, as a tenderly crafted satire of the adventure genre, the show seems to share a soul with the off-beat superhero cartoon. In fact, the creator of The Tick actually wrote a couple episodes of The Venture Bros. himself. While I can’t really remember how The Venture Bros. made it’s way onto my TV menu, that’s the most likely suspect.
I had been under the impression that The Venture Bros. had been influenced by a bunch of shows from the 60s, including Johnny Quest, but after doing a little digging, I realized that Johnny Quest is really all the show’s about. Turns out, I have a skewed picture of the TV landscape of that era. There are definitely other elements at play here, references to Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Apocalypse Now, Nancy Drew, Superman, Blade, The Fantastic Four, 2001… the list is endless, which is probably what I like so much about it.
Jackson Publick also does an admirable job of creating a structure to explain the symbiotic relationship between Heroes and Villains: the well-intentioned Office of Secret Intelligence & the malevolent Guild of Calamitous Intent assign each other archenemies and provide a comprehensive set of rules and etiquette to ensure a civilised arranged nemesis. This symbiotic relationship serves as the perfect “rational” explanation for this kind of protracted detente that conveniently offers viewers (of this and any number of other shows) the opportunity to watch new battles between good and evil every month, as well as why neither party winds up dead at the end of each episode.
The true strength of The Venture Bros. lies in its mastery of “gravitas”. It’s a show that so often gets mired down in the mundane aspects of life, but always manages to carry itself with the bearing that the whole world is about to come to an end. The music alone infuses the misadventures of Rusty, Brock, Hank & Dean with the kind of bone-chilling drama of shows (that may or may not have even existed) in the 60s. Also, the crazed histrionics of necromancer Dr. Orpheus regarding anything from extra-dimensional threats, to the ongoing junk mail delivered to his front door, give his scenes a comical sense of impending doom. It’s riveting!
While dramatic tales enhanced with gothic elements share in common an overhanging presence of death, the comedy of The Venture Bros. seems so much richer because of it’s ever-present stench of failure. The creators of The Venture Bros. have stated it is the central theme of the show, and you can see it in each of the characters, and even in the world that they inhabit where everything is steeped in a faded glory akin to “Epcot Centre’s World of Tomorrow”.
To paint a clearer picture of the kinds of failure I’m talking about, and to give you a better idea of who these characters are, I’ve comiled a brief list of the show’s main Characters, including their failures in life:
Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture:
The father of the titular Venture brothers and son of world famous scientist/adventurer Dr. Jonas Venture, Rusty is the product of a lifetime of perilous escapades and has been left jaded and pernicious. To date, he is one of the worst people I’ve ever seen on TV, even worse than Mr. Roper and Boss Hogg – having harvested his own sons’ organs without their knowledge and abandoned his friends in the jaws of certain death to win a bet. He is lazy, indifferent, self-centred, and somehow narcissistic and self-loathing at the same time. Rusty coasts on his family’s fame and lacks any particular talent of his own. He can often be found sporting cover-alls which he refers to as a “speed suit” and working in his lab trying to tinker with his father’s inventions and pass them off as his own. He is essentially a peek at what Johnny Quest would have turned out like growing up in the midst of all the danger,
A government killing machine on assignment to protect Dr. Venture (Operation: Rusty’s Blanket). One half Swedish, one quarter Polish, one quarter Winnebago, Samson loves his car, Led Zeppelin (note the sweet Icarus tat) and rough sex. As “the Venture family mule” he divides his time between fending off archenemies & henchmen and scheduling lice checks for the boys. While an impressively efficient death dealer and the only thing keeping the Venture family from certain death, his greatest work is actually a mark of shame, as he was assigned to protect Rusty as punishment for botching an important OSI assignment.
Hank & Dean Venture:
I know it might be weird that the titular characters have to share a post on this list, but there isn’t much about one that isn’t true about the other, except perhaps that Dean is the brainier one who looks & dresses like his Dad, while Hank could be considered to be the brawnier one and dresses like a cross between the Hardy Boys and Donald Duck. Having spent their whole lives on the Venture Compound, they have little to no understanding of how the outside world works, how to speak to girls, or what year it is. As far as the scope of their own personal failures, the only thing that keeps Hank alive from one episode to another is that his name is in the credits, otherwise his naive bravery and general incompetence would have gotten him killed long ago. He also has some kind of a bizarre juvenile fixation on Batman. Dean on the other hand has the good sense to be scared of just about everything; his biggest flaw is his creepy similarity to his father.
Dr. Byron Orpheus:
Necromancer, gentleman & Venture Compound tenant, Dr. Orpheus has a kinder demeanour than one would expect from a conduit of the supernatural forces of the other world. However, the darkness absent from his manner spills out in his tiradical outbursts, accompanied by an piercing musical score. Oddly enough, the Venture Compound’s resident master of the arcane is often the voice of reason and can often be called upon to babysit the boys or be begrudgingly asked by Dr. Venture for help as a last resort. Despite being attuned to the spiritual plane, Dr. Orpheus requires constant advice from his trans-dimensional mentor, and has apparently been left by his wife for a younger necromancer.
For a guy dressed like a giant butterfly, the guy carries around a lot of rage – almost all of it directed squarely at Dr. Venture. While it’s not clear exactly what bug flew up his nose to get him so upset (other than a butterfly, perhaps) it appears to have some kind of sexual connection as he once broke into the Venture compound’s laboratory and decided to defile one of Rusty’s robots by having sex with it. His eccentricity and twisted sense of showmanship is matched only by his complete inability to kill Dr. Venture, despite repeated attempts throughout the run of the show.
The woman who would eventually come to be known as “Dr. Mrs. The Monarch” looks a lot like Jaqueline Bouvier (even if she doesn’t know who that is) and sounds a lot like a trucker who’s inhaled a lifetime of diesel fumes, is probably the only completely competent character in the show. Despite her vocal handicap she has not only been wooed by The Monarch, but also by his archenemy Dr. Venture, and his arch-rival Phantom Limb. As the other head of The Monarch’s organization, she has his entire army of minions at her disposal, but also maintains her own henchmen Tim-Tom & Kevin, the Murderous Moppets. She is intelligent, ruthless and deadly and for some reason is attracted to a man with eyebrows the size of my feet. Fairly level-headed for a super-villainess, she is probably the only reason The Monarch hasn’t been entirely consumed by his inexplicable need to destroy Dr. Venture, and by consequence (much like Brock) her failure is essentially by association.
21 & 24:
These guys are pretty much the yin to the Venture brothers’ yang. As The Monarch’s most trusted henchmen (and by trusted, I mean the guys who somehow keep escaping death at the hands of Brock Samson) they play an integral role in all of The Monarch’s schemes. 21 is only overweight minion of The Monarch and is an avid collector of comics and comic book memorabilia. 24 distinguishes himself from the herd with his Ray Romano-esque voice and defeatist attitude. These guys might actually be bigger morons than the Venture brothers considering they don’t have a lifetime of home schooling to blame on their nincompoopery. Barely aware of their surroundings (yet somehow aware of the narrative structures that keep them alive each episode) 21′s & 22′s failings are the most entertaining thing about them.
Could it be the best cartoon ever made? Well, no. That distinction clearly belongs to The Simpsons, but The Venture Bros. ought to be considered one of the most clever, insightful, subversive and satirical cartoon I’ve ever seen. It embodies everything that I love about “grown up” cartoons (I’m not calling it “adult” ’cause it’s not Fritz the Cat.) from the crude humour to the obscure references and the back-of-your-mind postmodern touches. As a parting gift, I invite you to check out this montage of some classic 21 & 24 moments to give you a real feeling for the absurdity of the show. Happy watching!