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Cartoon Graveyard: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

October 22, 2009

cartoongraveyard

The Squelch is nothing if not a hive of conformity and authoritarian oppression, so it should come as no surprise that our respective pop-culture obsessions tend to overlap. Much of the staff have spent the last year or so orgasming over The Wire, our mutual hatred of Family Guy is legendary, and sooner or later every new recruit must face the Dog Police, whom I shall leave a mystery to the uninitiated. Editors in particular tend to merge personalities after a while, and one of the many ways in which David and I are essentially the same person now is our slavish devotion to this week’s series and Best Show On Television candidate, The Venture Brothers, which started its fourth season this past Sunday.

Title: The Venture Brothers

Network: Adult Swim (Cartoon Network)

Premise (via David): What if Jonny Quest grew up and wasn’t as good as his father?

I feel a little silly writing about a show about which David composed so elegant a hagiography, but I feel I should fill in the details for those who haven’t seen it. The titular Venture Brothers are the twin sons of Doctor Rusty Venture, a former boy adventurer in the Quest mold whose famous, super-competent father mysteriously died many years ago. In the intervening time, Rusty has taken up the family super-science business and, frankly, sucks at it. The family, guarded by he-man killing machine Brock Samson, deals with ridiculous takes on already-ridiculous adventure-show clichés, in particular a butterfly-themed supervillain known only as The Monarch. That’s the basic premise of the show, but putting it so pat is to do the complexity of the whole enterprise a disservice. Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, the masterminds of the show, have filled in an enormous supporting cast of indelible characters, from incredibly silly supervillains to retired adventurers and wannabe super-scientists. The Venture family themselves can entirely disappear from focus for entire episodes without the show becoming any less compelling.

David’s post casts a shadow over my own akin to the legacy of Doctor Jonas Venture forever oppressing his son Rusty, so I have to keep referring back to it. David went into some detail about the show’s theme of failure, how everyone has to face it and realize it’s not the worst thing in the world. He’s right, but I’d also like to highlight another theme the show explores very well: the interplay of the ludicrous and the mundane, a topic I’ve copped to being a sucker for. All the characters in the show are in some way caught between the banality of day-to-day existence and the batshit nonsense that living in a Jonny Quest world entails. The different ways they react to this dichotomy informs much of their characters. Doctor Venture sees the unusual as an unwelcome intrusion into his life, but one he’s grown up with and has learned to anticipate and hopefully exploit. His son Dean is utterly unprepared for weirdness and has yet to learn not to be scared of it. In the season two finale, for example, he is so unable to deal with a scary situation that his mind conjures up a new reality for himself, consisting of a hilarious parody of your standard chosen-one-saves-the-princess fantasy. His brother Hank, on the other hand, commits wholeheartedly to the clichés and tropes of their world, but rarely to the correct one. These dynamics provide an avalanche of comic material, playing the one world against the other for tremendous effect. One bravura episode consists mostly of Doctor Venture making a stupid bet with local necromancer Doctor Orpheus, intercut with brief scenes of Brock and the boys on an adventure that gets more and more insanely complicated as it goes on with no explanation whatsoever. The concept of exploring how people would really react to common sci-fi and fantasy tropes is practically a cliché itself now, but The Venture Brothers happens to do it really, really well.

Mourn ya 'til I join ya.

Mourn ya 'til I join ya.

So, having made my pitch, I’ll move on to the current state of Ventureland. (To those who haven’t watched this show yet, I’ll be getting into spoiler country ahead, so fair warning. Say, why are you reading this instead of watching the first three seasons? Go watch them right now!) At the end of season three, we saw a massive melee on the Venture compound. All of the boys’ clones were destroyed, Brock and Sgt. Hatred quit their respective jobs, and beloved loser Henchman 24 lost his life in a mysterious explosion (note: my money’s on the moppets, those tiny little bastards). Season four’s premiere doesn’t answer many of the questions that raised, but it does prove Publick and Hammer’s storytelling chops. Moving haphazardly through time, with only Hank’s growing hair and a mysterious counter in the corner to mark chronology, we see the aftermath of the battle. Sgt. Hatred, apparently purged of his problematic pedophilia, has taken Brock’s place as Venture bodyguard and has his hands full earning the boys’ trust and dealing with a crew of Nazis who want to use the cloning machine to resurrect Hitler. Henchman 21 is on a quest to resurrect his dead best friend, by science or magic, and Brock is on the run from OSI and seeking vengeance against his former mentor and off-and-on girlfriend who betrayed him. Whew. That’s a lot of story for one episode, but the unstuck-in-time structure works extremely well to keep it together. Having seen the outcome of several scenes, it’s easier to keep track of the plot and see how details in earlier events shape our understanding of the later ones we’ve already seen. The episode also takes as its theme the first issue of Marvel Comics, which seems like showing off at this point. Also in play are the show’s trademark wordplay, unexpected but wonderful character interaction, and the aforementioned split between worlds. It takes some brainwork to figure out exactly what’s going on, but I can’t wait to see where this is all going.

Final Judgment: Watch this show! Watch it now! Go go go go go!

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