[5 March 2014]
For all the popularity that The Venture Bros. has enjoyed over the past 11 years, the show may still qualify as Adult Swim’s best best-kept-secret. What started out as a hilarious self-aware parody of Jonny Quest created by former The Tick writer Christopher McCulloch (aka: Jackson Publick) and Goth Rock musician Eric “Doc” Hammer has become an ingenious pop-culture collective with the absolute best continuity on television.
The evolution of the storyline and each individual character (going far beyond Hank and Dean, the ostensible title characters) has been as fascinating as it has been logical. Minor and one-off characters have become featured players, central conceits of the show have been destroyed and replaced, and layer after layer after layer of history and in-story mythos have been added over the previous four esoteric seasons, making this show a comic book and cartoon geek’s dream come true.
At the same time, however, The Venture Bros. is so damned well-written, hilarious and engrossing that this show can be immediately addictive to just about anyone who stays tuned through any given three consecutive episodes. That said, the very evolution that makes The Venture Bros. great also has the potential to make the show inaccessible to new fans with its dense layering. This is especially true in Season 5, in which the fractured Venture family is all over the map, figuratively and literally.
The Venture clan (at least those still surviving into the current lineup) includes the two oblivious Venture teens, Hank and Dean (voiced by Christopher McCulloch and Michael Sinterniklaas, respectively) and their super-scientist failure of a father Doctor Thaddeus Venture (voiced by James Urbaniak). As the seasons have progressed, we have learned that he was once “Rusty Venture”, a Jonny Quest analogue who has grown up into a shadow of his father. The family’s bodyguard and babysitter, Brock Samson (voiced by Patrick Warburton), has long since taken his old job back at the O.S.I (Office of Secret Intelligence) and the family’s pet robot is now sharing a body with a giant, spider-like walking eye (after temporarily slumming as Brock’s artificial heart).
The family’s new bodyguard and babysitter happens to be the Ventures’ erstwhile arch nemesis Sgt. Hatred (McCulloch) while the family’s most prominent arch nemesis, The Monarch (also McCulloch) has recently lost his best henchman Gary (formerly known as Henchman 21 and voiced by Hammer) has defected to an organization called S.P.H.I.N.X., the former super-terrorist team turned crime-fighting agency (until all of its members, save Gary, re-defected back to O.S.I.).
Doc Venture rallies the troops as Hatred, Dean and Hank look on.
If this sounds like one hell of a lot of continuity to catch up on, then you’re absolutely right. This is where Season 5 kicks off brilliantly. As Doc Venture’s pint-sized brother Jonas Venture, Jr. (who was once a tumorous absorbed twin in the other man’s body, not kidding) employs his ineffectual sibling to create a radiation shield for the family’s Space Station, the artist formerly known as Rusty accidentally creates a colony of mutants just as the Monarch attacks while bodyguard Hatred has been kidnapped. This all takes place during the double-sized season premiere “What Color is your Cleansuit?”
If that’s not enough bizarreness for one season, Publick and Hammer soon prove that they are quite possibly the biggest fans of their own show with the re-visitation of the reanimated amalgamated corpse (turned jungle commando) known as “Venturestein” in the episode “Venture Libre”. The geek fest continues in the hilarious G.I. Joe vs. Cobra spoof “SPHINX Rising”, featuring McCulloch’s dead-on impression of the late Chris Latta’s Cobra Commander from the G.I. Joe cartoons.
One of the funniest (and best) episodes of the season is “Spanakopita!”, which brings together the heroic past and laughable present of “Team Venture”, all surrounding the hilariously oblivious adult Rusty Venture and the “traditional” Greek island celebration that gives this episode its name. Carnivale, this is not!
“O.S.I Love You” is another excellent episode revolving around Brock Samson, the O.S.I. team (including two time sex-change operation patient Colonel Hunter Gathers) facing off with the villainous Monstruoso and Molotov Cocktease (who also happens to be the love of Brock’s life) on the O.S.I.’s S.H.I.E.L.D.-spoofing Helicarrier. “O.S.I. Love you” is at once the most esoteric and fan pleasing episode for all of the exact same reasons.
This great episode is immediately countermanded by the Doc Hammer-penned “Momma’s Boys”, which centers around the Venture Bros.’s rumored biological mother Myra and the madhouse she now surrounds herself in. While “Momma’s Boys” shares much of the same dense geek humor as “O.S.I. Love You”, it can be so dense at times that it barely makes any sense.
After watching the entire season four times (yes, I am that guy), I’m still confused as to how the character who sounds like Teddy Ruxpin could possibly have known who Doc Venture was, considering the fact that Doc Venture actually befriended a Teddy Ruxpin doll. That said, for all of the strangeness of “Momma’s Boys”, this episode holds its place in the overarching Venture Bros. continuity by revealing the true parentage of more than one character and muddying the waters for a few others.
“Bot Seeks Bot” offers a behind-the-scenes look at the private and social lives of the secret cabal behind The Guild of Calamitous Intent. As one of The Council of Thirteen embarks upon a homosexual date with a fellow robot, Brock, O.S.I.’s Shore Leave (Hammer), Doc Venture and the hydrocephalic dwarf Master Billy Quizboy (also Hammer) crash a supervillain disco party and kick off a series of events that leads to what could have been one hell of a cliffhanger for the entire season. It could have been, had there not been one more episode to go.
In the penultimate episode of the series, “The Devil’s Grip”, the Monarch and the beautiful (though masculine-voiced) Dr. Mrs. the Monarch (formerly “Doctor Girlfriend”, as voiced by Hammer) finally have victory in their grubby paws, but the now dejected Hatred and Gary may, through no valid fault (or credit) of their own, may just have some impact on the game’s outcome, even as the Monarch delivers one of the best (and most telling) episodes of the season “Who the FUCK is Gary?”
Yes, the new Blu-ray release of The Venture Bros. Season Five is even more hilarious in its uncensored form with no bleeps covering up the popping dialogue its creators have formulated. Even in the minor flaws, true fans can cite their trust in the show’s writers to deliver a fantastic continuing story, even with the most shocking and strange moments stacking up (the title characters technically died in the season finalé of season one). While certain unanswered questions remain and “The Devil’s Grip” doesn’t quite feel like the cliffhanger season finalé that the ending of “Bot Seeks Bot” might have been, fans of the show will be hardly able to resist tuning in as soon as possible. That said, five seasons in ten years sometimes makes for an interminable wait.
This wait can be, in part, alleviated by repeated viewings of the season and repeated samplings of the truly excellent especial features on the fifth season’s disc. These include two specials, the mockumentary “From the Ladle to the Grave: The Shallow Gravy Story” (documenting the rise and fall of Hank and pal Dermott’s weird rock band Shallow Gravy) and the excellent off-season episode “A Very Venture Halloween” (the entirety of which takes place during the first commercial break of “What Color is your Cleansuit?”). “A Very Venture Halloween” is one of the best treats of the disc, with or without commentary due to its revelations about the series on the whole, smart continuity and droll dialogue and references (don’t miss the guest-spot by voice actor H. John Benjamin).
And while the disc does contain several deleted scenes and one greatly funny extended scene, the biggest draw of this collection (and what separates the Blu-ray’s value from that of simply streaming the video online) is the commentary by Publick and Hammer. From Season One, the guys have given commentaries that manage to be at least as funny as the show itself, with often profane observances, even more obscure references, complete digressions from anything relating to the show and frequent revelations about the creators themselves (the guys can’t even agree with each other on the show they make their livelihood creating).
The Venture Bros. is the impossibly rare case of a commentary track being enjoyed as often as the show itself. Hammer and Publick’s constant riffing and stream of consciousness storytelling (find out which one Winona Ryder bummed a cigarette from under what circumstances) make for a remarkably entertaining time in front of your flat screen.
The only problem is that these extras are so damned good that every fan will be left wanting more as if every episode and feature contains an addictive cliffhanger. After this long, fans have learned to trust in Doc and Jackson, especially as both have repeatedly delivered in every season. While the extras here are fantastic and enhance the main featured episodes (even and especially upon repeated viewing), the episodes are (and ought to be) the main draw for the Blu-ray purchase.
Luckily the episodes are excellent and any seeming flaw can be explained as an actual anticipatory hint at (or cliffhanger toward) future excellent episodes. Even as probably the funniest show on television, The Venture Bros. has the continuity and engrossing storylines to stand it up with the likes of Lost, The Prisoner and the most engrossing sagas on television. Without hyperbole, Venture Bros. is the best television show currently airing on television.