You’d think designing a show almost purely to mock and taunt things I love would more or less instantly earn my hatred. Well almost instantly. Well in some cases almost five seasons. But Big Bang Theory is small potatoes compared to the sort of show that would go out of it’s way to torture genres the writers of Big Bang haven’t even heard of into unrecognizable shapes. What if the show had an awful sense of cruelty to it too? Taking simple jokes at the expense of nerdy mainstays and stretching them into seasons worth of world building? Taking far less simple jokes at the expense of the previously hinted at sort of nerdy-things-the-Big-Bang-Theory-writers-have-yet-to-stumble-across-on-Wikipedia and crafting precisely barbed mockery in the form of a twenty minute TV episode? Well then you’d know the people behind the show were nerds too.
Then you’d have Venture Bros.
I’m actually pretty supportive of things that mock and ridicule the kind of properties that us nerds still have to defend. So long as the humour (not all the humour, obviously, most of it should come from the characters) stems from deconstruction. You want a joke built around some sort of objectively ridiculous or oft-overlooked aspect of these things. You don’t want a character to merely reference these things while a hollow laugh track loops overtop. When a show can delve deeper into these properties it betrays the creators own nerdy leanings.
Of course that’s not the only thing that makes Venture Bros great. What makes the show great is the strong core thematics, impeccable writing, well realized characters, and brilliant concepts. Some of this stems from riffing on pre-existing characters and genre tropes, but much of it doesn’t.
I guess I’ll get into some more particular thoughts about the show.
The core thematics are super duper great. That’s something that can really make or break a show. Past even the writers knowing where the show is going simply knowing what the show needs to be about on an episode to episode basis can lend the entire series a sense of purpose and consistency and depth that would otherwise be missing. Ripped from the mouths of the show’s creators:
“It’s about the beauty of failure. It’s about that failure happens to all of us…Every character is not only flawed, but sucks at what they do, and is beautiful at it and Jackson and I suck at what we do, and we try to be beautiful at it, and failure is how you get by…It shows that failure’s funny, and it’s beautiful and it’s life, and it’s okay, and it’s all we can write because we are big…failures.” (Doc Hammer)
“This show… If you’ll permit me to get ‘big picture’, this show is actually all about failure. Even in the design, everything is supposed to be kinda the death of the space-age dream world. The death of the jet-age promises.” (Jackson Publick)
It’s this consistent thematic bent that really elevates the show past it’s zany concepts and nerdy jokes.
Which, okay, are great:
Phantom Limb: You’ve done it, Richard! You’ve replicated my original machine to a T! I’m whole again!
Prof. Impossible: [In supervillianous costume] The name’s not Richard anymore, Hamilton. From now on, I’m Professor…Incorrigible!
Phantom Limb: Ooh…
Prof. Impossible: Professor…Indolent?
Phantom Limb: Ugh!
Prof. Impossible: Professor Infamous.
Phantom Limb: Mm…ah…
Prof. Impossible: Professor Indo-China!
Phantom Limb: They’re all a bit…forced…
Prof. Impossible: Professor Inscrutable?
That exchange is between a character who’s plainly a riff on Mr. Fantastic. He’s a manipulative dick. His wife has to concentrate to prevent her epidermis from turning invisible. Their version of the Human Torch ignites upon contact with air, and it hurts when he burns. Their version of the Thing is a rocky retard. It’s all fairly cruel and hilarious. The other character is a member of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.
The Guild is one of the shows more inspired concepts. Basically it’s the organization responsible for regulating and assigning people supervillains to “arch.” It sort of starts as a throw away joke explaining why Dr. Venture’s nemesis, The Monarch, is so constrained in his methods of attack. As the show went on the concept was expanded upon, granted a history, and excessive quantities of world building. The Guild was formed to use a mysterious device known as the Orb, but split when some of the members wanted to use it for evil. They took their new name from a phrase Oscar Wilde used to describe them in the moment of their rebellion.
Eventually Dr. Ventures father sat them down and helped them write a series of laws and regulations surrounding arching and supervillains. All kinds of rules around the procedures for ransoming, when villains are allowed to attack, and what they have to do if their enemy is suffering from a medical emergency. They’re led by a mysterious council who serves under a mysterious ruler. Who turns out to be David Bowie. The Guild has a counterpoint, OSI,who initially didn’t believe the Guild existed but now deal with them a lot. There’s also a third organization, Sphinx (Sphinx!), who are basically a rogue organization who deals with issues the others don’t. Sphinx is led by an ex-post-op transsexual version of Hunter S. Thompson. There are a lot of parodies at play at any given moment on this show.
The main supervillain character is The Monarch, who works with his partner Dr. Girlfriend(later Dr. Mrs. The Monarch) and his monarch henchman. Two of the henchman end up becoming recurring characters:
Dr. Mrs. The Monarch: I gotta ask this, is there a reason why you are always using 21 and 24?
The Monarch: I know it sounds crazy, but they both have the rare blend of expendable and invulnerable that makes them the perfect henchmen.
The henchmen are basically nerds who wanted to be henchmen and are consequently fairly aware of this trope:
Henchman 21: You still don’t get it. 24 and I have been on, like, a thousand missions. We’ve been shot at, dipped in acid…
Henchman 24: Brock Samson hit me with a car. Drove right into my kidney. Here I am!
Henchman 21: Yeah, we can walk across this floor and nothing would hit us. But then like this huge log would swing down and take your head off.
Henchman 24: Hey, here; what’s your name?
Henchman 1: Henchman number 1.
Henchman 24: See, you are nameless.
Henchman 1: I’m Scott Hall, my name is Scott Hall. Okay?
Henchman 24: No, won’t help.
Henchman 21: Yeah, now it’s just pathos. So you’re dying in my lap and I’m all “Scott! Scott don’t you quit on us! Don’t you dare!!”
Henchman 24: You just made your unavoidable death more pathetic.
Henchman 21: (pause) Fuck it. (begins walking across a laser tripwired floor) Nothing’s gonna happen to me.
The show actually has some really awesome character development with Henchman 21 later on in the show that sees him getting pretty badass. But back to the Monarch. The Monarch’s parents died in a plane crash and he ended up being raised by monarch butterflies. Basically this meant he spent a lot of time following them around until they migrated and died. He hates Dr. Venture for an unexplained reason and is both the least effective and most effective villain on the show.
There’s also a cavalcade of magicians led by a character who’s basically Doctor Strange. He occasionally fights crime with a small gay Asian monk and a spoof of Blade who only hunts Blackulas. The magician, Orpheus, has a mysterious boss who lives in his daughters closet. He may or may not be Satan, changed his form to impart a different lesson via metaphor each time he appears, and is played by the wonderful H Jon Benjamin.
The show also parodies old pulp adventure characters, James Bond/Sean Connery, the “unborn twin living inside the other sibling” trope, Scooby-Doo (“Patty, being out of your box isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. Baby, you don’t wanna go back in your box, do you?”), aliens, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, sidekicks, Dr. Doom (Baron Von Underbheit), the Fantastic Four, Hitler, Hunter S Thompson, SHIELD, Dracula, Frankenstein, mummies, Johnny Quest, time travel, cloning, spy tropes, space adventures, and more. It’s just a non-stop barrage of brilliantly contextualized references and parodies.
One of my favourite characters is Dr. Henry Killinger, the accented, menacing figure with a “Magic Murder Bag.” Killinger is a wonderfully understanding and helpful figure. Near-charitable in fact:
Dr. Killinger: Forgive me, but the problem is one of planning, not one of armament. Mr. The Monarch already has a dazzling armory. What he needs is a strategist. A man of his prestige cannot simply go after an enemy all willy-nilly.
#21: You can’t give an enema a free willy what?
The Monarch: Shut up, 21. You might learn something from this guy.
Dr. Killinger: What you need is a second-in-command who understands the intricacies of organized villainy. This I can offer you.
The Monarch: Perfect! You’re hired, uh… number…
Dr. Killinger: Number Killinger. Doctor Henry Killinger. And this is my Magic Murder Bag.
Dr. Killinger: (to the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend) Love is not private. Love is to be shared. I’ve locked you in. Neither of you may leave until you have reached compromise. Good luck, and may love show you the way. [opens his umbrella and begins to ascend toward the ceiling] Say goodbye to all your pretty children for me.
Dr. Henry Killinger: You will never be able to reach your full potential until you first confront your deep-seated fear of success. Now get into the bag.
Dr. Venture: What’s in it?
Dr. Henry Killinger: Only what you take with you.
Isn’t that the best?
The show’s soundtrack is also great, by the by. JG Thirwell does the show’s music, and it’s a pitch perfect imitation of the kind of soundtracks that the properties the shows spoofs have. JG Thirwell is a musician in his own right. He’s released a number of albums under different names, all for some reason incorporating the word Foetus. These include Foetus, Foetus Interuptus, Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel, and my personal favourite: You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath. I haven’t listened to everything he’s put out, but what I have listened to is utterly amazing. From Pitchfork:
Jim Thirlwell was always on the outside, even when he was briefly “in.” A consummate refusenik, Thirlwell chafed against the one scene, industrial, that would have him as a member. Thirty years later, with Hide, Thirlwell’s music is still impossible to place. Mixing astringent 21st-century composition with the nauseous beauty of psychedelia at its least smiley-faced, Hide‘s got no real kin in the current indie ferment of stripped-down 1990s revivalism and sunny indie pop. But though Hide is less hideous and more sumptuous than the records which made Foetus’ reputation, it remains a unpredictable, horrific, and beautiful mix.
Which sort of brings me into my next point: the show’s crafting is amazing. It’s an incredibly small team that works on it. It’s traditionally animated (digitally, but drawn frame by frame) and an entire season takes over a year to make. The voice actors (many doing double duty, either behind the scenes or voicing other characters) are all pitch perfect. Some of the visuals are pretty wicked, like the episode in part told through the literal POV of a henchman who gets killed, resurrected, killed again, and resurrected again.
What really, really makes the show work is the characters though. Take the characters of Dean and Hank, Dr. Ventures sons. These characters were slightly stagnant through the first three seasons or so of the show. This was largely because they’d been stuck at the same age for a couple of years. See the boys were a little “death-prone” and every time they’d die Venture would just stick their memories in a new clone. In season four they actually age and try to lead lives. The show totally follows through on the logical consequences of one of the shows earlier jokes – the boys are entirely educated by outdated recordings Venture’s Dad built into their beds:
Triana Orpheus: So how come I never see you at school?
Dean: (with a hint of fear) I’m kind of home tutored in a box my pop made, (looks down with a more frightened tone) it sometimes gets very hot in the box… my pop made.
Triana: Wow. That’s, um… that’s screwy. (notices his face, which has gone blank) Crap, did I upset you?
Dean: (blankly) Penguins have a gland above their eyes that converts seawater to freshwater.
Not exactly easy to get into college when your transcript was printed out of a bed. Dean especially gets a solid arc in season four, as he struggles with his Dad’s attempts to push him towards Super-Science. Dean wants to be a boy reporter. Meanwhile Hank tries to join Sphinx, and loses his virginity to his only friend’s sister, who he later finds out his Dad impregnated years before, and that his friend is actually his half-brother. Brock wipes his mind after this. Dean slowly gets over his crush on Triana. Hank learns how to cope without Brock.
Did I talk about Brock Sampson yet? He’s one of the show’s funniest characters. He’s the Ventures’ OSI hired bodyguard. A ruthless killer, maniac, and a pseudo mother figure to the boys. He’s played by Patrick Warburton (The Tick!). His mix of sincerity and menace and bouts of hilarious and over-the-top violence make for a hilarious character.
Dr. Venture: (about “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”) Brock, I am this close to seeing Dolly’s goods. I mean, they can’t sing forever. Honestly, this nonsense happens once a week. I’m not gonna… Why are you naked?
Brock: To prey on their fear, move like an animal, to feel the kill.
Dr. Venture: Alright, now you’re scaring me. What’s going on?
Brock: I dunno. (holding the decapitated head of a guild henchman) But judging from these goggles, it’s The Guild. Seems like you made it to the big league, what’d you do?
Dr. Venture: Nothing! I was just sitting here, watching the worst porno ever. Is that a head?
Brock: Strange, you almost can’t feel it. No, don’t move. The knife is still in you, the blade right between the kidney and the spleen, just a twitch…
Guild Stranger: It feels almost…cold…
Brock: You tell me your target and I slide the knife out. You might live. Or-
Guild Stranger: Blackout. Four and a robot.
Brock: Good boy.
Guild Stranger: I think you may have got the kidney. I don’t want to die alone. (cough) Don’t…don’t go.
Brock: I don’t think I hit your kidney…
Guild Stranger: No you…no you totally did. (cough) Please… please hold me…
Brock: Look, I’m pretty sure I missed the kidney, I mean you could bleed to death in like four hours, but uh…
Guild Stranger: I-I see a tunnel. I’m scared. Could you… could you stroke my hair?
Brock: All right, look, you are not gonna-
Guild Stranger: Then could you sing to me? Could you sing a Technotronic song? Maybe… “Pump Up The Jam”?
Brock: I don’t know-
Guild Stranger: What about “Move This”!? Do you know that one!?!?
Brock: (sigh, then starting to sing) Baby, let me…
Dean: Any advice, you know, this being our first big date and all?
Brock: Yeah. (Throws corsage from Dean’s lap out the window)
Brock: No. Don’t pull out her chair, kiss her hand, or anything like that — it’s kind of dorky. Just be yourself. Wait, here, take this (his wallet). It’s got plenty of money in there, and it doesn’t have a cartoon bee on it. Don’t let them pay for anything, and if you end up going to, like, a movie or something, you call me on the two-way, okay?
Hank: What about me? Any advice to help me score with my mystery date?
Brock: Yeah, don’t say “score” or anything close to “mystery date” in front of her, and don’t do that “do you like seafood” joke either.
Hank: Can do, ’cause she would totally know that joke already.
His connection to the OSI brings the show a whole host of other weird characters, including the ex-ex-gay-anti-gay-crusader (who has now dropped his cover and is back out of the closet) Shoreleave, the aforementioned Hunter S Thompson parody, the OSI’s slightly manic general, Molotov Cocktease (the Russian spy and Brock’s romantic interest….sort of).
At this point on the show Brock’s no longer their bodyguard. Instead that role has been filled by their ex-arch Sergeant Hatred. The Sergeant is also a “cured” pedophile and hates the Monarch a whole lot.
Someone on the show might have a weird fear of dwarves though (not a serious accusation just an observation). One pretty important character is Jonas Venture, Dr. Venture’s deformed twin brother. He’s kind of a douche. There are also two incredibly creepy Monarch henchmen who go by the name “The Murderous Moppets.”
I’m going to leave you guys with this:
Dr. Venture: (waking up from a bizarre dream) Oh, I thought I was done with those crappy dreams.
Grand Galactic Inquisitor: That was a weird one.
Venture: Great, you can read my mind.
Grand Galactic Inquisitor: IGNORE ME! (pause) Yes, I can.