Venture Bros.

Post-Mortem: Venture Brothers – Season 3 (Aug 26)

The Venture Bros. wrapped up an excellent third season on Adult Swim this week. As we’ve come to expect, hilarity and carnage abounded. Around these parts, we like to conduct a post-mortem on the season to see what we’ve learned. And considering we learned how you can use a live shark as a weapon, that’s a pretty tall order here.

Much of Season Three was about the building of a mythology and the destruction of myths. Venutre Bros. has incorporated a strong continuity from the beginning, but this season turned it into a generational saga. In the episode, “ORB”, we see a flashback to the early 1900’s, with Dr. Venture’s grandfather, Eugene Sandow, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, and others battling Nikola Tesla. And the mysterious orb of the title turns out to be an artifact that influenced three generation of Ventures. In fact, the backstory of the series started to reach Lost levels with the flashbacks that linked various characters. It may not be important that the Alchemist and Bud Manstrong served together in the Boys Brigade, but it certainly fleshes out their universe a little more.

And like Lost, a flashback exploring the past of Billy Quizboy (a hydrocephalic dwarf) gave a silly character a tragic backstory, including linking him to the Phantom Limb, Season Two’s major villain. It’s a connection that had been a running joke in previous seasons, but creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer finally explored it and turned into a legitimately heartbreaking episode. Instead of using their continuity as a foundation to make jokes funnier, they began to use it as a way to make their characters deeper. And considering the number of characters on the show who dress like butterflies, that’s really saying something.

But as the mythology grows, some of the old myths have to be destroyed. Doc Venture’s father, the late Jonas Venture, had previously always been portrayed as an untouchable role model. For two seasons, we’d never seen Jonas as anything but a paragon of virtue. In fact, one of the main themes of the series has been Doc’s inability to live up to that standard.

Back in his father’s heyday, Doc was Rusty Venture, Boy Adventurer. He was the coolest kid in the world, sort of a real-life (well, within the context of the series) Jonny Quest. He was a kid who rode pterodactyls and made friends with Lava Men. And then Rusty grew up into a bitter failure, popping pills to get through the day and cannibalizing his father’s inventions for military contracts, haunted by the example of the man he could never be.

But this season, we found out that Jonas Venture was not the hero we’d always seen him as. Those cool adventures of Rusty’s were really absolutely horrifying cases of child endangerment. Jonas was a great scientist, but a rotten father and a lousy human being. This season we saw him tormenting his son by walking around the kitchens and exposing himself. (In one of the best jokes of the season, poor Rusty is eating “Alpha Dog” cereal while his father’s exposed penis is only inches away.) He hosted swing parties for his unsavory friends, and used punch cards as a substitute for interacting with his son. This season, we saw him leave a group of orphans to die after a gas attack under his compound. We saw an arrogant, chauvinistic, mean-spirited racist. Frankly, it’s a miracle that Rusty turned out as well as he did. It was a bold move to tear down a legend they’d spent two seasons building, but they pulled it off and managed to make both Doc and Jonas more interesting characters in the process.

Another important theme for the season was that of parentage. The world of The Venture Bros. is almost completely free of mothers. Prior to this season, the only mothers in the series were Sally Impossible, and that was more about making the Fantastic Four parody more accurate, and Bud Manstrong’s mother, who was necessary to do a Manchurian Candidate homage. This season introduced Dr. Quymn, Rusty’s childhood girlfriend. In a flashback, we met Quymn’s mother, and in the present, her twin daughters. In both cases there, the fathers are unknown, though it’s heavily implied that Jonas is Dr. Quymn’s father. And yes, that makes it a very creepy episode indeed. Still, other than the Quymn family, the series is free of mothers.

The Venture Brothers themselves, Hank and Dean, don’t know their mother. Since, unbeknownst to them, they’re actually clones (Realizing his children were “death-prone”, Doc cloned them so he’s always got a spare set when something goes wrong.), it’s possible that they don’t actually have a mother. And since the timeline of the series makes it clear that Doc has had sex exactly once, if they have a mother, she’s Doc’s psychotic ex-bodyguard. And Doc’s mother has never been established, either. We learned this season that Jonas pretty much spread it around, but in an old interview with Dick Cavett, Jonas referred to his son as his “greatest invention”. So it’s entirely possible that Doc himself is an artificial creation.

The closest thing to a major mother figure in the series is the Venture’s robot, H.E.L.P.eR. Early on, we saw that the robot is emotional, devoted to the family, and also mildly superstitious. (Not that superstition is a characteristic of motherhood, it’s just a funny trait for a robot.) In flashbacks, H.E.L.P.eR. babysits young Rusty. In the only shot of Hank and Dean as babies, guess who’s holding them. The robot. H.E.L.P.eR. raised two generation of Ventures, and was definitely the only one who ever showed Rusty any affection.

Another mother figure appeared this season, a computer designed by Jonas named M.O.T.H.E.R. She appears only in a single episode, but we saw her argue with Jonas over how to raise Rusty. Perhaps the idea is that Jonas saw women as objects, so he could only trust his son with a woman who literally was an object. It seems he couldn’t even deal with a woman that he programmed, because he shut her down decades ago. Again, it’s amazing that Doc turned out as well as he did.

Perhaps the lack of mothers is due to the fact that in Venture Bros., women are almost never the butt of the joke. It’s a show about failure. The Monarch is a potentially threatening super-villain, but he’s rendered almost impotent by hatred and remains laughable because of his butterfly obsession. Henchmen 21 and 24 don’t even know how their gear works and are more likely to argue about whether Smurfs lay eggs than to secure the perimeter. Even a largely competent character like Jefferson Twilight (Blacula Hunter!) wets his pants in fear before the season is over. With the exception of Brock Samson, the Ventures’ bodyguard, the sympathetic men on the show are all failures to one extent or another. Sure, sometimes they transcend their own comedically pathetic natures to achieve greatness, but it’s a difficult battle.

Actually, it occurs to me that the male characters who are good at what they do are the characters that we’re not supposed to like. Yes, the Monarch is a villain, but he’s as popular as any of the heroes. But the Murder Moppets are savage, efficient killers. We don’t like them, and we’re not supposed to. It’s not that they aren’t funny, but nobody would be sad if they got killed at some point. The Phantom Limb was a brilliant strategist and legitimate threat, so of course the Season Two finale had to unite all of the other characters against him. Jonas Venture, super-scientist extraordinaire, is just a rotten guy. Dr. Impossible is a genius, but he’s also an arrogant ass who ends up on a downward spiral. Talent is the enemy in the Venture Universe.

The major female characters, on the other hand, are very good at what they do, and still sympathetic. Molotov Cocktease is an assassin who’s just as skilled as Brock Samson, and the season finale seems to set her up as a major presence for next season. Dr. Quymn came this close to curing cancer, until Doc screwed everything up. Dr. Mrs. The Monarch (formerly Dr. Girlfriend) is the most intelligent and competent individual in the Monarch’s criminal organization. Triana Orpheus, Dean’s sort-of girlfriend (and another motherless character) is a normal, sort of cool teenage girl, seemingly unaffected by the fact that her father is a Necromancer. Miraculously, the show never turns to “Battle of the Sexes” style comedy. The women aren’t placed on a pedestal, but they’re definitely higher on the bell curve than the men. But for that reason, it makes more sense for the characters to have fathers. A good mother isn’t nearly as funny as a crappy father, after all.

The two-part season finale “The Family that Slays Together, Stays Together” put all of this aside for a glorious hour of carnage. With Brock pursued by a trio of assassins (one of whom had the near perfect name of “Herr Trigger”) and disowned by his employers at the Office of Secret Intelligence, and the Monarch readying for a final assault on the Ventures, it was all-out action. And here, Doc and Jackson did something really clever: they upped the ante.

I firmly believe that Venture Bros. has the highest body count of any television show in history. Brock tears through armies of henchmen like some sort of mulleted murder tornado, but the major characters are pretty much indestructible. Once Hank and Dean were revealed to be clones, it lowered the stakes. If anything happens to them, Doc just had to power up a new pair and they could start fresh. If the boys weren’t so likeable, it would be hard to care when they’re in a predicament. Throughout three seasons, the main characters have gotten banged up and traumatized, lost a limb on occasion, but they’ve survived everything. Henchmen 21 and 24 even taunted a new character with this knowledge at one point. “You’re the new guy. Nobody knows you. You’re so dead.”

Obviously, this isn’t a bad thing. I don’t want to see characters that I like get killed, after all. Still, in the finale, they fixed the clone problem by wiping out the incomplete copies of Hank and Dean, leaving then without any backups. And at the last minute, they killed a character who’s been on the show since the first episode. In an episode that was funny and exciting all the way through, they hit us with an actual horrifying moment at the last second. It was jarring and upsetting and even though I’d heard somebody was going to die, I wasn’t ready.

Season Three of The Venture Bros. was exciting, savagely funny, and deeply rewarding for the long-time fans, and it ended with the single most frustrating, nerve-wracking death since we got to see who was in the Lost coffin.

Anybody want to join me in deluding myself into believing that somebody can survive having their severed head set on fire?

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