Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Rock Box" Track of the Day: Pulp, "Like a Friend"

On Monday, I began a series of weekday posts about each of the existing songs that are streamed during the "Rock Box" block on A Fistful of Soundtracks (4-6am, 9-11am and 3-5pm on Mondays and 5-7am, 9-11am and 3-5pm on Fridays). Each post will provide info on a different track from the "Rock Box" playlist and point out the movie or TV series moment where the track is so effectively used. Sometimes, the post will be brief, and sometimes, it'll be long. Today, it's a long one.

The Venture Bros. was able to afford a Pulp song, but at the cost of decent lighting.
Song: "Like a Friend" by Pulp
Released: 1998
Why's it part of the "Rock Box" playlist?: This awesome track--written by Pulp and composer Patrick Doyle for the 1998 Great Expectations remake that Doyle also scored--showed up in The Venture Bros.' recent fourth-season finale "Operation P.R.O.M."
Which moment in "Operation P.R.O.M." does it appear?: It was the most effective use of an existing song on TV in 2010. I'm referring to the finale's closing montage, where the wildly funny animated series briefly hits pause on the comedy to deepen the character of badass SPHINX operative and former Venture family bodyguard Brock Samson, with the help of "Like a Friend." In less than four minutes, the sequence brings closure to both Brock's love/hate relationship with love interest and nemesis Molotov Cocktease and the season-long thread about Brock's self-imposed separation from the Ventures.

Dean and Hank Venture by Annie Wu
(Photo source: Annie Wu)
Alan Sepinwall, the biggest championer of NBC's cult show Chuck, once said he found The Venture Bros. to be unfunny (huh?) and unappealing. Of the two pop culture reference-heavy action comedies, which are both about losers who are trying to make sense of a crazy universe full of comic book supervillain-style adversaries who constantly want them dead, The Venture Bros. is clearly the more consistent and superior show. It's more willing to shake things up in its universe, like keeping Brock separated from the Ventures for most of the fourth season or having The Monarch's meek and flabby underling 21 gradually morph into a more capable, assertive and muscled henchman, yet still retain a bit of his previously buffoonish self when he continues to talk to his dead best friend 24 as if he's still alive. (As someone who often finds the Buy More hijinks on Chuck to be less entertaining than the spyjinks and thinks the Morgan character is better utilized in the latter because of Josh Gomez's chemistry with Adam Baldwin, I was hoping the destruction of the store at the end of last season would mean no more stories at that limited and increasingly tiresome setting. But that was not to be when the CIA rebuilt the Buy More this season.) Team Venture is also far less reliant on music montages than Chuck. Like The Wire, the animated series is aware that music montages have more of an impact when they're used sparingly.

Storytelling drawbacks aside, there's a lot to like about Chuck, but the more flawed and screwy characters in The Venture Bros. make Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer's creation a more interesting show. Chuck is ultimately about triumphing over cowardice and self-doubt to win both the girl of your dreams and the respect of the U.S. government (or the respect of the Buy More). It's a nerd's fantasy that presents how nerds would like to see themselves. That's not a bad thing, but it can also make for formulaic viewing (Chuck's current season has been an uneven one where I've found my attention wandering, despite whatever Yvonne Strahovski's almost wearing that week and the presence of Timothy Dalton, who has to be the show's greatest casting coup so far). Meanwhile, The Venture Bros. isn't concerned with triumph. It's about failure, the inability to impress or satisfy women and the difficulty of overcoming inner demons like cowardice, self-denial or unhealthy sexual appetites--in other words, it shows the ugly reality of how most nerds really are.

Okay, now I see why Sepinwall doesn't like The Venture Bros.

But that willingness to take its humor to dark places and rarely let the characters win is why I keep coming back to The Venture Bros. It never lets me down, unlike how the fuckbuddy or lost love in "Like a Friend" frustrates Jarvis Cocker, who keeps coming back to her even though he knows she's bad news--or how Molotov disappoints Brock. Her final rejection of Brock (while plunging off the cliff in a limo with her new boyfriend Monstroso) is accompanied by a song that perfectly encapsulates his obsession with the hot, celibate and unattainable Russian mercenary, a habit that Brock, like many other Venture Bros. characters, can't seem to kick. Or does he?

A Molotov Cocktease cosplayer at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con.
(Photo source: gadren)
At the point of "Like a Friend" (which is playing at Hank and Dean Venture's home school prom at the Venture Compound) when Cocker sings "Oh, and I'll come running/Just to do it again," Brock runs off to act on Molotov's intel and once again rescue the compound, this time from Molotov's Blackheart agents, who disguised themselves as hookers and tricked Dr. Venture into bringing them to the prom. "Like a Friend" also perfectly encapsulates Brock's other habit, his attachment to the Venture family, whom he keeps coming back to even after quitting his duties as bodyguard (and father figure to Hank and Dean, a task he's far better suited for than the self-absorbed Dr. Venture).

When Cocker rattles off various metaphors about his woman's shortcomings ("You are the habit I can't seem to kick/You are my secrets on the front page every week...") and the song's mood goes from sad to celebratory about the woman's faults, it's as if Cocker's voicing thoughts the laconic Brock can't express about Hank, Dean and Dr. Venture, who are helpless without him. There's a wonderful dialogue-less moment when Brock bursts into the prom, surveys his friends and notices how happy and carefree they are as they dance to "Like a Friend," indulge in their usual quirks or fetishes and make out with the Blackhearts (or in the case of Shoreleave and The Alchemist, each other). The looks on Brock's face are both of relief that the Blackhearts' threat has been delayed for the moment (because the ladies were drugged by the prom punch Dr. Venture spiked with a special brand of Spanish fly he invented) and relief that he's home.

Then we discover Dr. Venture has created yet another mess that someone else has to clean up when his unstable Spanish fly causes the Blackhearts to transform into giant mutant houseflies and attack the prom attendees. Brock the ice-cold professional--who has no time to mourn for Molotov and has proven to be better at resilience than Dr. Venture or even the all-new, all-different but still-living-in-denial-for-most-of-the-season 21--moves on with his life and gleefully gets back to doing what he does best, which is cleaning up the Ventures' messes and being a murder machine. Brock gives up one habit and revisits another one. There's something oddly uplifting about the sight of Brock getting over Molotov, whom he became tired of chasing, whether as a lover or lawman, and pouring himself into his work with a grin (just as "Like a Friend" is an oddly uplifting tune about accepting the same faults about someone that drive us crazy).

I think both that--and in the same episode, 21's tearful breakdown and realization that he has to move on without 24--count as actual rare victories on The Venture Bros.

A lot of thought was clearly put into the song choice for this sequence. That's one of the virtues of the extended amount of time Adult Swim allows Astrobase Go! to work on The Venture Bros. The sole drawback of that longer production schedule is the lengthy wait between seasons for Venture Bros. viewers. "Operation P.R.O.M." is such an outstanding finale and so inspired in its use of music that part of me wishes season 5 began tomorrow.

It's lucky for you that we're patient, Astrobase.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting note, the dancefloor in the prom scene were the dancefloor in Pulp's Disco 2000 album cover/video. For some reasons, Pulp has never performed this song live. I know my Britpop.
    The choice of Cocker's song is hardly accidental. I'm beginning to think more and more that they wrote this ep with Jarvis in mind. Jarvis being physically, socially and sexually inept, and has a penchant for self-destruction. They could do an overt homage to Jarvis ala David Bowie, but how many Americans or Venture Bros. fans would relate to an obscure Britpop rocker.