Wednesday, June 5, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner Extra: The Venture Bros., "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?"

Remember the Bro, the bra for men from Seinfeld? Sgt. Hatred could really use one of them Bros right now.
Dr. Venture isn't aware that his "Hail to the V" speech is eliciting giggles from the interns.
"5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" will return in the fall. Pulp's "Like a Friend," which was written and recorded for the Alfonso Cuarón version of Great Expectations but has become synonymous with The Venture Bros. ever since its appearance at the end of the show's fourth-season finale, can now be heard during the "AFOS Prime" block on AFOS.

Many TV critics who binge-watched all 15 new episodes of Arrested Development on Netflix last week complained that the show has lost its spark and its seven-year hiatus "was not good for its comedy." The new season's tacky-looking reliance on green-screen to accommodate the cast members' busy schedules and the forced attempts at political satire, which Arrested excelled at during the dark days of the Bush Administration (although I laughed at the new season's gags about "Halliburton Teen" and Halliburton's ice cream division), were among the haters' most frequent criticisms.

Lovers of smart TV--in other words, TV that doesn't involve singing contests, untalented trophy wives, creepy-looking child pageants or handfishing--who were disappointed with the new Arrested will probably be relieved to know that the return of The Venture Bros., another cult favorite that also experienced a prolonged break between seasons, isn't as shaky a viewing experience as some of those new Arrested episodes on Netflix. The seven-year hiatus has marred one particular aspect of Arrested, the interaction between Bluth family members, which was greatly reduced to cover up Mitchell Hurwitz's difficulties with getting all the original cast members in the same room, whereas the two-and-a-half-year hiatus between The Venture Bros.' fourth and fifth seasons, aside from a couple of specials to tide fans over, including last fall's Halloween special, has had no effect on "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," The Venture Bros.' outstanding fifth-season premiere (which is actually the ninth episode in the season's production order).

The Venture Bros. is a rare example of a lengthy hiatus paying off hugely. Maybe it's simply because The Venture Bros. is animation, where you can easily work around certain obstacles the Arrested crew had to deal with and you're unable to be distracted by the stars' aging looks and attempts to freeze time on their faces because you can't see those faces. (But you can detect some signs of aging in the stars' voices, like when 2008's Batman: Gotham Knight got longtime Batman voice actor--and soon-to-be-two-time Venture Bros. guest star--Kevin Conroy to voice an anime incarnation of Bruce Wayne who looked as if he didn't shave yet, and the disconnect between middle-aged voice and youthful-looking character design was really off-putting.)

Or maybe it's because Venture Bros. creators Chris McCulloch, a.k.a. Jackson Publick, and Doc Hammer are huge perfectionists who wanted--and were granted--more time from Adult Swim to work on the fifth season, even with Titmouse Inc. now lending a hand with the animation since the Halloween special. (By the way, the addition of Titmouse has resulted in a slight uptick in animation quality--peep the dazzling-looking moment in the Halloween special when Hank, who's voiced by Publick, and his friend Dermott, who's voiced by Hammer, are surrounded by zombies.) Judging from the results of "A Very Venture Halloween" and now the ambitious, hour-long "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," Publick and Hammer deserved the extra production time (and the duo is more than up to the challenge of crafting consistently funny comedy for an hour-long running time, a format that doesn't often work out so well when other half-hour comedy shows like The Office take a stab at it).

"What Color Is Your Cleansuit?" picks up right where "Operation P.R.O.M." left off and opens during the morning after the home school prom Dr. Venture (James Urbaniak) threw for Dean (Michael Sinterniklaas) and Hank, but it also cleverly ties in to "A Very Venture Halloween," a pivotal story for Dean, who finally learned from Ben, J.K. Simmons' disheveled scientist character, that he and Hank are clones, a helluva thing for Dean to discover when he's still in the middle of trying to get over Triana Orpheus' rejection of him. It turns out that the entire Halloween special occurred between the first and second acts of "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," so that means the season premiere takes place over the course of several months (the off-screen growth of the angstier, now-Goth-y Dean's hair length from spiky to quasi-emo between the first and second acts is a nice little way for Publick and Hammer to establish the passage of time without relying too much on clunky-ass exposition). The months-long time frame makes Dr. Venture's pathetic inability to notice the gradual mutations his color-coded-cleansuit-clad interns have exhibited even more amusingly pathetic. Their mutations were inadvertently caused by the mutagenic radiation from the ray shield project he's recruited them to finish for his brother Jonas Jr. (Urbaniak)--without pay and with Dr. Venture taking all the credit for their work, of course, because it's Dr. Venture we're talking about here.

"Operation P.R.O.M." was a particularly intriguing episode for this show about failure because it started to point towards redemption for several characters, especially the long-suffering Gary (Hammer), a.k.a. Henchman 21, who grew a backbone over the course of the fourth season, got over the death of his Ray Romano-voiced best friend 24, quit henching for the Monarch and joined SPHINX. But as we see in "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," Gary still can't catch a break because people still call him 21, and former Venture family bodyguard Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton) prevents 21 from joining his SPHINX team on their exciting missions and saddles him with less exciting Venture Compound security detail (Brock's absence for most of the premiere and perhaps most of the rest of the season, due to what I assume is his investigation of the whereabouts of his once-thought-to-be-dead lover/nemesis Molotov Cocktease, is bound to disappoint Brock's biggest fans).

Martin challenges Dean to an Iggy Pop impersonation duel.
However, what starts out as mundane detail escalates into a situation where the fate of the world is being threatened by mutated college interns with "Sixth Finger"-style telekinetic powers, extra limbs and a vengeful streak, all led by Martin, who's voiced by perfectly cast guest star Aziz Ansari (as Wyatt Cenac's intern character Tommy amusingly notes, you get a bunch of mutated nerds together, and things get all Syfy Original Movie up in this piece). The path towards redemption that "Operation P.R.O.M." started continues when Gary ends up rising to the occasion, as do Billy Quizboy (Hammer) and Pete White (Publick), who are far better scientists than Dr. Venture, and together, Gary, Billy and Pete attempt to save the day.

Dean also gets a chance to triumph here (although temporarily), when he competes with Martin in a series of challenges to become the "Lee-Hun-Took" of Martin's tribe and win the hand of a mutated intern named Thalia (SNL's Kate McKinnon). The more sensitive half of the Venture brothers views Thalia as his rebound girl in a great dream sequence where he fantasizes about Thalia continually placing her hand on his crotch in a hilariously mechanical, TV-14-level (rather than TV-MA-level) manner that proves that even though Dean has burnt up the learning bed that educated him as an act of rebellion, he still has a lot to learn about the opposite sex.

It's funny how...

...the first individual to touch Dean's dick isn't Thalia like in this dream sequence.

Instead, it's that chimp during the Halloween special.
(Photo source: 2ton21)
In the previous four seasons, what distinguished The Venture Bros. from other nerd comedies like Chuck was its stubborn refusal to hand its loser characters huge victories, but I think at this point in the series run, it's earned the right to finally let the likes of Gary, Billy, Pete and Dean win a few battles. This is why I think the increasingly diminished presence of Brock, the killing machine who always saved the day in previous seasons, is great for the show. It gives most of the rest of the show's characters a chance to shine in Brock's old role as hero.

One character who hasn't needed such a moment of redemption because she's always so much smarter and more sensible than the man she both works for and is married to is the raspy-voiced Dr. Mrs. the Monarch (Hammer), née Dr. Girlfriend. In "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," her suggestions to the Monarch on how to attack Dr. Venture and her overall cognizance of things, lack of knowledge of Game of Thrones aside (she's aware that Gary, who made out with her in the fourth season, quit the Fluttering Horde, while her husband is under the impression that Gary still works for him), all prove once again that this hottie is the real brains of the Monarch's criminal organization.

In addition to Gary's heroism and Billy's smarts, whether in the lab or during a crucial trivia contest with his lifelong rival Augustus St. Cloud (Publick), a nerd collectible-obsessed snob who drives around in the Anton Furst version of the Batmobile, of course, and thinks he excels at nerd trivia (I love the little detail in which Augustus, early on in the episode, misidentifies the first Highlander film as being from 1983 instead of 1986 and isn't corrected by anyone), Dr. Mrs. the Monarch's actions during "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?" reinforce a recurring theme of The Venture Bros.: the second-in-commands or underlings are far more deserving to be running things than the idiots who get to do so in this cruel world, whether they're the Monarch or Dr. Venture. "Don't take this as an insult, but working for you and the Monarch--it's like the same thing," notes Gary to Dr. Venture in one of the premiere's best bits of dialogue.

Is that the Tralfamadore zoo set from the movie version of Slaughterhouse-Five in the back of Augustus St. Cloud's living room? I hate the shit out of this conceited nerd, but I got to admit that having a Slaughterhouse-Five set inside his house is kind of baller.
Dean, Gary and even reformed pedophile Sgt. Hatred (Publick), the Ventures' current bodyguard, have changed a lot over the course of the series run, while Dr. Venture, who's neck and neck with Malory Archer for the worst parent in cable animation ever, still has ways to go. After his scene with Dean while the teen torches the learning bed he confined him to for all of his life instead of letting him experience a normal child's education ("I haven't learned shit! I could tell you how many tastebuds are on the human tongue, but I've never even French-kissed a girl!... I'm sick of living my life in a box!," says Dean to his dad), I now feel like the real villain of the show has never been the Monarch or any of the Guild of Calamitous Intent members. It's self-absorbed Rusty, whose obsession with living up to the legacy of Jonas Sr., his not-so-great-as-the-history-books-say adventurer dad, always results in disaster or bringing down everyone around him. No wonder Brock isn't itching to come back to the Venture Compound any time soon. But what Brock perceives as a low point in his espionage career remains--even after an extended hiatus--wildly funny and entertaining as hell for the rest of us.

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