Friday, January 23, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "All This and Gargantua-2"

I've been working this graveshift and I ain't made shit. I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky.
On some Fridays, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

A year and a half after the airing of its fifth-season finale, The Venture Bros. returns to Adult Swim with the one-hour special "All This and Gargantua-2." Just like "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," the fifth-season premiere, did after a similarly long gap between seasons, the consistently funny one-hour special proves that The Venture Bros. hasn't lost a step despite its long absence.

I didn't become an instant Venture Bros. fan when the show, which Comedy Central turned down (brilliant move, Comedy Central), premiered on Adult Swim in 2004. The show's character designs failed to hook me at first because I was never a Jonny Quest fan and I didn't think a Jonny Quest parody could be sustainable as a TV series. Also, the Warner Bros. Animation superhero spoof Freakazoid! had already come up with the Jonny Quest parody to end all Jonny Quest parodies, a hysterically funny fake '60s cartoon called Toby Danger. I caught up with The Venture Bros. much later, via DVD rentals of the first two seasons from Netflix, and that's when I fell in love with the show.

On DVD, I saw it evolve from a one-joke Jonny Quest parody to both an imaginative pastiche of all the non-Jonny Quest things creators/writers/voice actors Jackson Publick (a.k.a. Chris McCulloch) and Doc Hammer are in love with, from spy fiction to old Marvel Comics titles like Strange Tales or Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and forgotten figures from '80s and '90s music videos (for example, the girl from Republica of "Ready to Go" fame), and an exploration of adult disappointment and failure, built around a fully realized comedic universe of losers and costumed deviants that rivals Springfield from The Simpsons and Melonville from SCTV (so many different shows could be spun off from The Venture Bros., and I wish McCulloch and Hammer would spin the Order of the Triad off into their own show, but I doubt they'd go for it). "All This and Gargantua-2," which centers on the disastrous opening of the titular space casino resort run by Jonas "J.J." Venture Jr. (James Urbaniak), exemplifies how the show has come a long way from its Jonny Quest riffs and humble Flash-animated roots and taken on epic proportions. The top-notch animation work by Titmouse Inc. has a lot to do with the one-hour special's epic sheen. I'm reluctant to revisit on Netflix Instant the 2004 episode "Careers in Science," the first time Dr. Venture (also Urbaniak) and his sons Dean (Mike Sinterniklaas) and Hank (McCulloch) went up into space (the deceased Jonas Venture Sr.'s Gargantua-1 station, to be exact), simply because the primitiveness of how "Careers in Science" looks would be jarring, in comparison to what Titmouse is able to achieve with The Venture Bros. nowadays.

As is the case with many other animated or live-action sitcoms, The Venture Bros. was trying to find its comedic voice when it started, so early episodes like "Careers in Science" don't have the confidence "All This and Gargantua-2" has in spades. "Gargantua-2" is The Venture Bros. firing on all cylinders comedically, whether it's Dr. Venture's gripes about both J.J.--his more confident and successful brother--and the new casino or the ability of the Sovereign, an adversary more menacing than the Monarch (also McCulloch) will ever be, to somehow find time between Guild of Calamitous Intent meetings to watch Totally Spies, which isn't exactly the kind of entertainment you'd think a criminal mastermind would be aware of. I'm also fond of the fact--which somehow goes unnoticed by the continually dissatisfied and unimpressed Dr. Venture--that J.J. blatantly copied much of Star Trek for the look of Gargantua-2. J.J.'s outfit at the casino opening is Kirk's admiral uniform from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Like Shatner, J.J.'s wearing a rug too.

The hair replacement system is the reason why Star Trek: The Motion Picture cost so fucking much in the '70s.
(Photo source: TrekCore)

This logo was also flashed all over screens in Paramount boardrooms after studio execs took a look at Roberto Orci's early script for the Star Trek threequel and didn't know how it could make sense as a movie.

Letterboxing was abolished by the 23rd century.
(Photo source: TrekCore)

It's especially great to hear Stephen Colbert reprise his role--for what Hammer has confirmed will be one last time before Colbert takes over Late Show on CBS--as Professor Impossible/Incorrigible, the Mr. Fantastic-style jerk Colbert voiced in the show's first two seasons. Bill Hader was a decent substitute for Colbert in the role of Richard Impossible, but Colbert, who can play arrogant characters in his sleep, is preferable to Hader in that role.

McCulloch and Hammer refuse to talk down to the audience, which explains why there's no "Previously on..." recap at the start of the special to reorient viewers after the year-and-a-half-long gap. I love the omission of that. McCulloch and Hammer figure that their viewers must have watched the fifth-season finale either dozens of times already or right before "Gargantua-2," so why bother with the previously? The only thing McCulloch and Hammer do to reorient viewers is to repeat a scene from the end of "The Devil's Grip" where the Monarch, Dr. Mrs. the Monarch (Hammer) and Henchman 21 (also Hammer) find a new home after the destruction of their cocoon headquarters.

Some viewers were underwhelmed by "The Devil's Grip" as a season finale and didn't find it dramatic enough for their tastes. But I thought there was plenty that was dramatic about it: the Monarch, Dr. Venture and Dean had moments of "What am I doing with my life?," a recurring question on this show. Even Colonel Gentleman--McCulloch's inspired reimagining of both Sean Connery and his Allan Quatermain character from the mediocre movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a bisexual author with a penchant for scribbling down pre-listicle fluff like "Colonel Gentleman's Hollywood Actresses Who Need a Smack in the Mouth"--had a "What am I doing with my life?" moment in "The Devil's Grip" too. "Gargantua-2" is a cross between the kind of explosive, death-ridden season finale some viewers expected out of "The Devil's Grip" and a comic book annual. I think an annual would be a better way to describe "Gargantua-2." It's an annual where a few character arcs are wrapped up (unlike Molotov Cocktease, who faked her death at the end of the fourth season, it looks like cancer-stricken J.J., General Treister and the Sovereign will stay dead) and the primary setting is destroyed--the Monarch's theatrics and the ineptitude of Dr. Venture's security systems both cause the Venture Compound to be burnt down--in order to make way for the sixth season's New York backdrop, which is tantalizingly introduced at the end of the epilogue at J.J.'s funeral.

As amusing as all the pop-culture references are during "Gargantua-2"--I'd like to know who did uncredited work voicing Roger Moore at the baccarat table--they're, as usual, just the icing on the cake for what really makes The Venture Bros. stand out: the character writing. McCulloch and Hammer are able to take a premise that was sustainable for only 11 minutes on Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and was bound to run out of gas beyond that running time--like "What if Shaggy from Scooby-Doo were the Son of Sam?," which Tick creator and current Gotham writer Ben Edlund actually once imagined during The Venture Bros.' second season--and make it work as a half-hour piece of character-driven comedy or, in the case of "Gargantua-2," longer. This show isn't merely "Spot the Reference" humor a la Friedberg/Seltzer in animated form, and the characters on The Venture Bros. aren't simply joke machines. They talk more like either ordinary people--for a guy who's an extraordinary killing machine, Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton) sounds less like a quippy action hero and more like an ordinary and jaded cubicle jockey--or the self-loathing nerds McCulloch and Hammer clearly are.

I've said before that The Venture Bros. mines much of its humor and dramatic moments from how most nerds really are and the ugliness and emptiness of their behavior--the day Dr. Venture stops being so self-centered is the day this show is over--instead of being another nerd fantasy that glorifies what nerds imagine themselves to be. On The Venture Bros., that kind of fantasy gets taken down and skewered with the same kind of precision Dr. Killinger delivers while stabbing or impaling the lightsaber-wielding Investors--his own brothers--with his umbrella towards the end of "Gargantua-2." If there's any kind of message that could be found on this show, which doesn't care for talking down to its audience or delivering any form of speechifying, it would have to be "Life would be easier if you stopped drowning in your own delusions," an idea Dr. Venture is bound to ignore as he and the rest of Team Venture settle into the Venture Industries New York headquarters J.J. bequeathed to Dr. Venture in his will, during a season that will hopefully be as satisfying as "Gargantua-2" is in its 47 epic minutes.

Why's Adam Driver playing baccarat?

Memorable quotes:
* "Never baccarat. It's a dead giveaway. Nobody but spies play baccarat."

* The Sovereign, attempting to lure Dr. Mrs. and her colleagues into a trap by disguising himself as 21: "The Monarch's waiting, and you guys are acting like Alex, Sam and Clover of Totally Spies!"

He may be dead for now, but the Sovereign has a lot of explaining to do about his tastes in spy shows.

* Professor Impossible, after shape-shifting into a black mechanic: "Say, that doesn't count as blackface, does it?"

* Professor Impossible: "You'd have me back?"
Sally Impossible (Mia Barron): "No, idiot. But I'm not about to let our son lose his father because he joined the LARP society."

* Guild Command Dispatch Agent Watch (McCulloch), referring to the Sovereign, who enjoys shape-shifting into the Thin White Duke: "Where did David Bowie go?"
Dr. Mrs: "He's not David Bowie."
Ward (Hammer), Watch's partner: "Aw great, all my signed albums just became worthless."

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