Friday, February 5, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "Hostile Makeover"

(Photo source: Venture Bros. character and prop design supervisor Chris George)

Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. Stream "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," my one-hour mix of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, right now!

Venture Bros. co-writers Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer's decision to burn down the Venture Compound and give the newly wealthy Dr. Venture and his sons Dean and Hank a new home in Publick and Hammer's real-life hometown of New York is often, at a late point in a TV show's lifespan, the kind of risky move that screams out creative bankruptcy. When Jenji Kohan similarly burned down the setting of Agrestic and freed the Botwins from their suburban confines, Weeds experienced a creative decline that was so awful it has made me wary of forming an attachment to Kohan's Orange Is the New Black. Is Orange going to lose its way just like post-Agrestic Weeds did? (I wouldn't know. I actually haven't watched a single episode of Orange on Netflix yet.) So all I could think of while watching the three-minute, online-only epilogue of "All This and Gargantua-2," last year's hour-long setup for The Venture Bros.' move to New York, was Weeds and its long, slow and stoner-paced decline.

Publick himself seems to be aware of the failure that can result from the riskiness of getting rid of a setting viewers have grown attached to and bringing wealth into the lives of characters who are distinctive for their lowliness and desperation, because he has said, "Basically, we just had Dr. Venture win the lottery like Roseanne." The lifestyle porn that was on display in Roseanne's much-maligned final season--a season that seemed to reflect Roseanne Barr's love for Absolutely Fabulous (she, in fact, wanted to produce an American version of AbFab at the time)--was deemed as a betrayal by so many of Roseanne's biggest champions in the TV critic community. But if "Hostile Makeover," The Venture Bros.' narratively busy (and maybe way too busy for some viewers) but extremely funny sixth-season premiere, is any indication, Publick and Hammer know what they're doing and are doing their damnedest not to have another Weeds or Roseanne on their hands.

(Photo source: Venture Bros. color design supervisor Liz Artinian)

Of course, the pimpin' Columbus Circle penthouse Dr. Venture inherited from his smarter and now-dead twin brother J.J. looks fantastic, and the Titmouse animators' artwork of Ventech Tower at night is so gorgeous I've been thinking of turning it into wallpaper on my Mac. But all signs of Entourage-y lifestyle porn are quickly done away with when 1) the Venture family's power walk to the penthouse is soundtracked not by some recent Top 40 hit but by a parody of "The Power," Snap's very '90s hit single (the chorus declares that "Rusty's back on top now") and 2) Rusty fires all of J.J.'s employees, which proves that the self-absorbed wanna-be genius hasn't lost any of the pettiness, dickishness and narcissism that have made Dr. Venture so compelling as a comedic creation. Losing J.J., a family member he never really liked, to cancer hasn't softened Dr. Venture either.

Rob McElhenney once said he intentionally gained weight in season 7 of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia because he wanted to make fun of how sitcom stars become more handsome or thin when they get richer and begin to wave around cash at personal trainers or plastic surgeons. So McElhenney did the opposite and uglied himself up for just that one season. There's a similar "I don't give a fuck"-ishness to what Publick and Hammer are doing with Dr. Venture (and Hank) at the start of the new season.

The presence of more money hasn't wiped away Dr. Venture's dorkiness. It's made him flaunt that dorkiness, as evidenced by Dr. Venture's visit to Enzo's tailor shop for a rare and expensive speedsuit (I love Enzo's clichéd gasp of "Santa Maria!" when he hears Brock Samson dismissively refer to the speedsuit as a jumpsuit) and his continuing insistence that speedsuits are going to catch on as futuristic couture someday (uh, no, they won't). A lesser show would have Dr. Venture ditch the speedsuits for Armani this season. But The Venture Bros. isn't a lesser show. It's one of the sharpest shows around that's specifically about failure and narcissism, and it's aware that wealth often doesn't make a person who's already a huge asshole less of an asshole: it only amplifies the worst aspects of that person (J.J.'s choice of naming his museum the Jonas Venture Jr. Museum of Jonas Venture is a good previous example of this).

And I hate to quote Biggie like some have done in their reviews of "Hostile Makeover," but mo' money really does bring with it mo' problems: Dr. Venture's newfound wealth has made him a bigger target for supervillains. A Wilson Fisk-ish New York gangster named Wide Wale (Hal Lublin) wants--and gets, thanks to a sketchily explained business deal with Dr. Mrs. the Monarch, who remains the closest to being a voice of reason on The Venture Bros., even more so than Brock--exclusive arching rights to Dr. Venture. It's a great development for those of us who are interested in seeing how The Venture Bros. will bring the mob into its storyteling, but it's bad news for the Monarch, the always-second-tier Guild of Calamitous Intent member who's now sixth-tier.

Being a bigger target also makes Dr. Venture and the protection of his contributions to super-science a bigger priority for the OSI, which removes a disappointed Sgt. Hatred from the task of bodyguarding the Ventures (the compound burned down under Hatred's watch) and reassigns the much more competent Brock to bodyguarding them. Meanwhile, Hank, who's never been familiar with the concept of not attracting attention, acts like all the gangsters after the Lufthansa heist in GoodFellas and uses Dad's money to attract attention and splurge on things he doesn't need. Not even Dean, the more sensible Venture brother, is immune to the things money can buy.

Brock doesn't really care for this new Hank, but thanks to the sublime voice work of Patrick Warburton, Brock's fatherly attachment to this kid who was possibly cloned from his DNA (a longtime rumor among Venture Bros. fans about Hank's DNA that I doubt this show will ever resolve) re-emerges in the two scenes he has with Hank in "Hostile Makeover." His exchanges with Hank--this poor kid who's the way he is because he's been raised by Dr. Venture in a household that's far from normal and who could really use a more sensible father figure like Brock--are an element of The Venture Bros. that I've missed so much during the seasons when Publick and Hammer kept Brock separated from the Ventures.

The blond killing machine has done so many badass acts of action sequence heroism on The Venture Bros. that it's easy to forget during his conversation with Hank about Justin Bieber's douchiness that Brock's a guy with a mullet and it's easy to miss the joke of a guy with a mullet passing judgment on style and fashion.

And I like how Brock's panic in his other (and very nicely animated) scene with Hank turns from fatherly to motherly--has Brock ever looked and sounded this distressed anywhere else?--when Hank attempts to rescue an attractive girl who's been revealed in articles about the show's new season to be Wide Wale's six-gilled daughter (she has no dialogue in "Hostile Makeover," but I assume she's to be voiced by Fargo alum Cristin Milioti, who's currently starring in Lazarus, the off-Broadway musical co-written by one of Publick and Hammer's favorite rock stars, the late David Bowie). He misreads her ability to breathe underwater as a suicide attempt.

Hank has all of his possible real dad's bravery but none of his smarts or perceptiveness.

The change in scenery to New York is, so far, a terrific move for The Venture Bros. It allows for Titmouse to come up with gorgeous-looking nighttime action sequences in Columbus Circle like that grappling gun sequence with Hank and the Ventech Tower parachute jump that was briefly glimpsed at the end of the epilogue of "Gargantua-2." The move to New York also allows the Venture Bros. characters to play around in Marvel's favorite setting of Manhattan.

But because the show's a satire on the things Publick and Hammer enjoy, the likes of Gary (who, in one of the show's earlier seasons, was seen possessing one of Marvel's most popular '00s kids' toys, a pair of talking Hulk fists), Brock, Rusty and Dean are interacting not with the actual Avengers and the actual Spider-Man but with the Crusaders Action League--an inept Avengers ripoff that, because this is the overly bureaucratic world of the Guild and its constantly squabbling and rulebook-obsessed members, refuses to help out New Yorkers for free and pesters them for protection money--and a more anatomically correct version of Spidey. "Hostile Makeover" marks the return of Brown Widow (Nathan Fillion), a loser who shoots webbing from his butthole and was first seen interacting with Dean when Dean had an internship in New York in the fourth season. Fillion is the perfect guest star for this show (as are comedians like James Adomian, who voices Crusaders member Night Dick, and SNL MVP Kate McKinnon), but a Spidey parody feels kind of hacky at this late point in Spidey's Hollywood (and Broadway) popularity. I found more laughs in the noisy corduroy suit Wide Wale wears--what other animated show pulls off a corduroy joke and doesn't give a shit about some of its viewers missing the joke in Wide Wale's name?--and the pointlessly invisible chariot Warriana (McKinnon), the Crusaders' Wonder Woman counterpart, uses as her ride.

Wide Wale (Photo source: Chris George)

I thought the not-so-prolific Darin Morgan's return to the initially underwhelming revival of The X-Files was going to be the TV homecoming I'd be the most enthusiastic about this week, and while Morgan's work on "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster" was indeed immensely satisfying, the return of The Venture Bros. is neck-and-neck with Morgan's return as the most welcome return to TV this week (also, welcome back, Venture Techno Industries robot servants who amusingly speak in my Mac's "Fred" PlainTalk voice). There are still Venture Bros. viewers who complain about Publick and Hammer taking their sweet time crafting material between seasons, but in an age when Larry David and Louis C.K. defy network procedure, prize quality over quantity and take two-year (or longer) breaks between seasons (Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang will perhaps do the same with Master of None), these viewers ought to be used to the long waits by now, especially when they result in a consistently hilarious opener like "Hostile Makeover."

Other memorable quotes:
* Tosh Tompkins, a.k.a. Stars & Garters (Mark Gagliardi), while hassling Jared, a.k.a. Brown Widow: "Ha ha! Mark Knopfler crapped his pants! Again!"
Dean, referring to Tosh: "That guy goes here? He's like 40."
Jared: "Yeah, he's a teacher."

* Dot Comm (McKinnon), a villainess in a Tron costume: "Will the council be more diverse because I for one would like to see more women in positions of authority?"
An African American Guild member in a clover-shaped eyepatch: "And more people of color."
A purple-skinned Guild member in a Baseball Furies outfit: "And more people of color!"

(Photo source: Venture Fails)

* Stars & Garters: "Saved your boy there from this blond bruiser and his killer karate bot!"
Dr. Venture: "They're my bodyguards, Miss Firecracker!"

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