Friday, February 19, 2016

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

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!

In "Faking Miracles," the Monarch--the failed Venture Bros. supervillain who thinks he possesses an intellect equal to that of Phantom Limb, his wife's ex, or even Wide Wale, but he's hardly in their league and is also currently without both an army of henchmen and the floating cocoon he and his minions used to call home--reacts the way you'd expect a wanna-be supervillain to react to discovering his father was a superhero: not very well. His reaction is akin to a white supremacist finding out one of his parents was actually Jewish.

On the other hand, Gary is fascinated with both the Blue Morpho--who based his crimefighting persona on the tropical butterfly known as the morpho, just like how his son is a butterfly-themed arch--and the state-of-the-art-for-the-'60s cave the Morpho kept below the Monarch's childhood home in Newark (color design supervisor Liz Artinian and her color design crew nicely recapture the bold late '60s network TV colors of Batman and Star Trek in their color schemes for the Morpho's cave). Gary tries to get his boss to see that being the son of the Morpho is actually a cool thing, even though the Morpho appears to have been a second-tier superhero who was often drunk on the job in the '60s flashback that opens "Faking Miracles." In Scaramantula's lair on Spider-Skull Island, the Morpho and Kano, a future Team Venture member, are seen rescuing the kidnapped members of the original Team Venture roster, including Jonas Venture Sr., who dislikes the Morpho. His second-rate quality seemed to affect even his own merchandise: the comic book that was based on the Morpho's crimefighting career tanked after only six issues ("Not Kirby's best work," notes Gary, who probably isn't too fond of Jack Kirby's strange 2001: A Space Odyssey comic from the '70s either).

(Photo source: Liz Artinian)

Voiced by Paul F. Tompkins, whose mustache happens to resemble his character's stache, the Morpho is a hybrid of the '60s William Dozier versions of Batman and the Green Hornet. Hank's Adam West-style Batman Halloween mask established that the '60s Batman show exists in the Ventureverse, so that means the Morpho wasn't the Batman or Hornet of this universe and was instead the Monarch's socialite dad ripping off the lead characters from Batman and its much less comedic sister show (a Batman/Green Hornet crossover was Dozier's attempt to get Batman viewers to catch The Green Hornet). Dozier was, by the way, the Greg Berlanti of 1966, but while Berlanti has been able to build an empire out of his network TV adaptations of Green Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl, Dozier found success only with Batman. Based on an old radio drama that oddly took place in the same universe as The Lone Ranger's, The Green Hornet didn't become a popular TV show until a few years after its cancellation, when Bruce Lee's popularity renewed some interest in his role on the show as Kato, while Dozier's 1967 attempt to bring Dick Tracy back to TV failed to get past the pilot stage.

I'm looking forward to whatever Gary and the Monarch will be doing with all the equipment the Monarch's Dozier-style dad left behind. They're going to need to arm themselves with more than just the Monarch's tranq dart shooters now that Wide Wale followed up his act of ousting the Monarch from the position of arching Dr. Venture with the act of framing the Monarch for the violation of Guild of Calamitous Intent arching policy. In another nod to the '60s, "Faking Miracles" writer Jackson Publick has Wide Wale turning to none other than Dean Martin (Toby Huss), who had a cameo in "All This and Gargantua-2," to impersonate the Monarch and ruin this Level Six Guild member he finds to be a nuisance to the Guild, perhaps as retribution for the Monarch killing his brother Doug, a.k.a. Dr. Dugong, out of anger over the first time the Guild took away his arching rights to Dr. Venture.

In the Ventureverse, the Rat Packer never died and is known in the New York arching community as Copy-Cat, a supervillain whose superpower is similar to that of Jamie Madrox, a Marvel character who briefly caught my attention when writer Peter David relaunched him in 2004 as the star of Madrox, an inventive noir-style miniseries under the Marvel Knights imprint. Madrox reintroduced Jamie, a mutant who has the ability to create duplicates of himself, as a promiscuous and less-than-virtuous private eye who has trouble getting his dupes to cooperate with him, and the Marvel Knights mini led to David rebooting the X-Men spinoff X-Factor as a series about Jamie's detective agency (despite enjoying Madrox, I never got into X-Factor or any other post-1992 X-Men spinoff comic because like Deadpool says in his eponymous hit movie, these X-Men timelines can get so confusing). I love how Publick merged Madrox with Dino. I next want to see Peter Lawford drunkenly having trouble getting his adamantium claws to open another bottle of vodka.

Madrox (Photo source: Arion's Archaic Art)

At a party Wide Wale invited Dr. Mrs. the Monarch, the rest of the Council of 13 and a bunch of Manhattan socialites to attend, Wide Wale's requirement that none of the Guild members can bring their henchmen along with them is clearly intended to allow Copy-Cat to take down the Monarch, who's at his most vulnerable when Gary isn't there to protect him. Copy-Cat and his dupes trick Dr. Mrs. the Monarch into thinking her husband betrayed her and stood her up to illegally arch Dr. Venture in the middle of the party (when actually, the Monarch arrived at the party and was on his best behavior before Copy-Cat tranqed him). Dino appears to want the Monarch's wife all to himself. But she's immune to his charms, even though the show established that she and the Monarch have an open marriage.

At one point, Dr. Mrs. the Monarch tries to shoo Copy-Cat away by saying, "I'm not sure we need someone whose superpower seems to be bad pick-up lines." And I'm not sure we need marital discord as a storyline for the one couple on the show that soap opera viewers would refer to as the supercouple of the franchise, because I like how this one pair, aside from gay-for-super-science-but-not-gay-for-each-other roommates Billy Quizboy and Pete White, has managed to remain together amidst all the failure that surrounds them.

Dean Martin in "All This and Gargantua-2"

Dino, Dino, Dino, Dino, Dino, Dino, Dino, Dino and Dino in "Faking Miracles"

But then again, I don't tune in to The Venture Bros. to see relationships with no problems and stories with no stakes. Everyone on this show, except for Dr. Mrs. the Monarch, Triana Orpheus, Shoreleave and maybe Brock, is a huge fuck-up (as well as the kind of fuck-up who speaks like a recognizable human being, instead of like a Chuck Lorre-style joke machine), which is the thing that's kept me intrigued with The Venture Bros., in addition to all the funny references to things like CHiPs, Iggy Pop lyrics, Duran Duran and the LP version of Wu-Tang Forever. But while the Monarch's past mistakes as a Dr. Venture-obsessed arch continue to haunt him and are now affecting his wife's standing in the Council, as well as their marriage, it looks like things are moving up for Dr. Venture and his new Ventech employees Billy and Pete. They might be about to find some Apple-style success for a change, thanks to their discovery of an example of what Dr. Venture refers to as "the miracles": the not-quite-ready-to-be-unveiled-yet inventions J.J. kept stashed away in his company's inventory before his death.

Billy accidentally lets loose a bio-bot, a liquid metal entity composed of nanobots, in Ventech Tower. The bio-bot can be programmed to enhance the strength or brainpower of whatever human body it's injected into. But before Ventech can make gazillions off selling bio-bots to the public (or maybe exclusively to the military-industrial complex as a weapon?), Dr. Venture, Billy and Pete have to deal with a few bio-bot-related mishaps, like the ones that take place while they figure how to control the bio-bot, which seeped into Dean's body when he was in the shower.

I'm glad Publick spared us from seeing the orifice the sentient goo chose to climb into during Dean's shower. Hearing Dean's off-screen scream from the bathroom is unsettling enough already.

Unaware that the body the runaway bio-bot chose as its host belongs to Dean, Billy and Pete disrupt Brock's study session with Dean, who asked Brock to help him prepare for his SATs. They program the bio-bot to cause Dean to puke on Brock, gain enough superhuman strength to lift up a shocked Brock with one arm and speak in Babylonian, which causes Brock to think Dean needs an exorcist. All that's missing from this scene is Billy and Pete trying out on Dean that clever Innerspace tactic in which a shrunken Dennis Quaid uses his ship's tech to transform Martin Short's facial features into Robert Picardo's.

Despite the moments of body horror slapstick Dean experiences with the bio-bot inside him, the bio-bot miraculously provides Dean with enough brainpower to ace the SATs and get accepted to Stuyvesant University, his school of choice. His brother makes some progress too--with water-breathing Sirena (Cristin Milioti), that is. She ignores her dad Wide Wale's feud with Dr. Venture over his refusal to comply with the mob-connected Crusaders Action League's shakedown in "Hostile Makeover," and she agrees at the end of "Faking Miracles" to go out on a date with Hank, who's taken a job as a pizza delivery boy. Publick sets up a joke early on in "Faking Miracles" about the side effects of driving the GoPod, J.J.'s experimental floating car, and nicely has it pay off later when Hank drives the GoPod to deliver a pizza to Sirena. Of course Hank would pay no attention to the Pirate Captain's warning that the GoPod causes its drivers to become sterile.

Had the guest shots in "Faking Miracles" consisted only of Tompkins the podcast veteran as the Monarch's dad and Huss, the former King of the Hill regular who starred in a series of '90s MTV promos as Frank Sinatra, doing a decent impression of Sinatra's pal, "Faking Miracles" would still be a satisfying half-hour. But Milioti's first guest shot as Sirena elevates "Faking Miracles" to "Bot Seeks Bot" territory, if not "Victor. Echo. November." territory (2006's "Victor. Echo. November." remains my favorite Venture Bros. episode). Last season's Publick-scripted "Bot," a surprisingly tense Brock-and-Shoreleave-on-a-stakeout story, and the Doc Hammer-scripted "Victor" are both my favorite kind of Venture Bros. episode: they follow the characters around on a night out on the town that goes south late in the story, especially for Dr. Venture, but the spycraft or the mayhem isn't what makes either episode soar. The hilarious dialogue before the mayhem erupts--a huge chunk of the dialogue is delivered over restaurant tables, so at times, it feels like we're watching Diner, but with supervillains--is what makes them soar.

In "Faking Miracles," the kind of nighttime partying that energized the proceedings in "Bot" and "Victor" isn't so energetic because it's confined to the rather drab 18th birthday party Wide Wale throws for Sirena, and Dean and Hank's separate storylines aren't destined to become classics like their double-date storyline together in "Victor," but Milioti just steals both the Wide Wale and Hank storylines with the raspy, foul-mouthed Jersey Shore voice she came up with for the frequently irritable Sirena. She exclaims "Maron!" (maa-ROAN) at one point--Sopranos fans might remember that phrase, which is basically "Madonna!" or "Dammit!"--and in my favorite bit of Italian slang, she complains about how the thugs her dad has assigned to guard her are buttagots (it means "annoying idiot"). Milioti was a standout on Fargo this season as Betsy, Lou Solverson's dying wife, and after her charming voice work in "Faking Miracles," she's already a standout recurring guest star on this show too.

Oh yeah, and besides Milioti's guest shot, Donald Trump makes a mute appearance in the background at the party. This episode was made long before Trump started running for president and angering both progressives and conservatives alike. I'm tired of both reading about this buttagots and hearing him squawk like a race-baiting Oswald Cobblepot on the mayoral campaign trail, but his cameo in "Faking Miracles" makes a lot of sense. Of course he would hobnob with supervillains.

Is it me or is Wide Wale more likable as a Venture Bros. adversary than Phantom Limb or the Investors? The dichotomy of a ruthless gangster turning out to be a compassionate and understanding dad to his offspring is hardly new to the gangster genre, but it adds some flavor to Wide Wale as a Venture Bros. foe. He has a sweet little moment in "Faking Miracles" where he takes a break from trying to impress all the legitimate businessmen and notices a grumpy Sirena is uncomfortable at her own birthday party, so he tries to cheer her up with an order for some pizza (and he succeeds--but he's unaware that Sirena's attraction to Hank, which is bound to piss him off, also has a lot to do with her shift to a more content mood later that night). This moment already makes Wide Wale a better dad than his party guest Captain Combover, whose vomit-inducing desire to bang his own grown-up daughter and whose taste for women who are young enough to be his daughters are beautifully ridiculed by Robert Smigel in his uproarious Triumph's Election Special 2016 on Hulu.

If there's one thing I dislike about The Venture Bros.' sixth season as deeply as I dislike all things Trump, it's Publick's decision to leave Dr. Orpheus out of the Ventures' move to New York. Steven Rattazzi's bit part in "Faking Miracles" as Hank's Italian boss at the pizzeria makes me miss both Rattazzi's voice for Orpheus and his presence as an additional (and rather sane, in spite of all his melodramatically delivered incantations) member of the Venture household. Plus New York could use some help from Orpheus. The best person to deal with its problems with rats, bedbugs and pigs would definitely not be a Blue Morpho type. It would have to be a person who was trained in the black arts. Unlike the Monarch and Dr. Venture, they're no strangers to miracles.

Other memorable quotes:
* Scaramantula: "If you think you can just waltz in here and muscle in on my racket, you've got another thing coming! [Faints from being shot with a tranq dart by the Blue Morpho.]"
The Blue Morpho: "It's 'another think coming.' God!"

* "He shows up again in issue 36 when they team up to fight L. Ron Hubbard."

* Hank: "Aw, c'mon, Brock! Why not?"
Brock: "Because it's like cheating, Hank."
Hank: "But so is flying in an airplane or having a fake leg when you think about it, which I do."
Brock: "For the last time, no! You cannot have anabolic steroids!"

* Dr. Venture: "Let's toss this baby into production and call it a day!"
Pirate Captain: "Yeah, well, don't punch the clock just yet there, Doc. She's been known to cause sterility and heart murmurs in rhesus monkeys."

* Brock: "Aw jeez, Dean. Your essay reads like a suicide note."
Dean: "Everything I wrote was true."
Brock: "Yeah, but you gotta turn the gas down a notch, Sylvia Plath."

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