Friday, February 26, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "Rapacity in Blue"

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!

Remember Melanie Hutsell? She's the SNL featured player-turned-regular who never really gelled on the show back in the '90s and whose sole highlight was a killer Jan Brady impression she brought over from her time as a cast member of The Real Live Brady Bunch, the '90s stage show that restaged Brady Bunch scripts word-for-word. Like with so many other sketch comics who failed to blow up on SNL, Studio 8H just wasn't the right venue for Hutsell. And then like another short-lived female SNL featured player, Casual star Michaela Watkins, Hutsell resurfaced on the Amazon show Transparent, where she stole one scene (while Watkins has managed to steal two whole Transparent episodes).

It's one of the most satisfying scenes during the largely downbeat second season of Transparent (created and showrun, by the way, by Jill Soloway, who happens to be another Real Live Brady Bunch alum), and the scene made me think, "Wow, this is the same lady whose dorky dance moves forever ruined Van Morrison's 'Moondance' in that unfunny SNL 'Moondance' sketch? She's funnier here." On Transparent, Hutsell plays a newly outed lesbian mom at the school attended by the kids of self-absorbed, perpetually unhappy Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker). Hutsell's perceptive character bluntly tells Sarah the words that she, a Pfefferman as selfish as the other Pfeffermans, needed to hear this whole time: "Can I just, like, say something to you and just try to help you out a little bit maybe? Nobody cares about what you do. I mean, I know you think they care, but they don't. You know, people walking around at our school, they're mostly thinking about carpools and play dates and homework..."

The Venture Bros. has a few things in common with Transparent, like the gender fluidity of some of the Ventureverse characters and the way you sometimes root for Dean to get as far away from Dr. Venture as possible (which Brock temporarily did when he quit the OSI and moved out of the Venture Compound) in order to be his own man and live a normal life. It's similar to how you root for Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) and Syd (Carrie Brownstein) to get as far away as possible from Josh (Jay Duplass), Sarah's younger brother, and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), Sarah and Josh's little sister, respectively, because Rabbi Raquel and Syd are such decent, normal people who don't need to be made miserable by their respective lover's insufferable bullshit.

The animated show is also as sharp an exploration of narcissism as Transparent. A minor character in the Doc Hammer-scripted "Rapacity in Blue" experiences with the Monarch a moment just like the Hutsell/Landecker scene from Transparent. Manolo (Hal Lublin) is a Latino handyman who's involved with renovating the Monarch's childhood house. Though his dialogue has largely been unremarkable, "Your wife no home"-type shit, we get a hint that Manolo has a normal, well-adjusted (and apparently, '90s sitcom-watching) life outside the craziness of the Monarch's home when--after having to endure the Monarch's endless chattering about his indecision over suiting up as his deceased socialite dad's recently unearthed alter ego of the Blue Morpho--he basically tells the Monarch he's not the center of the universe in a kind-of-polite-but-not-really way that's unmistakably Hammer.

"I don't really care about this" are words that immediately won me over onto Manolo's side, just like how "Nobody cares about what you do" made me take notice of Jan Brady again.

The incongruity of a working-class maintenance guy who's aware of the existence of Mr. Feeny is a trademark of Hammer's writing, as are the show's pop music references, but while those references were all over Hammer's "Maybe No Go" a couple of weeks ago, Hammer reduces them in "Rapacity in Blue" to just the Monarch/Morpho's '60s Batman-style score cues and the episode title. The play on George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is fitting because of the composition's synonymousness with being an instrumental love letter to Dr. Venture's new home turf of New York.

(Photo source: Venture Fails)

There's double meaning in "Rapacity in Blue." It refers to both the Monarch's increasing enjoyment of donning the Morpho persona--because arching any of Dr. Venture's current enemies as the Morpho can lead to him becoming Dr. Venture's arch again--and the greed of blue-speedsuited Dr. Venture. The title is alluded to in the dialogue when Dr. Venture tells Billy Quizboy to take the two-wheeled vehicle he's driving around inside Ventech Tower and "slap on a coat of Venture blue and call it the Zipper Rounder." Dr. Venture is so out-of-touch he doesn't know that Billy's vehicle is a Segway.

I'm a little disappointed that "Rapacity in Blue" acts as if the bio-bot--a liquid cluster of nanobots Billy found in Ventech's R&D purgatory in "Faking Miracles"--no longer exists because the cluster of nanobots is a nifty sci-fi concept. Apparently off-screen, Billy, Pete White and Dr. Venture wised up to the dangerousness of J.J.'s hidden inventions and have moved on to coming up with their own concepts for a Ventech product to unveil at a super-science conference that's only a couple of days away. Billy suggests an idea he's been working on called "God gas," a mind control gas that stimulates people's pseudo-religious visions. It's basically a love potion, and whether you admire a person or a past pop-culture phenomenon like The Rusty Venture Show, the gas affects your sane and ordinary ways of admiring that person or thing and transforms them into religious worship. Dr. Venture--the type of super-scientist who's sometimes capable of really dark shit that crosses into villainy, like the Cosby-esque act of spiking the punch at his sons' prom with Venture Industries-enhanced Spanish fly, just so he and his fellow chaperones could get some tail--is, of course, all for Billy's creepy-sounding idea.

The God gas is at the center of the episode's funniest running joke. It's not really a new kind of joke--Futurama's "Godfellas" episode, Robert Smigel's Anipal version of a crucifix on an altar in an episode of Comedy Central's TV Funhouse and the Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror" segment where a civilization of microscopic people experiences an entire history of prosperity and war in Lisa's room all have done variations on it before--but it's still funny anyway. Before testing out the God gas on themselves, Billy and Pete test it out on lab mice, and the newly religious mice fight each other over their beliefs and experience at an accelerated rate the history of early Christianity, from the split between Moses and the pagans to Henry VIII's blood-soaked regime and his rejection of the Catholic Church when it doesn't cater to his whims. "Rapacity in Blue" checks in on the mice throughout Act 2 and presents silly visuals like the pagan mice worshiping a golden calf idol that bears Billy's face and the mice weeping over the crucifixion of their savior mouse.

I don't know if this wordless running joke is intended to be a reference to the weird sight of mice being utilized to depict terrible moments in world history in Maus, Art Spiegelman's acclaimed Holocaust comic strip, but it's definitely dark and twisted (in fact, Billy and Pete's Ventech lab arc makes me miss the dark anti-corporate humor of Better Off Ted and BOT's R&D lab duo of Phil and Lem even more). I actually enjoyed the runner about the gassed mice a lot more than the material about the Monarch bumbling through being a hero or a hero/villain or whatever the hell the Morpho was in the '60s, although I like this season's running joke of the Monarch and Gary being so broke and so far from prominence within the Guild of Calamitous Intent (compared to Dr. Mrs. the Monarch and the limo that ferries her, Phantom Limb and the rest of the Council of 13 to work every morning) that the duo has to always take a bus back to Newark (but in "Rapacity in Blue," the Monarch and Gary have to take the bus because the Monarch's forgetfulness about paying the right amount for parking in Manhattan causes the Morphomobile to be towed away).

The last five minutes of "Rapacity in Blue" turn into one of those countless Star Trek episodes where the crew members are under the influence of a virus or drug that unleashes their ids or hidden desires. I was wondering when Billy and Pete's experiments in Ventech's speculative engineering department were going to wreak havoc on the adult characters' behavior after J.J.'s bio-bot wreaked havoc on Dean's body, and they immediately do at the end of "Rapacity in Blue." Billy uses the God gas to subdue Haranguetan (Steven Rattazzi), a villain whose name sounds like a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe bad guy if he got to be designed by Jackson Publick, but a mishap with Billy's God gas gun causes the gas to infect not just Haranguetan but Billy and Brock as well.

The best part of these last five minutes is Billy's tendency to see title cards after the gas intensifies his lifelong love for The Rusty Venture Show. He pictures Dr. Venture as his old animated self from The Rusty Venture Show, so the Titmouse animators get to bring back the old Venture Compound exterior just for young Rusty's title card. Then when the Monarch and Gary rescue Billy from Haranguetan, Billy sees the exact same Super Friends-style graphics that serve as the introduction of the new Morpho and Kano earlier in the episode.

The God gas mishap marks the second time this season that an outside force causes Brock to stray from his usual calm and professional self and act irrationally in regards to his attraction to Crusaders Action League member Warriana (Kate McKinnon), this show's militant take on Wonder Woman (the previous time was when Warriana's truth lasso got Brock to admit to wanting to bang her). But even before he's exposed to God gas, Brock begins to act like the kind of Brock we haven't seen since the time he got frustrated over failing to get into the celibate Molotov Cocktease's pants.

Warriana's ability to knock Haranguetan unconscious (without ever getting into a time-wasting pissing contest with him like Brock does) and her disdain for Brock's machismo both upset Brock. He hates losing his composure while thinking about Warriana and starts to realize that maybe he'll never be able to figure out the opposite sex and that not even he himself is capable of giving advice to Hank about women like he thought he could do earlier in "Rapacity in Blue."

Patrick Warburton clearly loves playing the hell out of this not-so-self-confident side of Brock. The frequent cracks in Warburton's voice during Act 2 cause this angstier Brock to sound exactly like Gary, who's doomed to forever have a Squeaky-Voiced Teen from The Simpsons voice. Tough women like Molotov and Warriana are the only thing that can tear Brock apart inside. What exactly does Brock want out of Warriana, other than rough sex? Not even Brock himself knows.

The Venture Bros. is already halfway through its sixth season now, and it looks like the biggest development of the season will be an answer to the question "Are Dr. Venture and the Monarch actually an additional pair of Venture brothers?" "Rapacity in Blue" intensifies like a mind control gas the possible familial link between Dr. Venture and the Monarch by first hinting that their dads, who went from enemies to friends, crossed swords (while frolicking with a pair of '60s hotties who may or may not be Jill St. John and Stella Stevens) and then concluding with Billy assuming (because the Monarch looks even more like Dr. Venture when he dons a Green Hornet-style fedora and mask) that Dr. Venture is suiting up as the Morpho. The Monarch, who can't catch a break, is just going to love finding out that people think the man he hates even more than his dad is riding around as the new Morpho.

And what's going on with the Monarch/Morpho's sidekick? He's hearing the Ray Romano-esque voice of Henchman 24, his dead best friend, in his mind again. Or has Gary actually still been speaking to 24 this whole time after he appeared to have come to grips with 24's death in "Operation P.R.O.M.," but only off-screen? You can practically hear Venture Bros. fans applauding all across America right when Gary--who's cosplaying as a Jedi while getting the Monarch to watch an old home video of his dad and Jonas Venture Sr. that, to the Monarch's horror, turns out to be a primitive version of a sex tape--imagines 24 channeling Obi-Wan and talking to him again. If you had to introduce The Venture Bros. to a viewer who's never seen the show before and is interested in catching up on it and marathoning it on Hulu or DVD (I hate the word "binge-watching"), "Rapacity in Blue" is the worst fucking episode to start with because of all these callbacks to 24, the possible brotherly connection between Dr. Venture and the Monarch, Brock's history with women, The Rusty Venture Show and, at one point early on in the episode, the romance between the invisible-limbed Phantom Limb and a then-invisible-dress-clad Dr. Girlfriend.

But for the rest of us, "Rapacity in Blue" is another hugely entertaining half-hour from one of TV's best shows about people who are way too deluded about being the center of the universe while, like Manolo or Melanie Hutsell says, nobody cares about what they do. Best of all, the episode also gives you an excuse to revisit "Rhapsody in Blue," an amazing Gershwin tune that would probably cost the Venture Bros. music department an invisible arm and an invisible leg.

Other memorable quotes:
* Dr. Venture: "Well, that's why I'm down here! You tell me! Wow me! Stick your finger into my ear and tickle my brain. Reach right up my ass and grab my heart!"
Billy: "Eek, I-I-I could have lived without that last one."

* Gary: "Blue Morpho wore this villain mask. He was all sinister and stuff. You saw the comics!"
Monarch: "Oh yes, the same comics that never mentioned he had a kid! Ironclad historical document that ended with my dad giving fruit pies to troubled teens."

* "Behold: Shuffle Dynamism! Pro: free power in any building. Con: everybody has to wear magnetic booties and drag their feet on a special floor, and it's very loud, and your lawyers informed me that it's actually slave labor."

* Pete: "Why are you down here?"
Dean: "I don't have any class until 1:30. And Hank is following me around looking for advice on how to score with women."
Billy: "Do you know anything about that?"
Dean: "If I did, would I be down here?"

* Brock: "You can't just fly in and do that! There's, uh, there's like a code."
Warriana: "I heed not your 'bro code'! Justice has no gender."
Brock: "I'm pretty sure it's a blind woman actually..."

* "The Monarch, a down-and-out supervillain, claims his birthright as the Blue Morpho, who may or may not be a good guy, along with his faithful bodyguard and chauffeur Kano, who isn't actually an Asian."

* "Using skills taught to him by his high-school home economics teacher Mrs. Althin, Kano makes key alterations to their costumes!"

* "I'm the chauffeur! Let me... chauff!"

* "Dude, you look like the Monarch going to a Mad Men party. You've gotta trim the beard."

* "Look, Doc, we really need more testing. The mice are... on fire! I am so sick of killing mice!"

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