Friday, March 11, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "It Happening One Night"

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!

Brock might not think so, but The Venture Bros.' move to big, bad New York is the best thing to happen to the OSI's toughest agent, probably since the life-changing day he bought his first Zeppelin LP. "It Happening One Night" is the latest Venture Bros. episode to make abundantly clear that the Venture family bodyguard has been off his game ever since he rejoined Team Venture in New York.

Samson's clearly no match for the New York supervillains he's had to tussle with ever since the newly wealthy Dr. Venture went from being small potatoes to an antagonist everyone in the Guild of Calamitous Intent wants to arch (Brock's new fuckbuddy Warriana has had to save Brock twice), and now in "It Happening One Night," he thinks the ninja-themed family restaurant where Hank has his dinner date with Sirena Ong is an actual ninja hideout (the ninja restaurant is a real-life thing in Tribeca, by the way). So Brock roughs up the waiters, including Jared (Nathan Fillion), a.k.a. the Brown Widow, who's so badly in debt he makes flat-broke Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2 look like a Kardashian kid.

Ninja New York in Tribeca

The Venture Bros. version of Ninja New York

Earlier this season, Brock told Hank to Google one of his heroes, Steve McQueen. Maybe if Brock bothered to do the same kind of research online while trying to keep an eye on Hank during his night out with Wide Wale's daughter, he wouldn't have wound up looking kind of stupid after being told that the ninja stronghold he infiltrated--he and his temporary sidekick Rocco (Mark Gagliardi), the Ong family bodyguard Sirena so detests, even go through the trouble of knocking a couple of waiters out and donning their fake ninja garb--is merely a trendy sushi joint.

A lapse in judgment like that may make Brock look bad as a spy who was trained to always be aware of his surroundings, but it's a good creative move for the show, which clearly struggled over what to do with Brock a few seasons ago. I have a theory for why Venture Bros. creator Jackson Publick separated Brock from the Ventures for a while and replaced him with reformed pedophile Sgt. Hatred: he simply got bored with having Brock always save the day. That kind of thing makes for terrific action sequences, but it can also become boring in the middle of a comedy show that's primarily about mediocrity. Brock was becoming too perfect a human being, even though this Swedish murder machine will always somehow be a funny character, thanks to whatever the fuck Patrick Warburton brings to the page, as well as because of the brilliant thing Publick and Doc Hammer wanted to do with Brock from the start.

They wanted to take Race Bannon and make him both psychotic on the battlefield (go revisit "Victor. Echo. November." on Hulu if you've forgotten how psychotic Brock can really be) and a frequently bored-sounding blue-collar type who viewed the guarding of a narcissistic super-scientist like Dr. Venture as work that's beneath him, even though he likes Dean and Hank (and H.E.L.P.e.R. too). It's like how Benson hated being the butler to the Tates but was kind to Jessica, Corinne and Billy because they were the only Tates who weren't snooty or racist. A.V. Club contributor Kevin Johnson's weird assessment that Brock hates Dean and Hank (in a typo-ridden guest review the A.V. Club recently posted when its regular Venture Bros. reviewer was gone for a week) is a total misreading of Brock's relationship with them. The OSI agent's Benson-style attachment to these boys who so badly need someone like him to guide them through--and away from--the craziness Dr. Venture brought into their lives is an essential part of The Venture Bros. It brings some genuine warmth to the show but never crosses into sentimentality (someone in a Reddit forum about Johnson's review interestingly counteracted his misreading by astutely pointing out that whenever Brock gets frustrated with Dean or Hank, it brings to mind Louis C.K. whenever he talks about getting annoyed by his daughters).

Speaking of Benson, competence can become comedy kryptonite, so when Benson became too competent and sensible--and popular--to continue being around the craziness of the other characters on Soap, he was spun off into his own show. Publick and Hammer's way of keeping Brock's similar type of competence from becoming stale was not to give Brock his own show but to sideline Brock and give him a Craig-era-Bond-like identity crisis as a professional killer (like when he went off the grid and lived with the duo of Steve Summers and his boyfriend Sasquatch, the show's parody of The Six Million Dollar Man's Bigfoot storyline) or to bring him down to Earth and depower him a bit, like how Publick and Hammer are depowering him now in New York. I bet that's why Publick and Hammer reinstated him as the family's bodyguard: they finally figured out how to make Brock interesting again, and the soft reboot the show is experiencing in New York has a lot to do with that.

Brock's arc this season is basically "if 007 had to fight someone like MODOK, he would definitely lose, and if you put 007 in the bedroom with a woman like Warriana, he would definitely not be in charge in the bedroom like he's always written to be in the Bond movies." It's an enjoyable way to play around with the spy genre assassin character who's always good at everything and to mock the wish-fulfillment fantasy side of the Bond movies. The Swedish murder machine is at his most interesting when he gets knocked around a bit, whether in battle or in the bedroom, like in "Tanks for Nuthin'."

Dr. Mrs. the Monarch, the voice of reason in the Monarch household, is also being similarly depowered a bit, even though as a Guild member, she now has more power and authority than her husband. If she weren't so distracted by both the stress of being Councilwoman 1 and the marital discord that's developed due to her rise in power, she'd be her old smarter self again and she'd be better able to track down the supervillain-killing mystery man who's been creating a bloodbath within the Guild (but is doing so accidentally, of course). The Monarch uses that state of distractedness--and his wife's love of role-playing during sex--to trick her into getting tranqed and to lure her away from finding out he's been arching other Guild members as the Blue Morpho in order to have Dr. Venture all to himself again.

There have been some complaints in the past from Venture Bros. viewers about how often pedophilia has been used as humor on the show (speaking of which, I rewatched "Everybody Comes to Hank's" the other day because of this week's focus on Hank's love life and was surprised by how the revelation that Dermott Fictel was the product of a relationship between a Woody Allen-esque Dr. Venture and the underage president of his fan club was a rare reference to wrong-on-so-many-levels sex that wasn't totally played for laughs, and, man, Publick and Hammer were really sticking it to Allen in that scene too). But lately, ever since the tranq-addicted Pirate Captain's relapse, I feel like the constant tranqing of characters on the show has become a similarly tiresome gag. Dr. Mrs. the Monarch becomes the latest character to get tranqed--perhaps the repetition of the dart gags is intended to be a joke about how the Morpho and his son (and even the new villains this week) are the hackiest and least creative people when it comes to taking down their enemies--and this umpteenth tranqing sort of ruins the lovely sight of Dr. Mrs. the Monarch cosplaying as Daisy Mae from Li'l Abner and not even bothering to Deep South-ify her incongruous Harvey Fierstein accent.

I could think of a million other non-Cosby-ish ways to keep Dr. Mrs. the Monarch from discovering the Morpho Cave. I know Publick and Hammer hate the minor character of Kim, the really hot, supervillainy-admiring best friend of Triana Orpheus, because Kim's biggest fans keep pestering them about her longtime absence, but "It Happening One Night" could have been an opportunity for the Monarch or Gary to bring back Kim to the show and enlist her to whisk away Dr. Mrs. the Monarch, who once offered to mentor Kim in the ways of supervillainy, and take her shoe-shopping or something.

I also know a live-action Venture Bros. movie isn't currently on anyone's agenda ("I don't know that I need to make a Venture Bros. movie. I'd probably be into it," said Publick to SuicideGirls back in 2006). Let's face it: a two-hour version would be pointless and difficult to pull off in live-action form. It would also be unable to recapture the massive scope of the show's universe. Aside from 2010's surprisingly good Space Battleship Yamato, has there ever been a live-action movie based on an animated show that's actually bearable as a movie? Yet that didn't stop Chris George, The Venture Bros.' character and prop design supervisor, from imagining last week a live-action version starring Masters of the Universe's Meg Foster as Dr. Mrs. the Monarch.

It's too bad America was too chickenshit in the '80s to be like Japan and see the viability and appeal of animated shows for adults like The Venture Bros. If The Venture Bros. had been created in the '80s instead of the '00s and it immediately led to a live-action version, a younger Foster as Sheila would have been a better casting move than sticking Foster in a two-hour toy commercial and giving her very little to do in a 45-pound costume that doesn't allow her to sit down or even move.

Foster, who recently starred in a Rob Zombie movie, is too old to be playing Sheila these days, so if The Venture Bros. made the jump to live action, I would cast either Jade Tailor from The Magicians or Jenna Coleman as Dr. Mrs. the Monarch and then get either Sandy Martin from Napoleon Dynamite and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or frequent Venture Bros. guest star Kate McKinnon to redub Dr. Mrs. the Monarch. Coleman even has Dr. Mrs. the Monarch's exact same nose.

Jenna Coleman

Jade Tailor (with Arjun Gupta) on The Magicians

Due to how often Coleman has appeared in period costumes on British TV, I wouldn't be surprised if she really took to Dr. Mrs. the Monarch's love of role-playing, which, in "It Happening One Night," is mirrored in Jared and the other waiters' dedication to the role of a ninja and, of course, Hank's love of role-playing. In one season, Hank has gone from modeling himself after Justin Bieber to modeling himself after McQueen and now Bad-era Michael Jackson. I'm kind of experiencing whiplash--or rather, whatever that sound effect was that Weird Al Yankovic parodied in his "Fat" video whenever he would move his body--from trying to keep up with Hank's fashion changes.

But Hank being 29 years late to the party in regards to Martin Scorsese's video for "Bad" is the funniest part of his date with Sirena, in addition to Cristin Milioti's endearing Jersey Shore voice as Sirena (when Sirena invites Hank to join her for an impromptu nighttime swim, I love the way Milioti says, "That's why it's fun-uh!") and Hank getting his Bull Durham on during a Crash Davis-style monologue at the dinner table. Who knew The Venture Bros. would discover a girl who genuinely likes Hank for his weirdness and who knew The Venture Bros. could be capable of being as genuinely romantic as, oh, I don't know, It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown (you probably expected me to say Love Actually, but I've never seen Love Actually, and I don't need to see it because it's a waste of time if Liam Neeson doesn't get to kill anybody)? The last time Hank had some luck with the ladies, he slept with the mother of his half-brother Dermott, and nothing as cringe-inducing as that shows up to taint the romantic moments during "It Happening One Night."

An additional bond between characters develops during Hank and Sirena's date night--I'm not going to call it a "bromance" because I hate that word--and it's the unlikely friendship between Brock and Rocco. They quickly get bored with fighting each other in the park--they're like a pair of Star Wars cosplayers who ran out of energy while trying to reenact a lightsaber duel in front of a line outside The Force Awakens on opening night--and after that exhausting weapons duel, which is nicely visualized by the Titmouse animators, they decide to team up to track down their respective missing charges. But Rocco, whom Sirena dislikes due to her disdain for the goons Wide Wale assigns to watch her, winds up irritating Brock in the car by disapproving of his smoking habit and questioning his fashion choices. I like how Rocco is to "Faking Miracles" and "It Happening One Night" what Jerry Gergich used to be to Parks and Recreation: a punching bag to everybody.

Brock becomes so preoccupied with making sure Hank's okay that he's unable to prevent Dr. Venture from being robbed by the Doom Factory, this episode's clever reimagining of the Legion of Doom as Andy Warhol and his avant-garde cohorts (my favorite Doom Factory villain name is Eenie-Meanie, a portmanteau of the names of Edie Sedgwick and shrinking heroines like the Wasp from the Avengers comics). If Brock really hated Hank like Kevin Johnson said, why would he spend an entire night tracking down Hank? Brock may be off his game as a spy at the moment, but that kind of dedication to caring about Hank is a great example of how he'll always be a better father figure to Hank than the self-absorbed Dr. Venture, whose narcissism during both the Doom Factory's party at his penthouse and Doom Factory leader Wes Warhammer's filming of him in his Walter White tightie-whities for one of his "pointless films of celebrities" makes him an easy-to-rob target.

This season's running joke about the outcomes of the Monarch's attempts to arch the Guild members listed on his Pyramid of Peril--nothing ever goes according to plan, but each arch ends up dead anyway--is so good and nicely timed (as well as a lot funnier than the ubiquitous tranq darts) that even when the running joke resurfaced at the end of "It Happening One Night," it still surprised and amused me. The Monarch accidentally kills an entire crew of villains this time. He's hardly the smooth serial killer his wife and the others in her council perceive the Morpho to be.

Notice how the Guild body count each week has escalated like the number of garbage cans Frank Drebin would hit with his car each week on Police Squad. Gary accidentally killed Haranguetan in "Rapacity in Blue." Both the Monarch's actions and the chaos on Columbus Circle led to two villains perishing in "Tanks for Nuthin'" (no corpses were shown, but there's no way Think Tank survived being hit by the Haranguetank, and it's also doubtful that Battleaxe, the Haranguetank's driver, is still alive). This week, 11 villains are blown up when the trigger the Monarch forgot about while trying to plant the Doom Factory's lair with explosives is accidentally pressed.

Unless it actually took place off-screen, that super-science convention we've been hearing about throughout the season is about to happen, and wherever Dr. Venture goes the rest of this season, the arches from the Pyramid of Peril are bound to follow. I wouldn't be surprised if the Monarch ends up killing all the remaining villains who show up at this convention. You know it's an intriguing season of The Venture Bros. when the Monarch has become a far more effective killing machine than the Swedish one.

The inspiration for the Doom Factory's underwater lair design (Photo source: Reddit)

Other memorable quotes:
* William Woodson soundalike (Publick): "Here, 10 of the most ruthlessly self-involved villains on Earth loosely align forces against the powers of good: the cold-hearted ice sculptress Frigid; the toxic tongue of Serpentine..."
Serpentine (James Urbaniak): "Oh, look, everyone! Poor little rich girl needs attention."
Woodson soundalike: "... miniature muse Eenie-Meanie and Gerard the Gorilla; the watchful Black Maria and Trashenstein the Exquisite Corpse; Ultra Violent and Billy Maim; the feminine yet gigantic She-Hemoth and the bittersweet Hard Candy! All sycophantic clingers-on to the evil genius of Wes Warhammer!"

* Sirena: "What is with your outfit?"
Hank: "What? You don't like it?"
Sirena: "It's the... Isn't it the 'Bad' outfit?"
Hank: "No, this is the good one!"

* Rocco: "Where did you learn that jump thing?"
Brock: "Achilles in Troy."
Rocco: "Oh, the Pittster. Nice! It's a totally underrated movie."

* "Okay, okay, okay. Were I king, I would outlaw men in sandals. No, wait, sandals with socks. Wait, Rocco in sandals. Wait, wait, wait, Rocco's mother, so she could never give birth to Rocco."

* Rocco: "So what, did they like freeze you in 1979 and just wake you up? Or were you like part of some time travel thing? I mean, the car, the clothes, the music. [Grabs Brock's mullet.] This Tennessee top hat."
Brock: "[Stops the car.] Hey! Do not touch the hair."

* Sirena: "What do you believe in?"
Hank: "Well, I believe in the soul, the hanging curveball, pretzel rods--not twists--the powdery smell of girls' deodorant, that pets talk to each other when we're not listening. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted with clones. I believe in the sweet spot, magic invisible gnomes, that cereal is not just for breakfast but for any meal. And I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days, stopping only to go to the bathroom obviously."

* Ninja waiter: "Jared, you're the Brown Widow? Whoa, I-I-I thought you were just a struggling actor like me."
Jared: "I'm both, Justin. And I'm sorry, but one improv class does not make you an actor, sir."

No comments:

Post a Comment