Friday, March 18, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "A Party for Tarzan"

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!

When The Venture Bros. pulled the in medias res trick--an overused storytelling device Rick and Morty, another equally great animated comedy from Team Venture's home network of Adult Swim, made fun of a few months ago--only 25 seconds into "A Party for Tarzan," I was worried. "No! Not you too, Astrobase Go," I thought to myself.

Fortunately, the episode's deployment of in medias res turned out to be a parody of Martin Scorsese's in medias res moments from the opening title sequences of GoodFellas and Casino (as well as Raging Bull). I almost forgot that Scorsese actually did this, decades before Morty Smith would lose his mind on the Purge planet, when an aspiring screenwriter on that planet pissed Morty off by starting his story at the point where it got interesting instead of where its timeframe actually began.

Set during a night when Gary, who doesn't enjoy the homicidal part of henching, reluctantly executes an arch in the Pine Barrens as dirty work and Dr. Mrs. the Monarch experiences some similar hesitation while Wide Wale gives her the chance to pull the trigger on the man she thinks is the supervillain-killing Blue Morpho, "A Party for Tarzan" ranks up there with Community's "Contemporary American Poultry" episode and Mr. Show's hilarious "Pallies" sketch as an entertaining Scorsese parody. "Pallies" was actually more of a parody of the Bill the Butcher-esque treatment commercial TV has subjected all of Scorsese's R-rated movies to than a parody of the director's signature filmmaking techniques, but it's still a great little sketch about the violence of GoodFellas.

"A Party for Tarzan," the penultimate episode of The Venture Bros.' sixth season, even has in common with "Pallies" the brief presence of Paul F. Tompkins. The Mr. Show alum reprises his role from earlier this season as the original Morpho, whose 1973 master plan of disguising himself as the then-closeted Billie Jean King and nakedly seducing Dr. Z (Jackson Publick) into relinquishing a priceless statuette known as the Jade Dragon (while somehow tucking in his dick like Buffalo Bill)--which is detailed in a flashback-within-a-flashback--is definitely something you would never have seen on The Green Hornet.

If you're going to give Patrick Warburton and Mike Sinterniklaas an entire episode off from voicing Brock and Dean, respectively, you better damn well make the episode worthwhile. The Scorsesean flashback gimmick Doc Hammer went with for the episode he scripted--perhaps to compensate for the lack of Warburton and Sinterniklaas--could have turned out to be annoying, like it would have probably been in the hands of some lesser writer whose go-to Scorsese references are limited to Raging Bull and GoodFellas. But luckily, the gimmick works. When Hammer's making fun of Scorsese's overreliance on "Gimme Shelter" instead of recreating Joe Pesci's most profane lines from GoodFellas and Casino, that's how you know "A Party for Tarzan" is a solid Scorsese spoof. The Stones and blues music soundalikes Venture Bros. composer J.G. Thirlwell came up with in place of too-pricey-to-clear Scorsese movie soundtrack cuts like "Gimme Shelter" or "Mannish Boy" are funnier than using the actual songs themselves.

Between the references to Scorsese's 1987 video for Michael Jackson's "Bad" during "It Happening One Night" and the homages to Scorsese's documentary narration-inspired style throughout "A Party for Tarzan," Publick and Hammer must have revisited much of Scorsese's work while looking for inspiration for the New York-based sixth season and planning the whole season out. Doing that must have given Publick and Hammer a renewed appreciation for the legendary New York director whose name is interestingly one of the most frequently misspelled, even by filmmakers who claim to be fans of his work.

In "Once More, With Feeling," Joss Whedon chose musical numbers as a way to get inside the heads of his Buffy characters and uncover sides of those characters they would be uncomfortable with expressing in conversation. Hammer does the same thing with his one-episode experiment with Scorsesean voiceovers (other than the P.I. genre spoof "Everybody Comes to Hank's" and the unreliable narration about Phantom Limb's origin story during "Victor. Echo. November.," The Venture Bros. has stayed away from voiceover narration).

Unlike the characters during either The Dark Knight Rises or the Greg Berlanti version of Supergirl (which, despite having a weakness for unconvincing, typical-for-a-CBS-show dialogue, actually had its best episode this week when it exposed Supergirl to Red Kryptonite and Supergirl transformed into the show's scariest--and most attractive--villain, way scarier than either Laura Benanti or Chris Vance), the Venture Bros. characters aren't the kinds of characters who say what they're feeling and thinking all the time. Except for the Monarch and Hank, they talk less like typical TV show characters and more like ordinary people, and ordinary people rarely say what they're feeling and thinking.

So the Scorsesean voiceovers allow us to see what the Monarch is like when he's not trying to be a melodramatic and highly theatrical arch in front of either his wife or his one remaining henchman and he's all by himself in the subway, like Kyle Chandler at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street. The Monarch's just like everyone else in New York: surrounded by eight million people but feeling completely isolated. He's God's lonely Monarch (interestingly, the episode's one actual homage to the film that contains the "God's lonely man" line, Taxi Driver, focuses not on the Monarch but on Dr. Mrs. the Monarch instead). The voiceovers also show Dr. Venture experiencing--right when Dr. Mrs. the Monarch shoots him in a visually striking, Hugo-style sequence that's done from the point of view of Sheila's bullet by the Titmouse animators--a rare moment of clarity and self-awareness. He takes note of the beauty of the lunar eclipse outside his penthouse and realizes his obsession with fame and celebrity and his pursuit of Greystoke and Highlander star Christopher Lambert--the titular Tarzan and, unexpectedly, a fan of speedsuits just like Dr. Venture--in order to get him to show up at his lunar eclipse party are ultimately meaningless.

Hammer's method of using the voiceovers to advance character and deepen some of the characters' struggles is what keeps the voiceovers from being a pointless and shallow gimmick. It also keeps "A Party for Tarzan" from turning into a disaster of New York, New York proportions.

Other memorable quotes:
* "Now because I was a huge kid and because henchmen don't do that much research, I got kidnapped instead of Senator Nighthorse-Campbell."

* "[Professor Vibrations] had me dead to rights. Could have vibrated my head off. And then he suddenly died, like of happiness or something. No, that happens! Remember that video game Berserk? In like 1981, this kid named Jeff Daly died right after he got a high score. 'Got the humanoid.' Clunk! Dead! Then like a year later, another kid dies the same way--of happiness."

* "What are you doing? I meant like create mood lighting and conversation corners. This looks like a baby shower for a teen mom."

* "Well, that's it. Dr. Venture's dead. And nobody cared: his friends, his family, his bodyguard, even his stupid robot. Didn't care. Oh please, I'm kidding! That was my jacket and it has a bulletproof lining. He's fine! Idiot thought his pocket blew up. And because he stole it from a place that makes costumes for villains, he was too ashamed to tell anyone. The next day, he returned it to Enzo's. He even had to pay for my tailoring. [Enzo spits in Dr. Venture's face.]"

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