Friday, March 25, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "Red Means Stop"

Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. The 130th edition of the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week happens to focus on the final episode of a show that will be back with new episodes someday, but when? Oh yeah, and stream "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," my one-hour mix of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, right now, or don't. Barely anybody has.

Somewhere, there's a crazy parallel universe where Clancy Brown is an international movie star, in addition to being a great character actor, and he--not Liam Neeson--starred as the retired CIA agent who tears apart Paris to rescue his kidnapped daughter in Taken. "Red Means Stop," the Venture Bros. sixth-season finale, presents a glimpse of that parallel universe during the moment when Brown gets to parody Neeson's famous "I don't have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills" speech from Taken. The episode makes me wish some creepy Akira kid with extra-sensory powers or someone like the Rufus Sewell character from Dark City could will that universe into existence.

The imposing Brown is best known for his villainous roles in Highlander (his guest shot in "Red Means Stop" makes it an interesting episode to be airing right after the Christopher Lambert subplot of "A Party for Tarzan") and on both the short-lived HBO cult favorite Carnivàle and Superman: The Animated Series. He was so perfect as the voice of Lex Luthor that whenever I flip open Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman, it's Brown's voice I hear in my brain when I'm reading Luthor's dialogue, not Gene Hackman's, not Kevin Spacey's, not Michael Rosenbaum's and certainly not Jesse Eisenberg's.

Brown would have been terrific as Bryan Mills in Taken. He can convincingly shift between being intimidating to someone his character's about to kill and being kind to whoever's playing his wife or daughter (like on, for example, Fox's Sleepy Hollow, where he had a rare good guy role as Abbie and Jenny's deceased surrogate dad). So that makes Brown the perfect guest star to voice the cloaked Red Death, a terrifying-looking, Red Skull-style arch who strikes fear into the hearts of his victims atop a flying satanic horse one moment and is sweet to his wife (Cristin Milioti, voicing a character who's much closer to her Fargo housewife role this time, instead of a gangster's bratty teen daughter) or his preschooler daughter the next. In fact, that's where we first meet the Red Death: he's at the park, looking after his daughter Lila, who doesn't have any skin like her dad, while his sweater's hilariously tied around his neck.

Doc Hammer, who scripted this episode, and Jackson Publick always love to toy with our perceptions of sci-fi characters like superheroes and supervillains. On The Venture Bros., the superheroes are more screwed-up than their mildly flawed counterparts over at Marvel: Captain Sunshine is a pedo, the Crusaders Action League is corrupt and mob-connected and the Brown Widow is a poorer and uglier-looking Peter Parker (Jared's spider powers are more anatomically correct, and while Peter is currently a CEO in the Marvel books' recently rebooted continuity, Jared is a broke actor/waiter/college campus tour guide in a lame '80s Mark Knopfler headband--is the headband actually more of a parody of both the way struggling actor Tony Manero looks and dresses in the much-maligned Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive and Staying Alive director Sylvester Stallone's bizarre headband fetish?). The supervillains, the characters you'd expect to be the worst people in the Ventureverse, have turned out to be more likable than the superheroes, and the problems Publick and Hammer saddle the arches with are hilariously mundane ones that completely sap the villains of their menacing qualities.

The arches' problems range from sexual dysfunction--like when we find out in this episode that the Monarch's sex life with Sheila is going through a rough patch and he's been spanking it to hentai lately--to the red tape at the Guild of Calamitous Intent. The Red Death is the latest arch to be seen acting far from supervillain-ish when he's at home. Like Wide Wale in "Faking Miracles," the Red Death is just a normal dad, having affectionate and mundane domestic conversations with his loved ones that would sound strange coming out of the evil mouths of the Kingpin or Dr. Doom. "Red Means Stop" may be divisive as a season finale--viewers who wanted a sense of closure right before another long hiatus from Astrobase Go are disappointed over how anticlimactic the episode is and how Sheila's sting operation to flush out the Blue Morpho, which calls for Guild agents Watch and Ward to disguise themselves as Hank and Dean, doesn't build towards any explosive developments--but it's hard to dislike "Red Means Stop" when it has Clancy Brown, the guy who was the insane and imposing Kurgan and the equally imposing and power-hungry Luthor, discussing corn chips.

Garry Shandling's death this week has made me frequently think about how brilliant and funny the writing was on both It's Garry Shandling's Show and The Larry Sanders Show. Shandling's Show was a multi-cam sitcom that amusingly deconstructed multi-cam sitcoms, while Larry Sanders went for a darker and more challenging approach when it peeled back the curtain on the set of a late-night talk show and revealed that the wealthy and pampered Larry and his seemingly benign announcer Hank Kingsley were way more petty and attention-craving than the worst attention-craving asshole at some office you worked for. The Venture Bros. peels back the curtain on sci-fi characters and boy adventurers in a similarly brilliant fashion, like when "Red Means Stop" points out that one of the many reasons for Dr. Venture being such a screwed-up adult is the unnecessary cruelty Action Man subjected eight-year-old Rusty to when he was his bodyguard. In addition to imagining a world where Brown is the star of the Taken movies, "Red Means Stop" cleverly imagines a world where Race Bannon wasn't as noble as he appeared to be on Jonny Quest and off-screen, he frequently pulled cruel pranks on the boys he was supposed to be keeping safe.

As the Monarch's henchman, Gary is often competent, but in "Red Means Stop," he screws up big-time--the consequences of young Action Man's actions are echoed in the consequences Gary winds up facing right before the end credits are rolled--when his method of refraining from killing the arches the Monarch wants out of his way (so that he can arch Dr. Venture again) only makes things worse. "Red Means Stop" reveals that Gary has been keeping arches like the Termite (James Adomian) and Maestro Wave (Misha Collins from Supernatural)--who were first glimpsed in their costumes as arches the Red Death ceded his sub-arching rights to on Gary's diagram of the Monarch's current rivals in "Tanks for Nuthin'"--chained up in the Morpho Cave's bathroom instead of snuffing them out, just like how Major Lillywhite has been secretly keeping alive the zombies Vaughn Du Clark has ordered him to kill over on iZombie.

Imprisoning the arches seems like a good idea, except Gary forgot to consider that maybe captivity would drive the arches insane and result in a gory mess. And that's exactly what happens when Maestro Wave goes crazy from the captivity. He's started to believe he's talking to some sort of god, so he sacrifices the other prisoners to appease that god. Though I was intrigued by the guessing game Doc Hammer came up with during the mysterious earlier scenes between the Termite and Maestro Wave--for most of the episode, I thought the Red Death was behind their predicament--I found it to be a weird and off-putting time for The Venture Bros. to be doing a prolonged Saw parody in the middle of a finale that would have been better spent functioning as a summation of the season.

"A Party for Tarzan" really should have been the finale instead of "Red Means Stop" because it has a better sense of closure. Dr. Venture's surprisingly profound moment alone under the lunar eclipse (right when Dr. Mrs. the Monarch mistakes him for the Morpho and tries to kill him) at the end of "A Party for Tarzan" is a stronger and punchier way to conclude Dr. Venture's sixth-season arc of New York serving as an enabler for his ego than the water polo party at his penthouse at the end of "Red Means Stop." The Monarch's closing narration in "A Party for Tarzan" is also a stronger and punchier conclusion to the Monarch's sixth-season arc than the speech the Red Death gives to the Monarch when he basically enables his unexpected new friend to continue on with his irrational rage against Dr. Venture, just like how New York enables Dr. Venture to continue to rest on his laurels and not do much actual work as a super-scientist. I'm not surprised about Jackson Publick admitting in an interview that the penultimate episode "actually should have been the season finale. We actually tried at the last minute to retcon that and the one that follows it to make it into the season finale because it felt just a little more epic and pretty and compelling than some of the other ones, but there were continuity issues we couldn't get around."

The Venture Bros. may be a show about narcissism, failure and impotence (whether sexual or career-wise), but it also has an optimistic side, and "A Party for Tarzan" is the kind of summation of both that optimism and Publick and Hammer's clear-eyed exploration of narcissism, failure and impotence that "Red Means Stop" should have been more like as a finale. In The Atlantic in 2013, Armin Rosen wrote, "Venture Bros. has the same slacker optimism as The Simpsons: Springfield is kind of an objectively horrible place, after all. But it lives and breathes, and that's what vindicates it and everyone who lives there... there's still a strong sense of some coming redemption for Hank, Dean and Rusty--and the Monarch--even if it won't be through super-science or super-villainy."

Dr. Venture's brief realization in "A Party for Tarzan" that maybe his enormous self-absorption won't amount to much is a small push towards that redemption. But it wouldn't be The Venture Bros. if Dr. Venture didn't screw up many more times again while fumbling towards that redemption and trying to figure out his place in the delightfully twisted world of Team Venture.

Memorable quotes:
* "[Groans.] It's too much. The Wandering Spider? Uh, those darts had neurotoxin in 'em. I had a week of priapism, and I still can't feel my toes."

* The Termite: "What the hell? Why is your chain way longer than mine?"
Maestro Wave: "Who cares whose is longer? What is this? Eighth-grade gym class?"

* "This is what he wants. It's his plan for me. I'm so sorry. You-you have to die. It's his plan. He needs me to feed on your butt."

* "YOU'D BETTER BE TELLING ME THE TRUTH BECAUSE I SWEAR TO... [Changes his tone when his mother-in-law's on the line.] Carol? Hi. Hi, is Kate there? Yes, I'm fine. Uh, th-there's a bag in the trunk of the car. But can... Can you get Kate, please? [Puts his cell down and addresses the Monarch.] Lila needs her corn chips. [Puts his cell back up to his ear.] Kate! Kate, are you... Well, I-I-I told her there's some in the... Sweetie, they don't go stale overnight."

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