Friday, February 26, 2016

I Can't Believe I've Never Seen Them Till Now!: Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Masters of the Universe

A heavily-updated-in-2020 version of the following blog post can be found in If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You: The Movies and TV Shows Some of Us Regretted Not Catching Until Later. The 2020 book was written and self-published by yours truly. Get the paperback edition of If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You now!


"I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" is a series of posts that appear sporadically here on the AFOS blog rather than weekly. In each post, I reveal that I never watched a certain popular movie until very recently, and that's largely because I'm Filipino, we're always late to the party and that's how we do.

The 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian--made by John Milius, the director of the TCM staple The Wind and the Lion--is one of several popular '80s movies I just kept missing out on for the oddest reasons. I avoided watching it even when I had the chance to catch it back when my older brother--who was obsessed with D&D and the sword-and-sorcery genre during the years when Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed the Robert E. Howard character--taped both Conan the Barbarian and its way more family-friendly 1984 sequel off the TV and owned a copy of the first issue of artist John Buscema's two-part 1982 Marvel Comics adaptation of the first movie. His copy of that issue was where I first glimpsed the Milius movie's Wheel of Pain montage and then wondered to myself, "So Conan doesn't get to take any bathroom breaks at all during this shit?"

(Photo source: Marvel Masterworks Resource Page)

Conan the Barbarian, the tale of a former gladiator on a mission to kill the sorcerer who slaughtered his tribe and sent him into child slavery, was R-rated, and my parents rarely allowed me to watch R movies for the first few years of grade school. (Yes, I know Conan the Destroyer was a PG movie, so I could have been able to watch it, but I always skipped it. I still haven't watched it.) So I had to settle for the G-rated Conan, a.k.a. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, that 30-minute commercial for the '80s Mattel toy line that was rumored to have originally been a Conan toy line before Mattel changed it to Masters of the Universe because the company didn't want to be associated with an ultraviolent and brazenly sexual R movie.

Although He-Man gave acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini his start in writing for animation, it has not aged well at all as an animated show. But when I was in first grade, He-Man was a decent weekday-afternoon time-waster--it was never a Saturday morning show, by the way, so get your facts straight, HitFix--even though I noticed it would always recycle the same nine or 10 bits of animation like all other cartoons from the Filmation factory used to clumsily do in order to save money.

I lost interest in He-Man after its first two seasons in afternoon syndication and never again formed another attachment to a sword-and-sorcery franchise--until Legend of the Seeker (the hotness of both Bridget Regan and Tabrett Bethell was the main reason why I became interested in that show) and, of course, Game of Thrones came along. So my lack of interest in the sword-and-sorcery genre in the years between He-Man and Legend of the Seeker is mainly to blame for never watching Conan the Barbarian all these years, even though I got myself a copy of the movie's excellent Basil Poledouris score so that I could use "Anvil of Crom" and "Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom" for radio airplay.

Also, the Milius movie just always came off to me as ponderous and self-important like Man of Steel and--if my skepticism due to the largely dour footage I've seen in its trailers ends up being right--Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Despite those misgivings I had about the Milius movie, I added Conan the Barbarian to my DVD rental queue when I first got a Netflix account because I wanted to see if the movie lived up to its beloved Poledouris score (a score that, by the way, This Is How You Lose Her author Junot Díaz interestingly played repeatedly to keep his creative juices flowing while he worked on his first book). However, the movie was always slipping into "Very long wait" status on Netflix and was always getting pushed aside by other rentals I was much more interested in until one day, it became available to stream. And then like a Cimmerian thief in the night, it was suddenly gone from Netflix streaming. Fortunately, I stopped dilly-dallying and finally made myself watch Conan the Barbarian right before it expired.

You know what? Conan the Barbarian isn't as ponderous as I thought, but it has a certain grandiose style that would be described by younger, fidgetier film critics today as "slow." That "slow" style--contemplative and "devoid of clunky-sounding exposition" would be much better words for it--is actually what elevates Conan the Barbarian and makes it stand out as a sword-and-sorcery flick. It takes its medieval world seriously, but it's never an overly dour slog like Man of Steel. If anybody in the Conan the Barbarian cast is on the dour side, it's often Schwarzenegger, who did Conan the Barbarian way before Hollywood discovered you can work around the limited range of the champion bodybuilder and future California governor by feeding him distinctive and weird-sounding one-liners in movies like the original Terminator, Commando, Predator and Kindergarten Cop.

Schwarzenegger doesn't utter a single wisecrack during Conan the Barbarian, and the only times we get a hint of his future light-comedy skills are a scene where a stoned-out-of-his-mind Conan punches out a camel, a hangover scene where he collapses face-first into a bowl of soup and a moment where he pretends to flirt with a gay priest before knocking him out and stealing his identity to infiltrate an evil cult. But he looks convincingly like the '70s and '80s Marvel version of Conan while he broods and appears as if he's going to skullfuck Crom if he doesn't holler back at his prayers. Like Jim Kelly would have said, man, he comes right out of a comic book. The role of Conan doesn't call for you to do much. You just have to look convincing waving around a heavy sword. Barbarians aren't exactly known for being complicated men.

Conan the Barbarian may have made Schwarzenegger a movie star, but he's overshadowed by his co-stars in that movie (whereas he steals The Terminator from Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Paul Winfield, and he does so with even less lines). In a villainous turn way before he became America's favorite granddad/narrator outside of Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones makes quite an impression chopping the head off Conan's mom and later transforming into a snake. As cult leader Thulsa Doom, the perpetually scowling murderer of Conan's parents, the rather underused Jones sports the same exact hairdo as Janeane Garofalo's in Reality Bites. He looks kind of like Terry Crews when he strapped on one of his co-star Maya Rudolph's weaves to play President Camacho in Idiocracy. But the goofy-looking Jones relishes his lines like wine made from the blood of his character's virginal sacrifices. I cosign Roderick Heath's observation over at Ferdy on Films about how everything Jones says in the movie sounds like an admonition welling up from the depths of Hades.

There are two fascinating '80s movies that star Sab Shimono (who most recently had a guest shot as a Japanese internment camp survivor on Netflix's Longmire) and the late Mako, two Japanese American actors who are just incapable of giving an abysmal performance, even as animation voice actors, like when they both had roles on the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender. One of the two '80s movies is The Wash, a 1988 indie in which Shimono and Mako play a pair of old Japantown men who are both in love with Nobu McCarthy. Nobody outside of Asian American college professors remembers The Wash, which was based on a play by Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, but it was unique for its time because of its all-Asian American cast, the bold decision to have these Asian American actors portray ordinary (and unlike the more affluent Joy Luck Club, lower-middle-class) Americans instead of the stereotypes that were popular at the time and, best of all, the focus on an Asian American man dating an Asian American woman instead of the cliché of yet another white man hooking up with an Asian woman. Fuck all those things out-of-touch film critics like former Washington Post critic Hal Hinson wrote at the time about The Wash being a bland indie. The Wash features a stronger Mako performance than even the standout (and Oscar-nominated) one Mako gave as a coolie-turned-boxer in 1966's The Sand Pebbles.

The other fascinating '80s showcase for the character acting skills of Shimono and Mako is Conan the Barbarian. Shimono never appears on screen, but he did uncredited work on redubbing the voice of Subotai, Conan's Mongolian archer pal, played by Hawaiian surfer Gerry Lopez. The actual voice of Lopez can be heard in a deleted scene where Conan's stoic demeanor briefly disappears.

The YouTube clip summary for Conan and Subotai's deleted scene says one of the movie's producers hated Lopez and demanded that he be redubbed, which makes little sense because out of all the performers in the movie, you'd expect Schwarzenegger to be the one who would have gotten completely redubbed (in fact, Universal studio execs were worried about Schwarzenegger's thick Austrian accent, and that's probably why Universal's teaser trailer and main trailer for the movie didn't contain a single line of dialogue from Schwarzenegger). I have no idea what Schwarzenegger's saying when he briefly grumbles over his 20 years in bondage, whereas I can completely understand Lopez.

But Shimono's dubbing work for Subotai is so terrific that I didn't know Lopez was redubbed until after watching the movie and reading a bunch of articles about the physically demanding shoot. And this movie just adores the weather-beaten voice of Mako--who plays a storyteller and Conan crony known as the Wizard--so much that his voice is all over Conan the Barbarian. The gravitas of the voices of Jones, Shimono and Mako, especially during his narration--which Milius wisely uses to establish the movie's setting instead of awkwardly wedging exposition into the dialogue of these laconic warrior characters--is a huge part of why Conan the Barbarian stands up to repeat viewings.

If Jones sounds like he's straight out of Hades, then Mako sounds like the Hyborian Age equivalent of the world's goriest and most batshit audiobook. Potentially cheesy-sounding passages like "Language and writing were made available--the poetry of Khitai, the philosophy of Sung--and he also came to know the pleasures of women, when he was bred to the finest stock. But always, there remained the discipline of steel" become music in Mako's hands (during the bit about "Language and writing," is that the Oliver Stone rough draft talking or is it the Milius rewrite talking?). I wouldn't be surprised if Genndy Tartakovsky cast Mako as the evil Aku on Samurai Jack specifically because of his distinctive narration during Conan the Barbarian.

Though her character of Valeria, a precursor to Xena, Michelle Yeoh's Yu Shu Lien from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movies and Lady Sif from the Thor movies, is yet another clichéd example of a leading lady/love interest in an action flick who winds up getting fridged before the climax, the amount of fighting Sandahl Bergman--a professional dancer Bob Fosse recommended to Milius after directing her in All That Jazz--gets to do in Conan the Barbarian is the most surprising part of the material. It's surprising because at around the time of Conan the Barbarian's release, women rarely got to be warriors like Valeria in sword-and-sorcery flicks. They were either damsels-in-distress like Judi Bowker in the original Clash of the Titans or the bedroom conquests and evil sorceresses of Excalibur. TV was way ahead of sword-and-sorcery movies when it came to warrior women, thanks to Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman.

I found myself more taken with Bergman in the action sequences than with Schwarzenegger in action, not just because she's attractive in Conan the Barbarian but because I love heist movies, probably way more than any other genre, and the physicality she brought to both Conan the Barbarian's jewel heist sequence and the swordplay due to her dancing background constantly made me think, "Damn, she missed the heist movie renaissance by 17 years." Just like Schwarzenegger and Lopez, Bergman remarkably did most of her own stunts in Conan the Barbarian. In fact, she ended up accidentally slicing open her forefinger when a weapon she used for the rehearsal of a sword fight came without a handle guard, a good example of how physically rough it was to make Conan the Barbarian.

"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.

Friday, February 19, 2016

KDFC is pronouncing "Varèse Sarabande" three different ways, and only one of them is right

A current storyline on CW's The Flash centers on Jay Garrick moping--and then doing some more moping--over the loss of his ability to run at superhuman speeds. Jay fought crime under the name of the Flash in a parallel universe where their version of Barry Allen, the show's main character, doesn't have any superpowers, so Barry's not the Flash over there. Unless he's actually been the Tony Todd-voiced supervillain known as Zoom this whole time, Jay is too much of a goody-goody to regain his speed with the help of cocaine, so the only way Jay can get his speed back temporarily is to inject himself with an experimental drug called Velocity-6.

I suffer from writer's block all the time, which was never a good thing when I worked in the newspaper biz, and it's the last thing you want to deal with when you're running a blog and you're trying to come up with one or two posts per week. But I don't need Velocity-6 or blow to type out a post at a superhuman speed. All I need is the Bay Area classical music station KDFC.

I recently discovered that having KDFC in my headphones has helped me to finish writing posts. DJ mixes sometimes do the trick, but they can occasionally be distracting, especially when the DJ throws on a beat like the one from Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "The Creator" or the one from Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," and then all I want to do is nod my head repeatedly or do the Robot instead of finish writing. Film and TV score music, the Internet radio format I dabbled in from 2002 to last month, is even more distracting. Like I wrote a few weeks ago, score music comes with too much baggage.

"That kind of music often wrecks my attempt to concentrate on filling a blank space with a paragraph and causes me to start thinking about the action sequence the cue was written for, followed by all the camerawork that went into it... And then my brain starts to shout, 'Yeaaaah, go, Iko Uwais!,' or 'Yeaaaah, throw that shovel hook, Michael B.!,' and my concentration is completely destroyed," I wrote on January 26.

Neither classical music nor instrumental hip-hop come with that kind of baggage, so when I need music to help me to concentrate, only those two genres can get me to start typing (classical music has also helped me to sleep well late at night). So right when I've started turning to KDFC as a reliable place for instrumentals that cure my writer's block instead of distracting or annoying me, the station, which tosses in a few movie themes on its playlists here and there, has been increasing the airplay of film score music.

KDFC chose last June's Varèse Sarabande album Back in Time... 1985 at the Movies, Galaxy Quest composer David Newman's re-recording of film score cues from 1985, as its "CD of the Week." All this week, the station has been spotlighting selections from 1985 at the Movies, which is a solid album from Newman, although I would have swapped out the love theme from St. Elmo's Fire for either a selection from the John Morris score to Clue or a Lee Holdridge instrumental from Moonlighting, and I would have packaged the six-disc edition of 1985 at the Movies exactly like a McDLT, so that "The hot stays hot and the cool stays cool!"

Then all next week, KDFC will join in the countdown to Oscar night and play one theme composed by John Williams per hour as a salute to Williams. He's one of this year's Best Original Score Oscar nominees for his work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens ("Rey's Theme" is especially terrific).

After trying to avoid film score music because it doesn't help as an accompaniment for writing, I should be irritated that KDFC is playing more film score music this month. But I'm not. I'm actually kind of delighted to see film score compositions like "Rey's Theme" receiving airplay on terrestrial radio outside of a college station, although KDFC tends to prefer concert arrangements of film score music over the actual score cues that were used in the films. So that means you won't hear "The Scavenger," the cue that nicely introduces Rey in The Force Awakens, but you will hear "Rey's Theme," the concert arrangement of the Daisy Ridley character's motif. But it doesn't matter; it's just sofa king good to hear such cues on a non-college terrestrial station.

Not everyone agrees.

Anonymous needs to go walk into traffic. That's just stupid talk. As someone who streamed film and TV score music for 13 years, I can't stand people like that.

And as a film score music DJ who would then encounter racist, neo-con film music nerds who think hip-hop, one of my favorite genres, is evil or unworthy to be considered music, I can't stand those people either. They need to go walk into traffic too.

KDFC's Dianne Nicolini and KDFC president Bill Lueth (Photo source: SFCV)
I don't have time to deal with narrow minds. I don't miss the part of being a film score music DJ where I'd be subjected to "Hip-hop causes violence!" or "C'mon, really? Who wants to listen to just the instrumentals? Am I right?" I also don't miss the part of it that involved trying to pronounce baffling-looking names of composers, filmmakers (I would love to hear someone say "Krzysztof Kieslowski" while they're on Novocaine) and record labels. But whenever I encountered such a name, I would always Google its pronunciation. I didn't mind doing that. I never wanted to sound like an imbecile or Alec Baldwin in that SNL "Soap Opera Digest" sketch where he's playing a doctor and he keeps mangling medical terms and university names, like when he says, "There's no class at Yeah-leh Medical School that can prepare you for this!"

But how did I find out about mysterious pronunciations before Google? I simply asked around. One particular name that used to make me scratch my head in the '90s was "Varèse Sarabande." That one was cleared up for me by Jeff Bond, the author of The Music of Star Trek and a film score music expert who has written score album liner notes for everyone from Varèse to La-La Land Records. I simply asked him how to pronounce the inkblot-logoed record label's name while recording with him a phoner for my college radio program.

So that's why it's amusing to hear KDFC DJs attempt to tackle "Varèse" during the week of Varèse's 1985 at the Movies in the spotlight, without even checking its pronunciation. Morning host Hoyt Smith pronounced it as "vuh-reez." Early afternoon host Dianne Nicolini said "vuh-rez" (rhymes with Pez). Afternoon drive-time host Ray White went with "vuh-ray-say."

Only Nicolini is correct. It's "vuh-rez."

I'm glad to see 1985 at the Movies--and film and TV score music in general--receiving this much exposure from the KDFC DJs, but they ought to follow Nicolini's lead. The key to pronouncing "Varèse" isn't hard to remember. It would simply be "It rhymes with Pez."

If movie theaters need bouncers, then classical stations need pronunciation consultants. Who wants to end up looking like Alec Baldwin in the SNL "Soap Opera Digest" sketch? No name is too intimidating for a pronunciation consultant. Such a consultant would always be ready and on call to tackle the predicament of trying to figure out how to say a puzzling-looking musician's name on an album cover. There's no class at Yeah-leh that can prepare you for "Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina."


Other film and TV score compositions played by KDFC (from snapshots I took of score music appearing on the KDFC site's playlists)

"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."

Friday, February 12, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "Maybe No Go"

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!

"Maybe No Go" catches up with Venture Bros. side characters Billy Quizboy and Pete White--the former, by the way, was last seen constantly being annoyed by the company of Rose, who's both the hydrocephalic super-scientist's mom and a retired superheroine formerly known as Triple Threat, while he was dragged along with Rose and her current boyfriend Action Man to the Gargantua-2 space casino's opening gala--and pretends the ongoing rivalry between the trailer park roommates and Augustus St. Cloud is the subject of a Billy/Pete spinoff. I've said before that so many different shows could be spun off from The Venture Bros.' fully realized (and crowded) universe--I'm not holding out hope for a spinoff about the Order of the Triad because the not-exactly-prolific Jackson Publick isn't really all about that franchising life, but an Order of the Triad series would rock the most out of all possible Venture Bros. spinoffs--and the Doc Hammer-scripted "Maybe No Go" briefly runs with that idea many Venture Bros. viewers like myself have had in our heads about various spinoffs.

The episode presents snippets of the off-screen battles between Dr. Venture's college buddies and their roly-poly arch-frenemy--the snobby heir of the St. Cloud plastics fortune and a sore loser who never got over Billy beating him on the game show Quizboys--via a fake opening title sequence for the Riptide-esque action show Billy Quizboy and the Pink Pilgrim. Back when the late Stephen J. Cannell was the Shonda Rhimes of mid-'80s network TV and Cannell was able to dominate a whole night of programming with his independently made output, Riptide was a Cannell joint that aired back-to-back with the Cannell/Universal hit The A-Team on NBC's '80s Tuesday night schedule. The Magnum, P.I.-esque Riptide was such a disposable piece of Reagan-era fluff that all I can remember about it was that it featured boat chases and a constantly malfunctioning robot buddy. Billy Quizboy and the Pink Pilgrim also features beachside action sequences and a robot buddy. In this case, the robot sidekick is Robo-Bo, who was programmed by Billy and Pete to speak in the PlainTalk Fred-style voice of Jonas Venture Jr.'s J-Bots--I love how Fred is the only kind of robot voice the scientists on this show can get to work--and weirdly bear the face of Bo, as in Bo from The Dukes of Hazzard.

(Photo source: Uproxx)

And like Riptide (which was the type of '80s fantasy that would constantly make an earlier and much more grounded Cannell character like Jim Rockford roll his eyes), Billy and Pete's spinoff is on the bland side, although I'm tantalized by the clips of Augustus cosplaying as the Marvel supervillain Galactus and Billy appearing in the form of a giant lizard like in the old video game Rampage. The big joke about the fake Billy/Pete show is that those clips of Billy, Pete and Robo-Bo tangling with monsters all over the world and scoring babes are misleading, and if their fake show were an actual one, it would largely be just the three of them parked in front of their terminals and speed-typing inside the "Quizcave" (as seen while Augustus sics a Robosaurus on their trailer), which doesn't exactly scream out sexy times. Pete's instruction to "Set the ground at Z-pulse through the electrical, then run diagnostics on the echo. Configure the kickback waves to resonate at that frequency" is the type of hackneyed techno-gibberish I hope Bryan Fuller stays away from when he works on that upcoming CBS All Access Star Trek project I'm now excited about simply because it will be spearheaded by Fuller, the Trek alum who went on to make intriguing cult shows like Wonderfalls and Hannibal and has always dreamed of casting Angela Bassett as a captain and Rosario Dawson as her first officer, a pairing that, in Fuller's hands, would be like the greatest (non-DS9) Trek spinoff of all time.

Billy, Pete and Augustus (the pageboy-wigged billionaire is every single rich asshole you never liked when you were a kid and was forced by either your teacher, your mom or the kid's mom to hang out with) are basically grown men having pathetic-looking play dates that are arranged not by their parents but by themselves. Their battle over possessing the red ball prop from Duran Duran's classic 1983 video for "Is There Something I Should Know?," the song that provided this episode with its title, is amusingly low-stakes in comparison to Wide Wale's threats against Dr. Venture's new business empire and the Monarch nearly getting his ass shrunk by the laser eyes of a villainess named Redusa (Kate McKinnon) while he searches behind his wife's back for the Guild of Calamitous Intent member who secretly talked her into signing away to him the Monarch's arching rights to Dr. Venture (the Monarch doesn't know yet that the Guild member is Wide Wale). The Monarch wants to forever play a game of supervillain-vs.-super-scientist with Dr. Venture, but he's so far up his own ass that he's unaware that he's not very good at arching (he's so lousy at it that he didn't know his parents kept a gigantic supervillain's lair under his childhood home in Newark this whole time) and is nothing without his powerful Guild council chairwoman wife or his sometimes exasperated but eternally loyal henchman Gary.

The Venture Bros. follows in the footsteps of The Simpsons, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Bob's Burgers and becomes the latest animated show to parody Trainspotting's withdrawal sequence. (Photo source: Uproxx)

Like the tranquilizer-addicted Pirate Captain reminds Dr. Venture at one point in "Maybe No Go," you got to live in reality--a bit of advice that's ignored on this show by anybody who's not a pragmatic type like Brock or Dr. Mrs. the Monarch--and the tug-of-war between reality and fantasy is an old Venture Bros. theme "Maybe No Go" revisits in the Monarch's refusal to let go of arching Dr. Venture and Augustus' inability to move past the fact that dirt-poor Billy is smarter than him. Augustus let that disappointment consume him so much that he had the Quizboys set rebuilt in his mansion for a rematch with Billy in "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?" (and he got beaten again).

In "Maybe No Go," Augustus has another old set pointlessly rebuilt as part of his feud with Billy, and this time it's the set from the "Is There Something I Should Know?" video, whose graphics and scene transitions are perfectly recreated by the Titmouse animators during what has to be the visual and comedic highlight of this episode. The sequence is also the show's first Duran Duran-related sight gag since the enjoyable montage where Dr. Venture relived the racist "Hungry Like the Wolf" video while having a meltdown and running away from his responsibilities in the second-season premiere. Racist video aside, Duran Duran is a band that's impossible to dislike, and "Maybe No Go" will make you want to go YouTube or Spotify a bunch of their best songs afterward. "A View to a Kill" is my favorite Bond song. "Save a Prayer" is the type of stylish and non-cheesy slow jam that should have opened Spectre instead of the underwhelming "Writing's on the Wall," but only if Daniel Craig's Bond had been written as a tormented Catholic like Matt Murdock instead of as a tormented atheist. The Nile Rodgers era of Duran Duran is solid, but I'm more partial to the sounds of "Planet Earth" and "Girls on Film." I even like that single Duran Duran recorded with Justin Timberlake nearly a decade ago. Man, Augustus, get your disgusting sausage fingers off the Duran Duran memorabilia right now.

Augustus' maturity level is akin to the time when Hank thought he was Batman (currently, Hank thinks he's Steve McQueen). He takes the actual Henrietta Pussycat puppet from the set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, one of many priceless collectibles he's been able to procure, and uses it as a shower mitt, just to piss off Billy. Augustus has always been obnoxious, but during that shower scene involving a beloved piece of our Mister Rogers-watching childhood, he crosses the line into "This motherfucker needs an ass-whupping from Brock."

Speaking of Brock, the OSI agent finds out in "Maybe No Go" about both Wide Wale's first plan of attack on Ventech and the gangster's connection to Dr. Doug Ong, a mad scientist who worked on finding "a cure for cancer in cuttlefish DNA" in the '80s and fused his DNA with that of a marine mammal known as a dugong (that's actually a Tagalog word, by the way, for "lady of the sea") to become Dr. Dugong. The mad scientist was killed by the Monarch when the Guild forced a disappointed Monarch to arch him a few seasons ago. Wide Wale is revealed to be Dugong's brother Chester, which could mean that he took over as Dr. Venture's arch just to get his revenge on the Monarch (and if Wide Wale wants the Monarch dead, will that lead to the Monarch having to turn to Team Venture for help?), but I was more surprised by the episode's revelation that Wide Wale has the Crusaders Action League in his pocket and is running the Crusaders' protection racket. So in Team Venture's New York, the Avengers work for the Kingpin, which is some depressing shit, but it's perfect for this show's skeptical, almost Iñarritu-esque view of superheroes. On this show, they're either corrupt, sexually dysfunctional or pedophilic.

With the help of Sgt. Hatred, who quit the OSI because of his unhappiness with being removed from Venture security detail and has taken a job as a Ventech Tower tour guide, Brock is able to foil a break-in by Wide Wale's henchmen. Dr. Venture is, of course, totally unaware of how much danger he's now in, especially after he refused to fork over protection money to the Crusaders, and he's now probably doing every night that old Louie De Palma ritual of stripping down to his underwear and rolling around for hours in piles of money that used to belong to his brother. But he does one good thing in "Maybe No Go," and that would have to be the moment when he agrees to follow a suggestion from Dean about forming a team to work on speculative engineering instead of rejecting Dean's suggestion and saying, "I'm the fucking boss of Ven-whatever. Only my ideas matter." It reminds me a bit of the interesting "bonding over super-science" moment shared by Dr. Venture and Dean while they attempted to fix the space station shield in "All This and Gargantua-2." These moments also illustrate how Dean is the kind of brilliant thinker Dr. Venture could be if he stopped coasting on his fame as both a scientist/adventurer's son and the inspiration for The Rusty Venture Show ("Brought to you by smoking!").

I don't know where this new, eight-episode season is headed as far as Wide Wale's scheming goes, but I'm enjoying what "Hostile Makeover" and "Maybe No Go" have done with the season so far. I hate Augustus, but his acquisition of Billy and Pete's company turns out to benefit Billy and Pete when he sells their company to Dr. Venture, who summons them to New York to have them work alongside him, presumably in the speculative engineering department, and that frees Billy and Pete from the boredom they were clearly experiencing while having to humor Augustus. When Jackson Publick discussed the character of Hank with The Mary Sue, he said that "he possesses a childlike wonder about everything, you know? He kinda thinks everything is cool, he has a can-do attitude, he's got a decent amount of confidence, but he doesn't express it in that asshole way that Dr. Venture or the Monarch do." In "Maybe No Go," Billy and Pete represent that kind of optimism as well--after they lose their company to Augustus, there's an unexpectedly moving moment where a despondent Pete questions the magic of Duran Duran's red ball, and Billy, who hasn't lost all hope, says, "Why would you doubt that?" (Doc Hammer's terrific delivery of this line is key to why the moment's unexpectedly moving)--but they're, of course, a bit more mature about that optimism than Hank. I'm curious about what big, bad New York will be like through Billy and Pete's eyes and how the duo will react to the changes that come with their new home. And as they try to make their way to this ordinary world, will they learn to survive?

Other memorable quotes:
* Dr. Mrs. the Monarch: "On the books, y-you're a Six. But that was when you had over 100 henchmen and a flying cocoon. So if I were to reassess, I'd go with Three, maybe Four."
Monarch: "Three or Four?! C'mon, Tantrum Rex is a Level Four! Tantrum Rex! He looks like the 'Not the mama, not the mama' baby dinosaur puppet."

"Mousse? I didn't even know they made hair mousse anymore."
"Hey hey hey, check it out, I'm in Flock of Seagulls."
"Hey, look, look, I'm in the Exploited."
"Billy, remember Tool Academy?"

* "Without this ball, the New Romantics could never have happened. Duran Duran would be a jock-rock band."

* "Imagine: no Spandau Ballet to write 'If You Leave.'" Augustus, who thought the 1986 cult favorite Highlander came out in 1983 in "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," makes another mistake and gets away with it. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to remember that OMD wrote and performed "If You Leave," not Spandau Ballet. Even though he gets dates, facts and lyrics wrong (he says, "Reflex is a lonely child," when it's actually "The reflex is an only child"), I love how Augustus appears to be obsessed with the works of Russell Mulcahy, who directed both the "Is There Something I Should Know?" video and Highlander.

* "If there's no New Romantics, stuff like nu rock would have happened way earlier. I mean, Linkin Park and System of a Down would have formed in the '80s. And that would have ruined future hip-hop, and with no good hip-hop, there's no RZA. And I lost my virginity to side A of Wu-Tang Forever. We had to do it! Just think of what your hair would look like."

* Manolo (Hal Lublin), the handyman Gary spoke Spanish to last week (and whose van is still badly dented from Warriana's chariot accident in a funny little bit of continuity): "Your wife no home, so I wait for you. You're not going to believe this!"
Monarch: "I knew you spoke fucking English!"

* Brock: "Buy you a beer?"
Sgt. Hatred: "Uh, still an alcoholic, but, uh… Aw, heck, I'll just go to an extra meeting."

Friday, February 5, 2016

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

(Photo source: Venture Bros. character and prop design supervisor Chris George)

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!

Venture Bros. co-writers Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer's decision to burn down the Venture Compound and give the newly wealthy Dr. Venture and his sons Dean and Hank a new home in Publick and Hammer's real-life hometown of New York is often, at a late point in a TV show's lifespan, the kind of risky move that screams out creative bankruptcy. When Jenji Kohan similarly burned down the setting of Agrestic and freed the Botwins from their suburban confines, Weeds experienced a creative decline that was so awful it has made me wary of forming an attachment to Kohan's Orange Is the New Black. Is Orange going to lose its way just like post-Agrestic Weeds did? (I wouldn't know. I actually haven't watched a single episode of Orange on Netflix yet.) So all I could think of while watching the three-minute, online-only epilogue of "All This and Gargantua-2," last year's hour-long setup for The Venture Bros.' move to New York, was Weeds and its long, slow and stoner-paced decline.

Publick himself seems to be aware of the failure that can result from the riskiness of getting rid of a setting viewers have grown attached to and bringing wealth into the lives of characters who are distinctive for their lowliness and desperation, because he has said, "Basically, we just had Dr. Venture win the lottery like Roseanne." The lifestyle porn that was on display in Roseanne's much-maligned final season--a season that seemed to reflect Roseanne Barr's love for Absolutely Fabulous (she, in fact, wanted to produce an American version of AbFab at the time)--was deemed as a betrayal by so many of Roseanne's biggest champions in the TV critic community. But if "Hostile Makeover," The Venture Bros.' narratively busy (and maybe way too busy for some viewers) but extremely funny sixth-season premiere, is any indication, Publick and Hammer know what they're doing and are doing their damnedest not to have another Weeds or Roseanne on their hands.

(Photo source: Venture Bros. color design supervisor Liz Artinian)

Of course, the pimpin' Columbus Circle penthouse Dr. Venture inherited from his smarter and now-dead twin brother J.J. looks fantastic, and the Titmouse animators' artwork of Ventech Tower at night is so gorgeous I've been thinking of turning it into wallpaper on my Mac. But all signs of Entourage-y lifestyle porn are quickly done away with when 1) the Venture family's power walk to the penthouse is soundtracked not by some recent Top 40 hit but by a parody of "The Power," Snap's very '90s hit single (the chorus declares that "Rusty's back on top now") and 2) Rusty fires all of J.J.'s employees, which proves that the self-absorbed wanna-be genius hasn't lost any of the pettiness, dickishness and narcissism that have made Dr. Venture so compelling as a comedic creation. Losing J.J., a family member he never really liked, to cancer hasn't softened Dr. Venture either.

Rob McElhenney once said he intentionally gained weight in season 7 of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia because he wanted to make fun of how sitcom stars become more handsome or thin when they get richer and begin to wave around cash at personal trainers or plastic surgeons. So McElhenney did the opposite and uglied himself up for just that one season. There's a similar "I don't give a fuck"-ishness to what Publick and Hammer are doing with Dr. Venture (and Hank) at the start of the new season.