Thursday, December 17, 2009

Culture Shock 12.17.09: 'The Venture Bros.' finds hope in failure

It isn't on in prime time, it doesn't feature any big-name stars and it probably isn't going to rack up Emmys, but "The Venture Bros." may be the best show on television.

The Adult Swim series wrapped up the first half of its fourth season Sunday with the long-awaited showdown between former Venture family bodyguard Brock Samson and newly competent supervillain henchman Henchman 21.

If you don't know who Brock and Henchman 21 are, or why their showdown is important, you should rent the first three seasons of "The Venture Bros." immediately. I'll wait.

On the surface simply a parody of the 1960s adventure cartoon "Jonny Quest," "The Venture Bros." has evolved into one of the smartest shows on television. I know this because there are at least three Web sites devoted to dissecting each week's episode. One thing is certain: "The Venture Bros." looks increasingly out of place alongside Adult Swim's other animated programs, which range from the endearingly sophomoric ("Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and "Metalocalypse") to the irritatingly juvenile ("Squidbillies" and the latest seasons of "Family Guy").

Every episode is layered with cultural references that hide deeper meaning, and at the center of it all is the hapless, dysfunctional Venture family.

Dr. Thaddeus S. "Rusty" Venture was once a boy adventurer, jetting around the world with his scientist/adventurer dad, Dr. Jonas Venture. Now, thanks to the childhood traumas his father inflicted on him, Rusty suffers from both an inferiority complex and delusions of grandeur. He spends most of his time hatching schemes just to pay the Venture Compound's utility bills.

Rusty will never live up to his father's heroic example — although it's strongly implied his father wasn't quite the hero of legend — and he'll never stop blaming his father for all of his personal and professional failings.

Then there are Rusty's two sons, Hank and Dean. Hank is full of false bravado, while Dean is a hodgepodge of insecurities, and both are generally clueless. They haven't grasped, despite loads of evidence, that they're both clones. The original Hank and Dean managed to get themselves killed long ago.

As Rusty explains, "They are Hank and Dean. They have all the same memories. Same annoying tendencies. Same everything. Look, if you have a clumsy child, you make them wear a helmet. If you have death-prone children, you keep a few clones of them in your lab."

But with the illegal clone farm destroyed at the end of season 3, Hank and Dean now get to grow up — if they can keep from dying. And that can be difficult when your father is the target of various insane supervillains and your bodyguard has resigned, only to be replaced by a reformed supervillain who also happens to be a "cured" pedophile.

"Venture Bros." creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer have said their show is ultimately about failure. But maybe that's not all it's about.

By trying to avenge the death of his best friend, Henchman 24, Henchman 21 has gone from being an ineffectual nerd to being the most feared henchman in the supervillain community. He's become the show's most unlikely success story. And it's telling that his role on the show is often to voice what the audience is thinking.

Maybe, despite all of the failure in which "The Venture Bros." wallows, the show is really about giving hope to us all. And that's pretty deep for a cartoon.

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