Welcome to Crosstalk, wherein A.V. Club writers discuss their varied (or unvaried, as the case may be) perspectives on a pop-culture topic. This time, Zach Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff discuss the first season of The Venture Bros.
Zack Handlen: The Venture Bros. is one of my favorite shows, but after the first time I watched it, I never wanted to watch it again.
I’ve never been huge on Adult Swim. The best shows had loopy, anarchic charm (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, Space Ghost Coast To Coast, The Brak Show), but after a while, that charm wears thin. For me, random violence, long pauses, obscure references, and relentless absurdity have a shelf life. There needs to be something to replace the shock once it’s gone. While Aqua Teen and the others had strong character concepts and smart writers, too much of what followed in their wake was shallow, tedious, and forgettable. Remember Assy McGee? That was about a talking butt. He was a police detective.
At least The Venture Bros. is high-concept: A former boy adventurer—now grown old, bitter, and bald—tries to stay in the super-science game while raising two teenage sons with the help of his rage-addicted bodyguard. “The Incredible Mr. Brisby,” the first episode I ever saw, had some smart bits of writing and a few solid laughs. It also had the same cynicism that seems to be the default setting for so much Adult Swim output, that feeling of, “Who gives a shit? Let’s just watch the morons dance.” Dr. Venture was a self-absorbed tool; Brock Samson was a one-note parody of über-masculinity; and Hank and Dean were, well, morons. The jokes seemed too easy to predict, and I didn’t have much interest in watching a full season of harvesting such low-hanging fruit.
That sounds harsh, I know. It’s not like the first episode is completely terrible. It just didn’t grab me, so I was ready to move on, and I can’t remember what brought me back. While re-watching the first season for this conversation, I found that it’s definitely rough going in spots. The first half of the season tries out some nifty concepts (space station! Disneyland riff! Fantastic Four parody!), but with sluggish pacing and a lot of scatological gags that don’t go far beyond Dr. Venture pissing in his space suit. Once you get past the novelty of seeing a Jonny Quest all grown-up and miserable, it’s hard to know what’s left. The nods to pop culture are great (and often gratifyingly in their obscurity), but that isn’t really enough, is it?
Yet the first seasons of comedies are often pretty uneven, as the writers and cast discover their strengths. As the show continued, co-creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer slowly started putting the pieces together. It helped that they could draw on solid talent. While Hank and Dean became more important (and better developed) over time, the first season depends heavily on the vocal talents of James Urbaniak and Patrick Warburton, and they are both up to the task. In that first season, their characters (Dr. Venture and Brock) could’ve been one-note, but both actors find the right shadings to make them compelling. Urbaniak does remarkable work with a guy who should be utterly loathsome, is basically despicable, and yet somehow manages to be pathetically, neurotically self-centered enough to become almost sympathetic.
While there are great scenes in earlier episodes, I think the 10th episode, “Tag Sale: You’re It!,” is the first to really bring everything together. It’s the first half-hour to really hint at the depth of the Venture Bros. mythology, which would become increasingly important (at times, almost too important) in the show’s run. What did you think of it, Todd? And what did you think of that season-one finale?
Todd VanDerWerff: To be honest, I’ve always liked the idea of The Venture Bros. more than the random episodes I’ve seen. Many people would tell me the show is about failure, or about a faded present trying to recapture a glorious past, or such and such, and those would all sound terrific to me. But then I would try to watch the show from the start all over again, and I’d bail after two or three episodes. I don’t mind Adult Swim. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is one of my favorite shows ever made, and I will often watch a random episode of it before bed now that the first season is on Netflix. But The Venture Bros. always struck me as far too insular. As someone who wasn’t raised on USA Cartoon Express and its bevy of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, I was sure I wasn’t getting the references, because I wasn’t laughing, smiling, or feeling much of anything at all.
I’m grateful to have watched the whole first season of The Venture Bros. for this conversation, though, because I finally started to get what it was going for, even while I’m still not entirely on the show’s wavelength. (A cursory summary of Twitter suggests the show really starts to click in the first half of season two. I enjoyed the first season finale, and that gives me hope for ultimately coming to really love this show.) Pop-culture references are all well and good, but they’re best if they come with some sort of emotional core. The Venture Bros. begins developing this core late. I’d say it starts kicking into gear with the episode where everybody attends their old college pal’s funeral, and it’s coming fully to life by the last stretch of episodes. The way there, however, is fraught, filled with non sequitur gags and fart jokes.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with non sequitur gags and fart jokes. I just don’t find them terribly humorous in and of themselves. The Venture Bros. reminds me of many other ambitious TV shows of its basic ilk, in that it keeps trying to build out the show’s world before really delving into the characters. While I can understand why it’s doing that—the show cooked itself up a helluva setting—the approach leaves me at arm’s length from the characters who populate that world. The show’s world is basically a mash-up of every pulp trope Publick and Hammer can think of, and it’s frequently glorious. But that leaves things up to Urbaniak and Warburton to make us feel what it would be like to live in this world, in the crushing grandeur of what was; that’s a tall, verging on impossible, order. (Hank and Dean are almost insultingly bland at this point, though I did dig the way they kept saying, “Go, Team Venture!” to the consternation of all.)
Yet the world also brings several admittedly one-joke characters who are hilarious. In particular, I really liked Dr. Orpheus, the necromancer who seems to get a laugh with every line he’s handed, and his teenage daughter, who gives the Venture boys a bit of personality just by existing. Similarly, the joke that Dr. Girlfriend has a male voice shouldn’t be so funny, yet it often is. Once the characters are pinging off of each other in unpredictable ways in the season’s homestretch, it gets that much better.
I sound like I’m lacing a lot of criticism into this piece, when I really did end up liking the series overall, particularly that shocker of a first-season ending. But The Venture Bros. has always been a bit of a redheaded stepchild in terms of critical affection, and I wonder if this isn’t because it takes some work to get to the good stuff. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the show might not get the attention of many critics because it takes a while to find itself. (In watching that first season, I talked to a few who tried to watch the first few episodes and just gave up as well.) Here’s a question I have for you, as someone who’s watched the show: Do you think the payoff is worth struggling through a shaky half-season? And do you dare to suggest why so many of us can’t make it through those first few episodes, or why this show seems to be such a trial until it isn’t?
ZH: Oh, absolutely. But, as I said, I get why the first season can be a trial. If the references fail to grab you at all, then this probably isn’t going to be a show worth investing in, even if it does get substantially better. Pop-culture nods are a hard style to master, because it’s so easy to turn each episode into an empty treasure hunt with references to Knight Rider, Krull, or any other of a hundred ’80s properties serving as a hollow pat on the head for thirtysomethings pining for their latchkey childhoods. For me, what distinguishes The Venture Bros’ nods is their clear sense of personality; this isn’t some kind of spray-and-pray operation. Most of the cultural Easter eggs buried in Publick and Hammer’s world capture the show’s ongoing fascination with, as you say, failure. This ensemble is dominated by frustrated man-boys clinging to the games that both made their childhoods worth living, and also left them utterly incapable of facing adulthood.
Still, those references don’t work in a vacuum, which is part of why the show is so hard to watch at first. Publick and Hammer’s initial scripts don’t have the whip-crack, gag-a-minute pacing that pulls people in, and the first few episodes have a cruelty that sets my teeth on edge. That sense of personality is missing, and in its place are mean-spirited gags about assholes putting on costumes and hurting each other. I always feel overly sentimental complaining about it, but, though I am fine with cynicism in my comedy, I don’t enjoy shows that are actively unpleasant. It’s not even heart, or whatever, that’s missing; there’s hardly an ounce of sweetness in Archer, but it is one of the best comedies on TV right now because it has strong stories and consistent, well-developed characters. The first season of The Venture Bros. is missing a sense of play, and most of the ensemble comes across, as you say, as one-joke ideas.
But it gets so much better. You mention Orpheus; I would never consider him a one-joke guy, because he’s an important part of the show’s universe, a single father trying to raise is daughter and stay in touch with his former crime-fighting pals. In many ways, he’s as close to a moral voice as the show gets, and that takes time to develop beyond the first season. Dr. Girlfriend’s male voice loses its novelty, but her relationship with the Monarch grows until both characters start to feel like real, albeit nutty, people. While Hank and Dean are awful at first, they grew on me. The first-season finale really hooked me on the show, because I was surprised at how much the ending upset me. Publick and Hammer don’t try to milk much pathos out of that last scene, and yet it still stings.
That isn’t enough on its own, but the way the second season handles the fallout from that finale—and the effect that has on our understanding of the show’s main characters—is hilarious, creepy, and melancholy, like a Daniel Clowes comic with a little more warmth. Hank and Dean go from being irritating punchlines to goofy but fundamentally sympathetic (and sharp) portraits of frustrated adolescence. Their growth over the show’s run is surprisingly rewarding, especially when remembering how they started.
Really, I want to stress that while The Venture Bros. has some fumbles in its later years, it’s so, so much better than its clunky first few episodes seem to indicate. Once Publick and Hammer found the show’s voice (a kind of bittersweet, mildly satirical, neurotic ode to geekery), this turned into something special. At its best, the series is just a fun place to hang out and see what happens next. As someone who was pretty cold on those first few episodes, I’m glad I stuck around to find out.
TV: That’s interesting about the pop-culture stuff, because once I got to the back half of season one, I no longer cared that I was missing homages. I was mostly starting to get into the groove of the loose, loopy feel of this world and these characters. I can see where not getting the references would be a problem for some—and in the early going, I worried that never having seen more than an episode or two of Jonny Quest was going to bury me—but I do think the series finds its own emotional stakes and connection rapidly.
Really, I think what we’re talking around here is the issue of feeling “invited” to take part in the world of a show. When you pick up a new TV show, you’re not just picking up a new work of art. You’re picking up a new habit that you’ll hopefully maintain for years to come. (Oh, and, hey, this show aired its pilot in 2003, but has only aired four seasons in 10 years. What’s that all about?) The trick for showrunners and creators is to create a world that feels welcoming but not so welcoming that it doesn’t offer up anything of distinction. To put it in terms of restaurants, some shows are that grungy little café that most people wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, but you eat in because you know the neighborhood and everybody who works there. Some shows are McDonald’s: They’re pretty okay and largely predictable, and they might do one or two things really well (those fries!), but ultimately no one will get too excited about what’s happening there. You might get far better food at the former, but there’s also a steeper curve to feeling welcome. There’s no curve at McDonald’s, but the food is bland and homogenous.
I hope you can see what I’m saying here. The first season of any television show is all about throwing open the doors and seeing whom you can attract to the show. And there are shows that deliberately put off a slightly funkier vibe, making themselves a little less attractive to the public as a whole. I’m not saying that The Venture Bros. was doing exactly that, but it’s much easier for the initiated to catch onto it in the early going because there’s a lot going on in the show. For instance: A friend of mine said he saw the pilot first-run and was instantly plugged into the show’s world. But he also comes from roughly the same generation as Hammer and Publick. I don’t, so I don’t get all of the references, and I always wonder if I’m missing something.
But watch long enough, and none of that matters. By the finale, the show has so elegantly set up real physical and emotional stakes for the characters that there’s a surprising jolt of catharsis to the moment when that episode ends. It almost plays like Hammer and Publick intend it as a sick joke, but there’s something real, raw, and horrible underneath it.
And in the form of so many of my favorite shows, I can’t wait to find out what comes next. Damn you, Handlen. You may have hooked me.
ZH: The first season’s free, Todd. But the rest may cost you… dearly.
Anyway, I’m glad to hear it. I will offer some moderate caution that this isn’t the most consistent show, and the writers sometimes struggle to hold the perfect tone. (Also, Stephen Colbert doesn’t reprise his role as Professor Impossible after the second season, which is total bullshit.) But the good more than outweighs the bad. Those stakes you mention only get more complicated, the characters only get richer, and writing this has made me that much more excited to see (and write about) season five. For anyone else out there who is curious but unsure, there’s still time to catch up! But be careful—the next episode you watch could be your last.
That is, I mean, if you decided to stop, or got a phone call, or wanted a sandwich. Go Team Venture!