"Shadowman 9: In The Cradle Of Destiny/Dethcarraldo/Mud Days And Confused/Bikes For Bombs"

"Shadowman 9: In The Cradle Of Destiny/Dethcarraldo/Mud Days And Confused/Bikes For Bombs"

The first episode of The Venture Bros. I ever saw was "The Incredible Mr. Brisby." It's from the first half of Season One, and it's pretty good; I'd argue that the series didn't really find it's groove till "Tag Sale–You're It," when the Venture-verse reached nerdgasm levels of continuity, but that's like saying the second season of The Simpsons wasn't quite as perfect as the third. "Brisby" has a frozen-grin stroke victim as a Disney surrogate and the first "real life" appearance of Molotov Cocktease. It's good stuff.

I hated it.

Oh, it was funny enough, sure, and I dug the references. But I found the whole ep deeply unpleasant, in a way I couldn't shake off. The Adult Swim line up is not known for its kindness to animals, so to speak; its humor comes largely in surreal, theater of cruelty style chunks, and tearing up when Sealab explodes for the umpteenth time is a fool's game. Venture was different, though. There was something pathetic about its heroes, a vulnerable quality that gave the jokes made at their expense more bite than I was used to. I wrote the whole thing off as yet another cynical attempt to strip-mine the youth of my generation, and moved on.

I was wrong, obviously. I didn't realize it till the S1 hit DVD; something convinced me to buy the set against my misgivings, and watching the whole run from start to finish, I got hooked, and hooked bad. The Venture Bros. is, no question, a cynical show. It features a psychotic, murderous college drop-out, two borderline retarded permanent adolescents, and the purest representation of loser id this side of George Costanza as its heroes. But buried underneath all the endless failure, misery, and humiliation, there's a surprising depth of compassion for the series' many wash-outs and freaks that changes it from just another wallow in the misery mire.

Venture's defining moment is arguably the S1 cliffhanger, "Return To Spider-Skull Island." When the show's teenage leads Hank and Dean are inadvertently killed by an Easy Rider homage, the result is shockingly moving; even the post-credits sting ("All right, get their clothes") works to the moment's advantage. This wasn't like Master Shake getting damned for sandwich consumption. Hank and Dean were dead. Dead dead. And it blindsided you, because for the first time you realized that mattered.

But then comes the Season Two premiere, when we learn that this isn't the first time Hank and Dean have died, or the second; given the brothers constant exposure to costumed villains and science gone amok, their father, Dr. Venture, keeps a supply of clone slugs on hand in case the worst happens (as it apparently did fourteen times) (gas leak–the silent killer). Normally, a clone twist is a neon sign pointing towards creative bankruptcy, but it works brilliantly in Venture because it fits in neatly with both the Doc's character and one of the main themes of the show. As a former boy adventurer himself, Venture is constantly trying to live up to the shadows of both his super awesome scientist dad and his own past exploits; reviving Hank and Dean over and over again, loathing himself but pretending that there's nothing wrong, that he's as good a father as anybody, is a perfect example of nearly every character in the series pathological inability to let things go. And in a way, we're with them–every cultural reference, every action figure we don't let out of the box or Atari system we pay a hundred bucks for on eBay, is another shot at bringing back to life the childhood from which we can never entirely escape.

Also, the show? Really funny. Grasping metaphors aside, it's a goddamn hoot.

"Shadowman 9: In The Cradle Of Destiny" seems an odd choice to open Season Three. For starters, the Venture family is nowhere to be seen; Brock makes a brief cameo, but only in long shots, like in that awful Angel episode when Angel and Spike track Buffy across Europe, only Sarah Michelle Gellar never showed. But it does have variant opening credits, much like "Powerless" did in S2, with Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend standing in for Hank and Dean. It also picks up on the closest thing to a cliff-hanger that S2 gave us, with Dr. Girlfriend's revelation that she's–something. We don't really know. It's probably important. (Okay, you can infer that she tells him about her relationship with the Guild. But you gotta be smart to do that.)

After a cold open with a heated battle between Monarch and Girlfriend and a bunch of Slaughterbots, we find the shattered remains of the Monarch's cocoon, left to rot at the end of "Showdown At Cremation Creek," and Henches 21 and 24 at a loss of what to do next. Dr. Girlfriend's little people of doom, Tim-Tom and Kevin, step up to fill the leadership void and get the cocoon back in the air, and it's a good thing, because that's not the real focus here–turns out, this is a mythology ep, so it's nice that someone competent works to restore the status quo while we focus on the important things.

"Important things" being backstory up the wazoo. Girlfriend and Monarch are being interrogated at Guild headquarters about "the traitor Phantom Limb." Or that's what the guild heads claim; it's more an excuse to show us a bunch of videos establishing the newlyweds' past, from Girlfriend's seduction to evil by Phantom Limb, to her attempts to establish her own costume identity, to her romance with the Monarch. We learn Monarch was once a henchman of Phantom Limb'ss (the titular Shadowman 9), but started going out on his own, building a cardboard costume and arching Dr. Venture for, well, reasons that we have yet to get into.

Lots of excellent nods to past shows here, including the discovery that the accident that took Baron Underbheit's underbite wasn't Venture's fault after all, and a short appearance by Myra, the whacked out ex-bodyguard who kidnapped Hank and Dean in "I Know Why The Caged Bird Kills." Really, while "Shadowman" hurts a little from the absence of the Venture brood, it's a love letter to regular viewers that serves as a terrific tease of things to come. When a young Dr. G gives Monarch tips on better costume design and name-branding, it's funny, weird, and sort of sweet; in short, all the things that make Venture Bros. one of the best things going on TV.

After awesomeness like that, only a full metal follow-up will do. "Dethcarraldo" has Dethklok obsessed with a tribe of Brazilian cannibals called the Yannemangos and their magic drug yopo. Anyone who takes yopo reverts to their animal form, which as anyone knows is like catnip to a metal band. (Seriously. Just throw a hobbit and some lava in, and you'd be beating them off with a stick.) Once Nathan finds that his grandmother married a member of the tribe, the group is on a road trip from Hell, only they're flying, and it's on another continent.

The tribunal sends a group of their men along with a General Crozier to track Dethklok's movements; as usual, this just means an extra body count. And damn but there's a lotta corpsing going on. After a two minute sequence of shooting the rainforest and slaughtering the local wildlife to make a landing spot for Dethklok's boat–which lands upriver–the meaning of the title becomes clear as the Dethkrew engage in a Fitzcarraldo bit of lunacy and drag their boat over a mountain; the ride down the other side offs most of the crew. Then Dethklok meets the Yaneemango, and there's time for ancient mountain carving, drug use and a final song. Solid stuff. Not transcendent, but solid.

With "Mud Days And Confused," Squidbillies drops the a/b plot structure that didn't work last week, and just goes out and out nutters. The Cuylers go to the festival–the Mud Festival, actually. Things get mean-spirited in a hurry; there's dead possum riding, Early dumping his son's head in a fry vat to qualify for a free mud cone, and then the whole town coming together to throw rocks at a homeless guy who they call "Mudsy." But that's nothing compared to Dan Halen's gift to the town: a corn maze made up of genetically engineered corn.

Which, predictably, goes awry, taking over the town and manifesting in a giant, sentient ear of corn that promptly rips Dan Halen in two. The end of the ep finds the corn full in charge, with Early unable to fight back with his solar-powered shotgun. Squidbillies is generally hateful, but this time it had the inventiveness to back the hate up–and having the whole thing end with an indictment of the horrors of environmental protection was inspired.

"Bikes For Bombs" wasn't. There's a lack of donut-eating gags in this ep of Assy Mcgee, but that's about the only bright spot. A mysterious group is stealing kids bikes, including Assy's beloved transportation, and he and Sanchez decide to fight back; first by shooting up the office of a bike shop snitch, and then by taking Sanchez's kid hostage. After some violence, some blood, and a lot of inarticulate yelling, Assy learns that the bike disappearance is part of a CIA operation to exchange bikes for, well, y'know.

There are a few laughs–Assy's deliberate assassination of the bike snitch's prize possession was well-timed–but as usual, the cop show parody doesn't really go anywhere. The scene where Assy kidnaps Rudolpho has some potential, but it's more like the idea of a gag than an actual joke. Having Assy be murderous and an ass isn't bad for a start, but the show does better when the it's not just relying on its lead to bring the funny. I mean, c'mon, even the title sucks.

Grades:

The Venture Bros., "Shadowman 9: In The Cradle Of Destiny": A-

Metalocalypse, "Dethcarraldo": B+

Squidbillies, "Mud Days And Confused": B+

Assy McGee, "Bikes For Bombs": C

Stray Observations:

-Did you get a load of all the different villains Monarch henched for? My favorite: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Nightmare Coat. He even made an appearance at Phantom Limb's party.

-So did Truckules!

-Monarch's comment on the clips from his past: "Did that video have a wipe?"

-Bettie Rage. Heh.

-A bit Venture Bros. heavy this week. Things should calm down, but no promises.

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