"The Invisible Hand of Fate/Dethrace/Threshold/The Ballad of Blind Anthony"

"The Invisible Hand of Fate/Dethrace/Threshold/The Ballad of Blind Anthony"

One of the most important aspects of world-building in an on-going series is creating the illusion that the universe your heroes inhabit still goes on in the empty spaces. You've got a certain number of minutes each episode, and those minutes are largely taken up with story, main character stuff, and occasional jokes–there's no time to slow down and let the audience enjoy the scenery. So you've got to make whenever people aren't watching work for you, too.

In Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, he talks about the importance of the blank area between comic panels. Called "the gutter" by those in the know, it's a tool for clever storytellers; through suggestion and design, they can guide the reader towards certain conclusions, thus making the audience a more active participant in the experience. Using empty spaces in world-building is much the same thing, only it happens on a larger scale. We use the small bits of back story that get parceled out–like Phantom Limb being a former teacher, or Billy being a former whiz kid–and what we know of the relationships between those characters, to infer hints about a larger story behind all the stories. Every 'net debate, no matter how pissy, enriches the show simply by extending it past the natural boundaries of its existence. After all, great as Venture Bros. is, the first two seasons came out to nine hours and forty-six minutes. There's 168 hours in a week–which leaves a lot of empty space to fill.

Still, it's possible to get a little too into all those blanks, and "The Invisible Hand of Fate" comes perilously close to doing just that. After a bad spill off the toilet, Billy Quizboy remembers a past he didn't know he'd forgotten, but before he can get into it, Pete White knocks him unconscious and makes a call to "Goldilocks" while we take a trip down memory lane. Turns out Pete used to host a game show called "Quizboys," and little Billy was the all-time champion, until he got kicked off the show for cheating (cheating that Pete was actually responsible for). When the world of underground quizzing gets too dangerous and Billy can't find work with his childhood hero, Rusty Venture (who gets a couple of scenes, as does the ever-crazy Myra), he's drafted by Brock and Hunter at the O.S.I. to do some spy-work on one Professor Fantamos, ie, the pre-Phantom Limb. Brock and Hunter are trying to prove the existence of the Guild of Calamitous Intent, and they believe Fantamos is the best way in. Billy's not so sure; and when he winds up as Fantamos seriously under-qualified lab assistant, it's no surprise when things go ker-blooey.

Which is the episode's biggest flaw, really; there aren't a whole lot of surprises. "Hand" has some great bits, like the G.I. Joe parody (this time, the lasers hit just about everything that moves), the "nozzle" scene, and the lovely montage near the end with Brock finally getting assigned as Venture's bodyguard. But after the contact high of "Shadowman 9" and "Sin," this feels a little been-there-done-that. It's nice to finally see the accident that changed Phantom's limbs, but it doesn't exactly justify a whole episode, nor does learning how Billy got that cool metal hand; huzzah for back story, but it's important to remember that it's called "back story" for a reason. It's not the main event, and not every myth needs to be explained.

If Metalocalypse has any myths, they're sure to be full of blood, booze, and highly concentrated levels of rocking. In "Dethrace," Murderface comes down with a bad case of the blue meanies when his penis bass playing at a NASCAR race is pre-empted by Toki and Skwisgaar's pointless high speed chase. Toki and Skwis are sentenced to community service and a session of driving school; Murderface, desperate to prove his worth, volunteers to handle the community service part with a "NASCAR-type Theatrical Hybrid Event," a task for which he is woefully unprepared.

It's not something you can often say about a show this metal, but "Dethrace" was pretty adorable. Murderface's soul searching (as a bass player, we're told he's desperate to prove himself, but lacking the motivation to ever follow through) is sweet even if it does end in the usual mass murder and drug abuse, and having Toki and Skwis get scared by a gore-filled Driver's Ed filmstrip was inspired. The pacing was brisk, and nearly all the jokes worked–the only one that fell flat for me was the driving instructor named "Mr. Gojira." Plus, I'm not even sure why they have the Tribunal in the show anymore; I don't mind ineffectual villains, but it would be nice if they actually tried before not accomplishing anything.

No more Squidbillies for a while, I guess. Which is a mixed blessing at best–I'd just gotten used to the Cuyler clan and their horrible, horrible adventures, but hey, I'm game for something new. Fat Guy Stuck In The Internet's pilot episode, "Threshold," first aired in May of last year, but they re-ran it Sunday night to kick off the premiere of the show's first full season; so while it's technically a rerun, there's no reason not to cover it from the start.

No reason apart from it sucking. Sigh. Plot in a nutshell: Ken Gamberling is a major creep who also happens to be a genius computer programmer. One day he pours beer on his keyboard and gets sucked into the Internet, where he meets the brother and sister team of Bit and Byte. After saving the duo Dorothy-style by landing on a virus, Ken has just long enough to treat B & B badly (which doesn't stop the female Byte from liking him) before they're all captured by Kazaa-a-a-a, a file-sharing program with a sock on his genitals and sparkles on his face. Ken escapes from prison with the help of a mentor named Watcher-Teacher and a screensaver, then goes on to rescue Bit and Byte from the evil personal-space-violater Kazaa-a-a-a. Back in the real world, Ken's former boss, the CEO, is dressed like Emperor Palpatine and worried that Ken's presence on the Web will ruin his plans; so he hires a bounty hunter named Chains to follow Ken online, and when Chains fails, the CEO takes the trip himself.

I'm not sure what anyone involved with this show is going for, and I'm dreading having to find out. It's not funny, and it's not even intentionally not-funny like, say, Tim and Eric. It just sits there, ripping off Tron and hurting my feelings. Maybe it'll get better as it goes, or maybe I'm just missing out on the point and need to come at it from a different angle. All I can tell you is that for right now, the eleven minutes it took to watch "Threshold" was the longest part of my day.

It most likely benefited from lowered expectations, but this week's Assy McGee, "Ballad of Blind Anthony" wasn't half bad. A rogue cop kidnaps a blind gospel singer, and Assy and Sanchez are on the case–eventually. The cop was working for Baby Steps, who last showed up in the first season episode, "Busted"; this time, Steps is trying to give his son the chance to be a great singer by stealing Anthony's vocal chords. The surgery is a success, but when Steps' boy is about to give his first concert, Assy shows up and shoots everybody.

It's odd, but "Ballad" wasn't particularly gag-heavy; apart from the absurdity of the premise and Assy's assiness, it was almost like watching a regular crime drama, albeit one that only ran eleven minutes and was never all that exciting. But it wasn't awful, which I appreciated. Also, this exchange made me chuckle: "You killed my only son!" "You shoulda had twins." So thank you, Assy, for having the decency to be just barely competent.

Grades:

Venture Bros., "The Invisible Hand of Fate": B+

Metalocalypse, "Dethrace": A

Fat Guy Stuck In The Internet, "Threshold": D+

Assy McGee, "The Ballad of Blind Anthony": B-

Stray Observations:

--Awwww, a quick shot of baby Hank and Dean. Awww.

--And the "dead roommate 4.0" legend lives on.

--So, why the big deal about erasing Billy's memory? None of the what we see in the flashback is particularly damaging to anyone, unless it's all about making him and Pete friends again.

--Jackson Publick has said that the order of episodes was changed because of some animation mix-ups, which might explain the number of mythology eps this early in the run. I'll be curious to see how the show plays in context.

--Can anybody explain Fat Guy to me? Is this a meta thing?

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