The last official episode of The Venture Brothers aired November 22, 2010. There was a special last year (“From the Ladle To The Grave: The Story Of Shallow Gravy”), but apart from that, there’s been no new adventures of Hank, Dean, Rusty, and the rest for almost two years now. That is a long goddamn time.
Thankfully, it’s over now. Tonight’s Halloween special is a one off (although it raises at least one plot point which I’m guessing is going to be important in season five), but the show’s next official season is scheduled to start sometime in the spring of 2013. Which is a relief, because given how much fun this special is, it would’ve been hard to say goodbye for some indefinite period of time. Over the course of its four seasons, The Venture Brothers has evolved from a pop-culture riffing Johnny Quest parody into a pop-culture riffing sort of meta-commentary on a whole sub-section of male nerd culture, filled with references, comic book magic, and a bunch of guys who spend their lives hanging out in basements, munching Cheez-its, and trying to recapture a childhood that basically sucked anyway. Sometimes it can all be a bit much, and the series has struggled occasionally with getting the right the balance between clever incident and strong storytelling, but at its core, this is a surprisingly warm, weird, and one of the funniest damn shows on the air right now. All of these elements are at play in A Very Venture Halloween, which has Hank hanging out with Dermott and shooting the shit; Doc, Sgt. Hatred, Billy, and Pete screw around with trick or treaters; and Orpheus holds a get-together in his swanky pad which inevitably results in the raising of the undead; and Dean makes a new friend, and learns a shocking secret about his past.
Dermott is great example of what I love about this show. When he first showed up, he looked like a one-note joke: a big-talking doofus who thinks he’s cooler than he is, acts like a bully, and thinks Brock is his dad. He was the kind of character who’s good for a few laughs, but who, in any other show, would probably never show up again, and no one would miss him. Except Dermott kept hanging out at the Venture Compound, at first because he was trying to get close to his “dad” (who couldn’t stand him), and then because he got to be good friends with Hank. As the series went on, Dermott didn’t become complex, exactly; he’s still a big-talking doofus. But he stopped being a caricature at some point, and started being like that friend you had in high school who could be a jerk but was basically a good guy, although he was really annoying sometimes, but he would hang out with you even when nobody else would. There’s something funny and sad and human about him now, and it’s all done without softening the character or going for cheap sentiment. Yeah, there’s some pathos in the fact that his dad is actually Rusty Venture, but Dermott didn’t save a puppy, or watch someone die, or confess his secret soul. He just gave Hank someone to be friends with who wasn’t Dean, and was occasionally not a complete dick.
That curious balance, that ability to have a cast made of freaks who are just real enough to be endearing, is one the things that makes The Venture Brothers so special. (The only other show I can think of that manages to be this unsparing and charming at the same time is Futurama.) It’s the little details, really, like Hank and Dermott talking about the wonders of Chex Mix, or the fact that Red Mantle (a two-headed guy) dresses up as Rosey Grier and Ray Milland in The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant for Orpheus’s party. A toaster-based Cenobite pays a visit, Dermott is dressed as as the Crow, and when it comes time to make pranking plans for the evening, the mission statement is, in Dermott’s words, for “Project Mayhem.” The constant references could be distracting, but they’re consistently clever, and they never come off as snide or distracting. This is just the language these guys speak, and nerdy pop culture is way to both bring them together, and reinforce their distance from the outside world. It’s not surprising Orpheus’s gathering of the Brimstone Assembly is a small, muted affair full of party tricks and awkward silences. This is an ensemble made up largely of the kind of person who would get in a really passionate argument about time travel paradoxes, and not realize how weird that is. The show succeeds by getting plenty of laughs out of the weirdness, while at the same time being completely and totally sincere about how, weird or not, those are still fascinating arguments to have. Which makes it even funnier.
The biggest twist in the special is Dean learning that he and Hank are clones of boys who have died many, many times over. The rest of the half hour is fun, although it’s unfocused; there’s no real pay-off to Doc betting on his booby traps, and the joke of seeing The Master show up in a Santa Claus outfit to defeat a horde of zombies covers for the fact that his arrival is something of an anti-climax. But Dean, chatting with a Lebowski-esque scientist named Ben (voiced by J.K. Simmons), and learning about his secret past? That’s a big deal, a revelation which has been waiting to happen ever since the end of the first season. The fact that Dean learns this on his own, and doesn’t end up telling Hank, fits into the character arc he’s been going down for a while now; the two brothers are starting to grow apart, and Dean’s getting stuck on the road that lead from Rusty to Doc Venture. The reveal doesn’t have time to do much more than sink in, and there’s no confrontation between Dean and his dad, but the shock helps give the episode some weight. Orpheus gives a speech about how Halloween is when we find out who really are—it’s sort of nonsense, but the shots of Dean walking home, shoulders slumped, give it meaning. On The Venture Brothers, you just can’t help being yourself.
- Orpheus’s ex-wife is, I think, the only woman at the Brimstone gathering, and she doesn’t have a single line, although Jefferson Twilight does point out she’s got a sexy costume on.
- The cold open—which shows Hank and Dean’s successive attempts to scare their dad on Halloween, only to finally succeed by preying on some realistic fears—is great, and also gets in a quick reminder about Hank and Dean’s clone past.