Everybody wants somebody to love, y’know? In many ways, that’s at the heart of every failure on The Venture Bros., every misguided attempt at world-domination and mad science: the need to feel wanted, to belong, to make a connection. It sounds sappy, but one of the reasons this show works so well at making us care about all these freaks is that the writers grasp the small, petty, and deeply human motivations that drive their behavior. For a series that regularly throws out twists and plot arcs in five minutes that would’ve taken months on most other shows, there’s a fundamental logic holding everything together so that all the madness feels surprisingly grounded. It may take a couple of watches to understand the plot convolutions of any given half hour of the show, but those re-watches are purely pleasurable because the emotions make sense. We can obsess about callbacks, Easter eggs, potential conspiracies, but those obsessions wouldn’t matter if the heart of the series wasn’t so fundamentally sound. This season seems to have hit a new gear, and the balance between loopy adventure, self-mockery, and affecting pathos is just about perfect.
I watched “Momma’s Boys” twice—not because I didn’t get everything on the first go around (I didn’t, but I’m used to that with this show), but because the episode was so beautifully balanced that I wanted to see if it held up on a second go through. It did. There’s a lot of plot to get through, and at least one reference to past events that I had to look up online to figure out (and I’m still not sure if I’ve got it right), but the complexity never distracted from the basic truths at the heart of the episode. Doc wants a friend; Dean wants a mom; and Hank just wants to hang out with his awesome rock band and get his dad off his case every once in awhile. Oh, and Dermott—well, it’s hard to know exactly what Dermott wants, but he seems to get it anyway, finally realizing by the end of the half hour the identity of his true father. This is not a dramatic episode, exactly, although there’s drama in it; mostly, it’s just a near perfect example of the way Hammer and Publick are able to use the comic book theatrics of the Ventures’ world as a way to express character. Everything feels connected, and when those connections come together in the story’s climax, it seems less like a matter of narrative of convenience, and more a simple inevitability. These guys are always going to keep falling back into each other’s orbits, no matter how much they might wish otherwise.
Let’s try and unpack this one. There are three basic plotlines running through “Momma’s Boys,” balanced evenly enough that none of them ever entirely dominates the other two. You’ve got Hank, whose attempt to gaslight his dad backfires, forcing him, Dermott, and Gary to team-up to track down the voice of a Teddy Ruxpin-type toy; you’ve got Doc, so convinced by Hank’s trickery that he decides his friend “Ted” is in serious, life-threatening danger, and goes on a quest with Hatred to find the mysterious, possibly deadly, Bygolly Gulch; and you’ve got Dean, who’s been having late night phone calls with a mysterious woman who turns out to be Myra, Doc’s former bodyguard who went insane and believes Hank and Dean are her children. (Which is Doc’s fault, really.) Dean, Hank, and Gary all end up at the Dunwitch Asylum, where Myra’s mad quest to become the Venture boys’ mother finally proves to the guys that she’s not the woman they wanted her to be. Meanwhile, Hatred and Doc, having followed a confused GPS system to a location that just happens to be within spitting distance of the asylum, drive off a cliff and wait for death by exchanging last minute confessions.
It sounds like a mess, and that summary isn’t even scratching the surface. Hank and Dermott’s decision to save Doc from the fantasy they’ve created for him (which originated back in the fourth season episode “Every Which Way But Zeus”) has them teaming up with Gary and creating super villain personas for the specific purpose of feigning insanity and getting locked up in a home for the criminally cracked. Unsurprisingly, the personas are hilarious, which means we get a minute long failed bank robbery scene jammed into everything else. Hank is especially committed to the pageantry; it’s great how his sometimes oblivious good cheer has gone from a punchline to a kind of saving grace. Gary’s plan (that the only way to reach Doc is to get to the guy who did the voice of the teddy bear doll that Doc is convinced is his best friend; said guy was driven insane when a plant that produced the bear burned down, leaving him horribly scarred) is bizarre, but then, as Hank explains to Dermott, that’s the world they live in. Bizarre is par for the course. Hank’s approach—to just enjoy the shit out of nearly everything he does—might be the only sane approach. He certainly seems like one of the only characters on the show not buried under a lot of self-doubt and misery.
That self-doubt, which is basically just loneliness with a college degree, is what drives Dean to fall for Myra. Even a perfectly healthy kid would wonder about his mother, but Myra is so obviously out of her mind that it would take a willing suspension of disbelief to go along with her as long as Dean does. (It’s clever how the first part of the episode hints that Dean’s actually in a secret romantic relationship, hinting of the Freudian nightmare to come.) And the same loneliness is what puts Doc in a position to think a talking child’s toy is his best friend in the world. The joke is that Doc is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t realize all his conversations with “Ted” are fundamentally one-sided, and yet this never turns mean-spirited. When Doc talks about Ted to Sgt. Hatred, he legitimately believes he’s helping poor Ted out, and his desire to serve that purpose in someone’s life—to be needed, in other words—is oddly touching. Way back in “The Doctor Is Sin,” the Doc seemed to make some kind of choice in his life. He was never going to be the hero his father was, or that Brock is, and he’s always going to have the ego (built out of raging insecurity) and a fundamental uncoolness. But he does want to be a good father, and a better man, and the fact that the writers take this seriously, even in a story about a grown man bonding with an animatronic stuffed animal, is what makes this such a great show.
There’s a balance in this season of Venture Bros. that’s pretty remarkable; it’s always had a “hang-out” vibe where part of the appeal is just spending time with the cast, but now, there’s a warmth underlying everything that makes the world of the series that much more inviting. It’s still a weird, freaky, often brutal place, but it feels like home now. The brief moment of connection between Hank and Dean as they run out of the asylum; Doc getting to meet his “best friend” in person and not losing the fragile dream he’s been holding onto the past six months; Dermott casually saying “Dad” as he walks out of the kitchen... The sentiment is buried in costumes, sexual confusion, and humiliation, but that only adds to the sincerity.
- This deserved the full “A,” but I wish Myra was better handled. She’s barely in the episode, but her madness is so intense there needs to be a better justification for it than misplaced maternal affection and a lie Dr. Venture told her a decade or so ago.
- It’s always amazing how easily the writers come up with one joke comic book villains. Radical Left was great.
- Lots of nice work building the story, from Dermott’s sudden ability to understand what H.E.L.P.eR. says (which marks him as a Venture boy), to Hank’s unwillingness to engage in the Venture Brothers finger salute with Gary and Dermott, signaling the slight rift between him and Dean. (Which then pays off with their nice exchange at the end.)
- “He doesn’t talk to people. He talks at them.” What makes Hank great is that if Dean said this, he’d be pissed off about it, but from Hank, he’s just telling a basic truth.
- Paranoid fears about his imaginary best friend aside, Doc seems a bit more relaxed this season, doesn’t he? I love his efforts to play dad to Hank and Dean. (And I’m still waiting for Dean to finally snap at him about the cloning stuff.)
- “Now take off your clothes and show Mother your handsome body.” -Myra. (She just needs him to swap clothes so she can escape, but still.)
- Sgt. Hatred’s death confession is that his boobs turn him on.
- “Hold up, my ass is vibrating.” “Me too!”
- “Oh my collectible Deany baby.” -Myra
- Doll Withdrawal is a great phrase. It wouldn't have made a bad episode title.