Character has always been The Venture Bros. secret weapon. The show draws you in with its Byzantine plotting and clever references, but the depths of its characters, and the way those characters develop over time, is what holds everything together. All the frantic conspiracies and wheels within wheels work because of the deeply flawed fools stuck in the middle, and all the nods to the pop culture detritus of the ‘70s and ‘80s are effective because they serve as a sort of language for the world’s saddest Lost Boys. When Billy Quizboy talks about the Staff of Ra, or Dean dreams of having a PG-13 rated Lady And The Tramp experience, this isn’t just to make us feel warm and fuzzy for catching the gag; it says something specific about both, about the lens through which they see their lives. That’s why it’s funny: because it’s sad, and goofy, and weird, and because it means something. Comedy needs stakes to work, and the stakes here are, for all the madness surrounding them, pretty straightforward. We really hope these losers will find some peace of mind, because at some point or another, we’ve all been this pathetic. We’ve hidden in basements, pored over Evlish script, memorized the Konami code, clung to our high scores, tapped our lands, and polished our glaives. We’ve been heroes, if only in our own mind, and struggled to deal with what happens when that phony heroism is forced into the light of day. And even if you don’t get all the jokes (and I rarely do), the hope remains. Maybe, just this once, it might not suck to be a freak.
What’s great about “What Color Is Your Cleansuit?” is—okay, there’s a lot that’s great about this, from the pacing (an hour long, and it never really lags), to the plot-juggling which keeps threatening to topple over but somehow keeps its balance, to the check-ins with most of the major characters (Orpheus is a no show, but that’s about it) that effectively remind us of who these people are without dwelling on anything. It’s a fleet, terrifically funny double-length premiere, and there’s just enough emotional depth to make everything count. One of Publick and Hammer’s smartest choices over the run of the series has been to allow some of their ensemble (but not all of it) to change. Rusty Venture is still the same as he ever was, but Brock’s left the Venture compound behind, and Hank and Dean, rendered cloneless after the events of the third season, have actually been growing up. Dean especially, and he and his brother have basically become the soul of the show, the reason all these games matter. Life on the Venture Compound isn’t hellish, exactly, but the older the boys get, the more obvious it is that they’d be better off on their own, away from all the frozen adolescence and circular pulp adventures. There’s a real chance that they could get out of this mess, and that creates tension; and tension makes everything that much funnier.
What’s great about “What Color Is Your Cleansuit?”, then, is that for a few minutes, people are allowed to win. Nothing show-changing, no great status quo shift, but for once, the show seems less about failure, and more about acceptance. At the end of last season, Dean had begun the transition from perpetually optimistic dweeb to sullen goth nerd, and this episode finds him settling into a new identity: he dyes his hair, takes to wearing all black, and for once, actually gets close to a girl without humiliating himself. Billy Quizboy faces off against his nebbishy, ultra-rich nemesis, and bests the bastard in a winner-take-all, one question trivia game. 21 (should we just call him Gary now? He isn’t henching anymore) is left alone at S.P.H.I.N.X. after Brock and the others get the call back to OSI, but he makes the most of it, running point in the efforts to defeat the genetically mutated university students who take over the Venture Compound.
It’s not that everything’s sunshine and rainbows. Rusty is still a self-pitying schlub, Brock is still pining over the one woman he can never have (Molotov is alive, looks like), and the Monarch is missing 21, in between bouts of sexposition with the missus. But there’s a reality to the show’s world that hits the balance between misery and triumph, modulating both, even as college kids vanish into the ether and devour each other whole. As always, the genre stuff is just the fun, chaotic color that attracts our attention: underneath is a surprisingly heartfelt appreciation for just what it means to be a fucked up nerd. Looking closer, it becomes obvious that the characters who come closest to succeeding—who actually do sometimes get what they need—are the ones who accept who they are. Dean, after a lifetime trying to play along with what everyone tells him, starts to rebel, and manages (even in his goofiness) to beat the bad guy and briefly get the girl; when it comes time for a showdown, he uses the edge of what must be decades worth of kidding around with Hank, to Indian burn Martin (guest voice Aziz Ansari) out of the top spot. Billy uses his brains, 21 gets to be a hero, and even Rusty walks away without losing everything.
Maybe the key moment in the entire episode (and one of the better jokes) comes when Sgt. Hatred has been taken prisoner by the cannibalistic Oranges. He finds a Green, one of interns Rusty had assigned to basically the servant class (which makes them soft), and asks him what the hell happened. The students have all been genetically mutated in various ways due to Rusty’s usual carelessness, but not only have they turned into monsters; they’ve started coming up with their own mythology and world-conquering goals, all in the space of about three months. The Green, Tommy (Wyatt Cenac) says, you get a bunch of sci-fi geeks together and mutate them, things are bound to get crazy. The joke is, the extra arms and lizard skins and mind-control powers are all filtered through a couple decades worth of fantasy lit and movie nights, because that’s how all of these guys can think. It’s why the Monarch and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch like to do bedtime role-playing, even though they already spend most of their lives in costume. This, all the esoterica and trivia and nitpicking, is a kind of language, and this show’s genius for simultaneously mocking and celebrating that language—and in turn, mocking and celebrating the characters who chose to live in this world—is what makes it so oddly affecting.
- Hank doesn’t get quite as much to do this week, but he’s still got his entrepreneurial zeal. Having Dean turn into the rebel (who’s more like his father than he’d care to admit), while Hank just cheerfully takes his place in the group, is a nice touch. And now he and Dean can bond over the hook-ups they don’t entirely remember having.
- One of the things that makes Dean’s arc so terrific is how it plays as both unexpected (going by the first season) and completely organic. He’s cool enough to burn his learning bed and snark about his dad (“Is there a movie where a guy tries to scam money off his brother who used to be a parasitic tumor?”), yet he remains a spaz at heart, as seen by his abortive attempts at telepathy (“I used to want to kiss the girl Gremlin with the lipstick.”).
- Augustus St. Cloud drives the Burton Batmobile. Because of course.
- The reference to Game Of Thrones is great. I also like how the Monarch gets turned on by exposition a few scenes later.
- “Student green is made out of people!” -Sgt. Courtney Hatred, delivering the inevitable.
- Timeline-wise, this picks up right where “Operation P.R.O.M.” left off, but then takes us right past the Halloween episode, I think. (At the very least, Dean knows he’s a clone by the mid-point; he even tells Talia [Kate McKinnon].)
- “Don’t take this as an insult, but working for you, and The Monarch? It’s like the same thing.” -Gary, realizing a truth