10 episodes of The Venture Bros. that show why fandom is both the best and the worst

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With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

When it started, The Venture Bros. was an unsubtle parody of Jonny Quest, centering on a super-scientist, a burly bodyguard, and a couple of rambunctious teens who love a good adventure but are also just a hair too naïve to really survive for long on their own. Calling it a Jonny Quest parody now is almost comically reductive, though, because the show spent its first six seasons expanding into one of the most complex and bizarre universes of any animated series—including its newer Adult Swim contemporaries like Rick And Morty. It’s a superhero parody, with deep Marvel cuts that have become a lot less deep thanks to the movies. It’s an outlet for obscure musical references, where David Bowie somehow became a regular character until creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer decided that was too limiting and just made him into a shapeshifter who pretended to be David Bowie. It’s a G.I. Joe parody, where the good guys and bad guys all need a silly gimmick and a codename. Mostly, though, it’s about a family that always sticks together, even in the face of constant, inescapable failure.

That’s the word that always comes up when trying to describe The Venture Bros., but even saying it’s a show about failure is reductive. That reading doesn’t take into account how the characters have grown and changed over the years or how they sometimes completely stumble into success. Really, if you want to cleverly say that the show is about any one thing, then it’s about subverting expectations. The show knows what people like and what they’ll want to see, and then it goes off in a different direction that deepens the characters in an unexpected way or throws a needlessly complicated wrench into a plot that is already needlessly complicated (or maybe it pulls the wrench out and lets a complicated plot run down to something more simple).

Of course, none of that would matter if the core characters weren’t relatively grounded. The eponymous Venture brothers are Hank and Dean (Jackson Publick and Michael Sinterniklaas), fraternal twins who are based on the brothers from the Hardy Boys. Hank is rebellious, Dean is “smarter,” and both have been killed and replaced by clones dozens of times by their scientist father, Dr. “Rusty” Venture (James Urbaniak). Rusty is the son of a real super-scientist, a genius hero who fought villains and invented fabulous things that Rusty will never live up to—partly because of a crippling insecurity caused by living his father’s shadow. Luckily, they all have bodyguard Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton) to depend on, as he happens to be one of the few people on the show who can always be counted on to defend the Venture family from a villain’s henchmen or to drop some real tough-love honesty.

The show is full of high-quality voice work, especially the various characters Publick and Hammer play themselves, but Warburton and Urbaniak in particular embody their characters as well as any voice actor on an animated show could hope for. In someone else’s hands, Brock could’ve just been a growling brute, but Warburton gives him a surly sort of warmth that suggests he really does care about the Ventures even if he’s completely sick of protecting them from mummies or fake ghost pirates. As for Urbaniak, he plays Rusty as a guy who is endlessly bitter about the way his life has turned out, but never to the point where the audience really turns on him. A childhood full of being swept aside by his own father and an adulthood full of fighting against absurd supervillains have definitely fucked him up, but he’s also well adjusted enough to recognize that he wasn’t something better for Hank and Dean. That all comes from Urbaniak’s performance, which makes one of the show’s most ridiculous character feel like a real person.

As for the bad guys, the main antagonist in the series is the Monarch, a butterfly-themed supervillain who is obsessed with Dr. Venture even though Rusty is more annoyed by his constant attacks than anything else. Publick voices the Monarch with a vicious cackle that’s reminiscent of Mark Hamill’s Joker from Batman: The Animated Series, though Publick makes him a bit more pathetic (and a bit less unhinged) than Hamill’s Joker. The Monarch is married to Dr. Mrs. The Monarch (Doc Hammer, giving her a distinctly deep voice that is waved away as the result of an old smoking habit), a noted villain in her own right who began as Dr. Girlfriend and has since surpassed the rank of her husband in The Guild Of Calamitous Intent, a union for costumed criminals that institutes rules and regulations for bad guys. There are also countless other masked villains, aging heroes who worked with Rusty’s dad, and occasional cameos from other TV show characters that suggest that The Venture Bros. takes place in a world where Jonny Quest was a TV show and also that Jonny Quest is a real guy who lived the things on the TV show.

If that all seems complex and easily prone to the siren song of nerdy nostalgia-based fan service, it definitely is. The Venture Bros. is so much more than that, though, and Hammer and Publick have managed to pack it with nods to so many different fandoms, historical events, and mythological figures that an obvious Star Wars joke could be followed by a reference to the London goth scene that maybe 20 people will get. The Venture Bros. is a show for people who like stuff, no matter what that stuff is, but—going back to that whole “subverting expectations” thing—it never really says that it’s good to like that stuff. The show’s version of Jonny Quest is a recovering addict. Brock Samson gets gently ridiculed for his Led Zeppelin tattoo. Henchman 21, the nerdy audience surrogate who drops pop culture references, becomes a tough badass when his friend dies but he still gets mocked for having a closet of comic book merchandise.

There’s a darkness to all of this, another attempt to subvert expectations that suggests the things you liked as a kid may not have aged well (literally, in some cases). This causes The Venture Bros. to push the limits of taste on occasion, like with some language that isn’t okay now and really shouldn’t have been okay then, and one major recurring character named Sgt. Hatred who—there’s no way around this—is a child molester. The show doesn’t really play that as a joke, but it’s a weird continuity thing that Hammer and Publick decide to hold onto even when they could casually dismiss or retcon it. Hatred replaced Brock for a few seasons as the boys’ bodyguard, which is the ultimate example of how far the show will go to zig when you want it to zag, but the fact that the show transcends such an odd and distasteful choice is a testament to the strength of its other characters, the wild breadth of its universe, and the endearing specificity of its cultural references.

With The Venture Bros. finally making its surprise return from a two-year hiatus, here are 10 episodes that show its love for (and aversion to) established in-universe mythology, families, and general fandom.

“Tag Sale—You’re It!” (season one, episode 10)

One of the great joys of The Venture Bros. is its cast of supporting characters, specifically the various bad guys who make up the Guild Of Calamitous Intent and the costumed heroes who fight them. This episode sees Dr. Venture setting up a yard sale on the lawn of his enormous compound, and since he happens to be sitting on a massive collection of doomsday devices and shrink rays that his father built, the yard sale attracts a bunch of weirdos. Some of the villains who show up include The Intangible Fancy, Baron Ünderbheit, Plug Face Guy, Computer Head, and Phantom Limb (a character who will become a major player in a few seasons). The episode is also a good showcase for the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend (her name at the time), since it mostly relegates Rusty to the sidelines and gives them a chance to make snarky comments about their evil colleagues, and the Monarch gets to do some dramatic stuff about losing the thrill of supervillainy. It’s the kind of weird mixture of grounded realism and colorful insanity that the show does so well.

“Powerless In The Face Of Death” (season two, episode one)

When the second season begins, the Monarch has been framed for murder by Phantom Limb, Dr. Venture has discovered that he has a twin, and both Hank and Dead have been accidentally murdered. That’s a lot to recover from, and the way the show handles it sets the pace for pretty much the rest of the series. Rusty’s brother, Jonas Jr., is smarter and cooler than Rusty in every way, the Monarch escapes from prison and begins a quest for revenge against Phantom Limb, and the Venture brothers turn out to be clones. That last bit in particular changes the stakes of the show dramatically, allowing for characters like Rusty, the Monarch, and Dr. Orpheus (more on him later) to take some of the central focus away from the boys. The episode also kicks off with a remix of Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)“ that is just extremely slick, and the montage of the boys dying over and over again is one of the show’s greatest moments.

“Twenty Years To Midnight” (season two, episode five)

No discussion of The Venture Bros. is complete without a mention of the Grand Galactic Inquisitor, arguably the greatest one-off character in the show’s history. In “Twenty Years To Midnight,” the Ventures discover a videotape left by Rusty’s dad, Jonas Sr., that hints toward some kind of global catastrophe. As they embark on a mission to assemble a device that will save the world, they’re visited by 12-foot alien judge who speaks with a nightmarish metallic screech and looks like he’s straight out of a Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comic. The Inquisitor claims he’s there to judge humanity and demands to be ignored at all times, which is impossible due to his size and his voice, and it’s somehow funny every single time he screams “IGNORE ME” at someone. The episode even gestures toward giving Rusty a chance to work out his issues with his dead father when Jonas Sr. seemingly steps out of the device Rusty built, but it undercuts any sentiment when Jonas Sr.—who is really an alien in disguise—simply murders the Inquisitor and disappears. It’s The Venture Bros. at its best.

“Showdown At Cremation Creek” (season two, episode 13)

The second season’s finale looks back at every crumb of Venture Bros. mythology that has come before and blows it up, with Phantom Limb making a move to take over the Guild Of Calamitous Intent in the middle of the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend’s wedding. The two-parter establishes a lot about how the Guild works, introducing David Bowie as a magical shapeshifter and the leader of the Guild (with his sidekicks Iggy Pop and Klaus Nomi, both of whom also have superpowers). Dean has a weird dream subplot, but Brock and Hank get right into the action by fighting off Phantom Limb’s soldiers alongside the Monarch’s butterfly henchmen. It expands on the absurdity of the Guild, which is explicitly evil but also annoyingly bureaucratic, and it helps strengthen the relationship between the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend—really the only romantic pairing in the show that seems good for both parties.

“Now Museum—Now You Don’t!” (season three, episode nine)

The canonical timeline in The Venture Bros. is purposefully vague (almost as if the mythology-heavy show is trying to subvert your expectations about its own mythology!), but it’s well-established that Rusty spent some time as a boy adventuring with his father and the original Team Venture. This episode digs into some of the crazy stuff the old gang—which includes a super-soldier called The Action Man and an eccentric former spy named Col. Gentleman—while saving the world alongside Jonas Venture. Considering these adventures laid the groundwork for all of the psychological issues that modern Rusty suffers from, it’s always nice to learn more about how their callousness influenced generations of the Venture family (because it’s not like Hank and Dean are your average teenagers). On that note, the episode also lets us spend more time with Jonas Jr., who continues to easily achieve everything Rusty ever hoped to do.

“The Family That Slays Together” (season three, episode 13)

Season three is largely dedicated to the Monarch reestablishing his career as a villain and working his way back to being the archenemy of Dr. Venture. By the finale, Brock’s handlers at the OSI (basically G.I. Joe) have apparently turned on him, with all of their forces arriving at the Venture compound just as the Monarch is finally making his move. A war between cartoonish commandoes and butterfly soldiers breaks out, and in an attempt to defend his home, Dr. Venture has to release all of the spare clones of his sons—which are all promptly killed in the fray, leaving the Venture brothers with no more spare lives. Disillusioned by the OSI, Brock decides to quit his job protecting the Ventures and leaves, just as a bomb goes off and embeds the head of the Ventures’ robot H.E.L.P.eR. in his chest and kills the Monarch’s Henchman 24 (best friend of Henchman 21). If the second season’s finale blew up the mythology, this one blows up the various families we thought we could depend on, whether it’s Brock and the Ventures or the Monarch and his henchmen.

“Handsome Ransom” (season four, episode two)

Other than Hank’s fondness for Batman, The Venture Bros. is decidedly a pro-Marvel show. That’s never clearer than in this episode, which sees Hank being more or less kidnapped by Captain Sunshine, a Batman parody with a distinct Peter Pan complex who is obsessed with finding a new sidekick to take up the Wonder Boy mantle after the last one was brutally murdered by the Monarch. Sunshine is even voiced by Kevin Conroy, the star of Batman: The Animated Series, just in case it’s not completely obvious what Publick and Hammer are poking fun at from the underground cave and the butler. That stuff is good, but what makes it better is the reveal of The Super Gang, Captain Sunshine’s version of the old DC super-team The Freedom Fighters. That group contains another all-time great Venture Bros. background character: Ghost Robot, a ghost that lives in the head of a robot. Like the Grand Galactic Inquisitor, his funny voice does a lot of the work (and also like the Inquisitor, he’s voiced by Jackson Publick).

“The Better Man” (season four, episode seven)

Since early on in the show, the Ventures have rented out part of their compound to Dr. Byron Orpheus, a necromancer who is basically just Marvel’s Dr. Strange—a reference that would’ve been a deep cut up until a few years ago. Jealous of Rusty’s run-ins with the Monarch, Orpheus establishes his own super-team called the Order Of The Triad that includes him, an alchemist called Al, and a Blacula hunter named Jefferson Twilight (who is also an homage to a few different things). At some point before the events of the show, Orpheus’ wife left him for a magical badass called the Outrider, leaving him to care for their teenage daughter Triana. In this episode, Orpheus has to save the Outrider from a hell dimension, requiring him to address his own failures as a husband and inadvertently bringing his daughter into his world of magical danger. Triana decides to go live with her mother after having a horrible vision in which she marries Dean, setting the poor Venture boy on a path toward emo angst. Also, if the Venture brothers ever died for real, the Order Of The Triad could easily carry a spin-off show.

“What Color Is Your Cleansuit?” (season five, episode one)

Dean, having turned into bit of a shit after Triana moved away, gets a starring role in this largely standalone episode that hints at just how thin the line between super-scientist and supervillain is for Dr. Venture. Given a big contract by his brother to develop some tech for a space station, Rusty hires a bunch of interns and separates them into different classes. After being exposed to the harmful radiation of Rusty’s new tech, the interns begin mutating and immediately start forming ridiculous societies with their own savior myths and tribal rules. Dean somehow gets a shot at becoming their king and falls in love with a telepathic intern with four arms, but it all basically falls apart by accident and the interns are left cured with no memories of what happened. It’s the kind of dark sci-fi story that Rick And Morty would excel at when it premiered just a few months later, but with the added humanity and potential for growth that Venture Bros. supports.

“Tanks For Nuthin” (season six, episode five)

About to begin its seventh season, the show has gone through a few more transformations. Dr. Mrs. The Monarch is now co-running the Guild, the Monarch is living in his old childhood home, Jonas Jr. has died following an adventure in the space station, and Rusty has packed up his sons and moved to New York City to take over his late brother’s company (and also his fortune). Dean goes to college, Hank woos the daughter of a supervillain, Brock faces off against a clever parody of The Avengers (the Captain America analog is named Stars And Garters and his costume is very literal), and Rusty is now a much bigger player in the war between good guys and bad guys than he really should be. The most shocking twist, though, is that the Monarch has discovered that his father used to be a masked hero called the Blue Morpho. Barred from terrorizing Dr. Venture, the Monarch decides to become a new Blue Morpho to stop every villain who outranks him, essentially making him a good guy in a direct homage to The Green Hornet. Sadly, the abrupt end of season six and the two-year gap that followed left that storyline—and a handful of others—unresolved.