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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Venture Bros.: "Pomp & Circuitry"

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Is anybody on The Venture Bros actually happy? It's hard to say. Most characters on the show seem to vacillate between cheerful obliviousness and despair—witness Dr. Venture (who speaks again!) and his attempts to force poor Dean into the life he himself was never really able to succeed at. Or Hank's determination to be Batman, or Richard Impossible's obsession with his long gone wife, or, god, any of the rest of the cast, a whole host of failures, misfits, and freaks who spend their days playing silly life-or-death games so they can ignore the millions of indignities and humiliations that compromise their lives. For such a funny show, it's really depressing as hell when you think about it. Even Brock Samson, who seems relatively with it, isn't exactly happy; he's still stuck beating up gorillas from the Vatican, partnered with rookies who never take off their masks, with nothing to show for it but the metal plate in his chest. If you can overlook The Monarch's crushing obsession with ruining Dr. Venture's life, well, he and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch at least have a moderately healthy relationship. Still, generally speaking, things could be better for everyone.

Some deep-in-the-archives references in tonight's episode, "Pomp & Circuitry." I barely remembered Phantom Limb's helpmates (the toaster, the lady's shoe), and the merging of two council members, plus there was a visit to the university where Limb got his replacement, um, limbs and Doc blew up a building. I'm not sure how well the plotlines connected here. On the one hand, we'e got Hank and Dean graduating from their teaching beds; Dean is set on the fast-track to college, while Hank, having gotten over his dream of being the "owner and operator of Chimp Eden," decides to enlist with S.P.H.I.N.X. On the other hand, we've got Limb escaping from prison, and teaming up with Richard Impossible (I know it's been a few seasons, but I still can't get over how not Stephen Colbert that voice is) to get back the machine that gave him his powers so he replace his missing arm and leg. These stories intersect, but only tangentially, and while both were satisfying, there was none of the rising ricochet between events that makes the best episodes.

I guess there's some vague thematic resonance in the idea of Hank and Dean trying to establish lives for themselves while Limb struggles to recapture his former glory, but it's probably too late at night for me to find it. Now that they're no longer the immortal boy adventurers, the brothers are actually growing up, and that means, as goofy as they are, they'll have to find ways to be adults in this world. There's something more than a little creepy in that, honestly: it's like trying to imagine how Alice would fare if she were stuck in Wonderland permanently, forced to steal food from the Mad Tea Party and get a job painting roses for the Queen. Rusty Venture is so determined to have Dean follow the path his own father set for him that he's blinded himself to actual reality, ignoring his son's repeated indications that he really isn't interested in super science, and assuming that his old alma mater (which Rusty never graduated from, of course) would just accept the kid, no questions asked. Hank's not doing a whole lot better. He handles himself well enough—we get a montage, and he's actually kind of a bad-ass during it—but of course there was never any chance that he'd get into S.P.H.I.N.X. And really, I can't imagine that working to well for him. These are a group of people in, let's face it, really ugly gold outfits who run around the world doing things that nobody, probably not even they themselves, understand. Underneath his teenage pissiness, Hank is just as sweet a kid as Dean is, and I can't see a life of face-shooting and gorilla blood is really going to wokr out for him.

And now I'm feeling a little odd, because I'm taking this all so seriously, and it's supposed to be funny, right? "Pomp" was pretty funny, as always. Billy's efforts to play guidance counselor for the boys was great (especially liked the debate over the residential status of the guy from Red Shoe Diaries), as was the increasingly strained conversation between Dr. Venture and the university dean. But a lot of this was played straight, too. I try and catch as many good one-liners as I can for the Stray Observations section, but tonight, I think I got maybe four, and out of context, they're not all that funny. ("Not that army, Sargent Butt-Kiss!" didn't even make me laugh at the time, no idea why I wrote it down.) Plus, the various action sequences featuring Phantom Limb were all pretty straight-faced, although I did laugh at the machine-gun-clip-in-the-toaster gag. Venture doesn't have to be hilarious all the time to work; the characters are interesting enough that it does well enough with good stories. But while I liked where this is going—it's good to have Limb back in the picture, and a new Guild could lead in some interesting directions—it felt weirdly formless, like a lot of moving characters into place without much consequence. It feels like the sort of thing that could keep going on forever, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

Still, Brock's conversation with Hank near the end of the episode was a great scene. The show needs Brock back, I think, because Sgt. Hatred is only really effective in very limited doses, and because  the Ventures need a straight man to their craziness. Having Brock leave last season was a bold choice, and it made for wickedly fun turns, but it also left us without the dynamic that made the series so effective in the first two seasons. To make these stories matter, to make them more than just endless iterations of betrayal and spandex, there has to be something that's worth defending at the heart of it, some relationships that provide deeper meaning to all the hijinks. "Pomp" is entertaining as always, but all the noise and craziness is starting to feel a little hollow. We need the core family unit back, as bitter and screwed up as it was, to fill in the empty spaces.

Stray Observations:

  • "You're luck you weren't on duty when he had his conjugal visit with a freaking shoe."
  • "Well, my boot wants to join up with your ass, and I'm about to give them a shotgun wedding."
  • The Boy Brigade, huh? Is there anybody on this show who doesn't have a Golden Age?
  • That attempted slow clap was genius, no question.