Every so often a show comes along–something profound, hilarious and unique–that makes you say to yourself, “This is what television was invented for.” It isn’t something you’ll hear yourself saying often, but The Venture Bros. is one of those shows. The brainchild of Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer–two friends cobbling together plots, voices and artwork in their New York apartment–The Venture Bros. manages to regularly achieve something that most of its more high-profile animated siblings only provide glimpses of: brilliance.
The Venture Bros. is the story of Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, a former boy adventurer who peaked in life somewhere around age 10 and has spent the rest of time miserable under the looming shadow of his legendary father. Shielding him from harm is his massive, rage-happy bodyguard Brock, and also along for the ride are his two socially-crippled sons–Hank and Dean–who are constantly trying to reignite their father’s passion for adventure.
This setup is simple, but it holds great implications. Rusty Venture lived the kind of fast-paced, exciting life we’ve witnessed in Jonny Quest cartoons and in countless dime-store adventure novels, but what are the implications of growing up under such conditions? What becomes of space-age dreams when the space age arrives and you’ve still got nothing to show for it? Now a grown man, Venture has retreated to his lab and isolated himself from larger society. As a child he traveled the globe and overcame exotic dangers of all kinds, but as an adult he’s reluctant to even leave his home.
His is a life tinged with tragedy, and yet his sneering and snarkiness manages to convince you that he just might deserve it. The character is brilliantly performed by voice actor James Urbaniak, who really manages to find a unique sort of pathetic sliminess in the character, making him loveable and loathsome at the same time. A genuine achievement, as a character like this is always in danger of losing the audience’s sympathy. Playing the main antagonist to Venture’s unwilling do-gooder is The Monarch, a tall, whiny gentleman with an army of henchmen, a gravelly-voiced live-in girlfriend, and one truly remarkable goatee. While The Monarch does not appear in all of the episodes, he plays an important part in the overall narrative direction of The Venture Bros. and, arguably, represents the emotional centerpoint of the show as a whole. One of the great ironies of the show is the fact that The Monarch, our ostensible villain, is more consistently sympathetic than the heroes.
If season one has a fault, it’s that it’s a bit slow to start. The show takes several episodes to really find its stride, and a first-time viewer might be turned off by the lack of initial momentum. But once you hit the third episode (“Mid-Life Chrysalis,” which finds Venture attempting to find himself a sex life while he transforms slowly into a giant caterpillar…trust me, it makes sense when you see it…) you’ll realize just what remarkable things this program is capable of achieving.
Some absolutely perfect episodes dot the middle of the season (including Venture’s superscience-themed yard sale, a ghost-pirate encounter in the Bermuda Triangle and an episode that reimagines The Fantastic Four’s super powers as liabilities), and its ends particularly strongly with a pair of episodes that redefine the central dynamic of the show as we know it shattering relationships between characters and leaving in shambles much of what we might have taken for granted.
While season two was overall much stronger and tighter, season one is no slouch, and there’s plenty of rewatch value in even the weakest of episodes. You’ll laugh every times you watch them, but always at different lines and deliveries. There’s so much pleasure to be taken from each half-hour chunk of the Venture family’s lives that you simply cannot absorb it all at once; it’s a show designed to be enjoyed today, and then relished for years to come.
I can’t recommend this show enough. For some, the parody aspect of the show will be enough, undercutting, as it does, classic comic-book situations and relations. For others it will be a deeper appreciation of the characters and the tight and unfortunate world of disappointment in which they find themselves trapped. Whatever it is that keeps you coming back, there will always be plenty more to discover.
This two-disc DVD set contains all 13 episodes from season one, along with some very entertaining bonus features that certainly should not be overlooked. First of all there are commentaries from Publick and Hammer on five episodes, and while they aren’t always informative they are very funny, sometimes as funny as the episodes they’re commenting on. There are also deleted scenes (one each from six episodes) from the animatic stage of production, none of which are very long, but they are nice to have.
Furthermore we get two bonus episodes: the original half-hour pilot (which has since been rendered non-canonical) with the option of commentary, and the11-minute Christmas special, “A Very Venture Christmas.” On top of that you get a half-hour featurette on the live action Venture Bros. movie with Publick, Hammer and Urbaniak appearing in costume for one of the most creative special features I’ve ever seen. And finally there is a short (equally facetious) feature about how the show is animated, narrated by two of the show’s best minor characters: Pete White and Master Billy Quizboy. (There are also a handful of trailers for other Adult Swim programs, but these are, for the most part, just the opening titles from these shows.)
The extras are impressive and very funny, and certainly represent one of the better assortments of special features for an Adult Swim program. But, of course, The Venture Bros. stands above just about every other Adult Swim program anyway. Its animation is more polished, its characterization more convincing, its comedy painfully sharp, and its voice cast second to none.
Here’s hoping that seasons two and three (each of which do an alarmingly brilliant job of plumbing the depths of these characters and their histories) will be released before too long. Until then, we’ve got 13 great adventures to revel in. Go, Team Venture.
Venture Bros. season 1 is out now.