The key to any good cult television show is its ability to take something well known and turn it on its ear. It has to be something that develops a ravenous fan base despite its niche appeal, it generally has to be funny (either deliberately or unintentionally), and it should probably have more inside jokes and references than the human brain can process. This Cultelevision series does all that and more.The Venture Brothers program is instantly familiar to anyone who has ever seen any episode of Johnny Quest. Take a super-scientist father of negligible parenting skills, add in a youngish teenage boy or two (in this case two), mix in one bodyguard/parent figure, toss over insane science fiction/comic book plots, and serve with a side of memorable costumed villains. The difference between the Venture family and the Quest clan is the nonstop parody of other genres, inside jokes to geeky music and TV series, and of course, pure dysfunction.
The head of the Venture clan is Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture; a former boy adventurer in the mold of Johnny Quest grown older. In spite of his name, Dr. Venture didn’t actually finish school. Nor is he much of a scientist or inventor. He has some inventions, but they’re mostly based off his father’s old ideas or somehow unsuccessful, thanks in no small part to his addiction to prescription pills and general insecurity. Apparently, a life of being kidnapped by snake men and ninjas doesn’t exactly leave one well-rounded and confident.
Dr. Venture’s two sons, Hank and Dean, are the sort of kids who are just destined to get into trouble on shows like these. They’re just the right combination of inquisitive, naïve, and stupid to wander into all sorts of traps. They’re sort of like the Hardy Boys, except with absolutely no common sense or maturity. They’re the ones who tend to get captured by ghost pirates or Draculas, never failing to see the rubber masks. Of course, when there’s a legitimate ghost or Dracula on the prowl, they always assume it’s just a cheesy costume.
None of the characters so far have been the real key to the show’s success. The reason I started watching the show, and continue to watch the show, is for one guy: Brock Sampson, Venture family body guard and special agent with the Office of Strategic Intelligence (OSI). His blend of nurturing caregiver mixed with psychopathic murderer, his curly blond mullet, his obsession with Led Zeppelin, and his pitch-perfect characterization by Patrick Warburton is what absolutely drives the show.Any time there’s a scene with Brock and the boys, or Brock and Dr. Venture, you’re probably in for a treat. Brock is a mash-up of James Bond, Race Bannon, and Marv from Sin City in that he always gets the girl, raises the Venture children, and is also an indestructible killing machine of the finest order. His connection with OSI is also one of the ways the show works in other interesting characters, from the actual Race Bannon to Col. Hunter Gathers (a Hunter Thompson look/soundalike turned transsexual) and Molotov Cocktease, Russian spy and Brock’s “second base only” love interest (though in true James Bond fashion, he plows his way through most of the secondary female characters mentioned on the show).
Any good collection of heroes needs a foil or two, and Dr. Venture’s main nemesis is a man known only as The Monarch. In true supervillain fashion he has an army of disposable henchmen (two of them, 21 and 24, serve as the voice of the dorky comic book fans in the audience) and a daft gimmick. In this case, The Monarch has fashioned himself after nature’s most feared predator, the monarch butterfly. That’s right, he’s got wings, an orange and black costume, and his base is a flying cocoon.
The Monarch’s partner in crime and wife/girlfriend, Dr. Girlfriend, is a beautiful woman who just so happens to have a major obsession with Jackie Kennedy, right down to the pillbox hats and pink Chanel suits. Oh, she also man’s voice, chain smokes, and has been in the villain game for longer than the Monarch, as a sidekick, henchwoman, co-villain, and even as a solo villainess (as an evil nanny named Lady Au Pair). She’s the voice of reason in The Monarch’s irrational world, and she’s also the only reason he’s ever successful at villainy.
The show is nothing but references. The Venture family is a reference to the Quests. 21 and 24 make as many pop culture, 80’s music, and comic book references as any two Kevin Smith movies combined. The show’s many and numerous side characters: Jonas Venture, Jr., Rusty’s conjoined twin brother who escaped and carries on the original Dr. Venture’e legacy by being a legitimate scientist/adventurer; Dr. Orpheus, divorced father of a teenage girl and necromancer who rents a wing of the venture compound; the various villains of the Guild of Calamitous Intent (the evil counterpart to the OSI), and all the rest of the characters in the Venture world are what make the show worth watching every week. Blink and you’ll miss something.
The references can be blatant and hilarious. Take, for example, The Impossibles, a family of scientists exposed to radiation that give them powers like the Fantastic Four, but not as good. Prof. Richard Impossible is all the worst aspects of Reed Richards down to his stretchiness and his constant neglect of his wife Sue. Sue Impossible is kind of a stalker and alcoholic who can turn her skin invisible (but nothing else, so her face randomly turns into gross-looking exposed tissue. Ned is indestructible and strong but mentally handicapped; the fake Human Torch has to be kept sedated and sealed in a hyperbaric chamber because when his powers are activated, he actually screams and suffers like someone on fire would.
The Venture Brothers is a brilliant show with a devoted collection of fans. It’s a show by geeks for geeks; why wouldn’t it appeal to geeks like me and (hopefully) you? Unlike the other shows I’ve discussed in the occasional Cultelevision piece, it’s still on the air, so you’ve no excuse not to watch it. Buy the DVDs, find it on the idiot box, do whatever you have to do. You’ll be hooked, if you’re not already.
Ron Hogan keeps a summer home at the Venture Compound on Spider Skull Island. In spite of the name, Spider Skull Island is actually a peninsula. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi