Review: The Venture Bros., “A Very Venture Halloween”

As if only to prevent this from turning into a Red Dwarf review blog, one of my other favorite shows of all-time has decided to bless us with an early premiere: The Venture Bros. won’t be starting its fifth season until next year, but its creators — and network — were generous enough to speed up production on one episode. And though it was an 11th-hour decision to ship this one early, and it’s not technically the season premiere, it’s an absolutely perfect whetting of a Venture fan’s whistle.

It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it doesn’t aim to be. It aims to catch us unaware, and I think it does that. It aims to sell itself a bit short — it’s The Venture Bros., after all, where all of the most exciting stuff is off-camera by design — but then absolutely nails the ending, with a devastating revelation for one of the characters, and a genuinely touching speech from a character who’s far too long been kept from speechifying.

And I think it also did a great job of illustrating, by contrast, just why I’m so disappointed by the new Red Dwarf. In the case of both that show and this one, I didn’t tune in for the plots. Or even the jokes, really. I tuned in for the characters. If the plots were solid and the jokes were great — and they nearly always were, in both cases — then that was just a fantastic bonus. Really all I wanted to do was be there. I wanted to spend time with this small community, isolated in each case from the larger universe around them, immersed in their own problems, big and small, and fending for something like an understanding of who they were. In each case it’s a show about people who don’t particularly like each other, but whose enforced proximity periodically reveals itself as a kind of love. It’s a comedy of dynamics, and I like to see it unfold and explore itself.

But with Red Dwarf, I no longer feel like I’m in the company of characters. I’m in the company of scripts, and puppets that act them out. They don’t feel real to me, and they no longer act human. In the world of The Venture Bros., though, I still feel at home. They’re people. They’re rich and complicated characters that are still learning new things about themselves, which was what the most recent episode of this show took for its focus. By contrast, the most recent Red Dwarf focused on exploding testicles and didn’t so much as bat an eye when the last known female in the universe was killed. (They were mainly just disappointed they didn’t get to stick their genitals inside of her first. It was bad.)

I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more I’m willing to concede that maybe “A Very Venture Halloween” was a quiet masterpiece. A gentle piece of introspection that conceals its meaning without dulling it. It’s no coincidence that Dermott mentions It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, nor is it a coincidence that he misses that classic special’s greater moral. He dismisses it as childhood ephemera. He overlooks the larger things it has to say about faith and growing up and disappointment…because it’s a cartoon. So is The Venture Bros. And that has something to say with its own Halloween special, too.

Dermott is in a rush to grow up. Dean is not. Dean is the one who, by the end of this episode, grows up.

The plot itself is minimal, which is fine for a show like this. Again, spending time with the characters is the main draw. Nobody expects to see much in the way of action anymore…five seasons in and we’re wise to the show’s cycle of withholding. We know that we’ll catch the Venture family during its downtime, and that’s what we anticipate. The miracle is that the exact form of that downtime still manages to surprise, as it does in this episode’s glorious opening sequence, which shows us Hank and Dean through the years, attempting to give their father a Halloween fright.

It’s the final scene in this sequence that seems to button it up, but really its destination is in the scene just before it: Hank and Dean stage their own bloody, accidental deaths…and their father’s non-reaction gets them wondering. As might be expected, Dean is the one it truly haunts, and when he later meets a character called Ben, he has his question answered.

Like Hank in last season’s brilliant “Everybody Comes to Hank,” Dean here finds himself punished for pursuing — knowingly or not — the answer to a very important question about his family. Unlike Hank, Dean has no “out.” He can’t double-back on the knowledge. This is who he is…and there’s an innocence he can never reclaim for knowing it.

Elsewhere, Dr. Venture and his friends take bets on whether or not trick-or-treaters will be able to make it past the compound’s defense system, and Dr. Orpheus hosts a magic gathering. The former is strictly comic relief, but its ending is surprisingly sweet, and it overlaps the Orpheus story as well, providing an uncommonly wholesome counterpoint to Dean’s metaphysical distress.

Of course, the trick-or-treaters are still young. They’re children. Real children. Not children in the way that Hank and Dean (and Dermott) are children…the real children have their lives ahead of them. They haven’t been shaped into an image from which they’re doomed never to escape, and they haven’t lived long enough to understand betrayal. When Ben speaks to Dean, it’s clear that he cares about him. But by simply telling him the truth he as good as killed him. Dean Venture can never go back. And at this point, he may not even try.

The children know they’re wearing masks…Dean just learned he’s been wearing one his whole life. And now it’s gone.

It’s a small episode. It’s quiet. Its grandest revelation is spoken softly from one end of a sofa to the other, and the only character in a position to understand what it all means spends his night in dark introspection, standing outside of his own party, alone.

It’s actually quite beautiful, and its closing moments are absolutely perfect. It may lose something by being separated from the rest of season five, setting up themes and developments that won’t pay off for months, or it may gain from that.

It gives us time to think.

Like Dean sitting on the roof of the compound, early in the morning on November 1, we’re left with a lot to consider.

Of course, you and I will move forward just as we are, changing gradually, so slowly we might not even notice.

Dean doesn’t have that luxury. Halloween is over, and he’s been forced into adulthood with a shove. It’s time to graduate from Peanuts to The Twilight Zone. Even if we’re not ready.

Because, really, how could we ever be ready?

Review: Red Dwarf X Episode 4: “Entangled”

Hands up everyone who’s surprised that I think this episode went off the rails the moment Lister’s ballsack got wired to explode. No takers? ON WE GO THEN

I guess the upside here is that we now know “Lemons” was a one-off. A comparative breath of fresh air in the midst of a series that didn’t know what the hell it was trying to be, but was damned determined to annoy the everloving shit out of you while it tried to find out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, and my disappointment I guess technically qualifies as a spoiler, since the first act was actually quite good. In fact, while I didn’t need another “Lemons” per se, I actually started to believe that this episode might surpass it. After all, early disappointments in that episode had to do with far too long and unfunny exchanges (such as the Shakespeare bit) and buffoonish physical idiocy (assembling the Golden Shower or whatever the fuck). Here, the potential was there for each of these things to rear their heads again…and instead it was done right.

Rimmer delighting in the forms Lister would have to fill out was perfect character comedy. It worked. It was long, but it was funny. And the length of the exchange says a lot about his commitment to it; Rimmer isn’t a bastard for the sake of being a bastard…he’s a bastard because he is who he is…which just happens to be a bastard. A fine distinction, and one that this totally understandable character development rides nicely. After all, this is a man who is utterly sincere in wanting to protect his crew from exactly the sort of accident he caused that killed the crew. He can justify that, and he can justify it because he believes it. It’s real. He’s a human being…something he arguably hasn’t been since series VII. It’s really, really nice.

Oh, and the physical stuff…I was referring to Kryten drying spoons by farting on them, but I don’t have much to say there.

Well, okay, I can just say that it was fast and funny, very much a Futurama style joke that doesn’t overstay its welcome. So neither will I and that’s enough of that.

So far, so good. Kryten and Cat speaking in unison wasn’t particularly funny, but the reveal of the title of the book Cat is carrying is good. As in…really good. As in a very smart joke well executed. So thanks to that, I have at least a few seconds of “Entangled” that I can nominate for inclusion in a highlight reel.

Then Lister reveals that he lost a poker game to some BEGGs (don’t ask), because if it’s one thing Red Dwarf needs it’s loads of weekly side characters that make it feel like the crew is living in lower London rather than in the bowels of a mining ship lost 3 million years into deep space. The BEGGs (really, don’t ask) wired some bombs to his testes because lol bombs and testes. The first act ends there along with my dignity, because I was enjoying this and now I suddenly feel ashamed for doing so.

Act two, to put it diplomatically, is a screaming pile of shit. It opens with the crew confronting the BEGGs (honestly now…) who resemble GELFs so much in every way that there really shouldn’t be a distinction, Kryten and Cat start talking in unison again because crystals or something, the BEGGs (fuck you) all choke to death because of that I guess, though shit knows how that’s supposed to work, then a TV turns on because of course it does, and it’s showing some black and white movie obviously and the characters in that movie speak totally unrelated lines which so clearly are meant to be oblique clues to the crew about consulting the cover of the book Cat was holding which in turn provide vague guidance on how to Save Lister’s Nads.

If that feels like narrative flow to you, then being bashed over the head with a baseball bat must qualify as an at least passably written short story. It’s garbage. It eats up time. It makes no sense and serves no purpose.

Last week Doug had the crew beam into Britain even though he needed them in India. That made no sense, until it had a killer punchline, which retroactively justified an odd decision. Here we get odd decision after odd decision without much (if any) cause for laughter.

The Quest For the Non-Exploded Scrotum brings the crew to a space station where they find a lone surviving human being. Well, a monkey as the result of some off-screen (and again unnecessary) experiment but they restore her with three minutes left in the episode, which means she’s destined to be killed and nobody will give a shit. It’s like “Trojan” again, but even more jarringly awful because the big joke is that she probably would have let Rimmer cum inside of her and now he can’t do that hahahahahahahaha.

I don’t know when this show became It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia but the lack of human response in this crew is becoming pretty distracting. At least when they met Jesus they played with his dick in the service of a helpful medical procedure. It was crass, but it had a purpose. Here we’re shooting side characters and kicking them out of airlocks and not paying any mind to what that says about the crew as people. Which is fine I guess, as Doug obviously didn’t pay any mind to that either.

Or maybe they just know next week they’ll meet a whole slew of new disposable characters so nothing’s really lost.

I remember when these characters used to be people, though. The first half of this episode remembered that, too. Those were good times.

Oh well. I don’t care. We have two episodes to go and one of them is a love story starring the racist vending machines from “Fathers and Suns”.

Lucky us.

Review: Red Dwarf X Episode 3: “Lemons”

Is it any coincidence that the best episode of the series so far has no B-plot? I highly doubt it.

“Lemons” isn’t great. But here’s the miraculous thing: “Lemons” is good. Call me crazy, but the consequence-free slaying of a main character’s brother in the first week and Taiwan Tony’s Racism Follies in week two left me more or less dreading the crew’s encounter here with the son of God.

But it was good. It did a lot of things right. It did some things wrong, and in a few cases those were quite annoying things to do wrong, but it was better than “Fathers and Suns,” which was better than “Trojan,” and I’m finding it quite a bit easier now to be optimistic about the back half of series X.

“Lemons” starts off on some terribly shaky footing. For starters, Doug Naylor has the annoying habit of opening on scenes that set up later punchlines, but don’t have a purpose themselves. They feel disconnected and clunky, and that’s what happens here. Lister cooks dinner while The Cat attempts some humor by describing a comedy golf course he set up in the medical area. It ends with The Cat eating Lister’s dinner, which wasn’t much of a joke on its own and becomes even more disappointing when the eventual punchline is the same one we saw way back in the first episode of series VII, where it was faster, sharper, and a thousand times funnier. Belabored setups of old twists isn’t what series X should be aiming for.

Things get worse when we’re subjected to Ikea jokes. Did you know that sometimes those instructions aren’t very clear?! If you didn’t, then you’ve never seen a comedian bomb on stage, and, in related news, the being-on-hold-is-kind-of-annoying! subplot of “Trojan” probably held you riveted. The one positive point about this trite, mirthless digression is that “Ikea” isn’t mentioned by name. (We don’t have the same luck with “eBay” later.) In fact, it almost makes up for the montage of the crew clowning around with the machine’s parts. Almost.

Then, something magical happens: it becomes Red Dwarf. The crew finds themselves transported to 23 AD, and it’s almost as if Doug and the cast suddenly remember what show they’re making. The plot is solid: there’s a logical problem (no batteries in 23 AD means no teleporting back), a rational and scientific solution to that problem (batteries can be made out of lemons), and a left-field complication (the gang, y’know, meets Christ).

It’s a fair setup, and, for the first time all series, the episode sees it through. The adventure isn’t meaningless, the crew’s plight has relateable weight, and the new-character-of-the-week (for fucking once) doesn’t act like a cartoon character. It. Is. Good.

When the writing works, the story doesn’t matter as much. I’ll admit that I only found it easy to pick apart the narrative flaws of episodes one and two because…well…what else was I meant to be doing? Laughing? Hey, great plan, but it wasn’t in the cards.

Here, though, not only did the comedy work well enough to distract from any logistical issues, but the few potential issues I did notice were enhanced by the comedy. For instance, why did Doug have the characters beam into Britain if he needed them in India, and all it did was set up a quick map-walking sequence that was supposed to have taken six months? Easy: because by doing that, he could set up the later joke, wherein Rimmer informs the rest of them that they need to walk back to Britain for some copper wire.

Having your characters walk for six months off camera makes no purposeful sense whatsoever, but when it’s in aid of a genuinely good laugh, it works. I understand that jokes that land are by no means a rarity in comedy, but with the lame detours and disconnected components of the previous episodes, this really is something worth pointing out.

At one point in the episode I realized I was watching Jesus Christ laying on a bunk in a space ship three million years into deep space, after having had a kidney stone removed by a robot, a hologram, an evolved cat and the last human being alive. And I didn’t care how I got there, because moments like Rimmer being honored to hold Jesus’s dick made me glad to go along for the ride.

The rest of the episode is a bit of a step down, particularly when Jesus does become a cartoon character, but I don’t mind a weak ending. I don’t even mind a weak ending in tandem with a weak beginning. I just want to be glad I spent time with the episode, and “Lemons” gave me that for sure.

I can’t say more without spoiling something, and I don’t want to overplay my enthusiasm here — it’s absolutely relative — but I will say that something puzzled me. For an episode that really sought to reward long-term fans who pay attention to Rimmer’s character (explaining his middle name, reminding us that he likes to be called Big Man) Doug sure was quick to piss away two of his most memorable moments (he both hates Shakespeare now and his parents were no longer Seventh Day Advent Hoppists).

I’m not a continuity stickler in this show, but it feels a bit odd that an episode that went out of its way to dredge up two older bits of that continuity severely undermined two others.

Small potatoes though. Or lemons. lol and shit.

If only the crisis next week wasn’t that Lister’s nuts might explode, I’d be much more excited. As it stands, “Lemons” could just be a happy exception. And so what if it is? I’m happy with that.