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?

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