The Venture Bros. Review: “Hostile Makeover” (season 6, episode 1)

The Venture Bros., "Hostile Makeover"

Season six of The Venture Bros. is guaranteed to be an interesting one. Successful? That remains to be seen, especially as “Hostile Makeover” on its own doesn’t provide much of an indication of what to expect. But interesting for sure, if only due to its (clearly deliberate) audacity.

It opens with a few seconds on the old Venture Compound, and then immediately shifts us into an entirely new life for the family, a new context, full of new characters, new adventures, new outfits, new roles, new expectations…new everything, really.

A major shakeup like this isn’t unprecedented. The Venture Bros., after all, has been a show that’s used permanent change to great effect.

We can all argue about which season (two) or episode (“Everybody Comes to Hank’s”) is best, but it’s impossible to deny that change is the engine that keeps the show fresh. With every shakeup, revamp, retcon, introduction, and evolution we must move away from at least some of the things that made the show great to begin with, but, ideally, we’re moving toward other things that will keep the show great in their own ways.

In fact, major shakeups are built into the space between seasons. Season one, remember, ended with the on-screen murders of the title characters…and the unexpectedly affecting breakup of The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. The former shakeup was addressed by the very first episode of season two, but the latter gave the second season its entire emotional throughline, culminating in the two of them reconnecting, and marrying…another shakeup in itself, especially as the nuptials intertwined with the neutralization of Phantom Limb, The Venture Bros.‘ lone example of villainous competence (and therefore danger).

Season three ended with Henchman 21 dying, Brock quitting, Sgt. Hatred joining the family, and the cloning lab being destroyed, so…yeah, shakeups left and right, there. This fed, I believe, into the scattershot nature of season four. Instead of one central theme to explore, it had a lot of loose ends to tie up. Some of them revealed themselves to be deeply effective, and others were kind of dead-ends. As much as there was to enjoy about season four (and there was, indeed, much to enjoy), the show felt a bit like it was rounding the bases rather than sowing new seeds. And its finale — the incredible “Operation: P.R.O.M.” — was less a shakeup than a grand collection of the show’s many themes. To a good number of viewers, it felt like it could have worked as a final episode…and that’s something that couldn’t possibly have been said about any season finale before.

Season five didn’t get a proper finale until “All This and Gargantua-2,” which deposited us right where we are today: with Dr. Venture heading up a successful, thriving, important iteration of Venture Industries.

The fact that he’s doomed to fail, to destroy the company, to squander his fortune without learning anything, does nothing to detract from the importance of the shakeup. In fact, it just means there’s another inevitable shakeup at the end of this story; his old compound is a pile of ashes. When this new — ahem — venture fails…where can he possibly go next?

“Hostile Makeover” doesn’t even pretend Dr. Venture is going to succeed. His very first order of business, it seems, is to fire absolutely everybody. Who are these people? He doesn’t care. What did they do for Venture Industries? He’s not interested; he just doesn’t want any of his money going to them. The new phase of his life has only just begun, and he’s taken active steps to ensure it won’t go anywhere.

Which, if I didn’t laugh so much at the episode, I’d be tempted to turn into a criticism about “Hostile Makeover” in general; it really doesn’t go anywhere.

That’s fine, however, because — moreso than any season before it, including the first — it’s laying one hell of a lot of groundwork. There’s the new setting (though we’ve spent a bit of time here before, notably in “Twenty Years to Midnight” and “Bright Lights, Dean City”), of course, and Dr. Venture’s obviously fleeting clout, but that’s by no means all of it.

There’s the return of Brock…and the unhappy discharge of Sgt. Hatred. There’s the Council of 13 scraping itself back together, and — perhaps — returning the Guild to an earlier, more democratic incarnation. There’s Dr. Venture and the boys blowing through money, there’s Dean giving college another try, there’s Hank meeting an according-to-Hoyle mermaid, there’s The Ambassador and Steve McQueen, there’s a wealth of new character introductions, there’s a new arch enemy for Dr. Venture, there’s The Monarch and Gary infiltrating the Ivory Tower, there’s the sea captain relapsing…and plenty that I’m already forgetting.

It’s a lot of work for very little payoff, but I’d be surprised if they intended it to be a stand-alone story at all. It’s the first chapter in a new book, and we can’t complain too much if most of that time is spent on buildup…especially with season five ending in a very literal and very deliberate scorching of the Earth behind it.

No, “Hostile Makeover” can’t really be evaluated until we’ve seen what it builds to. What that is, specifically, is anybody’s guess, but the episode spends a lot of time convincing us that there’s a great deal of mileage in the show’s new configuration. I agree, but I wish there was a little more evidence on display.

In fact, here’s an exercise.

Here are all of the post-shakeup season openers. They each have a lot of cleanup to do and a lot of dominoes to arrange, but can we still find an identifiable plot amongst the logistical maneuvering?

Powerless in the Face of Death: A distraught Dr. Orpheus searches for the souls of the deceased Venture boys while The Monarch plots an escape from prison.

Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny: The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend must answer for their behavior to The Guild, while we learn through flashbacks what brought them together.

Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel: Sgt. Hatred attempts to assert himself as a suitable bodyguard for the Venture clan while a group of Nazis force Dr. Venture to clone Hitler.

What Color is Your Cleansuit?: Dr. Venture is contracted by his more successful brother to build a ray shield for Gargantua-2, and his interns pay the price for his cut corners and incompetent management.

Hostile Makeover: …Dr. Venture picks up some clothes?

Obviously more happens than that, but it’s telling that that scene might actually be the closest thing we get to a plot.

Am I disappointed? Nah.

Or…maybe a little, if only because The Venture Bros. has so successfully balanced shorter stories with longer arcs from the beginning. It’s rare that we get an episode like this, in which we really are meant to see it as nothing more than a small part of a longer journey. In fact, I can’t think of any episodes previously in which that was the case. (Disagreement is welcome; examples are even more welcome.)

There may not be much plot, but there is, however, one strong central theme to “Hostile Makeover”: conflict.

Just about everybody is at somebody else’s throat…or nearly so. There’s such tension in the air between characters that the biggest laugh of the episode — HELPeR pushing J-Bot off the roof — is the one time it comes to a head.

Dr. Girlfriend puts tension on her relationship with The Monarch by bargaining their arching rights over Dr. Venture away. Dr. Venture puts tension on his relationship with the Pirate Captain (possibly the sole remaining employee of Venture Industries) by firing the rest of the staff. Colonel Gathers puts tension on the already-rocky relationship between Brock and Sgt. Hatred. And all of this is on top of the normal levels of tension that exist in the show already, being as it’s packed with misanthropes and monsters.

When HELPeR finally snaps, it’s not just well-deserved; it feels necessary. It’s the smallest, lowest-stakes example of the tension breaking, which means we have one hell of a lot to deal with in the coming weeks, but it’s a start.

I don’t know what the coming weeks will bring, which is both the best and the worst thing about “Hostile Makeover.” It leaves all of its doors open, but doesn’t provide much in the way of direction. It has so many options, which is great, but it doesn’t suggest a way forward. By this point I trust the show, which is the important thing. But it’d be nice to have a sense of what comes next, rather than a tangle of things that may or may not build to anything interesting.

My biggest concern, to be frank, is the introduction of Wide Wale, Dr. Venture’s new arch enemy. While there’s every chance he’ll turn out to be a great addition to the huge roster of villains in this show, it’s worrying that he’s immediately being given a spotlight role, and I’m not sure I saw anything this week that indicates he deserves one.

Perhaps I’m a bit worried because of characters like Torrid, Dr. Quymn, or Augustus St. Cloud, who became important characters because the show forced them to be important characters…and then realized that it can’t think of anything to do with them. Even Sgt. Hatred, whom I love, had a confusing, fitful ascent to “important character” status.

So, Wide Wale, prove me wrong. Please.

Overall, I’m excited by season six, but I think that’s in spite of rather than because of “Hostile Makeover.” It’s only fair that I treat this season of The Venture Bros. like I treated season four of Arrested Development: if I tuned in to this show by chance, and it had nothing to do with The Venture Bros., would I still like it?

It’s hard to say. I think I’d be interested in it. I don’t know if I’d be impressed. But I’m about 99% sure I’d tune in the next week to give it another chance.

And ultimately that’s what matters…whether or not people can get invested in what they’re seeing, even if it doesn’t make much immediate sense to them. If “Hostile Makeover” is disappointing, it’s only disappointing because The Venture Bros. set the bar so high to begin with.

In conclusion, Dr. Venture picked up some clothes.

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4 thoughts on “The Venture Bros. Review: “Hostile Makeover” (season 6, episode 1)”

  1. I’m sticking with my position that season 5 culminated in many of the characters realizing the ultimate limits of the normal order of things in their world–and ultimately, I assume, this was filtering down from the creators realizing those limits as well. Brock’s disillusionment with endless layers of infiltration and side-switching, Gary trying endlessly to find what level of a hierarchy he’s comfortable at, the Venture boys’ respective takes on the fact that they–quite literally–had been doing the same thing over and over and over again. How big can season finale shakeups get before you can no longer go back to the Monarch kidnapping the boys?
    .
    So because of that, I’m assuming that the show continues that mirroring. On the one hand, you’ve got Dr. Mrs. the Monarch taking the serious approach to figuring out what the next steps are after their world was mostly demolished, doing her best to make – ahem – anustart. On the other, Rusty and the boys are flat-out *given* a new start and instantly begin blowing it. “What clothes do I have to wear now to make this work” vs. “who cares how it works? this is another chance to make jokes and get new clothes”; which is what I’d assume is the basic tension for the writers every season. (cf. the couple of times in “Cerebus” where Dave Sim stepped in and offered characters the chance to leave the story entirely/punishes characters/left them to figure out what they wanted to do next)
    .
    Basically what I’m trying to say here is I agree with you–this is a piece-moving (or, picking up the pieces, perhaps), stage-setting episode that’s more variations on a theme than it is a story. It’s definitely not trying to pick up new viewers at this point–I can’t imagine a new viewer doing anything but scratching their head at Hank seeing Ned’s room.
    .
    Another commonality I noticed: Brock too easily caught unaware (twice by superheroes, once by Hank!); Dr. Mrs. the Monarch having to trade away important chess pieces so early in the game, H.E.L.P.E.R. vs J-Bot… maybe I’m primed to think this because of the Wale and the girl with the gills, but our heroes (and villains) are out of their depth here. And if that’s what Hammer & Publick are trying to establish here… then doesn’t the story arc for the season become one of understanding the rules of a big new system, and then playing them to one’s advantage? Whether they end up dominating their new environment, or leaving it in ruins, this episode feels like it’s basically presenting a challenge to the cast.
    .
    My money’s on Augustus St. Cloud buying a bankrupt Venture Industries by the end of the season.

  2. As far as season openers go, it’s obviously not their strongest, but we’re deep into caricatures and parodies of characters who are much further down the list of “simple archtypes” by now, making introductions that little bit harder. Publick and Hammer are pretty skilled/experienced at it by now, obviously, so they’re more easily able to condense the introduction of someone like “Wide Wale” and make it identifiable. But compared to the wide, easily identifiable characters we’ve seen leading up to this point it takes longer to get who-and-or-what each character is. If that makes sense.

    “Night Dick” is the best example of this, in that he’s not quite Will Eisner’s The Spirit, he’s not quite Ghost Rider, but they’re able to use the superhero introduction speech as a way to fill in the gaps. So he becomes a super serious guy with a funny name – and that’s great – but compared to earlier characters – like Molotov Cocktease, for example, it takes the intro, their appearance AND their actions for it to make sense. Molotov merely had to stand there, say “Hel-low, Brock Saampson” and have Brock say her name and BOOM we knew pretty much everything about her straight away.

    It’s like choosing teams in the schoolyard. After you pick the obviously skilled kids, and your friends, you’re left sifting through the kids you hardly know, and the ones who aren’t much good, to make your team numbers up. Once we’ve seen the easy characters – like Molotov – and the favourites – Dr Orpheus and the Impossibles – we’re left with the difficult ones – the Wonder Woman knock off and Fallen Archer – who just don’t pop as easily.

    But the damn show was funny, and the characters are so on point, it’s not BAD, for sure. Just feel like I can see the process a little more now, y’know?

  3. Actually point of fact… It is incorrect to state that the company Rusty inherited from J.J. is Venture Industries because actually its not. Venture Industries was the business owned by Jonas Venture Sr. which Rusty took over after his father’s death, Now the company started by his brother Jonas Venture Jr. aka J.J. and taken over by Rusty in Season 6 is Venture Tech, the two are completely separate corporate entities.

    Sorry geek out there a little bit.

    1. Geek away! It’s welcome here.

      I definitely had my terminology wrong in this episode…by the next review I start distinguishing it as VenTech. But to geek out even further…VenTech wasn’t started by J.J.! That company (or arm of Venture Industries) dates from Jonas Sr.’s tenure as well.

      I didn’t realize this until I watched “What Goes Down, Must Come Up” again recently, and MUTHER refers to contacting VenTech…which suggests that she — and the whole underground city of survivors, and possibly the nuke itself — was a VenTech project.

      I’d never noticed that before, but now that season 6 brought VenTech to the fore, it was easier to pick up on during a rewatch.

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