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.