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Red Dwarf XI, "Samsara"

“Twentica” seemed to be a pretty divisive episode. I don’t read other reviews until after I post my own, so I was pretty surprised to learn this. To me it was a clear return to form, and it measured up pretty well to the show’s glory years. I resisted the urge to nitpick because anything I could have pointed out would have paled in comparison to the much more important takeaway: this was an episode of Red Dwarf that I genuinely enjoyed. I’ll take a few dumb lines or sloppy edits any day if the overall product is strong enough.

“Twentica” was strong enough. “Samsara,” bless its well-intentioned little heart, is not.

I’ll say this right now: it wasn’t bad. It was also far better, and more enjoyable, and funnier, than the weaker episodes of series X. Should “Samsara” turn out to be one of the weaker episodes of XI, then that marks a kind of progress, and a welcome one.

The concept behind “Samsara” is…well, it’s not bad, but it is a bit clunky. Whereas “Twentica” took one idea and ran with it, “Samsara” takes one idea, explores it for a bit, reverses it, talks about the consequences of that reversal, and frames the entire thing as a sort of mystery about what happened…with digressions into a mini-bottle episode featuring Lister and The Cat and a few dips into a story that took place three million years ago with a completely different crew.

And yet, I’ll give “Samsara” credit for not feeling overstuffed. If anything, some of these ideas get too much breathing room rather than too little.

Maybe it’s worth comparing this to “Justice” as well as “Twentica,” as that episode gets a nod here in Kryten’s explanation for what’s happening. That episode could also be described as narratively busy. Lister has space mumps, the crew pick up an escape pod, they take it to a prison world in case it contains some crazy robot, the prison world automatically scans for evidence of past crimes, Rimmer is convicted of murdering the crew, Kryten discovers that the computer actually detects feelings of guilt rather than culpability, any crime you try to commit happens to you instead of your victim, Lister squares off with a simulant…

Okay. Those are a lot of ideas, but they all feel natural. Watching “Justice” we slip fairly organically from one concept to the next, and a few of them come together in the climax. Also, we’re laughing, which helps.

“Samsara” isn’t as graceful. It might not be graceful at all. There’s a nice bit of visual artistry when one image in one timeline serves as our pivot point into the other, but beyond that it’s two parallel sequences of events trying very hard to tell just one story.

“Justice” is an instructive point of comparison. That episode, in theory, could also have hurled us back in time to show us what life was like on Justice World, how the Justice Field works, the kind of impact it had on prisoners, the ways in which they (potentially) could have exploited it…but it doesn’t need to do that. It makes all of this clear enough just by having the Dwarfers explore it, face the consequences themselves, and work out everything else from there.

“Samsara,” I think, resorts to the dual timelines because it can’t think of another way to convey all of the information it thinks the audience will need. That’s evidenced by the fact that the second, earlier timeline doesn’t seem to have had as much effort invested in it. Each cut to it feels something like a tutorial pop-up in a video game; Doug asks himself, “What will the audience need to know next?” and then cuts to somebody who tells us, after which we get back to the action.

The story is good, but I think I prefer episodes like “Justice,” “DNA,” “Back to Reality,” and so forth not just because they’re better episodes, but because it’s more rewarding to piece together the puzzle alongside the crew than it is to see a set of guest characters actually going through the motions. Any previous episode could have done that in order to spill its mysteries, but this, I think, is the first time one has resorted to it.

I could explain the specifics of the plot here, but anyone who watched the episode already knows, and I don’t think it’s worth the spoiler for those who haven’t seen it yet. Giving the game away wouldn’t really add to what I’m saying here anyway.

On the bright side, the performances by the main cast were great. “Twentica” showed us that the four actors were back to being comfortable in their roles, and that’s true here as well. The writing isn’t as strong, but the performances certainly elevate it. Danny in particular tried his damnedest to elevate some truly ropey material, and sometimes he even succeeded. Robert was reliably good, as ever, even if he did seem to be left out of the comedy for the most part.

Chris Barrie and Craig Charles were both at their best, but, again, at times the material failed them. Chris was let down by overlong repetitions of a singular gag in the opening, and Craig by an overlong dialogue with The Cat later on. In neither case were the jokes strong enough to warrant their length, and they both felt like odd padding in an episode that had no shortage of better ideas.

We’ll deal with each of those scenes separately.

The Cat / Lister pairing was an inspired idea. I’ve always enjoyed how well these two characters play off of each other. Typically The Cat’s jokes are just for The Cat. Pair him with Kryten and Kryten will just roll his eyes. Pair him with Rimmer and Rimmer will just roll his eyes, and sometimes grit his teeth at an insult. But pair him with Lister and Lister will try to engage with him. He’ll explain things to him. He’ll let the dialogue develop. So putting them together here was a great idea, and I love how much room they’re given to just talk.

But what they talked about didn’t do it for me, and at some point I was wishing we did have Rimmer or Kryten to shut him up. This is no reflection on Danny at all, but the conversation about inventors, in which The Cat mistook Newton for Archimedes…and misunderstood what Archimedes did anyway…and then talked for a while about bathtubs sliding out of airplanes…it just got dull. Not to mention the observational comedy about in-flight service, which gave me nightmarish flashbacks of the phone support gags in “Trojan.” How would The Cat even know about in-flight service anyway, let alone have such fiery opinions about it? See, that’s what I’m doing when I’m not laughing; I’m questioning the point of what we’re watching.

It’s a great idea — a mini-Marooned with Danny in the second chair — but this isn’t talk of virginity and culture and reincarnation. This is Peabody’s Improbable History.

The opening scenes fare much better, I think. Doug has had a bit of trouble writing back-and-forth dialogue between Rimmer and Lister overall, but it felt correct here. It was funny. It was well-handled. The “charmed life” exchange being especially well performed, and something I could easily imagine slotting into the classic series of your choice.

But the gag with the dice rolling…my goodness. This one was giving me nightmarish flashbacks of the psychiatrist asking Kryten if his chair was screwed to the floor. It tied into the rest of the plot, sure, but by no means deserved the amount of screentime it got, and I began to feel bad for Chris Barrie at one point, as he had to keep finding different ways to make the same action and outcome feel like they were worth watching. And I don’t mean rolling with his hands versus the cup, or switching seats…I mean having to find different ways to express through his voice and his face that Rimmer was not going to give up on this.

By the time Rimmer finishes rolling, we’re five minutes into the episode. The scene could have easily been half as long and had the same impact. Heck, we could have cut to the two of them arguing later about how unlikely it was that Rimmer rolled a two and a one seven times in a row. Hearing about it would have been a lot funnier than seeing it.

It’s also odd that the punchline of the entire episode is that Rimmer finds out the Karma Drive was rewarding Lister. This is odd because a) we already know Lister was cheating, so it doesn’t surprise us and b) Rimmer figured this out in an earlier scene anyway, so it shouldn’t surprise him. What’s the point of ending there? It makes the game of Mine-Opoly (hohoho) feel, structurally, like the most important thing in the episode.

So, whatever. “Samsara” wasn’t “Twentica.” But it had some great ideas, even if they were just evolved forms of something we’ve already seen in a superior episode. I really did like the idea of pairing up Lister and The Cat. The bunkroom dialogue was better than it’s been in ages. And there were a few pretty good jokes (and plenty of great character moments) sprinkled throughout.

XI still has every chance to be good. “Samsara” is flawed, but nowhere near bad enough to write off entirely, and it’s not an episode I’d see myself skipping over in the future. It’s just that I was really hoping for another great episode, and instead I got one that was only pretty good.

You know what? I’ll take it. Let’s see how episode three plays out.

Red Dwarf XI, "Twentica"

Four years ago, I bitched endlessly about Red Dwarf X, but I’d like to think that I bitched with purpose. It’s not that the series was bad, exactly. It’s more that it was…instructively flawed. When something worked, it worked quite well. When something didn’t work, all the guts were spilling out of it and it was impossible to resist sifting through them to see what went wrong.

Watching those episodes at times felt like performing an autopsy. You’re piecing together what little information you have to try to make sense of why the thing died in the first place.

Series X wasn’t doomed to disappoint. The episodes had intriguing ideas. Classic Dwarf setups. Great opening stretches. Erm…decent lighting?

And two episodes were…actually kinda good. One of which felt like a genuine classic, and one of which took some time to explore its richest character.

In my review of that latter episode, I wrote this:

“The Beginning” might well represent the beginning of such a rediscovery. It’s certainly possible, because when you brush aside the abandoned plot threads and fragmented bad ideas, there’s a great concept there, and a stellar central performance that promises big things. I know better than to get my hopes up, but it sure would be nice if this show, moving forward, managed to deliver on that promise.

Of course, it was a promise that came at the very end of series X, so there’s been a lot of waiting to see if it panned out. And “Twentica,” being the first episode since then, isn’t in a position to answer the question definitively.

It is, however, a damned good start.

Let’s be frank here: I liked “Twentica” more than I’ve liked any episode in a very long time. X had some good ones, but was pretty mediocre on the whole. Back to Earth was hot garbage. VII and VIII were VII and VIII.

But “Twentica” felt…real. Like an actual good episode of actual Red Dwarf, and not as just a nice chapter of whatever experimental form of the show we’re cycling through now. It felt a lot like a series VI episode to me, and I mean that as an enormous compliment.

In fact, it seemed to marry the more cinematic visual approach of VII with the strong comedy of the classic years. Shots are blocked interestingly. Sets look good. Wardrobe looks great. Consideration is obviously given to making locations feel unique. It’s something above a standard sitcom, presentation-wise, but for the first time in a long time its comic heart is where it should be.

I laughed a lot. Probably more than I laughed in all of X. Not all of the jokes were great, but some of them sure were, and many others were just silly enough (or delivered well enough) to land brilliantly. It was surprisingly consistent for latter day Red Dwarf, with only one line (“LEG IT”) feeling forced enough that it reminded me I wasn’t watching a classic-era episode.

The concept is perfect for the show, as the crew ends up back on an alternate version of Earth that sees technology outlawed, and the show is more playful with its philosophizing than it has been since…I honestly don’t know. Meltdown?

Great Red Dwarf relishes coming up with some kind of germ of an idea (be it a piece of technology, an alternate universe, some bit of philosophy that gets out of hand) and exploring it. Not just presenting it, but pushing it to incredible lengths, just to see where it will take the characters.

And we get that here, with scientists hanging around in speakeasies solving theorems, pretending to be unruly drunks when the police come through. The idea that both Kryten and Rimmer are illegal in this society doesn’t lead to much more than a joke or two, but that’s okay, because the story is based less on the characters and more around the alternate history itself, and how the crew intends to right things.

I could still pick it apart, but it feels like I’d be robbing myself of most of the fun if I did. And, yes, for once, there’s fun! Tearing into X was the direct result of the fact that I was bored with it, confused by it, and largely unamused by it. I had to question it, because that was the only way I could engage with it.

With “Twentica,” there’s enough fun to be had just from sitting back and laughing with it, appreciating great small moments (the kidnapping / hostage negotiation sequence was marvelous), and watching Doug Naylor riff impressively on a genuinely intriguing premise. Jeez oh man was this a far cry from his limp observations about being placed on hold from the last series opener.

Every character got at least one great moment, with The Cat probably having the largest number of big laughs. (Is it just me, or has Danny John-Jules gotten better with every series?) Rimmer leaning on his English accent (peppered liberally with the word “whom”) was also a treat. And even the not-simulants (I keep forgetting the proper term) got some great material at the very end, with an unexpected callback to what seemed to be a throwaway line in the opening scene, unraveling their menace for the sake of some very funny (and very human) verbal fumbling.

The whole thing just built wonderfully upon itself, with nearly every scene lasting exactly as long as it needed to, and very little in the way of padding. Even the obvious jokes worked, such as Rimmer complaining that Lister always asks Kryten for insight instead of him. The punchline will be clear to anybody long before the characters get to it, but the delivery is impeccable, and that makes its obviousness an asset. (I also laughed stupidly long at The Cat deciding to move to this alternate reality in which Rimmer is not welcome. It’s not clever, it’s not unexpected…it’s just perfect.)

It felt right. The jokes landed as well as they did in the classic years, and I actually found myself thinking about the episode’s philosophy on and off after it ended, which of course is something the show hasn’t given me a reason to do in a very long time.

Even the classically-structured closing scene, in which Lister reflects on the week’s lesson, seemed to acknowledge how well this episode stood alongside some of the show’s all-time best. Doug allowing himself a return that kind of scene at the end felt like something of a minor celebration…like cracking open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a night that couldn’t have gone any better.

I enjoyed it a great deal. I think X expected us to find too many things automatically funny without working for them (gurning faces, silly accents, MURDERED WOMEN), but “Twentica” hopefully suggests that those days are behind us.

It works hard and it works well. Again, comparing it to the last series opener (“Trojan”), it’s clear we’re already in another league entirely.

I’ve been avoiding spoilers for this series, but I have watched the trailer. And the trailer looked great. It looked funny, interesting, and full of potential.

“Twentica” does a great job of convincing me that I wasn’t just being optimistic.

For the first time since series VI, I’m strongly looking forward to the next episode. And that’s something I definitely didn’t expect to say.

Review: Prime Cuts

June 6th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in comics | review - (2 Comments)

Philip’s note: I was approached to review volumes one and two of the Prime Cuts graphic novel. And, frankly, I would have done a great job with that. But, in fairness, my comic experience is pretty thin, so I am proud to feature a much more educated and reliable review from Scott Gregson, who posts here often as RaikoLives. Thanks, Scott. Also, thumbnails are for clickin’. Enjoy!

Prime Cuts, John Franklin & Tim Sulka

Alright, look, I’m not gonna say I hated it. I know, I know, spoiler alert for my own review and all that, but yeah. I didn’t hate it. As such.

“It” in this case is a pair of graphic novels; Prime Cuts: Volumes 1 and 2, written by John Franklin and Tim Sulka. Art for Volume 1 is by Rob Gutman, while Stan Maksun did the art for Volume 2. And in case you’re wondering, “graphic novel” is really just a fancy way of saying comic book.

Prime Cuts starts off with our main character’s past unfurled as an incoherent vision of ugly people doing ugly things in an ugly way and, really, doesn’t go much further than that. Even by the end of its second volume our hero, a young man by the name of Todd Sweeny, has accomplished very little, and beyond his most recent past we know almost nothing about him. We know a little about Electra, the other main character, and some details about the dark and gruesome world they live in, but much of the story’s momentum is lost whenever Todd becomes the focus.

If his name seems familiar, yes, Prime Cuts is a dark, modern take on the legend of Sweeney Todd, and while I’m only loosely familiar with the original story, I can already tell it isn’t straying too far. At least not yet. Our hero, Todd, is a hairdresser by trade, and the death of a man leads to the same cannibalistic fate as so famously defines the original story. Most of where Prime Cuts seeks to differentiate itself is in the tone it sets. A blend of the vile and the gross. With a healthy dose of sex, swearing and gore. And that’s great, if you’re into that kind of thing. But when it becomes the sole focus of your story you may need to rethink your project.

Prime Cuts, John Franklin & Tim SulkaArtistically, Prime Cuts is a mixed bag. The first volume’s art by Rob Gutman would be easy to dismiss as amateurish (at best) or just terrible (at worst). It’s not great, but Gutman’s line work in places is surprisingly strong. Closeups of faces look good, and he manages to keep his characters details looking consistent, which is something a lot of artists struggle with. It’s when his characters interact physically, either with each other or the environment, that the problems begin to show, as his figures lose themselves within the panels, floating weightlessly. It’s the nature of drawing sequential art, as opposed to simple figure drawing, that your figures need to reside within a picture, within a story, and while Gutman’s work isn’t entirely without merit, often this aspect escapes him.

His panel layout, too, is somewhat lacking inspiration, with borderless squares and grids the order of the day. This hinders the pace of the story, as often the nine-panel grid format fails to capture a sense of movement or tone, leaving the story feeling dull. Lifeless. One particular full page panel gifts us with a character’s passage through it, and I enjoy the way Gutman plays with the panel, relishing the concept of a panel being at once a specific moment in time, as well as depicting a specific passage of time or moment. The page, though, uses large arrows to frame the character’s journey throughout the scene, as neither the art nor the positioning, or flow, of the dialogue are enough to sell exactly how it plays out otherwise. It’s a tough trick to pull off, for sure, and a neat exercise, but when you’re forced to use arrows within your splash maybe it’s time to rethink your use of the device entirely.

Sadly, Gutman’s art is further hampered by his colours. Flat, almost pastel colours with very little shading is an interesting way to go, but it doesn’t work here, with the tone of the story and characters utterly hamstrung by the art being both bright and bland, colourful and boring. It may have worked better as black and white, allowing Gutman’s delicate linework to be more visible, with his major strengths being details, the flat colours just wash everything out.

Prime Cuts, John Franklin & Tim SulkaIn the second volume Gutman is replaced by Stan Maksun, who brings an entirely new feel to Prime Cuts. His ugly, ungainly figures sacrifice a lot of detail but he tells his story much more coherently. His faces look largely the same as each other and much of the posing may not be much stronger than in the previous volume, but his bright, lurid colours go beyond a sense of reality to heighten the extreme nature of the story which, after all, is about murder, cannibalism and a flagrant disregard for health and safety in both the food service and hairdressing industry.

While his figures lack consistency Maksun succeeds at filling his panels with actual backgrounds, and filling his pages with panels of all shapes and sizes. He guides our view, putting horizontal action in long, rectangular panels, short sharp actions in stark relief against them and generally shaping a world that keeps us off balance as we witness horrible people doing horrible things in horrible ways. It helps the audience see the world the way the writers intended; as a sort of carnival freak show narrated by a gleeful, deranged ringmaster, though that could be the book’s biggest flaw.

The overarching voice of Prime Cuts comes not from any one character but from the person telling us the story. The writers have positioned themselves as storytellers, supplying us with this narrative wholesale as spectacle, leaving us uninvested in any of the characters or their particular journey. When Todd Sweeney is sexually assaulted early in the book, it isn’t someone we care about being preyed upon. We simply watch a fat trucker trying to get sexual favours from a hitchhiker. We side with Todd partly because we have spent a few pages with him so far (and because what the truck driver does is obviously wrong) but the scene plays out more to gross us out than gain any kind of insight into the story or our characters. We are being told a story, we aren’t experiencing it, and like most tall tales the reason it is being told is moreso that we pay attention to the storyteller than the tale itself.

Prime Cuts, John Franklin & Tim SulkaAnd it comes through time and time again. Our narrator, omniscient, tells us how gross things are, or how awesome something is, beckoning us to take their word over that of the characters. Much of it could be fixed with that age old writing advice “show don’t tell” but that would take the focus off the narrator, which would be the opposite of the book’s main goal. Much like most horror, especially the more sensational and explicit stuff, the audience’s reactions are more important than telling a story about characters, about people, and a failure to connect with that leaves the narrator sounding shrill, egotistical, subjecting people to a story they don’t want to hear.

Part of this problem might be our writers reliance on Sweeney Todd for the narrative structure, as well as breaking the story up into such episodic chunks, but framing this story as something akin to a Crypt Keeper tale needs a stronger hand on the story’s rudder. John Franklin and Tim Sulka’s book reads as a teenager telling a gross story he overheard, lacking the dramatic weight an experienced storyteller can weave into a tale designed to both shock and amuse. As it stands the book simply paints everything as gross, making nothing particularly stand out, and giving rise to some rather off-putting humour about one particular character’s weight, looks and gender. In a sea of tasteless jokes, unambiguously making sport of a fat person by not being able to determine their sex is quite possibly crossing the line. As an overweight, straight, white, unambiguously male guy, I can shrug it off and move on, but it makes it hard to tell which gross things are gross and which are not, when the whole comic is gross.

There are jokes about drug addicts not knowing who their kids are. There are jokes about spoiled rich people. There are jokes about a large group of people but they are all horrible within the book itself. This character does nothing beyond look unconventional, unattractive in the eyes of a woman who we’re specifically told has no conscience, and who is doing her job to the best of her ability. Fat shaming her (to say the least) seems more crass than even the random junkie with a syringe still protruding from his skin.

Prime Cuts isn’t for me, but I don’t think it was ever really meant for me. I love comics and the storytelling they can provide, and on that level I didn’t love Prime Cuts. If you’re a fan of being grossed out, enjoy being uncomfortable and love awful people doing awful things, this might well be your thing. Gutman and Maksun do some good work, even if the two of them do it in almost directly opposite area, and the results are patchy at best. Franklin and Sulka’s story will need to become more sensational, more explicit, more and more and more, in order to keep readers coming back. I don’t doubt they can do it. I don’t even doubt they will. But I do doubt anyone will be coming back specifically for the further adventures of Todd Sweeney.

The Venture Bros., "Red Means Stop"

Another season down, and while I wouldn’t call this experiment a failure, I look forward to a much more traditional season to follow. It was ambitious, but I don’t know that the ambition really came to anything.

I’ve been down on season six as a whole, and I know that. But it’s mainly because the one-long-story device meant that things were elevated to “important” status which wouldn’t have been otherwise. When you’re watching everything unfold over a (relatively) unbroken period of time, you’re going to see a lot of stuff happening just because the camera is already there. In a standard half-hour show you’ll only see things for good reason; there’s not time to dawdle. Here we saw entire plots — or what seemed to be plots — come to nothing, presumably just because we were hanging around while they happened.

For instance, the Science Now conference. We were led to believe Dr. Venture’s reveal of a new invention was of prime importance to him…but by the end of the season the conference doesn’t even happen. There’s Dean attending school…which led to nothing apart from the fact that we can now type “There’s Dean attending school.” Hank’s courtship of Sirena fared much better, but still hasn’t led anywhere. It’s been all setup. Largely good setup…but setup all the same.

The new characters were almost uniformly a bust. Of the mess of them introduced in “Hostile Makeover,” only Warriana made an impact. (More on her later). And one-off villains like Harangutan and Think Tank were almost daring in how thinly they were drawn. Wide Wale was probably the worst and most confusing of the bunch, as I still have no fucking idea what he’s doing.

He’s this season’s big bad…except that he isn’t, and he’s just kind of wading around, hoping Jackson or Doc figure out something for him to do. But we’ve had a whole season to figure it out and we still don’t know why he was driving a wedge between The Monarchs, or to what end, why he cared about arching (and then not arching) Dr. Venture, whether the murder of his brother plays into this, or…anything, really. The show went out of his way to establish him as an important character, and then did literally nothing with him. If season seven opened with him falling out a window to his death, I can’t imagine it’d register as any kind of loss.

The disappointing new characters are made more disappointing by the established characters we don’t get to see. No Orpheus, no Triad, no Impossibles, no Molotov…these are rich characters that, to varying degrees, we care about. To say we can’t cycle in new characters would be insane, especially as we have Red Death, Warriana, and, to a lesser extent, Sirena to prove that Jackson and Doc can still give us great new creations on a near-regular basis. It’s just that most of the new creations weren’t great, and the absence of other characters we love is too clearly felt.

Having said all of that, “Red Means Stop” was a lot of fun. And it was pretty good. Between this, “Maybe No Go,” “It Happening One Night,” and “A Party for Tarzan,” I’d say half of the season was solid.

The problem comes from the fact that the format — the lack of a proper structure, and, in many cases, the complete lack of payoff — hamstrung the rest of the episodes, and I really hope we’re done forcing everything in a single narrative that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Keep the Ventures in New York; I’m okay with that. But please return to a format more suited to weekly installments.

Okay, have I bitched enough about a show I love?

Good. Let’s get into the good stuff season six did, which, fortunately, ties pretty tightly into what “Red Means Stop” does.

For starters, I think the season absolutely nailed Gary’s emotional journey. Like so much else it lacked a resolution, but unlike so much else it brought us to a very intriguing place, and I’m very excited to see what the show does with it.

While it was his idea to pull this whole Blue Morpho stunt in the first place — a fact The Monarch reminds him of this week, for maximum needling — he’s gotten gradually more implicated in these deaths, against his own wishes. He started by accidentally killing somebody (importantly, it happened in the service of actual good, as he rescued Billy) and moved on to deliberate, premeditated murder.

…at least, that’s what The Monarch expected of him last week. Kidnap The Wandering Spider, take him out to the Pine Barrens, force him to place a call that would establish The Monarch’s alibi…and then execute him. Gary wasn’t happy about this…and he may not have even killed the guy. We saw him burying something, but it could have just been The Wandering Spider’s gadgetry. Gary likely found a way to do his boss’s bidding — and take a supervillain out of the game — without getting blood on his hands.

But, hey, “Red Means Stop” twists again. Uncomfortable with murder, Gary’s instead been kidnapping villains and keeping them locked away in the Morpho Cave. A much more humane way of eliminating their competition…

…except that it isn’t. The Saw homages were…well, I’ll be honest here: I liked the episode as a whole, but the Saw homages were little more than Saw homages. I didn’t see much of an interesting spin on them, even if I loved the fact that Gary unwittingly became a Jigsaw figure. He didn’t mean to hurt anybody. At all. He meant to keep them locked away, yes, but he thought he was keeping them fed and safe. His intention was to not kill them, and he ended up creating for them a much more harrowing, awful, torturous end than a straight murder would have been. In attempting to be a good guy, he became a worse guy.

The Venture Bros. has been fairly cruel to its characters before, but never — to my knowledge — had it gone quite that far into hopeless darkness. It’s impressive that so much Saw made it into The Venture Bros. without being significantly softened…but it’s still just Saw, with the worst things happening off camera.

But, man…that look on Gary’s face at the end…when he realizes not only that he’s killed again, but that he did the worst thing imaginable to people he never intended to hurt…

It reminded me of that incredible moment in “Return to Malice,” when he’s explaining to Hank and Dean why he’s on the warpath. He describes the circumstances surrounding the unforgivable murder of 24, only to realize in the process of speaking the words that he is responsible. He is the reason 24 died.

His face falls. His narration stops. He never meant any harm…but he caused harm. He’s been affected by that realization ever since.

And now he has more, worse unnecessary death on his conscience.

I don’t know where his character is going next. But he’s on a journey, and it’s potentially a great one. Does this push him over the edge, or make him shrink back? I honestly have no idea. Does anyone out there have any predictions?

Also, out of curiosity: do we think The Wandering Spider was in that room? I’d just imagined the guy walking home in the moonlight, glad to be alive, unseen during the conclusion of “A Party for Tarzan,” escaping into a second chance at life while we watched Dr. Venture escape into his own. But now I wonder if Gary tossed him in there instead, only for the guy to be partially devoured by an insane Maestrowave.

The sheer (suggested) violence and brutality of those scenes was interesting. This is a show that usually softens its blows with comedy, but there was no redeeming punchline for those poor villains…just the reveal that the craziest of them was dealt the longest chain. Death happens on this show, but rarely has a character’s end been so ruthlessly awful. So, yes, I liked the Saw stuff, even though I really wish it was more than just Saw stuff.

Speaking of “Just _____ Stuff,” Red Death repeating Liam Neeson’s Taken monologue word for word (as far as I could tell, anyway) was pretty disappointing. Once again, it was just “Here’s what happened elsewhere” with no interesting spin. That’s a shame, because, man, you’ve heard that speech often enough that you really need something extra to justify another reprise.

Instead it’s just Red Death repeating something he heard in a movie, I guess. And then Gary identifies it for us, which means these characters have seen Taken and we can’t really fall back on this being a fun coincidence.

It’s disappointing, because Doc Hammer is a strong enough writer that he could have given us a speech like that one which was more true to the character and the situation than one lifted wholesale from somebody else’s work. (Compare this to Hank’s Bull Durham speech in “It Happening One Night.” That had a recognizable origin as well as Venture-specific execution.)

Instead we have The Monarch and Gary terrified by a speech that’s been repeated so often it’s no longer terrifying. Give us something better than that. Jackson and Doc (as both writers and performers) are better than that. Clancy Brown as Red Death was terrifying, so it’s crazy to me that they didn’t believe in him or the situation enough to give him — and themselves — something original to work with.

There was a lot to love here, though, not the least of which being returns from Hunter and Shore Leave. (I fucking love Shore Leave.) The Guild / OSI teamup was great without being especially eventful, and it was sad to see both organizations turning their backs on former member Hatred so flatly. It was a good kind of sadness…the kind only a show like this, with such long and complicated interlocking histories for its characters can pull off. And we got to see Snoopy again, which was nice. (I fucking love Snoopy.)

Wrapping the whole thing up — this dangerous encounter with a truly dangerous villain — by having a few bad guys sit around and talk about their feelings gave this away as a Doc Hammer episode in the best possible way. It was a great ending, and while it lacked the punch of Gary’s arc, The Monarch is left in a really interesting place as well. Red Death doesn’t tell him to chill the fuck out and live life for a while…he tells him to burn Venture to the ground and crush his skull. And then chill the fuck out and live life for a while.

Red Death has found peace. Not as a villain, but as a human being. (If…that’s…what he is…) He’s been freed from genuine hatred and obsession simply because he killed what he hated and obsessed over. Now he can divide his professional life from his personal life…and everybody’s happier for it. He has a loving family, a great home, and can arch one night a year. For a horrifying demonic soul-stealing beast, he’s got his shit together.

The question is…will The Monarch get his shit together the same way?

Season six wasn’t great. It pains me to say that, but it’s true. The experiment dealt this stretch of episodes more handicaps than opportunities, but, on the whole, I think it made good on the opportunities it did have.

But, damn, I’m really looking forward to a more traditional season seven.

For now, just a few stray observations and talking points:

Warriana is great. Period. I love her character, and she’s yet another addition to The Venture Bros.‘ commitment to creating strong, well-rounded females. (They peaked with Dr. Girlfriend, but, man, any show would peak with Dr. Girlfriend. And I don’t think they’ve whiffed on any of them outside of Dr. Quymn.) She’s a great foil to Brock in a way similar to — yet distinct from — Molotov, and part of me is very excited by the prospect of the latter resurfacing in Brock’s life…now that he has a healthier relationship with the former. What an incredible conflict that could be.

Also, I’m pretty disappointed that Brock’s propensity for distraction didn’t come into play. It’s happened enough that I thought it was intentional, but the last few episodes just sort of ignored it entirely. (Granted, the guy was barely in last week’s.) I still wonder if that’s building toward some kind of payoff, or if it’s just an accident of the writing.

“Red Means Stop” also gave us a fun addition to the roster of Venture legacy titles: Scamp. Prior to this season I think we only had Captain Sunshine and Wonderboy being identities that are passed down through the generations. More recently, of course, we added Blue Morpho and Kano to that mix. Now we have Scamp. And it’s kind of adorable (in…y’know…a tragic way) that even dogs in this world have legacy titles. God knows how many Scooby-Doos Shaggy and the gang went through…

And, man, Action Man is a fucking dick, isn’t he? Not that we couldn’t have concluded that earlier, but…man. Prior to the whole grenade flashback and discussion of him killing a baby — he claims it was a werewolf…or at least an ocelot — I would have been hard pressed to decide who was worse for young Rusty to hang around with: him or Colonel Gentleman. Now I think it’s Action Man by a mile. Colonel Gentleman is no prince, but I think he’s out of his mind in a much less destructive way. Kind of makes you wonder why he made him Hank’s godfather.

Finally, we can piece together a little more about the fate of The Monarch’s father: evidently Jonas was busted up about his death, so it’s less likely that he killed the guy himself. Reanimating him as Vendata could even have been an act of supreme grief rather than hubris.

You know, that whole character’s development is pretty interesting, as first he was just a silhouette on the Council of 13. Later Jackson and Doc needed a face for him, so they retconned him into Vendata. Now we’re learning more about The Monarch’s father, so we again reimagine him as The Blue Morpho. By no means am I complaining, mainly because the revisions of the character have been handled so smoothly and intriguingly, but I find it interesting how much effective mileage they’ve gotten from somebody who literally began as a shape.

Oh wait, finally for real this time: Dr. Venture remembers Kano as his father’s mute bodyguard. In “O.R.B.” we learned that Kano’s silence was penance for taking from this world “a great man.” At the time we and Brock concluded he meant Jonas Sr. But now we know for sure that he was mute when Rusty was still a boy. Whose life did he take? Was it the original Blue Morpho?

Lots of questions, fewer answers, in true Venture Bros. tradition. In the same tradition, we now wait.

And wait.

And wait…

The Venture Bros., "A Party for Tarzan"

There are few things on television more satisfying than a great episode of The Venture Bros. For the second week in a row, we got one.

I really love how thoroughly season six is making me feel like an ass for ever doubting it. In fact, “A Party for Tarzan” makes me wish I voiced one of my earlier concerns…and that’s significant, because I only wish I voiced it so that I could look more like an ass.

See, last week gave me plenty to talk about, and I ended up removing a tangential complaint from that review before publishing. Here was the complaint: the one-long-story approach of the sixth season meant that we couldn’t get a format breaker.

What’s a format breaker? Well, that’d be something like “Escape to the House of Mummies, Part II.” Or the jolting, abrupt chronological shifts of “Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel.” Or the longform detective fantasy of “Everybody Comes to Hank’s.” Or…erm…this very episode.

With one big plot to tell across eight episodes, each of which seems to pick up directly from the end of the last, I didn’t see how we’d break format, and that was disappointing for two reasons. Firstly, because the format breaker is a great injection of variety into a show you believe you understand. Episodes like that are often remembered, after all, for their novelty if for nothing else. They stand out, and they make you pay attention. They’re telling stories that are so important, they redefine the very experience of watching the show. It’s a bit of narrative trickery that elevates — cheaply or not — the material contained within. It makes it feel like an event.

But, secondly: not getting a format breaker would be disappointing simply because The Venture Bros. is so. Damned. Good at them. Look at my examples above. Toss in “The Trail of the Monarch,” “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny,” “The Invisible Hand of Fate,” “The Lepidopterists”…and, man, it sure does look like you’re compiling a list of the best things the show’s ever done, doesn’t it?

The one thing I figured season six could do to break format was give us an episode full of tiny stories in which Dr. Venture indirectly disposed of a parade of antagonists…with a little help (seen or unseen) from The Blue Morpho. It’d be a way of thinning out the web of arches and sub-arches within a compressed timeframe, allow for a quick joke or two with each, give us the big, important moment that should stick in our minds, and then move on. A sort of condensed season in one episode. Don’t worry if you think that’s a lousy idea; I’m in no danger of being invited to write for the show.

Instead, and with unexpected placement just before the season ends, we got “A Party for Tarzan.” And holy cow, I think I’m in love.

Granted, it worked its way immediately into my heart with a flashback of Gary (Fisher!) getting kidnapped on his trip to Washington, D.C., the third and clearest piece of that puzzle. Just about any time the show hurls us back in time, I know it’s with good reason. (See also: the original Blue Morpho stuff, and the abbreviated reign of Turnbuckle’s terror in this very episode.)

That flashback ended, but we found a new narrator. Now we follow Dr. Girlfriend’s thoughts. Later we’ll follow her husband’s. And Dr. Venture’s. And they all crisscross and weave a story that’s neither very complex nor all that important. The shifting narrators and jazzy interludes give the episode a weight that it might not deserve, but which it still absolutely earns…culminating in a brilliant cross-section of fragmented narration as the bullet sails toward Dr. Venture’s heart.

We know he won’t die. He’s our main character. He won’t die. We learn in the episode that the Blue Morpho’s suit is lined with Kevlar. He won’t die. The trigger is pulled. He won’t die. We follow the path of the bullet. He won’t die. We watch him fall lifeless to the ground. He won’t die.

We know he will not die.

…and yet, it matters.

It matters because the episode promised us that this story matters. It matters because the disparate perspectives twist together toward this moment, drawing our attention artfully along with them. It matters because in a season that seemed to go nowhere this story went somewhere.

And once we get there, we know he won’t die…but we feel connected to the moment.

And the episode toys with us. The Monarch narrates the brief aftermath of Venture’s death (a sequence that reminded me of Phantom Limb’s excellent, shocking monologue at the start of “Bright Lights, Dean City”) just long enough that we start to wonder.

The episode pulls back, as it must, but it doesn’t feel cheap. It feels like a joyous end to a playful installment of a truly great show…an installment that flirted with death, and even pulled the trigger, but found itself alive after all, refreshed, buoyed by a big band tune and swept forward, for another week at least, along the greater story that is life.

My god what a fucking great episode.

“A Party for Tarzan” really does just feel happy to be alive. There’s got to be a certain thrill for Jackson and Doc inherent in the fact that this parody of Jonny Quest is wrapping up a sixth season in a new city, with its original characters grown and evolved almost beyond recognition, genre pastiches having long given way to extended character meditations, a dense universe of backstories, histories, agendas…

Look at how far the show has come, how beautiful it looks now, the kinds of actors they can attract to voice one-off characters, the literal world of possibilities stretching out ahead…

Life is pretty great, isn’t it? One day it will have to end…but today was not that day. You wake up started and sticky, but you can get right back on your feet and walk away.

Is there any reason to be happier than that?

I have more that I want to say about the season as a whole, but I might as well wait until next week, so instead I’ll work through a few lingering thoughts and questions.

For starters…does anyone else find it odd that Phantom Limb was forgiven so quickly and welcomed right back into the fold of The Guild? And aside from a single note of concern (unless I’m forgetting about another) The Monarch isn’t even too concerned about the guy spending so much time with his wife. As much as I love that character, I don’t know if this season has any idea what to do with him, and Jackson and Doc are just sticking him on the Council because he’s one of very few recurring villains who survived the massacre in “All This and Gargantua-2.”

Speaking of surviving villains: please never, ever kill Dr. Z. In fact, if The Venture Bros. must end, give us a Dr. Z. spinoff. Words cannot express how much I love that guy.

Speaking of “surviving” villains: how’s everyone handling Gary’s feelings of guilt? It was a bit uncomfortable to watch him this week while The Wandering Spider begged for his life. (I mean that in no way as a criticism…it was appropriately weighty, and effectively dark.) Do we think he let The Wandering Spider survive? If so…will that go anywhere narratively? It’s not like he was tasked with taking out a familiar face…

Gary’s arc is an interesting one this season, and I definitely was not expecting it. Commenter / Battleaxe regular Casey said a few weeks back that he didn’t really understand why Gary signed back up with The Monarch at the end of season five…and I think that’s a valid question, especially considering how hard season four worked to provide him with a fresh direction and a sense of personal ambition. Sure, season five crushed those things several times over, but that doesn’t mean the return feels natural.

Here, though, with Gary fretting over the lives that he’s taken — and his boss pressuring him into taking more, this week for the sole purpose of keeping up appearances — I think we’re experiencing another great arc for the character…even if it’s one that required a bit of inelegance up front.

Some folks elsewhere have mentioned that Gary’s taken lives before and it never bothered him — the therapist in “Self-Medication” and Short Division in “SPHINX Rising” come instantly to mind — but there are dozens of reasons that one death might hit harder, and in a very different way, from another. Remember, even super killguy Brock faced this crisis himself in “Viva Los Muertos.”

I don’t know. Maybe it’s a cheat. It doesn’t feel that way to me…but if it feels that way to you, I suggest you push through anyway and let yourself take the ride, because The Monarch losing his own murder machine has some serious story possibilities…and Gary being put through the emotional wringer yet again could lead us absolutely anywhere.

Gary’s such a great character to kick off the Goodfellas-style narration, too. The Venture Bros. is populated entirely by normal people living abnormal lives…the stuff that comic-obsessed dreams are made of. Gary may have been kidnapped, but he also got his wish. As far back as he can remember…

And, okay, I liked this episode and all, but what the fuck is Wide Wale doing? What’s his angle? He was dying for arching rights to Dr. Venture, but then subbed them out to other villains. Those are getting rubbed out, which gives him a reason to finally take action, but all he wants to do is have someone else snipe the guy, I guess. And a few episodes ago he was investing a lot of time and energy in working Dr. Girlfriend and The Monarch against each other, but to what end? None of those manipulations had anything to do with The Blue Morpho, nor are they tied in any way to the attempted assassination here.

It just seems…odd. Every season so far has a secondary antagonist (one: Underbheit; two: Phantom Limb; three: Sgt. Hatred; four: Monstroso; five: Augustus St. Cloud; six: Wide Wale) with The Monarch being the main thorn in Dr. Venture’s side, but with this one, I have absolutely no idea what’s meant to be happening, or why he’s even involved with what I do know is happening.

Yes, we have one more episode, but so far…fuck this guy.

Anyway, hooray! I got to end a review of a great episode on a really sour note. Go me! I made myself mad!

Well, as long as I am upset, let me just say that if Doc and Jackson don’t make the end credits song available to us they’re the most horrible human beings who ever lived.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I have absolutely no idea what will happen in the next (and last) episode of season six, but for the first time I’m excited by that prospect rather than worried. Good on you, “A Party for Tarzan.”

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