The Venture Bros. Reviews: “A Party for Tarzan” (season 6, episode 7)

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.”

The Venture Bros. Reviews: “It Happening One Night” (season 6, episode 6)

The Venture Bros., "It Happening One Night"

To paraphrase a great pirate captain: “Stop your sourpussin’. You got what you wanted.”

Most of my reviews of season six have had to do with the one-long-story nature of the stretch. Which is to be expected; this stretch really is one long story. But my main complaint was that the absence of isolated episodes — as opposed to chunks of a larger whole — left little room for narrative satisfaction on a weekly basis.

Well, “It Happening One Night” absolutely illustrates how to do this kind of experiment right. While it pushes the larger story along, it also tells a complete tale in itself…something we haven’t seen outside of “Maybe No Go.” (Not coincidentally the season’s other highlight.) I always look forward to great shows making me eat my words, and I more than happily do so now.

Season-long storylines aren’t entirely out of this show’s reach. Most notably season two had an ongoing — and important — story about The Monarch winning back Dr. Girlfriend. More passively season three traced Brock’s growing disillusionment with his lifestyle, culminating in his decision to leave the Venture family. And season four provided a great, quiet opportunity for 21 to find himself and grow as a human being after the death of his closest friend.

We can trust Jackson and Doc, in other words, to tell longform stories. Where season six stumbles is that it doesn’t tell shorter stories along the way, which can make it difficult to stay engaged. We’re being asked, after all, to watch a beginning, a middle, and an end stretched over eight episodes, which means that a lot of what we’re seeing feels like padding.

“It Happening One Night” tells a shorter story along the way. And it does so more naturally than “Maybe No Go” did, as that episode had to section off two characters and follow them in a completely different environment from the main action of the show. In short, this one might turn out to be the season’s best, if only because it’s the moment at which the experiment finally clicks.

Of course, there are still two episodes to go, and there’s no telling how those will pan out. There’s been talk this season that the last episode won’t be a proper finale…in the same way that season five ended with the quiet “The Devil’s Grip” and not the bombastic “All This and Gargantua-2” (which we got much later as a one-off special).

And, yes, that’s disappointing to hear, but it’s possible that the final episode we do get will serve as a nice conclusion, whether or not it actually ties up all of the dangling threads. I mention this because it’s been brought up in the comments a couple of times, but I don’t think that the lack of a “proper finale” means we’ll necessarily be robbed of a satisfying conclusion. At least, that’s what I’m hoping, as this season seems to be mainly “about” whatever it’s building toward, which remains to be revealed.

Anyway, Jeez, I finally get an episode that tells its own story and I’m still talking about the season as a whole.

This week we actually had a credible (well…within the universe of this show) one-off threat, which helps it to stand apart. Yes, prior to this we met Harangutan, but he seemed content to just stand on the sidewalk shouting like a jackass. And last week we had Think Tank, but there was almost nothing to him aside from how quickly he was dispatched. (Battleaxe fared much better as a character, if not as a villain.)

Now we have The Doom Factory, which is basically one big homage to Andy Warhol and his hangers-on, but which manages to feel…unique. It will help “It Happening One Night” (…what’s with that title, by the way?) to be remembered as more than just something that happened. (Happeninged?) The villains were introduced, explored, and dispatched, providing a narrative substance to them that the previous villains of season six haven’t had.

And it was fun. No, Warhol isn’t the most hilarious (or timely, or difficult) target for criticism, but The Doom Factory was really just an identifiable framework for much stronger jokes to live inside. We know Warhol and The Factory (and Empire, and the Campbell’s soup pop-art…) so Jackson and Doc can let our familiarity do the heavy lifting. In other words, they don’t have to spend much time setting up what we’re seeing; they assume we understand the basics, and spend their time harvesting whatever blooms within.

What we ended up with was a humorously elaborate, non-threatening excuse for petty theft, a great spotlight for Dr. Venture as art film subject, and, best of all, The Monarch’s butterfingers bringing the whole organization down.

That, by the way, was the hardest I’ve laughed at season six. It was telegraphed a mile away, but the perfect timing and giddy thrill of it made it work. Believe me, I’m not a comedy snob. (I’m just a general snob.) Easy laughs can still be great laughs. It’s all in the — ahem… — execution.

It even provided the backdrop for a second great moment, as we cut to Hank and Sirena — held apart by their respective bodyguards — and see the explosion hanging in the sky like a firework. A sharp, funny moment gave immediate way to a second bit of sweet, subtle comedy, and I liked that. It was layered in a way that so little of season six seems to be so far, and it provided some nice, sweet resonance to what was, superficially, a cold and callous way of thinning out the show’s cast.

So, yeah, Sirena. I have to admit, I was getting nervous. I’d talked up the potential of Hank’s romantic dabblings in my review of “Faking Miracles”…and then the show did nothing with them. Now that it finally circled back around, I braced myself for disappointment, just in case. That was deeply unnecessary, because I loved everything about this.

Hank is very Hank, which is the best kind of Hank. Without his father or his bodyguard to hold him back — and his most idiotic impulses supported by Dean, Pete, and Billy — he takes Sirena for a night on the town…and wins her over. Not because he knows what he’s doing…but because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Hank is gormless. He’s a bit of a nitwit, mindlessly enthusiastic, and arrested in every possible kind of development…but he’s sweet. We as viewers know he’s a knucklehead, but to Sirena — who’s more used to guys who get her drunk and take advantage of her, which she reveals in an unexpectedly stinging moment of real-world darkness — he’s safe. He’s someone who means well, even if he doesn’t have the brains to pull it off effectively. She even invites him to have some fun after dinner, knowing, for once, that she doesn’t need to keep her guard up with this one.

He’s not a great guy. He’s not even selfless guy. But his attempts at misdirection are so obvious and transparent that they actually help her to see who he really is…and that’s what wins her over.

It was sweet, and it built to a beautiful moment of Sirena taking him underwater to escape their chaperones, and sharing her breath with him on the way down.

Yes, it ended with Brock and Rocco holding them apart like children, because that’s okay…they are children. They’re children testing their boundaries…exploring something together…figuring out what it means to feel the way they feel. Hank’s had sex, but he also had his memories erased. Sirena has some level of experience as well, but we are explicitly told that Hank is something new to her.

They both skipped ahead a bit, and now get to step back and experience innocent romance for the first time. They aren’t the children of super villains and super scientists…they’re just children. There’s a kiss, there’s a firework, there’s embarrassment even at the moment of triumph…

…and that’s wonderful.

That’s beautiful.

And that’s exciting to me as a viewer. The Venture Bros. has always had a core of real humanity beneath the outsized insanity, and it’s nice to see it peek through again here, with two fantastic characters getting to feel, in their own warped, impossible ways, like normal people. (The image of the two being literally held back from what they want was apt, and passively, impressively, intelligently brutal…their entire existences summed up in a single, perfect visual metaphor.)

Oh, and, as you know, I love all of the Blue Morpho stuff. Like, at this point I shouldn’t even need to say that. But I will: I love all of the Blue Morpho stuff. If you don’t like the Blue Morpho stuff, I DEMAND AN EXPLANATION FOR WHY YOU ARE WRONG.

It was also nice to see Brown Widow getting something to do, as I was a bit puzzled as to why “Hostile Makeover” reintroduced him before sidelining him again. Not that he had great material or anything, but he at least got to play a decent part in the season’s best story. And don’t ask me why I’m wondering this now, but are we going to see Night Dick again? Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks that character was good for something other than a single throwaway joke.

Anyway, two more episodes to go. If season six sticks the landing, that will go a long way toward helping me re-evaluate it later on.

But if it doesn’t? Well, we’re having a lot of fun along the way, and we’ll always have “It Happening One Night” to remind us of what could have been.

The Venture Bros. Reviews: “Tanks for Nuthin'” (season 6, episode 5)

The Venture Bros., "Thanks For Nothin'"

It’s too early to say whether or not the one-long-story experiment of season six works, but I am thinking, at this point, that it hurts the show.

Believe me, I look forward to the opportunity to eat my words, but for now, it’s difficult to stay invested in a show that’s content to plod along without bringing anything to a conclusion…or necessarily nearer a conclusion. Without the benefit of rising and falling action (we get those things, just not in structurally significant places) we’re left only with the humor to enjoy. And that’s actually a pretty massive departure for this show.

Before season six I rewatched a load of older episodes, and I was struck by the long, joke-free sections of the early seasons. As funny as I remember the show always being — and, indeed, those older episodes are still quite funny — there was a lot of sitting around. A lot of scheming and expositing. A lot of arranging the pieces now for a bigger payoff later. It worked very well, and it worked very well because the writing and the characters were strong enough to keep us invested. (The tension in many of those stories was impressively generated as well.) We didn’t need every line to be a joke; it was enough to spend time with these characters, in this world.

Now we’re in the middle of one long story, and I can’t even tell you exactly what that story is. We still don’t know what Wide Wale is doing, for instance. He negotiated arching rights to Dr. Venture, but evidently farmed the responsibility out to lesser villains. He’s manipulating The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend somehow, but is it because The Monarch killed his brother or is that not a story thread we’re actually exploring? And does he even need to be manipulating them right now, from a narrative standpoint? Isn’t The Monarch sewing enough seeds of distrust himself?

What about Hank and Dean? Hank is seeing (or will start seeing?) Wide Wale’s daughter, and Dean’s in college now, but it’s hard to call either of those things stories when nothing beyond the setup has taken place.

Brock has some kind of story unfolding, but I’m not sure how much of it is deliberate. I’m not referring to his infatuation with Warriana — though I like that aspect of it quite a lot — but rather his change in attitude. In the “Hostile Makeover” comments, Casey pointed out something that hadn’t registered with me: other characters got the drop on Brock a shocking number of times. It was a great observation on its own, but the rest of the season seems to bear it out as an actual change in character. Hyper competent, deeply focused, impossibly aware Brock seems to be gone, replaced with a big guy content to distract himself by watching videos on his JPad.

I find that interesting. Brock used to fill his downtime by lifting weights or practicing with his knife, and now he’s sedentary. Characters do get the drop on him, and regularly, including the big scene with Think Tank this week taking place only because Brock was paying no attention at all. Say what you will about Hatred; had he been at that front desk, he’d have known something was coming.

In fact, speaking of Hatred, I remember the backlash to his “replacement” of Brock in season four. At the time Jackson and Doc responded by saying that Hatred allowed them to tell different stories than they could tell with Brock, and they were right. Brock was so effective at his job that in order to put the family in any kind of danger, they’d have to find some way to pull him out of the action. But even more interesting, Brock was disinterested in the world around him whereas Hatred was engaged and enthusiastic. (For a perfect illustration of this, see “Home is Where the Hate Is,” in which Brock detaches from a “bad party” that Hatred himself is throwing. The difference between them — and the kinds of stories in which they could participate — was never more clearly on display.)

I bring this up now because this incarnation of Brock can lead to different kinds of stories as well. He’s neither as competent as he once was nor as personable as Hatred is. He is, in a sense, the worst of both worlds as far as a bodyguard goes, and I wonder if that’s intentional. If it’s not, that’s worrying. If it is, that’s potentially fantastic.

And what’s Dr. Venture’s story? Yes, he’s preparing — off and on — for the Science Now conference, and we see that he cares about it for some reason, but I still don’t have a sense of why it matters to him, or of what’s really at stake. (Surely VenTech is already in the public eye for other reasons; he can unveil a grand new idea any time.) Additionally, it’s not as though the narrative is “building” to anything; it’s just something that comes up now and again and gave him a reason to paw through his brother’s abandoned projects.

Dr. Venture is in an odd place with the show right now. He’s a (arguably “the”) central character, so personal growth for him tends to come in small, temporary flashes. He’s humanized by his tragic past, but his present-day existence is constant, and we always return him to where he was. He can’t change too much, because he anchors the show.

…except that he doesn’t. There’s been very little Dr. Venture this season, and in some of the show’s best episodes he didn’t feature at all. (Or featured very little.) A reluctance to let him evolve as a character is understandable, because you don’t always want to evolve the core of your show, preferring to let growth occur naturally around the fringes. But now Dr. Venture is at the fringes. He has a chance to grow and to change without altering what The Venture Bros. is today…and still he doesn’t, which I think is what’s making it difficult for me to care much about Science Now or, in a larger sense, the future of VenTech.

Here’s why I say that with confidence: we’re watching The Monarch grow and change right now, and it’s not altering what The Venture Bros. is. It’s also the one thing keeping me truly engaged this season, and it’s the single most thrilling development the show has had in years.

Funnily, The Monarch has changed a lot. From the very first season we’ve seen him struggle in his relationship with Dr. Girlfriend. We’ve seen him happy with her, then alone without her. We’ve seen him fight to get her back. We’ve seen them get married. We’ve seen them adjust (with varying success) to new arches. We’ve seen his fortunes rise and fall, and now we’re seeing him explore a new identity altogether. There’s been a lot of change, that is to say, with The Monarch, and it’s been handled quite well. That’s what makes it frustrating that Dr. Venture — his “good guy” counterpart — doesn’t get to take these big leaps as a character, and is confined to a couple of steps in this direction or that.

There’s a rush of excitement that comes with the Blue Morpho material, both for the characters and for us. There’s a feeling of strong forward momentum, of not knowing where the story will take us but of knowing that it will be a great ride. And so far it’s been great stuff, giving 21 a brilliantly natural opportunity to benefit from both his newly-developed physical prowess and his encyclopedic knowledge of comic books…as well as giving The Monarch a fresh new outlet for his outsized theatrics.

That’s the story I want to follow right now, and I’m sad that there are only three more episodes left in the season. We just got to the good stuff, and there are so many other things going on that I have no idea if there’s much Blue Morpho material left. I hope there is, but aside from some good jokes and gorgeous visuals, there’s not much else about season six that’s sticking with me.

I wonder if part of my concern with the season is the move to New York in general. At first, it was bursting with possibility. Now, past the halfway point, there’s only one new development that I truly care about…and it’s the Blue Morpho stuff, which didn’t require a move to the Big Apple at all.

Is this season too muddled? Would there be more to enjoy if everything had a little more space to breathe? I honestly don’t know…nor do I want to make it sound like I’m not enjoying the season. I am…but things feel too crowded and too aimless at once. I don’t really know what’s at stake for most of these characters, or if they’re just killing time because this is their new environment now and they might as well keep busy.

I’ll pose a question for you here: what if Dr. Venture really were the masked vigilante taking out supervillains? He’s not, I know. And that wouldn’t easily gibe with his character, as it stands. But let’s say that he really was offing all of these bad guys, one by one, when nobody’s looking.

Wouldn’t that be more interesting? Dr. Venture getting framed doesn’t seem to be amounting to much yet, and it might not simply because he can’t take an active role in the proceedings. We need to shuffle him off to the side, because he’s not actually involved, and that’s disappointing.

The Monarch gets to do (indirectly) the dirty work, which means we have something to look forward to when he’s on screen. When Dr. Venture is on screen, it doesn’t seem to mean much more than that he got his token scene for the week and we’ll be moving on shortly to whatever actually matters.

I’ve mentioned before that I won’t really be able to judge season six until we see where all of these threads are leading us. And I definitely have faith they’ll lead us somewhere interesting. But, for now, it’s hard not to wonder why we are where we are. And, for now, I don’t know that I have any answers.

It’s still a good show, but I don’t know if I’m watching a great one. At the very least, season six of The Venture Bros. pales in comparison to season one of The New Adventures of The Blue Morpho.

The Venture Bros. Review: “Rapacity in Blue” (season 6, episode 4)

The Venture Bros., "Rapacity in Blue"

I admit it: I picked a damned terrible season of The Venture Bros. to review in this format. Not because it’s been a bad season — it’s been very funny on the whole, and never less than interesting — but because there’s so little to appraise in isolation on a week to week basis.

The Ventures aren’t jetting around the world getting into scrapes, they’re not beset by villains of the week, and complications are raised without being resolved.

That’s the nature of the story Doc and Jackson are telling this season. It’s not a problem. In fact, it’s exciting. The lack of a 22-minute hard stop for all of their ideas must be liberating; whenever they need more time to develop an idea, they let it bleed into the next week. And the week after that. These are good things.

But man does it make it had to look at it in weekly chunks and speak about it intelligently. Like any story, you need to look at where it’s going before you get the whole picture. In the absence of knowing where it’s going, all you’re left with is how well is it being told. That’s a great thing to focus on, but I don’t want reviews like this to be various repetitions of “‘Rapacity in Blue’ was very funny.

Having said that, “Rapacity in Blue” was very funny.

The pattern so far this season seems to be one episode of wall-to-wall setup, followed by one episode of partial payoff. So far, I like that; it keeps the plates spinning without leaving us afraid that it’s not going anywhere. I wonder if that’s going to keep up. If it does, I wonder how successful it will seem in retrospect.

The biggest payoff this week came on the heels of last week’s Blue Morpho setup, which isn’t surprising. The reveal of The Monarch’s father being a hero — let alone a hero who associated with Jonas Venture, Sr. — immediately seemed like a fruitful avenue for the show to explore. If I’m worried by anything it’s the fact that it took four episodes to get The Monarch into the Blue Morpho suit.

The slow burn worked, don’t get me wrong, but the story possibilities, the jokes, the atmosphere…everything became so urgently rich that I could spend eight episodes watching nothing but that. (Speaking of which, do we think The Monarch will appear in every episode this season? I’m thinking he will…and if I’m right it’ll be the first season in which that’s the case. He’s long felt like a secondary protagonist for this show, and maybe that’s finally happening from a structural standpoint.)

The entirety of this material was great. There’s plenty of fun to be had with The Monarch simply discovering a cave full of gadgets, but tying it into his bloodline, his destiny, and this show’s always brilliant exploration of the difference between a good guy, a good guy, a bad guy, and a bad guy…it just brings the comedy and the potential to a whole other level.

It’s the discovery of an old video cassette that helps The Monarch accept that his father was a good guy, and it helps him accept that precisely because there was some moral ambiguity to the man. It comes first in the form of a jokey conversation with Jonas and a staged confession to the camera…but let the tape run a little longer and you see your father cheating on your mother, relishing and abusing the power over strangers that comes with fame.

It’s fully possible that the Blue Morpho was a genuinely great human being before he became friends with the self-absorbed, debaucherous Team Venture, but The Monarch here sees evidence of grey around the edges, which makes his birthright — as 21 puts it — a bit more palatable.

And, of course, once he gets into the suit, he becomes a good guy. The clothes absolutely make the man. He starts by toying with the idea of blowing up an aggressive driver (the fact that he only toyed with the idea is major progress for The Monarch) and ends by coming to the legitimate rescue of Billy Quizboy and giddily celebrating with 21 how good it felt to be the hero.

The Monarch has long been a perfect illustration of the show’s artfully hazy approach to good guys and bad guys. In fact, he was arguably the show’s first illustration of that approach…and it’s something that’s been explored by innumerable characters since. (Let’s not forget as well as the constantly shifting alignments between and within the show’s various factions.)

Dr. Venture, too, serves as a constant reminder of the blur between the heroic and villainous…in fact, Dr. Venture may well be responsible for more of the show’s most terrible events than The Monarch, and The Monarch was unquestionably part of more of the human and emotional moments.

21 has also explored both sides of the dichotomy…albeit more actively. When he was a villain, he knew he was a villain. When he was a good guy, he knew he was a good guy. The Monarch and Dr. Venture each reject their “other” side whenever somebody brings it up, but 21 was perfectly willing to explore himself and try to find his actual place in the world. The fact that he’s a villain again — while acting as a hero — is a great way for him to tie those two competing aspects of himself together, actively, with an eye toward personal unification.

In fact, come to think of it, Hatred’s “once a bad guy, always a bad guy” speech to Gary last season seems to have been proven correct. Of course, the big irony there was that Hatred himself was a bad guy who was no longer a bad guy. Then again, he started as a good guy, so maybe the inevitable return to factory settings isn’t such a bizarre thing for him to endorse. There’s the suit, and there’s the man inside the suit. But who is it really?

“Rapacity in Blue” (which has the best episode title in several seasons) still doesn’t tell a complete story, and it starts a couple of new plates spinning with Dr. Venture’s panicky scramble for a new invention and Brock’s sexual frenzy for Warriana — the latter of which seemed a bit odd and which I expected to have resolved in the show’s tag — but it’s also…satisfying. Thrilling. It’s like sneaking away in the middle of the night and getting away with something you know you shouldn’t do. We come home giggling and tripping over ourselves, even if it hasn’t (yet) really amounted to anything.

As ever with season six, though, what happens this week will be defined or redefined or undermined by what happens next week. And I was definitely left confused by a few things.

For starters, I’m not sure why Billy had to be under the effects of the God Gas when he met Blue Morpho. Sure, he concluded it was really Rusty in that suit, but I think he could have done that anyway, and it’s odd to me that the only witness to anything that happened was someone whose perspective is clearly unreliable. It would have been far more interesting to me if Billy was actively convinced it was Rusty, rather than being in every position to doubt himself.

That’s pretty minor, though. More significantly, I’m not sure I buy that Dr. Girlfriend would jump to the conclusion that The Monarch went on a date night with 21…she should be a bit savvier than that, especially since last week she (believed she) saw her husband arching Dr. Venture against her wishes.

Speaking of which, The Monarch knows about Copy Cat’s little ploy last week…so has he discussed that with his wife? There’d be no reason for him to keep it to himself and every reason to tell her what really happened, so I don’t know if we’re still dealing with relationship fallout from last week or not.

It just feels slightly sloppy around the edges, and, if anything, that’s made more clear because the core idea of the episode — and its central thrill — is so well handled. (I also have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the vocal return of 24; I’d honestly expected we were done with him entirely.)

“Rapacity in Blue” is my favorite so far of the season…and it promises some incredible fun to come. I hope we haven’t seen the last of the original Blue Morpho, but this newest incarnation — with a Kano who isn’t even Asian — represents the single most exciting development the show has had in years.

It’s times like this that eight-episode seasons really start to feel like a gyp. Things get interesting just in time to start winding down.

Here’s hoping The Venture Bros. does what it does best, and proves me dead wrong.

The Venture Bros. Review: “Faking Miracles” (season 6, episode 3)

The Venture Bros., "Faking Miracles"

I wonder if this season will play much better as one long story than it will as a series of episodes. So far, it’s difficult to judge them on their own, individual merits, and that’s both worrying and thrilling. It’s worrying because we have three episodes so far that don’t tell a complete story in their runtime. But it’s thrilling because, if the plates are kept spinning, we could end up with something incredible.

It’s too soon to tell, but unlike “Hostile Makeover” these unresolved plot-threads hold some very clear potential. I’m a bit disappointed that the closest thing we had to payoff was Dean painfully urinating some nanobots down the toilet, but this week’s chapter in the elaborate setup of season six is…well, pretty promising.

The title refers to Dr. Venture’s digging through his brother’s old, abandoned projects with Billy and Pete, but we’ll get to that shortly, because the more interesting story thread, for my money, is the (proper) introduction of Sirena Ong. We met her briefly in “Hostile Makeover” — with a strong implication that she was related to Wide Wale — but didn’t learn anything for sure except that she had gills.

Now we get a better sense of who she is: a stubborn, spoiled young girl who — like Hank and Dean before her — is stuck in a life that she doesn’t especially want. Her station is defined by her father’s station, in true, tragicomic Venture Bros. tradition. And when she finally gets to interact with an outsider, she falls more for what Hank represents — escape, freedom, rebellion — than who Hank really is.

Their brief exchange on the veranda (ending with one of the few times Hank’s managed to pull off something genuinely cool, even if he’d already mindlessly gloated about running away from stupider henchmen than her father’s) was probably the highlight of the entire episode. And, in keeping with Sirena’s perspective, it wasn’t because of what it was, but rather because of what it represents.

Hank’s romantic dabblings have given us two of the show’s all-time best episodes: “Assassinanny 911” and “Everybody Comes to Hank’s.” I’d have a difficult time articulating why those two episodes managed to be so emotionally disarming, even though Dean’s dabblings (mainly with Triana) were unquestionably more relateable and true-to-life, but seeing another such story get queued up like this is very exciting to me. The show has worked wonders with the premise before, and I have total confidence that it can do so again.

In fact, Sirena’s introduction provides Wide Wale with a clearer identity as well. Previously I wasn’t sure why Wide Wale existed. I didn’t know his joke — aside from being some degree of sea creature — and I especially didn’t know why he seemed to be taking over Monstroso’s role in the show, as we already had a hulking, powerful businessman in the rogue’s gallery.

Last week RaikoLives pointed out the obvious, and then he pointed out the second-most-obvious: “Obviously I keep wanting to say ‘and he’s dead’ but that’s never stopped anyone in this show before.” Which was basically my thought process, too. If Doc and Jackson need a character back, they can bring a character back. In this case they didn’t…and I honestly wasn’t sure why. Especially since his replacement was so similar.

Sirena helps make it clear that Wide Wale is more of a Godfather figure. Which, yes, that’s certainly been alluded to already, but her birthday party — which is clearly just a party for her father’s organization and powerful friends, while she sulks in her room and is repeatedly forbidden to have any fun — cements that as the direction the show is taking with him. Monstroso was a businessman, and so is Wide Wale. But though they’re both villainous, one’s business is a little more legitimate than the other’s.

Interestingly, the show really seems to be leaning into the Italian jokes lately. Wide Wale is a Mafia don, Serena is a spoiled princess, Hank works at a pizzeria, Scaramantula returned for the opening scene (along with some shots at the Italian automobile industry), we had that whole scene with The Ambassador a couple of episodes ago…I’m not complaining, but I find it an intriguing coincidence. I wonder why so much Italian humor is clumping together, especially when it’s generated from a pretty wide range of characters and contexts.

I do also kind of love the fact that Hank has a menial job. The squandering of the fortune a few weeks ago seems now like it just happened so we could get some jokes along those lines. Yes, wasting money he didn’t earn was a very Dr. Venture thing to do, but last week and this week we see members of the family bringing money in as well, and that bodes ever so slightly better for their future.

Whew. So, what else? Dean got some nanobots shoved up his creepy dog dork, which was…fine, I guess. I got excited when Billy dropped the test tube because it’s been a while since “strange Venture technology” played much of a part in an episode, but I don’t know that it went anywhere. I’d assume we’d see more such nano-shenanigans in a later episode if they weren’t flushed away at the end, so I guess we got a weird scene with him and Brock and that’s that.

Then we had an interesting twist on the periodically rocky relationship between The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. I’m glad they didn’t go the easy — but admittedly natural, especially considering her new clout — route of simple jealousy on his part, because that’s territory we’ve explored several times before, but they instead gave us a fairly satisfying, complex subterfuge that positions them both as pawns in somebody else’s game.

It’s good, and it gives the rest of the season a lot to work with, but best of all it employs a new character who immediately gives us a sense of his utility; there’s no way anybody can watch this episode and not instantly think of a dozen ways the show can use Copy Cat.

This is the kind of thing I was concerned about in “Hostile Makeover.” With all of the new characters introduced there, there was very little sense of what they’d be good for. (Apart from one or two “This is kind of like that” jokes, which are fun, but which are no substitute for characters who are interesting in their own rights.)

Copy Cat’s personality just seems better developed, and his power offers story opportunities that no other character’s does. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him. And he wasn’t the only new character who screams with potential…

I’m speaking, of course, of Blue Morpho. Oh, man, am I speaking of Blue Morpho.

It’s a short scene, but a crucial one, as not only does it reveal what was in The Monarch’s basement — Blue Morpho’s old hideout — but fills in some dark backstory both actively and passively. Actively because we’re outright told that he’s The Monarch’s father. Passively because…well…we’ve already met The Monarch’s father.

Yes, Vendata gets namedropped here, and that’s no coincidence. Back in last season’s best episode — “Bot Seeks Bot” — Vendata was very, very strongly implied to be The Monarch’s father. Here, now, we can piece together more of that as-yet-untold story:

Jonas Venture Sr. was rescued from Scaramantula by the guy…only to violently grab and threaten him. Gary tells us that they later became friends, which is borne out by the photo in “SPHINX Rising,” in which we see The Monarch and his parents with Rusty and Jonas. The man was then presumed killed in a plane crash — along with his wife — but was actually resurrected by Jonas as Vendata.

That’s…a pretty sad character arc, and the more we learn about it, the sadder it’s likely to get. But that’s all more than The Monarch knows; for him, the worrying thing is that he may have hero DNA in him. Which is a nice detail, because we’ve long known that Dr. Venture has more than a little of the villain in him. Lines get blurred, roles are reversed, one character is revealed to be another.

“Faking Miracles” is a fun episode, and it sets up a lot of things that the rest of the season can play with…but I have to confess, I’m a bit nervous. Last season was only eight episodes long. Season four was split into two chunks of eight episodes each. I don’t know how many we’re meant to get this time around, but if it’s only eight, we’re going to be at least at the halfway point before “promise” can become “fulfillment.” That’s a bit worrying.

At the very least, we know we’ll have fun along the way…but The Venture Bros. has always been more than just “fun.” It’s hilarious, and heartbreaking. It’s frivolous, and profound. It’s cruel, and sweet. It’s parody, and sincere. It’s bombastic, and contemplative.

It’s a longform experiment in opposites, and it’s a very successful one. I’m not writing season six off by any means, but I am looking forward to seeing the pendulum start to swing back.

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