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The Venture Bros., "Maybe No Go"

There’s nothing I love more than a great show proving me wrong.

Last week, I said this:

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

This week, I happily admit that I fell into Doc and Jackson’s trap. We’re so conditioned to seeing Dr. Venture behave atrociously to people — with incredible short-sightedness and destructive selfishness — that we can see a couple of seconds of him writing on a whiteboard and read an entire season’s arc into it.

And, hey, good. The character work on this show in general — and with Dr. Venture in particular — has been sharp and sturdy. It’s almost impossible to view anything anybody does in complete isolation as a solitary moment; it always informs or is informed by who they are.

It helps the comedy to land and it ends up advancing their stories. Simple gestures or clever lines get to be both small delights and important gears in an increasingly complex (and impressive) machine.

Here’s where else it pays off: the subversion of those expectations.

Dr. Venture writing on the whiteboard as part of a montage was a very important choice of delivery. Because we didn’t hear anything, we assumed the worst: Venture’s a fucking idiot. Now we find out that that isn’t quite the truth. Sure, perhaps he still is one, and the collapse of VenTech likely still looms, but there was a method to his madness.

See, Dr. Venture isn’t going down without a fight. He’s a failure, everybody in his life sees him as a failure, and the newspaper gives over its front page to making it clear that the entire world sees him as a failure…but there’s still a part of him that doesn’t want to be a failure. That believes he’s not a failure. Or, at least, that his failure can be redeemed.

He fired the staff not because he didn’t want to pay them (the ultimate solution, it turns out, is actually to maintain two staffs), but because he wanted to start fresh. He has something inside of him. Something to share with the world. He just needs to get it out. He’s hoping, like Doc Brown before him, to see that headline change. It might still be a bad idea, but it’s an idea. He was in the shadow of his father and lived in unfair comparisons to him until his brother — a talking fist sticking out of an oven — showed up…and then he lived in his shadow and was compared unfavorably to him, too.

Dr. Venture has something to prove.

He’ll never be admired like his father, or brilliant like his brother. But he has something, whatever it is, he’s convinced that he has something, and he fires the staff so that he can rebuild it in aid of his own vision. It’s actually…admirable.

Last week, Dr. Venture was silently portrayed as an asshole. This week he opens his mouth, and we learn he’s a visionary.

Rusty’s back.

In fact, “Maybe No Go” plays like an extended response to “Hostile Makeover.” Whereas nothing happened last week, so much happened this week. Whereas last week was all rising tension, this week things go…really well, actually. For everybody.

That latter point is the most interesting, and most unique in a show like The Venture Bros., which makes a point of picking at the flaws and weaknesses of every single character, so we’ll get to that one in a bit.

First, the lighter side of things: the plots. The Pirate Captain kicks the dart monkey. The Monarch and Gary (who seems to be back to calling himself 21) attempt to eliminate all obstacles between them and Dr. Venture. Wide Wale launches an attack. Hatred and Brock team up for a thrillingly adorable defense of the tower. Billy and Pete square off against their nemesis. And all of these things had a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Hostile Makeover” felt overstuffed and a bit aimless, but “Maybe No Go” takes the same amount of material and weaves a much tighter, more satisfying tapestry.

The main story seemed to belong to Billy and Pete, which is good, because last week I wrote St. Cloud off as a go-nowhere character. And…maybe I’m still tempted to. We’ll see where things go, but this at least proves he can be part of an episode without dragging it to an irritating halt.

Their plot was one hell of a lot of fun. I remember back when “The Invisible Hand of Fate” aired; I was disappointed that we didn’t get a Billy and Pete version of the title sequence as we did for The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend in “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny” or Dr. Venture and Jonas Jr. in “Powerless in the Face of Death.” We got one here, and it was more than worth the wait.

Billy Quizboy is one of this show’s finest creations, and he’s high on a very long list of very fine creations indeed. His tragedy is a relateable one, and one as ripe for comedy as it is drama.

Billy is one of the few truly capable individuals in the show’s universe…and nobody takes him seriously. While other capable individuals — notably Brock and Dr. Girlfriend — rise through the ranks, earning more respect with every episode, even from their adversaries, Billy languishes. He lives in squalor. He’s mocked and belittled by his friends.

But he’s a skilled surgeon, as well as deeply intelligent and tragically loyal. His struggle to be accepted, admired, and understood has fueled several of the show’s best moments, and came to an incredible, bittersweet head in the hugely underrated “The Silent Partners.”

That episode was one of the few times that the show gave Billy a triumph. This week ends with another. After a long, emotional walk home, the invisible hand of fate gives Billy a boost forward. The “boy genius” did what he felt was right, though all earthly logic was against it. Fortunately for him, a larger, cosmic logic was on his side…and he and Pete are summoned to VenTech, presumably to front the company’s new speculative engineering department.

It’s a sweet moment at the end of an episode that’s almost wall to wall with them. In fact, I’m not sure The Venture Bros. has ever been this generous to its characters before. The Pirate Captain cleans up. Dean proposes the solution that could save the company. HELPeR doesn’t have to cope with a resurrected J-Bot. The Monarch and Gary find a path forward…in the basement. Wide Wale is swiftly and easily repelled in his assault.

And — seriously guys, this was adorable — Hatred and Brock got along. Decades of animosity between the two gave gentle way to a mutual respect. Brock’s always had the ability, but, for once, Hatred had the intel. They worked together, smiled together, and went out for a beer together. It was a more natural fit than I would have guessed possible, especially after last week just about seemed to position them as rivals for the season.

The Venture Bros. is the only show I know that can take a Swedish murder machine and a reformed bad-toucher and turn their mutual jump from a building into a disarmingly sweet denouement. When they fell, most of my concerns about season six fell with them. Even through my concerns last week I knew I was in good hands, but it sure is nice to see that confirmed so quickly.

I’m going to leave you with a couple of questions, which I hope will engender discussion. No wrong answers; I’m just curious what people are thinking.

First: what’s the primary difference between Wide Wale and Monstroso? They dress similarly, they’re both huge, they’re both powerful businessmen…is there a reason we subbed out one for the other? I’m not complaining, I assure you, but it’s not like the switch from The Monarch to Sgt. Hatred in season three. In that case there were (multiple) story reasons, and the massive change in character was important to the show. In this case it feels a lot like a character we’ve already seen, and I don’t know quite why we bothered promoting someone new.

Second: what was in the basement? I’m guessing the original Venture clone farm. I have a reason that my guess is so specific, but I’ll keep that to myself for now. What do you see under those sheets?

And, what the hell, third: are you feeling incredibly stoked for the rest of this season? Because holy shit did I just get invested.

The Venture Bros., "Hostile Makeover"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, here’s an exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I disappointed? Nah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Wide Wale, prove me wrong. Please.

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

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

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

In conclusion, Dr. Venture picked up some clothes.

The Simpsons, "The PTA Disbands"

In my spare time (I HAVE SO MUCH OF IT) I am preparing a study regarding The Simpsons. I’ll share it here when it’s done, but, for now, I need your help with a little background data.

I’ve prepared a very quick 10-question survey that I’d like you to answer if you’ve ever seen The Simpsons.

Seriously; it should be damned quick. If it’s going slowly, it’s because you’re driving yourself insane trying to be comprehensive…so don’t do that. Say what comes to mind, give it a little bit of thought at most, and submit.

http://goo.gl/forms/1qNLH3OOxl

Again, just to be clear, this is not the study itself. This is information that I’ll need before I can actually begin. Share away on social media, and direct your Simpsons fan friends here to help.

I will be taking responses until August 1.

Get your answers in! The more you can tell me the better, but all responses are helpful. Do not, however, submit multiple responses yourself.

Please take a few minutes to help out and share your opinion. Thank you!

Star Trek: The Animated Series
Many of you no doubt know commenter Sarah Portland, a longstanding, intelligent, periodically evil presence on this blog. Well, she runs her own episodic review site, focusing on Star Trek, the original series. Just recently, however, she finished that classic show, and moved on to its…marginally less-classic Animated Series spinoff.

So, yes, utterly shameless plug, because her Star Trek reviews were great and I expect these will be too. Check them out.

Today saw her first post about the cartoon adventures of the Enterprise crew, which according to the picture above consists of Uhura, a butter sculpture of Mr. Spock, Chevy Chase circa 1982, Jar Jar Binks, Zapp Brannigan, the painting lion from Zoobilee Zoo, Bruce Lee, Tommy Wiseau, and Anne Heche.

So, go read that while I try to muster up the energy to write about Fallout 3.

Hawt

It might look like I don’t write much anymore, but that’s bullshit. In fact, just today my comprehensive, scholarly examination of sexual subtext in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers went live over on Ranger Retrospective.

You should check it out right here. Granted, some of this stuff you will have already known, but I wanted to provide a platform for intelligent discussion, and that sometimes requires a common sense recap.

Ranger Retrospective is a weekly blog run by friend-of-the-website Samurai Karasu. Check it out if (when) you get bored of my rambling. It’s quite good, often funny, and nearly always insightful. I appreciate the opportunity he gave me to write this post while he’s off having breast reduction surgery, and I hope it provides you with a level of insight you didn’t have before.

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