Review: Red Dwarf XI Episode 1: “Twentica”

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.

Listen: IT IS ME

ALF, "I've Got a New Attitude"

I know I said I wasn’t going to write about ALF anymore, but I wrote this one with my mouth so I think that’s okay!

There’s a group of folks reviewing ALF, as far as I can tell coincidentally, in an episode-by-episode podcast. It’s called ALF is Back…in Pod Form, which is such a good title I plagiarized it three years ago!!!!

No, it’s a coincidence, obviously, and it points to just how infrequent references to ALF are in popular culture. When you need one…man, it’s slim pickings.

Anyway, they’re dissecting the show on their own, and I was asked to participate. I said no, of course. But I accidentally typed “yes,” and here we are.

They’re about halfway through season one, which means they have no idea what they’re in for, the poor, innocent children. I was invited to join their discussion about “I’ve Got a New Attitude,” which, if I remember correctly, was fucking garbage.

You can check out this episode of the podcast here, and if you’re (for some odd reason) looking for continuing ALF coverage to fill the emptiness in your soul, you should like it, subscribe to it, radiogram up it, or however the fuck podcast stuff works.

I’ll be honest…I’m not a huge podcast fan. I don’t understand them. The format is strange to me. And you need to like…talk. And reveal your idiocy. You can’t hide behind text you’ve worried to death.

So I’m probably not the most dynamic guy on Earth, and I apologize in advance for putting you to sleep if you listen to podcasts while operating your forklift.

But, on the bright side, it’s not the Philip J Reed show, and I tried not to step too much on their conversation. (For god’s sake, if you want to know what I think about the episode, I wrote six fucking novels about it.) I did end up talking an awful lot about serial killers, though…so there’s that.

Some of us were made for speaking. I was definitely made for writing. But it was still a lot of fun to participate, and maybe I’ll drop in again. You know…if they don’t all find better things to do with their time.

The Venture Bros. Reviews: “Red Means Stop” (season 6, episode 8)

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. 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.

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