While it’s easy to say “I grew up in the 80’s”, it’s never entirely true. It’s not as if any decade is a self-contained module of fads, music and pop culture; eras bleed into each other irregardless of the clock striking midnight on the new year. In a way, I also grew up in the 70’s, 60’s and 50’s, depending on what I was reading or watching. My favorite TV show? The 60’s show “Star Trek”. Our afternoon routine on the couch? “Scooby Doo” and “Super Friends” from the 70’s. I also digested a lot of older science fiction from times where atomic batteries and curved rooms screamed “cutting edge technology!”
Science fiction almost always reflects the feel and attitude of the decade it was made, no matter what year they place their story. The older stuff has a charming, quaint feel to it that still has kitch value today – how can you not like gigantic killer robots, super-science, ray guns, aliens wearing a suspicious amount of tin foil, or spaceships that can be operated by a maximum of three buttons and one orange dial? But, of course, if you took this older scifi and threw it into today’s light, you’d be facing an almost unmitigated disaster of culture and taste.
Which is embraced without remorse by The Venture Brothers.
Feeding off of scifi and comic book pop culture of days long since passed, the creators simultaneously love and mock the “simpler” old times where a cartoon wasn’t considered ridiculous just because a talking ape brought our heroes to the space volcano where Abraham Lincoln was brought back through a time sphere to battle a brain that could shoot bright yellow beams from its cyborg epicenter. Drawing primarily from the old show Johnny Quest, The Venture Brothers muses about how that ancient kitchy scifi would weather the unpredictable modern era.
And if you aren’t familiar with Johnny Quest, don’t worry – it’s not just limited to a weird parody of that show. Do you know Star Wars? Austin Powers? Marvel comic books? James Bond? You’ll slip into this show like a banana into a jumpsuit.
Dr. Rusty Venture is a bitter middle-aged man who used to be a boy adventurer (along with his super-scientist father and various tagalongs), but grew up to resent his father’s perfect shadow and his own inadequacy. He lives to make a profit from the cheap, dangerous science and technologies that he inherited, which marks him as a target from various oddball “arch-nemeses”. To keep him safe, his bodyguard Brock (veteran voice actor Patrick Warburton) is willing to maim and/or kill at a moment’s notice, sometimes in the nude, and often with any object lying nearby. As weedy and nerdy as Dr. Venture can be, Brock is the polar opposite: brute forced wrapped in sex appeal and smothered with homicidal urges.
While Venture and Brock live in a more cynical fashion, Venture’s two boys are by-products of times long past. Meet Dean and Hank Venture: they’re a bit Fred from Scooby-Doo, a bit Hardy Boys, and a lot dumb. Naïve to the point of brain damage, they look at the world through techno-rose-colored glasses, do all their school learnin’ in their sleep beds, and think nothing odd of their bizarre lifestyle. The closest thing that Dean and Hank have to a pet is H.E.L.P.e.R., a robot that looks a lot like a cigar welded onto office chair casters with the voice of The Muppets’ Beaker.
The overarching joke of The Venture Brothers is that it takes place simultaneously in a world where the ridiculous – such as an evil villain who takes his fashion cues from butterflies – is both easily accepted and easily ridiculed, depending on the moment. It was a true joy to discover that, over the course of the first two seasons, that this weird world is interconnected with plotlines and character story arcs that reoccur when you least expect them. For instance, while you know that many of the main heroes and villains have connected backstories, it’s only until a season one episode that you discover that these intense rivalries and friendships began… in a 1970’s college dorm.
If nothing else – and there is a LOT else – you owe it to the part of your brain that loves awesomeness to see this show for the glory that is Doctor Orpheus. Like many of the characters in Venture Brothers, Doctor O is based on a well-known comic book character; in this case, Orpheus is a Dr. Strange-wannabe. When he makes his debut midway through the first season, you simply will not be prepared for this necromancer’s ability to make you shoot whatever liquid you’re drinking through your nose when he talks. Overly eager, as enthusiastic as Venture is bored, Orpheus loves to use his magic for mundane tasks and talks about everything with bombastic, tense music playing in the background. There’s no way I can do him justice, FOR THE WOES OF THIS INSIGNIFICANT WORLD ARE NO MATCH FOR THE SILKY DARKNESS OF EVERPRESENT DOOM THAT THE MAGNIFICENT MASTER OF MORBID MAGIC CAN PROCURE!
And the like.
Deliberately set in the pace, style and look of the older 70’s cartoons, Venture Brothers isn’t a gag-a-second laugh fest a la Simpsons or Robot Chicken. Much of the hilarity grows out of the odd situations and the increasingly bizarre dialogue that’s all at once relatable and completely strange. Encountered ghost pirates, for example, are soon unmasked to be below-average working Joes who cobbled together most of their equipment from a boat carrying toys, led by a guy with a daddy complex. Or, in one of my favorite episodes, Venture opens up his complex to a massive yard sale, which draws the idle attention of friend and foe alike. They browse, they shop, and eventually, epic duels break out. Or when Brock encounters Bigfoot, who’s the lover of Steve Austin (the Six Million Dollar Man), and ends up shaving the hairy beast to get him past military checkpoint.
If villainous lairs, mummies, superpowers gone awry, mad science, movie clichés, and twisted testes (don’t ask) are your thing, Venture Brothers has the atomic injection you’ve been craving.
**And if you do rent this series, make sure you stick around after all the end credits – they always have a great joke stinger awaiting!