The Venture Bros. Season One Review
Life sucks for Dr Thaddeus Venture. As head of Venture Industries, a firm dedicated to creating fantastical inventions to help in the never-ending battle against the world’s supervillains, you would think he would have a pretty sweet time of it, what with the endless succession of thrilling adventures in exotic locations which his work leads to, but fate has a nasty habit of doing the dirty on him. For one thing, although a purported scientific genius he’s neither especially brilliant at what he does nor do his inventions ever seem to work particularly well. For another he’s constantly living under the shadow of his own late father, a real genius whom the world still adores but who couldn’t help but constantly remind his son of his own inadequacies, while Thaddeus's (or Rusty to his friends) own two sons, the titular brothers Hank and Dean, are sickening, wide-eyed innocents who think everything that happens to them is real swell and have a tiresome habit of giving each other high-fives while yelling “Go Team Venture!” Consider all that with the fact he’s lumbered with perhaps the least threatening arch enemy of all time (a man who thinks dressing like a butterfly will instil terror into the heart of his enemies, employs especially incompetent henchmen and doesn’t even realise that his sidekick Dr Girlfriend was the recipient of the least convincing sex change in history) and you can begin to see why Dr Venture just wishes the world would just get lost and leave him on his own.
The Venture Bros, the brainchild of former Tick-writer Jackson Publick (aka Christopher McCulloch) is one of [adult swim’s] most popular shows. Benefitting from a run time twice as long as most of the network’s eleven minute offerings, it feels more like a “real” series, having proper stories and believable characters rather than relying totally on individual gags and repeated catchphrases like many of its brethren such as Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. That said, in most other respects it is very much a typical [adult swim] show: like many others, it takes its inspiration from an old Hanna Barbera series, in this case Jonny Quest,(its four main characters are clearly modelled on the four leads from that 1960s series) and relying for its humour on referencing and spoofing cartoon and comic book conventions and characters – Dr Venture’s neighbour, for example, is an overblown version of Doctor Strange, forever bursting in and investing even the most innocuous statements with overblown drama.
And it’s all done in an amusing enough manner. Admittedly after a reasonable first episode the next three or four are ghastly and almost entirely without merit, but thereafter the show finds its feet and produces reasonably entertaining shows. The main characters are well envisaged and well-rounded creations, and for that reason alone it makes for a more satisfying, slightly deeper show than many of the channel’s offerings. Admittedly the jokes themselves aren’t always especially witty, with the scripts relying a fair bit on lightly scatological humour, but there are some nice concepts along the way – the episode in which Reed Richards is reinvented as a megalomaniac who terrorises the rest of the Fantastic Four is fun, while the mundane drama of Venture’s yard sale, in which he sells many of his inventions to his arch enemies, is an amusingly domestic look at the problems of being a super villain.
However, I did have one major problem with the show. There is a very marked streak of bleak cynicism and sarcasm that runs right through its heart, one which makes it at times rather unpleasant to watch. None of the characters are likeable, making it impossible to emphasise with what’s going on, and one gets the sense that even the writers have a marked contempt for those they are writing about – if they don’t care, why should we? The last ten years have seen a wave of cynical, critical cartoons come to our screens, but there is one difference between the best of them and The Venture Bros. Take, as the most obvious example, South Park. It too lobs bombs at many targets, and often claims that it wants to offend all groups equally, but there is still a very clear and focused morality, often savagely expressed but nevertheless heartfelt. There’s none of that in The Venture Bros which is savage for the sake of being savage and offers its characters no redemptive qualities whatsoever. In its relentlessly jaundiced approach it reminds one of a sullen teenager who mistakes sarcasm for wit, making for a rather one-dimensional tone that didn’t sit well with this viewer at all. Ultimately I just didn’t like it very much, and found it hard work to even try to, so that in the end I came away feeling not unlike Dr Venture himself – his life sucks and if I lived in his nihilistic world I'd feel pretty miserable about it too.
The thirteen episodes which make up the first season of The Venture Bros. are presented on two discs. The Main Menus are simple, the logo and theme playing with the four options Play All, Episodes, Extras and Set Up. The major problem with the set is the Video transfer. The interlacing is ghastly, meaning that every time the camera or characters move there is a jerkiness which very quickly induces a headache. There are also compression artefacts noticeable and, while the colours are fine, the whole is not much fun to watch. At least the Audio is fine, if unremarkable - if you get this set it's probably best to watch with your eyes closed. The episodes are subtitled but the extras are not.
There’s a reasonably good collection of Extras. Five episodes come with jokey Commentaries from Publick and his collaborator Doc Hammer - Mid-life Chrysalis, Eeney, meeney, miney... MAGIC!, Tag Sale - You're It!, Ghosts of the Sargasso and Return to Spider-Skull Island although much of the time it’s just the two of them goofing off rather than being especially informative about the episodes. There are two extra episodes, the original pilot The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay (25:07) and A Very Venture Christmas, (11:28). The former, which comes with an optional commentary from Publick and Hammer, is an extended version to the one originally aired with a couple of scenes reinstated - unfortunately, in addition to the transfer problem mentioned above, it's transfer is also rather blurry at times, which makes it twice as unlovely to watch (a shame as the episode itself is one of the better ones.) The Christmas special, on the other hand, isn't blurry at all and demonstrates what the show would have been like had it been the normal [adult swim] length.
There are about five minutes’ worth of Deleted Scenes, all in animatic form accompanied by recorded dialogue and all too short to be particularly interesting. Rather awkwardly, they are all bunched together on the second disc rather than attached to each episode, so there’s a brief reminder before each as to what’s going on. More enjoyable is Behind the Scenes of the Venture Bros. Live Action Movie (21:25), which sees Publick, Hammer and James Urbaniak (who plays Dr Venture) dressing up as the characters they voiced and being interviewed. Unsurprisingly the ad-libbed humour is very similar to that of the show, so while I didn’t find much of what they said especially witty if you like the show you’ll enjoy this, and it’s fun to see them in the flesh as it were. Animating Hank and Dean (4:29) is another tongue-in-cheek featurette which purports to reveal the complex process needed to bring Hank and Dean’s “Go Team Venture!” salute to the screen. Finally, there are Trailers for other [adult swim] series, namely Sealab 2021, Robot Chicken, The Brak Show , Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and Aqua Team Hunger Force, although using the term "trailers" is stretching it a bit as with the exception of Robot Chicken all we are given are the opening sequences for those shows.
It's certainly a show with more substance than many of [adult swim's] other offerings, but its relentlessly negative tone and lack of genuine wit made it a turn-off for me. However, the extras for this set are overall pretty decent if you like the show, but the nasty video means that's impossible to recommend.
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