The Venture Bros: “What Goes Down, Must Come Up”

“The Buddy System” asked the question “What is a father?” “What Goes Down, Must Come Up” seems to ask “What shall we tell the children?” Everywhere in this episode we see parents, pseudo-parents and quasi-parents dispense advice and level threats. Clearly someone needs to learn something, but who is teaching and who is paying attention? And, most important, in the end, what is actually learned?hitcounter

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Venture Bros: Dr. Quymn, Medicine Woman

Rusty is threatened by Ginnie’s impressive weapon.

There’s something Shakespearean about “Dr. Quymn, Medicine Woman.” It’s full of twins, mirrored story-lines, star-crossed lovers, frustrated couplings, all taking place in an Arden-ish (if not quite E-Den-ic) forest. It even has supernatural creatures flitting about the woods to spice things web site hit counter

The “wereodile,” of course, turns out to be a fraud. This is only natural, as it is, narratively speaking, nothing but a flag of convenience, a device to hang a plot on. The wereodile, and the rainforest it lives in, is of no more importance to the characters of “Dr. Quymn” than the cherry orchard is in the Chekhov play of the same name. And, as in The Cherry Orchard, the only woods of any importance are the dark woods of human sexuality. Specifically, frustrated human sexuality.

Dr. Quymn is presented as very much a female Rusty — red haired, twin girls attuned to a life of adventure, supersonic airplane, muscle-bound bodyguard, etc. Her neuroses has developed differently from Rusty’s — she has ventured (sorry) into the rain forest as a bleeding heart to “protect the natives” and “cure cancer” instead of toiling in failure in her mother’s shadow, but she is as delusional and doomed as Rusty — the natives, we learn, do not want or need her protection and the rare plant she pretends to seek for her cancer cure is destroyed by the fire Ginnie and Brock start at the episode’s climax.

Everyone in “Dr. Quymn” wants sex badly, but in spite of their desires, everyone thinks of other things to do to instead. Dr. Tara Quymn wants to have sex with Rusty and has wanted to since they were both ten years old, but instead of doing so she has gone to the rainforest to try to “save the world”. Rusty is more open about his desire for sex (or at least easier to read) but his long list of failed projects is like a life-long parade of impotence — he hardly needs to have real impotence to make the metaphor clearer. Hank and Dean want to have sex, and while Hank sublimates his desires in a relatively normal fashion — that is, playing guitar — Dean is forced, in his terror, to retreat into his childhood fantasy world of mysteries and ghost stories.Brock and Ginnie, Dr. Quymn’s Brock, both want sex but are happiest expressing their desires either through the cars they drive or through fighting, or wielding their various weapons, their penis-substitute knives and guns. Ginnie is the most complicated of the cast in her sexuality. To be honest, I don’t know what the hell she wants out of all this. She’s devoted a healthy chunk of her life in a go-nowhere pursuit of Tara, but seems to be willing to give Brock a spin as well — if she’s drunk enough, or if she thinks it will make Tara jealous. Tara’s twins Nancy and Drew want sex, and their response as “teen girls” is the most natural of all — they fight over who gets the object of their affection, stuff their bras, change their minds, act older than they are and give up surprisingly easily (one wonders what would have happened if Ginnie had not interrupted them).

(Typically for The Venture Bros, the most “normal” of the sex-crazed cast members are the girls.)

(I would even argue that Clyde the orangutan wants to have sex — with Hank, but sublimates his desire through boxing.)

(For those who watch this episode guffawing at all the crazy story lines, let me inform you that the “boxing orangutan” angle is, in point of fact, 100% true.)

(The real Clyde The Orangutan, of course, met a quite unhappy end — no wonder he’s so pissed off. Hank must remind him of Clint Eastwood, the man who made him famous and then got him killed — shades of Rusty and Jonas again.)

Why isn’t anyone having sex? The answer, for the sake of this episode, is that it is impossible for these characters to have sex because their parents had sex. Or, specifically, Rusty’s father and Tara’s mother had sex, and therefore no one in the Venture universe may ever have sex again. To be even more specific, Rusty’s father and Tara’s mother had sex while they were playing an adventure game, thus fusing in their minds the ideas of child-like “adventure” and frustrated sexual desire. Rusty has pursued his goal of trying to be his father, in the hopes that it will lead to a fulfilling sex life, and Tara has lived her life of “adventure” in the wilderness, hoping for the same thing. (Of course, it hasn’t — her neuroses associated with the event have led her only to self-denial, failure, various addictions and related problems, and dead-end physical relationships. And, for all we know, unwanted twins and epilepsy.)

(A number of readers have noted that Rusty and Tara may, in fact, be brother and sister, and there is ample evidence to support this.  If so, I see no reason that they could not, in fact, be twins.)

Rusty’s pursuit of potency and Tara’s sublimation of her desires kick the plot into gear. Rusty steals “the natives”‘ fertility idol and Tara seeks the “Solomon’s Heart” seed. They bring along their baggage, both physical (their families) and mental, guaranteeing their respective failures. Hank and Dean, who, as recently as last week had never met a real teenager, now meet two attractive, apparently normal teenage girls. Dean panics because he thinks they are wereodiles, which is, of course, only his way of dealing with his intense desire to avoid sex. Dean’s endgame in this episode is “solving the mystery,” but to solve the mystery there must, of course, be a mystery first, and so Dean must create a mystery in order to solve it, and thus forestall his sexual maturity.

(He is shocked to see his father’s erection: “Who did that to pop?” he worries. In Dean’s mind, and Rusty’s too I suppose, the fact that his father has an erection means that he cannot have one himself.)

(It is ironic thatone coupling between a relatively healthy man and woman enjoying each other would have such a devastating impact on so many lives. It is, I think, in spite of the adultery involved, the most “normal” sexual relationship we’ve seen on the show so far.)

(Jonas’s and Ms. Quymn’s coupling also illuminates a line from “The Buddy System:” Rusty says “If they found out their childhood hero had sex their heads would explode” I did not know then that he was talking about himself.)

Rusty, of course, fails utterly in all his pursuits. Tara fails to cure cancer and to protect the natives, Ginnie’s desire is transferred to her fight with Brock, which both destroys Tara’s work and her relationship with Rusty. Nancy and Drew seem to have come out okay, and Dean actually seems to have come out ahead — he’s successfully avoided sexual maturity, while Hank, in “defeating the wereodile,” is denied the sexual initiation he craved and is given instead the gift of circumcision, which earns him the nickname “Broken Arrow” from father-figure Brock.

(Ginnie seems to be named after Virginia Slims, the 70s-era cigarette marketed to women with the phrase “You’ve come a long way, baby,” which Ginnie quotes to Tara, right before allowing her — that’s right — an emergency cigarette.)

Favorite moment: the wereodile, after reportedly ripping off a native warrior’s head, took the time to spell out “RARRRRR” on a rooftop. Well, what would one expect a supernatural creature to write?

Second favorite moment: James

  squeaking the line “Oh my God! I almost _____ed a wereodile!” And then sounding even more creeped out when he realizes that instead of being a wereodile, Tara is actually an epileptic. His parents must be so proud.

Venture Bros: The Buddy System

What is a father? That’s the question on everyone’s mind in this episode of The Venture Bros.hitcounter

Action Johnny says fathers are “caring, protective men.” Rusty seems to have a different definition: a father, to him, is someone who shirks all responsibility, exploits the weaknesses of children, gripes about the time and effort it takes to guide them, but who will nevertheless clone a new, improved child if one is, by chance, killed in a surprise gorilla attack.

“The Buddy System” is filled with scenes of father/son struggles, whether explicit (Rusty belittling Hank for not having his own TV show), implicit (Pete White acting as a “caring, protective man” to Billy) or cryptic (Brock’s relationship to Dermott).

Rusty, surely one of the most spineless, unlikeable creations in TV history, deeply resents his TV-show childhood, but that doesn’t mean he won’t cynically exploit that childhood for personal gain. This man who cannot stand the company of his own sons decides, for some reason, to open a day camp. And a very poorly-run day-camp it is too: obviously thrown-together at the last minute, with more thought put into the t-shirt design than to scheduling or activities. Presenters are unpaid, their acts are apparently not previewed or vetted, the few scheduled activities offered are, to say the least, ill-considered. The laissez-faire attitude extends to the safety of the attendees: “The Buddy System” is instituted at Rusty’s Day Camp because Rusty is too irresponsible to watch over the children himself. “The Buddy System” is, in fact, just another term for “you’re on your own.”

(The rainbow flag in the background of the opening commercial is a particular puzzler — how could a 21st-century parent see this ad and not assume that Rusty’s Day Camp for Boy Adventurers is not a meeting place for children of gay couples?)

(Although the episode doesn’t push the comparison, Rusty’s Day Camp seems to be run along the same lines as the Bush administration: take everyone’s money, hire incompetents and cronies, conduct no oversight, have no plan, shift all responsibility to the people you’ve been charged with protecting, offer lies and no apologies when something goes wrong. The episode even concludes with an ill-timed military invasion.)

Having Rusty, Action Johnny, Billy Quizboy and the Pirate guy all in one place offers a sharp critique of children’s television. The shows that Billy, Johnny and the Pirate represent (It’s Academic, Jonny Quest and Scooby-Doo) were, after all, designed to be “buddies” to real-life children, companions to adventure on Saturday mornings. As fresh-faced kids gather ’round to obtain advice from these TV “buddies,” they find that their future presents few appealing opportunities indeed: one can become a 35-year-old quiz boy, a man in a pirate costume who teams up with rubber-mask ghosts, or a ranting junkie.

“The Buddy System” has many questions regarding what it takes to be a father, but what does it have to say about being a good son? The sons of “The Buddy System” are all bad sons indeed (my TiVo machine even identifies the episode as “Enter the Bad Seed” for some reason). They gripe about their fathers, they plot against them, they team together to pull their progenitors down. The sons of “The Buddy System” all feel terrible resentment toward their fathers (or father figures) — a sense of victimization that excuses any sort of bad behavior. Rusty himself, of course, is the king of this bad behavior — he has neither truly examined his past nor bothered to try to live in the present, and no doubt when a boy is killed on his watch he will blame his father for the event. (I can hear him now: “Well, my father never told me there were wild gorillas in the E-Den — how was I supposed to know?”)

(It cannot be coincidence that the dome of savage, brutal nature that Rusty sends the campers into is named for the staging grounds of the most primal father-son battle in literary history.)

Rusty is a psychologically stunted, pitiable wretch, and yet, he seems to be a high-functioning normal compared to poor Action Johnny. Spotlighting Johnny in “The Buddy System” reveals a father-son conflict much harsher than the one between Rusty and Jonas Venture. Johnny is capable of supplying a common definition of “father,” but it seems that he’s been a very bad son. Dying for his TV-show scientist-father’s attention, it appears that Johnny, between commercials perhaps, killed the family dog (not Bandit!) and stole one of his father’s precious formulas. Suddenly, all those episodes of Jonny Quest going off on adventures alone seem less like fun and more like child abuse — where the hell was Jonny’s father, not to mention Race Bannon? Why was Jonny along on all his father’s secret missions, and why was he constantly allowed to wander off on his own?

Child abuse forms the spine of the plot of “The Buddy System,” although the script, in a clever twist, decides not to tell us that until the last line of the episode. Doughy, dead-eyed Dermott is, it appears, Brock’s son, and sets the plot of the episode rolling by committing to get Brock’s goat. Brock’s goat is, apparently, easily obtained, as his conversation with Dr. Orpheus reveals. “So, anyone who doesn’t immediately give you respect, you murder,” says Dr. O, acting as temporary father to Brock, who responds by acting as a temporary son and deliberately perverts Dr. O’s perfectly sane advice. Brock leaps into action, launching a plot to humble Dermott, hoping to get Hank (to whom Brock has always been more of a father) to beat him up. When Brock can’t locate Hank (who is, as it happens, befriending Dermott at that very moment), he considers using the quasi-child Moppets, then, reluctantly, tries to train Dean to do his dirty work.

(“Where’s your brother?” says Brock to Dean. I would have done a spit-take if Dean had protested that he is not his brother’s keeper. Dean, in this situation, should be experiencing a healthy dose of sibling rivalry. But his hostile response to Dermott seems to have more to do with his fear of Dermott’s size and rudeness, and attendant feelings of unmanliness — the fact that Dermott is stealing Hank, the only friend Dean’s ever had, doesn’t seem to enter into the equation.)

(Dermott hits this episode like a meteorite. He looks about 200% more “real” than the stylized, moon-faced Hank — he almost looks like he’s from a different TV show altogether.)

(The usual twinnings and mirrorings abound in “The Buddy System”: as Dermott attends the day camp to spy on Brock, the Moppets attend to spy on Rusty. The twist is that the teenager, by befriending Hank, gains the access he’s looking for and the professional henchmen come up short. Also, the Monarch uses the Moppets to get to Rusty the same way Brock tries to use them to get to Dermott, before turning to Dean instead.)

Meanwhile, the Monarch reneges on his promises to Dr. Mrs. The Monarch. Dr. Girlfriend has committed to her new identity, why can’t he? But no, he’s back to his old tricks, using his wife’s henchmen to arch Dr. Venture. He’s not ready to be a husband, much less a father — he still wants, essentially, to be a teenager, to dress up in his costume and stalk his boyhood nemesis.

(Brock, apparently, would prefer this as well, for reasons that are unclear to me.)

The Venture Bros: “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny”

Sonic Youth’s album of b-sides and rarities The Destroyed Room begins with a ten-minute-long jam session. The object of this is to separate the fans from the noobs. Similar demands are made by “Shadowman 9:In the Cradle of Destiny,” a dense, flashback-laden, complexly-structured season-opener that gives no quarter to casual web site hit counter

At this point in its development, The Venture Bros fulfills expectations by defying expectations, and in that regard “Shadowman 9” does not disappoint. Season 2 ended with a classic Some Like It Hot-inspired cliffhanger, as Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend sailed off into the sunset to consummate their marriage. The new season opens promising to answer the cliffhanger then immediately sidesteps the whole issue by plunging the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend into a bizarre battle with some floating robots (which will, 22 minutes later, finally be identified — this is a show not likely to slow down for innocents).

(Speaking of upending expectations, it’s worth noting that this season-opener episode of The Venture Bros does not feature the Venture Brothers, nor their father, and goes out of its way to not picture the faces of any of the Venture clan (except Helper, seen in a long shot). Instead, the Monarch and his relationship with Dr. Girlfriend is placed front-and-center, complete with its own opening title sequence.)

The episode proper opens with the Monarch’s henchman, the surviving ones anyway, picking themselves up and dusting themselves off after the rout at Cremation Creek, lo these many years ago. 21 and 24 wonder what to do now that they are “ronin,” and 21 (or 24) says, nobly, “We forge our own destiny,” which becomes a kind of statement of theme for the episode. In this episode, the weak follow rules and join societies, the strong push ahead and make their own rules, form their own societies.

(You can tell the difference between leaders and followers because the leaders give themselves names and followers are assigned numbers. Interestingly, the “Council of 13” trying the Monarch, even though they are much more powerful than their prisoners, themselves have only numbers — they are leaders to the Monarch, but they are followers to the Sovereign.)

The dominant society examined in this episode is, of course, the Guild of Calamitous Intent. The Guild, we shall see, is very big on procedure, hierarchy and rules. Humans, however, invariably have their own ideas and the drama of the episode occurs where power’s zeal for order and the human instinct to forge one’s own destiny collide. The theme of instinct rebelling against order repeats itself again and again throughout the episode: The Guild brings the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend to their tribunal, and the Monarch rebels against them (in his own childish, impetuous way of course). No sooner does a Guild lackey intone an absolute rule than another lackey comes along and carelessly flouts it, no sooner does one member of the Council of 13 demand “Silence!” than another member tries out the new command — and fails. The council can’t even decide what to call the event — a tribunal, a trial, or a crucible.

And what motivates the individual to break the rules, to rebel against authority? According to “Shadowman 9”, the answer is classic: sex and death — or love and murder, depending on your point of view. The Guild accuses the Monarch of breaking the rules because he wishes to destroy Dr. Venture, but the Monarch insists that he broke the rules in order to make it with Dr. Girlfriend (nee Queen Etheria). The Phantom Limb, on the other hand, is moved to rebel against the rules of society (and the Guild) by a romantic notion of evil, which is really only a trumped-up version of lust and revenge. The Guild can see only death as a motivation but the Monarch makes them see the equal power of love. In the end the Monarch triumphs, the Guild is convinced of the rightness of his cause, they seethe light and wed not only the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend in villainy, but also weds the Monarch’s twin impulses, sex and death, by sending him to kill the Phantom Limb on his honeymoon. Dr. Girlfriend drives the point home by insisting on the Monarch carrying her over the threshold of the site of their first sanctioned assassination.

(In one of the episode’s two punchlines, her ass against the Monarch’s waist also accidentally deploys his wings — is Dr. Girlfriend’s ass the “cradle of destiny” of the title?)

To make things more challenging, the episode is thematically dense while the plot remains at a near-standstill. Employing a complex flashback/dual-interrogation structure for most of the running time, the episode is almost a clip show, albeit a clip show consisting of new clips.

The b-story, meanwhile, is both more straightforward and more perplexing. The Monarch’s henchmen are taken over by the Moppets, who are, seemingly, forging their own destinies. But are they? It’s unclear to me. It seems they are taking over the henchman for their own nefarious purposes, but then at the end of the show a swarm of other supervillains descends upon the scene, helping them re-build the cocoon, to put it back into the control of the Monarch. Was this the plan all along? If so, why don’t the Moppets seek the help of the other supervillains to begin with? Or are they, in the beginning, acting “against the rules” and undertaking the rehabilitation of the henchmen themselves, but, after the Guild has had their hearts softened to the cause of the Monarch, they are able to then bring in the other supervillains? And why is Brock helping out on this project? I’m sure these questions will be answered in a future episode.

Running through all of this, of course, is the constant theme of the show, the construction of an identity. We witness the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend plow through three or four identities each in this episode as they forge their destinies and are finally united in villainhood. Meanwhile, the Phantom Limb, stripped of his hard-won identity, is left with only his “rules” (in this case, “anyone on my ‘shit list’ must die, regardless of whether they actually someone who has harmed me or not”).

Hand in hand with “identity” is “mistaken identity” — Dr. Girlfriend wonders how Phantom Limb could fail to recognize his own henchman as the Monarch when she herself has failed to recognize that same henchman is now her husband. (Phantom Limb takes this a little too far — he tracks down people based on their assumed identity, in spite of the fact that they bear no physical resemblance to the people he’s looking for.)

Tying in the theme of dual identities, we see that the Monarch, like Batman, has a giant penny in his flying cocoon.

Attention World

I am now cool.

How, you may ask, has this improbable event come to pass?

The explanation is devilishly simple — I have recorded a voice for an upcoming episode of The Venture Bros. Yes, it’s true, I made the trek from Santa Monica to a sound studio in Burbank, a sound studio cleverly concealed within the converted garage in the back yard of a non-descript fake-Craftsman house on an anonymous street in an anonymous neighborhood in Southern California’s most anonymous city, not far from the Bob Hope Airport and beneath a row of enormous power lines. It was here in these secret surroundings that my transition from Fool to Cool was made complete. The lines were recited, the tape rolled and magic was created.

Needless to say, the details of the plot are highly confidential and cannot be revealed, even to me. In fact, I was not even given a script to read. Rather, for security purposes, I simply recorded a series of phonemes that will later be edited together by Mr. Publick to form words and sentences.

But Todd! you will gasp in disbelief. You suck! You suck, and voices for The Venture Bros. are only recorded by the coolest of the cool! Stephen Colbert does a voice on The Venture Bros.! Can I get a sweet gig like that?

It turns out yes, you can! The process, it turns out, is startlingly simple.

First, befriend Venture Bros. star voice-actor James

  for 18 years. Then, ingratiateyourself with

  by writing and publishing long, detailed, in-depth analyses of all 26 episodes of his TV show. If your analyses please him, before long, you will be invited to meet with Mr. Publick.

Your first meeting with Mr. Publick will be in a public (pun intentional) place, a bar or a restaurant in a crowded urban area. Mr. Publick will sit with his back to the wall (assassination attempts are, sadly, a daily event in his life). You are advised to bring Mr. Urbaniak along as a pacifier, a kind of racetrack goat — Publick is a true thoroughbred and is prone to irrational fears and sudden outbursts of paranoid frenzy.   Bring plenty of cash — Mr. Publick has the appetite of several lions and can consume six chickens and a roast suckling pig at one sitting — and he will expect you to pick up the tab. 

To keep up your end in conversation, you are also advised to research the darkest, dustiest corners of popular culture — no reference is too obscure, no quip too knowing to stump the fiery and provocative Mr. Publick, whose brain weighs over sixteen kilos (counting the one he has in his upper thigh to control his lower half).

This process may need to be repeated. Mr. Publick has many enemies with false faces and more than one shape-changing alien has tried, and failed, to get close to him in the past.

Once you’ve impressed him with your knowledge of The Eiger Sanction and Colossus: The Forbin Project, you will be required to submit a highly personal cv: allergies, fears, dislikes, loves and lusts, embarrassing anecdotes from birthday parties long past. Mr. Publick requires absolute loyalty to his cause and needs to know every single aspect of your private life in order to make sure there are no skeletons in your closet that he has not put there himself. This will require the presentation of an autobiography, a minimum of six hundred pages, which Mr. Publick will have read by the scores of Korean children who draw his cartoon show.

Then there are some sexual acts you will required to perform, which I will not recount here. Suffice to say, you will know what to do when the time comes.

Then, if all goes well, you too may be chosen to do a voice for an episode of The Venture Bros. And then you, too, will be cool.

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