Television Zombies text
A few weeks ago, I did a little thing for the Television Zombies podcast, describing how I go about analyzing The Venture Bros. For those who missed it, the text of my thing is below the fold.
As a screenwriter, I analyze stories every day, and the key to analyzing stories is to identify the protagonist, that is, the character who sets the story into motion, and then trace their path through the narrative. The path of the protagonist is the meaning of the story. And when you watch movies or TV shows, there’s so much information coming at you, actors performances and camera work and action beats and jokes and colors and editing, all those things that make a movie a movie and not a play or a novel, that it can an act of will to look past all of that and simply say “Well, what does the protagonist want, what does he do to get it, what forces stand in his way, how does he overcome the obstacles,” etc, but that’s what a narrative is, and when a movie works it’s because it’s got a good narrative at its core.
Now, The Venture Bros is a tremendously complex show — things connect to other things on many different levels. Every character, almost every beat, brings with it a whole complex group of associations, both within the show itself and also in regard to the world of narratives that the show was made in reaction to: Jonny Quest, Marvel comics, boy-adventure stories, James Bond, 60s and 70s science fiction and about sixteen million other things. There’s an incredible wealth of associations going on in each and every scene, which adds to the resonance of the show beyond the actual plot of any given episode. So the show isn’t just about what the characters say and do, it’s also about this gigantic cultural conversation between the past and the present, what we as a culture imagined the future to be and how it turned out instead.
So. When I analyze an episode of The Venture Bros, I watch the show once all the way through just to get a sense of the shape of the narrative, because they always veer off in one unexpected direction or other. I don’t take any notes the first time around, I just let it wash over me and, more often than not, fry my brain.
Then, I watch it again, on the computer, with the pause button, and I go through it scene by scene and take notes on, simply, who does what to whom, and where and when and how and why. That usually yields about three pages of notes, just keeping track of all that, because the episodes are always very tightly plotted and have a lot of incident.
After I’ve got my notes, I figure out who the protagonist of each episode is, and usually there’s more than one (one episode from Season 2 had seven separate, interweaving plot lines, which is unheard of in a 22-minute TV show), and I start writing my analysis online. And I’ll always start with that basic question, “Who is the protagonist and what does he want?” because that’s what drives the narrative, that’s what the episode is “about.”
Now, the show is a comedy, which means that characters sometimes do things just because it’s funny. But there’s also a rather profound psychological aspect to the scripts, and one of the things that comes up when I start in with analysis is I look at the characters’ actions and consider what those actions mean psychologically. And that’s when these surprisingly deep themes start showing up, themes of generational despair and the meaning of fatherhood and the purpose of government and the nature of power and the transformative power of narrative and the construction of the self. All of which is pretty astonishing to find on a network whose shows are generally about, you know, a random collection of objects making dick jokes to one another.
In personal terms, the show is about boys living in the shadows of their fathers. Everything that happened in “the past” in The Venture Bros always seems important and vital, and everything going on “now” seems really chintzy and desperate in comparison. The characters on the show are all living in what feels like the wreckage of a generational plane crash, their lives have no meaning and so they’re constantly trying to create meaning out of the twisted shards of the past, these really poorly-conceived adolescent fantasies of power and control. Except for Dr. Venture, who always seems to be fed up with the whole thing, like he’s the only sane man in the room. He lost all his fantasies at an early age, and the result is, he’s one of the most caustic, bitter characters on television. These maniacs keep coming around with their weird fantasy lives and he just wants to get on with his bitter, miserable existence. It’s really a hard choice to face: you can be a lunatic with great purpose in your life, or you can be sane and be bitterly, bitterly unhappy. Every episode, the show walks this edge of having these ridiculous insane characters bouncing off one another with all these crazy pop-culture references on one side, and these rather startling insights into the human condition on the other, which is why I think it’s a show for the ages.