Venture Bros: a closer look

mcbrennan posted this lengthy, well-considered analysis of The Venture Bros in response to my entry on last week’s “Victor-Echo-November” episode.  I thought it was worth bumping up to a new entry.  She starts with quoting a paragraph of mine, then heads straight into the core of the show, which becomes more interesting the more you examine it.

Take it away, Cait:

“In a way the whole show is about arrested adolescence, with each character presenting their own take on the concept, and that includes Mr. Brisby. Hank and Dean are the most clinical and literal of Team Venture, being seemingly unable to make it out of adolescence alive. Dr. Venture’s more mature self literally made its break from his body to go live on Spider-Skull Island (or is Jonas his less mature self, living his playboy lifestyle?). Phantom Limb may be a sophisticate, dealing in bureaucracy and insurance and masterpieces of Western art, but in a way there’s more than a touch of Felix Unger in him, a fuss-budget who uses his sophistication to hold the world at arm’s length so that he doesn’t have to deal with the messier aspects of adult life, like maintaining a stable relationship or taking responsibility for his actions.”

There’s so much truth to this. I’m not sure if it’s arrested adolescence or just pervasive failure–failure to live up to impossible standards or to fulfil early promise, especially. Whether it’s Rusty’s boy-adventurer pedigree, Billy’s boy-genius, Brock’s football career, or the Monarch’s blueblooded trust fund origins, so many of these characters were destined for greatness and got stuck. Another specific theme I connect with is how the…the knowledge and expertise and talents of all these characters are essentially useless outside their insular little world of adventuring and “cosplay” (or costume business, in deference to the Monarch); the 60s/70s backgrounds and social “rules” are no accident. The world they learned how to live in has passed them by; The idealism of the original Team Venture is as obsolete as Rusty’s speed suits. Brock’s cold war is over; even his mentor has left it all behind, including his gender. The Guild is in league with the police. Faced with the prospect of trying to make normal human connections and fit in with the contemporary world we know (if such a thing even exists for them), Dr. Venture, the Monarch and company instead spend their time riding the carcasses of the dead past, reenacting costume dramas to keep them from going insane with boredom or despair. The scale of their “adventures” is telling: There are no world-changing inventions and no world-domination schemes. And for all the Marvel-inspired costumed supervillains, there arealmost no heroes left, certainly none in costume (outside of that ethically dubious blowhard Richard Impossible, whose entire empire sits on the rubble of Ventures past). I think that’s one of the reasons that Brock in particular can be so emotionally engaging–he’s the heart of the show, trying to hold the universe together as it spins off its axis, protecting the family he loves and trying to safeguard the next generation so that someday, things will be different. He lives by a code of honor, something maybe only the Guild still recognizes. Orpheus plays much the same role for Triana, though she and Kim are more a product of our world, and more able to see the Venture family and their nemesis as anachronisms. Triana feels for the boys, but she won’t end up like them. We hope.

Interesting also that in this world where family is so key, all the mothers are missing (Hank and Dean’s? Rusty and Jonas Jr’s? Triana’s? The Monarch’s? Just for starters…) Interesting also that the strongest female character on the show may or may not have arrived at womanhood through unconventional means, and we certainly know that the man who was like a father to Brock is now more of a mother-figure (of course, the transgender thing may be just a red herring where Dr. Girlfriend is concerned, but leave me my illusions.)

As a more or less failed child prodigy myself, I feel for these characters even as I fear I’m probably going to share their fate. I suppose sitting up at 3am writing a 5000 word essay on a cartoon is not going to change that. 🙂 But the Venture Bros. is of course much more than a cartoon, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s the best show on television. It’s a privilege to live in a time where you get to experience firsthand something that is both great art and great fun in pop culture. There’s so much going on here, so much to think about, that it’s just a delight to watch every week.

Comments

14 Responses to “Venture Bros: a closer look”
  1. mcbrennan says:

    Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

    I feel a little silly posting a reply to my already long-winded comments. But there’s a thought I wanted to clarify/expand on, namely the idea of the original “Team Venture”‘s idealism being obsolete. Idealism may not have been the correct word. For me, I see the old-school Team Venture not just as a Jonny Quest parody/homage, but really an embodiment of all the “pulp adventure spectaculars” of the 1890-1970 era. Doc Savage, Benton Quest, Allan Quartermain, even Heinlein and Conan Doyle’s heroes all represented a kind of clash between the Good and Noble European Ideal and the vast, unexplored, mysterious and scary Other. And I’m not going to take a position on the “political correctness” of that Europeans-vs-swarthy-mysterious-foreigners idea because political correctness doesn’t really interest me. But the idea of The Other had an excitement to it–represented in those Doc Savage and Jonny Quest serials–that there really could be lizard men and giant robot spiders and frogmen with spearguns out there. The world had its mysteries and a lot of them were exciting, full of great promise as well as great peril. The reader/viewer (usually young) could “explore” that scary world via identifying with Jonny, knowing the heroic adult figure would prevail over whatever scaly robo death beast emerged from the jungle.

    But that whole idea is obsolete now. At least in the popular psyche the world’s been mapped and pureed and homogenized to bits. There are no “lost” islands, no uncharted continents. Our cultural superiority has taken a brutal beating. There are plenty of people who’d love to kill us but they’re terribly boring. The idealism and promise has given way to grinding, relentless peril. And despite certain “leaders”‘ best efforts, the struggles really can’t be cast as heroes versus villains. Damn that Derrida, the whole world’s gone deconstructivist. Rusty’s skill set–if we can be so generous–is useless, because the heroic explorer is literally unemployable now. And to give him his due–much of this failure can and should be rightly laid at the feet of Jonas Venture Sr’s generation. It’s Jonas who “raised” Rusty in the back seat of the X-1, his living legacy reduced to another pesky piece of extra baggage (and without a mother or any apparent female nurturing). It’s Jonas who took on the role of protector and then (by his still-unexplained early death) abandoned it, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. It’s Jonas who built and abandoned the whole VB world, its orphaned ideals personified by a floating space station nobody bothers to use. The Space Age sits rusting in pieces on Rusty’s front lawn, and walks out the door in trash bags at his tag sale, a shining city of broken dreams that never materialized for lack of faith and lack of follow-through. That statue in front of Venture Industries–Jonas holding Rusty, pointing to some lofty goal–is telling. Cast in stone or bronze, the old man is huge, immutable, immortal, and Rusty is forever a little kid, and that distant goal, whatever it was, will always be out of his reach. In a way I kind of see Rusty through the same lens as Holden Caulfield, only having staggered through the rye himself, alone, with no one to catch him, and finally fallen over the cliff that separates childhood innocence and a corrupt, compromised adulthood. And God, I feel for him.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

      And God, I feel for him.

      Holy leaping Jesus, apparently so. I haven’t read such intelligent analysis of a television show in, well, probably never.

      • Re: Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

        Seconded. Well, actually, I haven’t read such intelligent analysis of a television show since yours. Thank you both.

      • jeffwik says:

        Re: Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

        What really hammers all this home for me: Rusty wasn’t just a boy adventurer. He wasn’t just a competent boy adventurer. He was the greatest boy adventurer of the 20th century. Other boy adventurers were his fans, not his colleagues. He had merch. Even now, decades later, the government keeps one of its top agents in position as his bodyguard, Operation Rusty’s Blanket, just in case. Now he’s a withered empty little sack of wasted potential, but once upon a time he was a meteor carving up the heavens.

        I look forward to the eventual time-travel episode where we the audience actually get to see Rusty in his prime steamroll over whoever’s put in his path, which preternatural might the thirty-years-older Rusty now finds embarrassing.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

          I look forward to the eventual time-travel episode where we the audience actually get to see Rusty in his prime steamroll over whoever’s put in his path

          That would be nice, but I get the feeling that it was all Rusty’s dad, and he was just along for the ride. He kind of inherited all his dad’s stuff and keeps it going out of sloth, or habit, or not knowing what else to do with his life.

          It’s kind of like Michael Jackson: if you’ve been famous since you were five years old, you have no idea what “real life” is like and have no interest in it in any case.

    • mimitabu says:

      Re: Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

      i think VB is not so much lamenting the death/outdatedness of 1890-1970 adventure, but identifying it with the dysfunctional, all-male connectionless world of the venture brothers.

      “Damn that Derrida, the whole world’s gone deconstructivist.” no… jonas is just like rusty, he was just praised for it… supposedly.

      “The idealism and promise has given way to grinding, relentless peril.” idealism and promise are grinding relentless peril. idealism and promise keep the world at arms length just as much as the fantasy of the venture brothers, the past-worship/murderous impuse of brock, the bitterness of doc venture, the monarch’s obsession with doc venture for no reason, etc. VB exposes what all that mystification of The Other was about: despair.

      jackson publick has said (somewhere, forget where) that the subtext in the venture brothers is (paraphrase) “look what happens with no women around!” on one of the commentaries in season one, doc and jackson talk about this johnny quest episode that they thought was ridiculously racist, and how they used a scene directly from it for brock’s fantasy scene when he’s about to have sex with that stripper in “midlife chrysallis” (sp?) and can’t. there’s no disconnect between that racist, thrilling, adventurous world and the isolated, absurd social existence of the venture brothers.

      but at the same time, the show is also very (extremely!) funny and moving… because it’s honest:) (and smart). the world may have followed derrida, but VB is a show that dares to take itself seriously amidst the mindless surrealism of adult swim. it’s definitely the best show on tv right now.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Not to go all gender studies or anything

        >>>”look what happens with no women around!”

        That reminded me of something I read, I believe in reference to anime but it works here, that all the missing mothers/wives are because women represent sanity and stability. That’s why in sitcoms the wife is always sane, serene and beautiful (Roseanne being just about the sole exception) while the husband is a slobby goofball, and why the only role females have in an adventure show are as sexpots like Molotov (who has the most perfect name ever for this type of character).

        It’s probably biological – (straight) male writers can only concieve of female characters in one of two ways, potential mate or mother of his children. Potential mates can be wild and crazy and sexy because that signifies she’s got good, healthy genes, but as soon as she starts ovulating it’s just too scary, in a deep, instinctual way, to think of her being immature and irresponsible. That’s your genetic destiny she might be endangering!

        But the last thing a show like VB needs is sanity or stability, hence no wives or mothers. Note how the three main female characters are barred from assuming the wife/mother role – Mol by her chastity belt, Triana by being too young (at the moment, and she’s the sanest one of the bunch), and Dr G by her baboon uterus.

    • negumi says:

      Re: Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

      Holy crap, that’s the most intelligent and well put together thing I’ve read in a month. Thank you

  2. toku666 says:

    Very nice. Thanks for taking the time to put this down.

  3. “It’s a privilege to live in a time where you get to experience firsthand something that is both great art and great fun in pop culture. There’s so much going on here, so much to think about, that it’s just a delight to watch every week.”

    You totally took the words right out of my mouth. You summed up exactly what I think so perfectly! It’s almost creepy. As I was reading it I was like, “Uh huh, uh huh!”

  4. Anonymous says:

    Newbie with a note:

    “And for all the Marvel-inspired costumed supervillains, there are almost no heroes left, certainly none in costume.”

    That we’ve seen. A character called “Captain Sunshine,” I believe, has been mentioned a couple times. Though I assume should we ever meet him, he’ll turn out to be some sort of crazy jerkwad, too.

    (Love this blog, by the way!)