Venture Bros: “What Color is Your Cleansuit?” part 1
Any television show can be weird, or transgressive, or irreverent. Rules are there to be broken. The trick is to inflate the narrative with weirdness, but then nail it down something basic, something universal and irrefutable. That’s how the viewer knows the writer cares. The Venture Bros is about as weird as American television has ever been, but it ties down its weirdness with a discussion of the most basic and universal subject imaginable: family. In some ways the show is, despite its science-fiction adventure trappings, a domestic comedy, even, in its grander moments, a family saga.
“What Color is Your Cleansuit” begins with a whirlwind wrap-up of threads left dangling at the end of Season 4. Some of these plot points inform the present episode, some don’t, or only in a peripheral way. The key point, the inciting incident, is that Rusty gets a phone call from his brother Jonas Jr, or “JJ” as he’s calling himself now. Rusty, being Rusty, is found in typical dissipation: he’s fallen asleep in Jockey shorts, his gartered socks, his bow-tie and his dickie, and is in bed with a monstrous insect-humanoid. J.J., in contrast, is awake, alert, and at work. (He uses the latest gadget: an iPad. In Season 3 he was on a billboard for the iPod, now he’s working with an iPad. Apple is the technology of tumors.)
What does Rusty want? Rusty wants to build some “ray shields” for Gargantua 2, JJ’s space station. Or rather, he wants to fulfill his contract to build the ray shields, thus preserving his financial solvency. In the ongoing story of Rusty’s familial failure, it’s worth noting that the original Gargantua was Rusty’s father’s space station back in the 1960s. JJ pursues his father’s dream while Rusty fills orders for parts. This would seem to make JJ the “winner” and Rusty the “loser,” but what was Rusty doing instead of building his contracted ray shields? He was, oddly enough, tending to the needs of his teenaged sons. JJ can go off and build spaceships all he wants, he doesn’t have children to take care of. He’s too busy being “the good son” to worry about being a father. Rusty is, of course, a terrible father, so it’s ironic that he’s close to blowing his contractual deadline because he was staging a prom for his sons.
“The prom” is, of course, an important milestone in adolescence. What was the outcome of the Venture prom? In Dean’s case, it was a profound shift in sensibilities. He emerges in this episode a changed boy, barely a boy at all, eager to put away childish things. His “Bizzy Bee” wallet, his book of Giant Boy Detective stories and other items of boyhood get thrown onto a funeral pyre, in the front yard of the Venture compound, in the shadow of Jonas Sr. holding the boy Rusty. Jonas was a great man but a terrible father, Rusty is neither a great man nor a good father, but Dean seems intent on breaking the cycle – he’s not going to let Rusty’s incompetence and neglect cost him his adolescence. It’s a huge shift for Dean, who has always been the weaker son. And his rebellion is, for once in the Venture universe, accurately enacted: he knows what his problem is and he knows who’s responsible. Rusty, through his cowardice and neglect, has kept Dean dependent and sheltered. One wonders if a similar scene occurred between Rusty and Jonah thirty years earlier.
(The triumphant innovation of The Venture Bros is that it is the first animated show to ever create a continuity for its world. The Simpsons never age, haven’t aged a day while the world has changed all around them. The Flintstones never got old, the Mystery Gang were forever teenagers, but the Ventures grow, get older, and change irrevocably. This allows for the show to explore deep resonances in its way: if characters can age, then they can also die, and be aware of their own mortality.)
So While Rusty tries to be a good brother, Dean says he doesn’t even want to “be a Venture Brother” anymore. He’s being a petulant emo in his black jumpsuit and his spiky dyed hair, but that’s beside the point. Two brothers come together, two others separate. The Venture Brothers is a constellation of intersecting families, some genuine, some artificial. The Ventures are a family, but so are the Monarch’s menagerie, and so is OSI, and so is the GCI. When a villain gets a license from the Guild of Calamitous Intent, the first thing they do is assemble a team, and we’ll see a villain do just that later in this episode. The Venture Bros, in its own weird way, holds up a funhouse mirror to the American family. Some are broken, some are dysfunctional, some are venal, some are homicidal, but all of them are full of people searching for love and connection.
And we all know what happens when a family grows large enough; it forms a society. Which is what we will see happen here.