Venture Bros: “What Color is Your Cleansuit?” part 1

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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.

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“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.

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“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.


18 Responses to “Venture Bros: “What Color is Your Cleansuit?” part 1”
  1. Ken says:

    Guild of Calamitous Intent, not League. I correct because I care and value your insight and know you enjoy the show enough to want to be accurate. 🙂

  2. mark says:

    Venture bros might be the first american cartoon to have a constant continuity but King of the Hill did it for a while, the characters aged and people who died or married or what not didn’t show up later as if nothing had happened.

    • Todd says:

      Good point.

      • CartoonSara says:

        I’m late to the party once again, but I’m getting caught up.

        A decent number of cartoons have tried for a real continuity with aging characters, but Venture Brothers is one of the few to both last long enough to make it pay off and have characters for whom it matters. Even on an animated show with continuity, adult characters are usually treated as fixed; they look prett much the same from season to season and don’t usually go through huge changes in who they are. Younger characters are where you really see the effects of a show that ages it’s characters. They go through the most change, both visually and emotionally.

    • Generik says:

      I think For Better of For Worse deserves a notice here, a real time comic strip from 1979 -2008, then released as an animated series. But go Team Venture!!

      • Todd says:

        Long before For Better or Worse was Gasoline Alley, which had characters grow old and die.

  3. FDSY says:

    It’s interesting that Dean is the one to rebel or on second thought maybe that’s the way it has to be. He’s the Venture brother that was set up by his father as his true successor. If you remember, it was Dean, not Hank, who got his own jumpsuit and he was the one Rusty was pushing into super science.

    Also of note: Hank grew his hair out and changed appearence too after Brock, arguably his surrogate father figure, left. Now you could say he’s more “grown up” for it. He has, at least, achieved the most grown up things: he’s made a real friend (something Dean has yet to do) and has even had sex.

    21 is also something of a rebellious “son” if you think of The Monarch and his henchmen as a family. He changed his appearance, grew up, and now has his own place where he can patrol the perimeter and rake the leaves. It’s almost hopeful. 21 is now a better man than his “father” was, something that rarely happens to sons in the VentureVerse. The Monarch, just like an abusive parent, can’t seem to accept the fact his boy would leave him and instead thinks that he never *really* left. What would 21 be without him? Sadder still is what Monarch has become without 21.

    Also, if Dean does break the cycle and becomes a good person, wouldn’t that be Rusty’s greatest accomplishment?

    • Todd says:

      It also occurs to me that Dean is now wearing black, but it’s still a black Venture Industries jumpsuit. He’s trying to escape but there’s only so far he can go.

      21, who I’ll get to, has left his cocoon (!) but only in search of another family. No sooner did he find a home with SPHINX than they abandoned him to be a SPHINX of one. (Which would be a SPHINK?)

  4. JeffPicanso says:

    Not to downplay any of the richness of the Venture world, but I don’t think it’s the first animated show to create a strict continuity and use it to explore loss. Futurama’s characters have aged in real time since that pilot – and they have access to time travel!

    Even as a kid I was traumatized by the “death” of certain Transformers. And Japanese cartoons like Robotech and Macross were creating sprawling worlds long before that.

  5. Mark says:

    Glad to have your incredibly rich analysis back along with the show.

    Minor correction: It’s the Guild of Calamitous Intent, not League. Can be forgiven after a 2.5 year hiatus!

    • Todd says:

      My apologies to the League of Calamitous Intent, who have no affiliation with the Venture universe.

  6. Rob says:

    Not only do the characters age and make a little progress (more or less) on Venture Bros, they branch out & show what the future might have been for otherwise “ageless” franchises like the addicted Jonny Quest, Hadji supervising a call center, Race Bannon getting killed, Six Million Dollar Man going AWOL with Sasquatch, Art of Noise and Prodigy growing up wild in the tunnels beneath the Venture compound, etc. I want to say they give the same treatment to Mystery Inc, but that one’s too freaky. Hands down my favorite episode, “¡Viva los Muertos!”

  7. Jared K says:

    an idea that’s been floating around my head this past year: The Venture Brothers is basically The Sopranos for beta-males.

    insular, self-perpetuating worlds whose glory days are (or at least seem) far in the past, and how that past seems inescapable. unbroken cycles of poor parenting. families both biological and created and how they define us, for better and (usually) worse. and a distressing lack of influence from females and feminine ideals.

    The Sopranos did it with aging alpha-males in an increasingly non-alpha-male-friendly world. The Ventures Brothers do it with navel-gazing beta-males who crawl inward to avoid confronting all the pain.

    • Todd says:

      Which is another way of saying that Henchman 21 is the protagonist of the piece, or at least most reflective of its target audience.

      • Jared K says:

        I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel more prepared to save the world from a pulp sci-fi apocalypse than I am to pay my rent. so yes, Gary is _so_ us.

  8. WhateverlyBrothers says:

    First off, really glad to read your insightful analyses on VB once again. I felt the title’s riff off of essential corporate culture job-seekers “What Color is Your Parachute” re-emphasized the closed bubble conflating Venture Industries (Father’s utopian corporate entity) and Venture family (son’s clearly dystopian/dysfunctional results). Everyone’s job-related path spirals inwards and lands at the compound, networking living there, working there, occupying there, attacking there, etc. So now the compound not only generates jobs, it feels like an economy, with a culture of sorts. Rusty’s exploitave mishandling of relations – family and workplace – is predictable. Like the Guild, with their book for new members which can be avoided by bribing. It seems that Rusty’s actions, representing the absent center of his father (as he points out, he’s the ‘original Venture Son’) provides the environment for all these different networking paths to operate in relation with. And like you point out, growth occurs: Billy’s finally got an archnemesis, is a “good guy”, Dean goes “Greg Brady” and burned the beds of useless knowledge, the VBs live apart, Henchman 21 has a leadership position, Monarch sees his wife as his best friend, etc… And the mutated geeks almost inherit the earth. Their only mistake is, they model a society, with all kinds of precise sets of operating system rules, checks and balances, laws, penalties, classes, legends and game-rituals, that make a sense just in the closed dome. They don’t anticipate the effects of the larger environment, the world of Rusty’s compound (that disarms them, literally in this case). There’s a kind of steady-state equilibrium, as Henchman 21 points out later to Rusty, “working for you and the Monarch, it’s like the same thing.” Which he points out, shouldn’t be an insult really. No one seems worried about that at all.
    So in that respect if feels like a momentary lull.