One of the hallmarks of a great television series is the willingness to shake up the status quo, to risk alienating the audience in the service of letting the characters and story evolve. No two creators seem to embrace this ethic more than Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick. When we left The Venture Bros. at the end of their third season, Henchman 24 was dead, the boys had lost their clone-based immortality and, Brock Samson quit, replaced by recovering pedophile super-villain Sergeant Hatred.
Much of Season 4, part 1 concerns the ramifications of these events. Brock’s post-venture career, 21’s transformation from sweet-natured incompetent to deadly possible-maniac and the boys, finally, growing up. Because of season 4’s new format (2 sets of 8 episodes as opposed to 13), many of these story lines don’t play out until part 2. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of gold in part 1 and, when coupled with the still-unreleased part 2, makes for one of the strongest seasons of television in years. My review of The Venture Bros. Season 4 after the jump.
Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel
Episode 1 serves the purpose of introducing viewers to the new Venture universe and II kind of love that Hammer and Publick decided to do it in one of the most obtuse ways imaginable. Upon first viewing, I was among the many who weren’t too hot on the seeming direction of season 4. But, the episode’s unique framing device is designed to reward multiple viewings and, in that it totally succeeds. Still not my favorite episode by a long shot, but it definitely improves over time.
Also of note, Blood brings Shore Leave into the fold as a regular character. Many shows have attempted to take a one-joke character (Disco Stu, the old man on Family Guy, Hypnotoad) and make them a regular. This usually fails, as jokes have diminishing returns and these characters are never developed beyond that initial gag. In season 4, Shore Leave keeps his one-note joke (gay Shipwreck) while blossoming into one of the best characters in a show absolutely packed with them.
One of the season’s best. Kevin (Batman) Conroy plays Captain Sunshine, a sort of Batman, Superman hybrid and mentor to a series of now-dead sidekicks. When Hank runs away from home, Sunshine takes him on as the new Wonder Boy. A gaggle of molestation jokes follow. Handsome Ransom walks a very delicate line, always just bumping up against the cheap, easy joke but never (okay, rarely) taking it. The tone is helped immensely by Conroy who turns Sunshine into a creepy, unhinged version of the character he’s famous for.
Since about mid-way through season 2, Hammer and Publick have seemed to be on a mission to make Hank a more popular character than Dean. A running theme in season 4 seems to be that puberty is being much harder on Rusty’s seeming favorite son. This episode sees Deans first attempt at following in his father’s depressing footsteps. While its not one of the season’s strongest episodes, Dean’s journey into the world of prog rock makes it worthwhile.
Return to Malice
1 has easily the strongest arc of any character this season. IIn the wake of 24’s death, the flabby henchman had turned into a shockingly competent henchman, seemingly at the cost of his sanity. Return to Malice might be the highpoint of the season. In its heart, The Venture Bros. has always been about wrapping low-key stories about flawed characters in the garb of the adventure story and this episode encapsulates that philosophy like few others.
The Revenge Society
This episode wraps up the ORB storyline from season 3. Phantom Limb returns, now bug-shit insane, kidnaps Billy Quizboy and sets about taking his revenge of The Guild of Calamitous Intent. Revenge Society represents the other kind of Venture episode, it sets up the epic conclusion to an epic confrontation, only to pull the rug out at the last minute for a hilariously mundane ending.
Remember when I said Return to Malice might be the highpoint of the season? Well, it’s not. But this is. Rusty joins a support group for former child adventurers, including a former Wonder Boy (Robin) suffers from an eating disorder, Action Johnny (Johnny Quest) is a junkie, Lance and Dale Hale (the Hardy Boys) may have murdered their parents and Ro-boy (Astro Boy) was pretty much just built to be a sex droid. Like the best Venture Bros. episodes, this one manages to be funny, depressing and sort of touching all at the same time. Oh, and Patton Oswalt plays Wonder Boy.
Finally, we get a Dr. Orpheus episode. In keeping with season 4’s themes, The Better Man focuses on Orpheus’ personal demons and feelings of inadequacy, as he ventures into hell to rescue his ex-wife’s new husband. The resolution to the Dean/Trianna “love” story begins here and H. John Benjamin returns as Master, so what more do you need?
Pinstripes and Poltergeists
This episode serves less as a true finale and more of a lead-in to some of the best episodes of Season 4 part 2. Still, as the last episode of part 1, it is kind of a disappointment. I have seen it three times at this point, and still had to look at a synopsis to remember what actually happened.
The only thing that matters here is the commentary. Dock Hammer and Jackson Publick consistently provide some of the most entertaining chatter around and, as with past seasons, their track is almost more entertaining than the show itself. Even if you saw the show when it aired, the commentaries make this worth a purchase.
The Venture Bros. is great. It keeps getting better. Though this collection is a little slimmer than past editions, it’s still well worth the money.