DVD Review: The Venture Bros.
Ah, The Venture Bros....the anti-adventures of a failed scientist, a frustrated bodyguard, two boys with an outlook on life that's at least forty years out of date and a self-proclaimed supervillain in a butterfly costume. And did I mention that this strange program actually contains some of the best characterization I've ever seen in a popular weekly program? Don't worry, I will.
Of course, I doubt many of you are familiar with The Venture Bros., and so I'll open my review with a short explanation...
For six nights out of the week, Cartoon Network gives over its programing to a block known as Adult Swim--and there's a reason these shows are in isolation: there's nothing else like them on commercial television.
Adult Swim earned its reputation by supporting original programming that was decidedly non-traditional. As you might imagine, this has led to some truly experimental shows. As you might also imagine, very few of them are any good.
See, while it's all fine and good to buck tradition, one must realize that tradition is tradition for a reason. Plots. Characterization. Rising and falling action. It's not impossible to create a series without utilizing these...but neither is it very wise. The format of storytelling has evolved over millennia. The tendency for most of the original programs on Adult Swim is to jettison the above and devote fifteen minutes or a half hour (as the case may be) to what is, essentially, a barrage of unrelated gags and grossout moments.
Which is a real shame, because near-complete freedom in television is something we rarely find. Why is it that these programs, popular as they are, don't do anything with it?
Enter The Venture Bros., one of the very few Adult Swim programs that is entirely successful in its intentions; it manages to retain the important aspects of storytelling and it uses them well...all the while pandering to the "alternative" generation of television viewers. It's exactly what we need a show to be right now: honest, well-written, well-acted, and--something else most Adult Swim shows miss the mark on--funny.
The Venture Bros. is, at its core, a show about a set of adventurers with very little adventuring to do. A slightly wider scope reveals that this is because these would-be adventurers are stuck--wouldn't you know it?--in the real world. You know the real world. Look out your window. Go to the supermarket. Order a pizza. Pay your car insurance bill. That's the real world. It's not that there aren't adventures to be had, but, after working forty hours every week, who's really in the mood?
Hank and Dean Venture, the non-identical twins for whom the show is named--want nothing more than to travel the world solving mysteries, uncovering ancient treasures and vanquishing evil. And they still believe that--one day--they're going to do it.
Dr. Thaddeus ("Rusty") Venture is their father...son of the legendary Jonas Venture, who really was a heroic globetrotting figure. It is in Jonas' very large shadow that Dr. Venture lives, and his inability to live up to the greatness of his father has driven him to a life of dismay, depression, and substance abuse. Rather than come up out of his rut, Dr. Venture spends his time just trying to adapt to it...and it is this inability to come to terms with the fact that he is not the man his father was that drives many of the episodes--though it is never overt. It takes some watching to understand, and it's one of the many aspects of characterization that The Venture Bros. does right.
Rounding out the main characters are Brock Samson, Dr. Venture's enormous bodyguard who is the only real adventurer in the bunch (though he's often relegated to nanny duties), Dr. Orpheus, an over-dramatic necromancer who rents a room in the Venture compound, and The Monarch--Venture's self-proclaimed arch-nemesis, though his real enemy is his own humanity (ooh--how modern).
The idea of "extraordinary characters trapped in reality" is not a new one...and Austin Powers is probably the most recent (and visible) example of how its come to work itself into popular culture...but it's actually a tried-and-true literary tradition, dating at least as far back as Don Quixote (the knight-errant a few centuries too late) and likely much further. The Venture Bros. takes those heavy reins, and handles them quite well.
"Tag Sale--You're It!" deals with the Ventures hosting a yard sale (which draws supervillains from around the world...at least one of whom is more interested in pot-holders than shrink rays), "Ghosts of the Sargasso" centers around a group of marooned sailors forced to play the ghost-pirate role so that they can find a boat and get home, and "Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean" finds a medical condition complicating the situation for The Monarch, who now has to deal with rules set by The Guild of Calamitous Intent regarding sick prisoners. There is always a strong element of reality behind the extraordinary circumstances and characters, and while it fuels the humor, it also fuels the ever-important bathos.
As the episodes unfold you find that you're watching something more than a half-hour comedy show...you're watching people interact. You're learning about them not by what they say and do, but by what they don't say, and by what they will never be able to do. The relationship between Dr. Venture and his father is never explicitly explored--and that is a good thing, because the subtlety with which we do come to understand it is oddly touching. Ditto the relationship between Dr. Venture and his sons...tough-guy body-guard Brock ends up being a father to them far more often than Dr. Venture ever does. Why? It's never made clear...and that's why it's painful.
The Monarch, on the other hand, brings all of his hopes and aspirations to the fore, making them all very clear...and he is a tragic character because of it. He is tangled in a world of bureaucracy, paperwork, guilds and guidelines for the proper conduct of supervillains. On top of all this his relationship with Dr. Girlfriend is on the rocks, his henchmen are (hilariously) inept and, you know, supervillains aren't exempt from the law...
The characterization is extremely well done for a show so early in its development, and while there is no clear plot-arc for the first season, it becomes very clear by the final few episodes that something very important has happened...and that's why DVDs for shows like this are so great; it's time to go back and figure out what.
The packaging of this DVD is about the only thing that disappoints me. It's a cardboard sleeve, within which is a cardboard gatefold that contains both discs and...nothing else! No essay, no insert, no chapter select card...nothing. Well, alright, there are a few intentionally ironic drawings of the Ventures, and they are lovely, but it doesn't quite seem like much time was spent designing the packaging at all, and that's almost a slap in the face for a show that obviously deserves the effort.
Lift the discs and you'll find short descriptions of the episodes included...disc one has eight uncut episodes (four of which include the option for commentary) and disc two has the remaining five episodes (only one with commentary, unfortunately) and the bonus features. The box is black with a skull on the front, which has the Venture boys in place of a nose. Oboy. It's also designed to accumulate fingerprints at an alarming rate. This it does very well.
That's about all there is to say about the packaging. Oh, my copy did include a small flyer advertising other Adult Swim programs on DVD (most of which really don't deserve a DVD release, especially not a higher profile release than The Venture Bros., but I digress). As I say, the drawings are nice...but some additional thought in the design process--say, more than zero--would have been nice.
The menus are simple...easy to navigate. Nothing special, really...original score from the show plays in the background (full tunes, too--not just clips) and menu transitions are achieved by means of a spinning skull. It sounds cooler than it looks, though.
Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, the two writers for the program (and two of the voice actors) appear on all five episode commentaries and one extra one for the pilot, which is stashed away in the bonus features. With only two people on the tracks and such a small amount of "history" behind the show in question one might expect that there is little to discuss, but nothing could be further from the truth. The commentary is excellent, often very funny, and the only complaint I have is that there weren't more of them.
Well, alright, I have one more complaint: they talk about anything but the episode in "Return to Spider-Skull Island," and as that's one of the more confusing (and dense) episodes it would have been really nice to hear them discuss it...but oh well. They are very funny. And no real spoilers about season two, so don't be afraid to listen.
I should mention that there is an additional commentary floating around the internet for "Home Insecurity." Why this was left off I have no idea, but it seems to have been intentional as the beginning of the commentary features Publick and Hammer counting down so that you can synch up your mp3 player with the beginning of the episode. You can find it here.
The Special Features:
Ah, not all that many (said the very spoiled fan of Red Dwarf) but what's here is pretty great.
Included for reasons of history more than quality (or anything else, really) we have "The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay," in which the Ventures were introduced to Cartoon Network. This episode was constructed entirely in Macromedia Flash, and though it looks pretty great you can still tell when Flash "goes wrong." By and large it is less funny, less interesting, less clever and less significant than the main episodes, and I think that's why they filed it under "special features" rather than group it with the main episodes: they didn't want anyone to consider it "episode one."
And it clearly isn't. Characters act very differently from the way they do in the main episodes...which is understandable, as it was produced about two years before the season proper. In that time Publick and Hammer must have figured out that the flaws in their characters were more interesting than they thought originally, and so when The Venture Bros. returned for thirteen episodes, gone were the one-note jokes, embarrassing scatological moments and unnecessary appeals to childishness in the viewer.
Interesting to watch? No doubt. But there's a good reason neither the creators nor the fans consider this to be canon.
A fifteen minute "sketch" on the Ventures-at-Christmas theme. Certainly funny at times, but as almost the entire thing takes place in "fantasy," it's nothing you really need to see to understand the rest of the episodes. It kind of stands on its own, and that's just fine. Which is pretty much all I can say about this episode. "Just fine."
Now these--these--are cool. The deleted scenes are taken from the animatic of the episode in question (which means they were storyboarded and recorded, but never properly animated) and they are shown on the screen of a communicator watch, just like the Ventures wear. Wow-wee!
Only a few deleted scenes (one each from six episodes), but they're all pretty interesting from a creative standpoint. It wasn't necessary to include things like this, but it sure is nice that they did.
Animating Hank and Dean:
Now why isn't this special feature listed on the box? It's not hidden on the disc so I doubt it can be called an Easter Egg...
Anyway, this is a short (ten minutes or so) comic piece about the process by which Hank and Dean Venture are animated. It is narrated by two recurring characters from the show: Pete White and Master Billy Quizboy. It's entirely farcical and utterly unhelpful, but it is actually very, very funny, and that means they went out of their way to craft an entirely new piece of successful comedy for us watching at home. That's something they didn't have to do. And that's something for which I'm very thankful.
Behind the Scenes of The Venture Bros. Live Action Movie:
Another farcical piece, this featurette includes interviews with the voice actors in character (and in costume) as The Monarch, Dr. Girlfriend, Dr. Venture and Henchmen 21 and 24. While I definitely feel this was overlong, it still has its moments of pure joy...particularly in the case of the henchmen, who really became two of the best minor characters from the show. Seeing them "live" is an absolute delight and they provide the only true laugh-out-loud moments in this feature. Worth watching but, again, it's just a tad too long.
The DVD package itself is only a hair above adequate, but the program proper is a product of absolute brilliance. It's alternately hilarious and devastating, and the characterization never misses a beat. Without question this DVD is the best starting point for a new fan. See it from beginning to end. Spend a rainy day indoors. Come out with your standards for alternative programming raised significantly.