The Venture Bros. season two DVD review
Season two of The Venture Bros. hit the shelves last week...another set of episodes detailing the adventures of Dr. Thaddeus Venture, his bodyguard Brock Samson, an assortment of flawed supervillains who want him dead, and his two sons Hank and Dean...who were memorably blown to pieces at the end of season one.
The second season had one heck of a burden to carry, what with the extremely high quality of writing in season one and the fact that the relationships within the Venture family (and within The Monarch's cocoon) seemed to have been left in shambles. Would writers Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer just magically restore everything to order in the classic cartoon series don't-ask-questions way? Would they hell.
If you are unfamiliar with The Venture Bros. (and many curses upon you if you are) you might want to read my review of the season one box set. Suffice it to say that it's a brilliant, hilarious, and sometimes even touching show based on the failure of space-age dreams. It's a callback to the over-optimistic adventure fiction of old, but it's also a constant reminder of why nobody can write those stories anymore. Life has moved on.
Yet these characters struggle to hold that fantasy world together...they grab frantically at the idea of limitless possibilities...they struggle to overcome inertia, worldly attachments and red tape. Somewhere inside they really believe that present day is just a slump between two mountains of prosperity.
No character embodies this better than Dr. Venture himself, who was a boy adventurer ("The best," according to Master Billy Quizboy) who inspired many others in the show to aspire to the same...the problem is that Dr. Venture has grown up, and is now a mere shadow of the man his father once was. He boozes and pops pills to dull the pain of his self-awareness while his boys continuously try to kickstart his old lifestyle of action and danger for themselves.
So much for the side of good...what of evil? Well, there's The Monarch, and we watched his relationship with Dr. Girlfriend deteriorate over the course of season one to the point that she left him for a more collected supervillain, Phantom Limb. Season one ended with The Monarch incarcerated and alone, and throughout season two we witness him rebuilding his prior glory piece by piece. He also manages to become the emotional core of the show, despite the fact that he's really just a whiney guy in a butterfly suit. This fact in itself is a testament to how well this show is written.
There are a total of 13 episodes in season two, all of which are present and accounted for on this DVD set. While season one only had one weak episode ("The Incredible Mr. Brisby"), season two has two. That said, the overall quality of season two is quite high...significantly higher than even season one, which was, let's face it, brilliant television.
The general consensus seems to be that "Guess Who's Coming to State Dinner?" is the weakest of season two, but I'd like to challenge that. It's full of great moments, and we finally meet a character who dislikes Brock, which is more realistic than everyone, including those he beats up on constantly, loving and respecting him. It's nice that somebody out there harbors some jealousy, and will act upon it.
The unfortunate episodes here are "Love-Bheits," which finds Baron Underbheit marrying Dean Venture because he believes he's a little girl (yeah...it's just about as funny as it sounds), and "Fallen Arches," which should have been a brilliant episode, what with Dr. Orpheus finally getting an arch nemesis and reuniting The Order of the Triad to fight him, but it keeps none of the promises that it makes and the episode is more frustrating for what it should have been than enjoyable for what it is.
So there...we dealt with the stinkers...let's get on to the fantastic. "Powerless in the Face of Death" opens the season, and considering how much it had to deal with after the cliff-hanger of season one's "Return to Spider-Skull Island," it really has its work cut out for it. It needs to get The Monarch out of prison, it needs to explain what's going to happen with Hank and Dean (who were accidentally killed by The Monarch's henchmen last time around), it needs to deal with the fact that Dr. Venture suddenly has a brother...
And it handles all of this flawlessly. From the beautiful opening scene (which even misleads you into thinking that Dr. Venture might actually miss his dead sons...) right through The Monarch's daring escape (not to mention an oddly touching scene in which two costumeless henchmen recognize each other by voice in a self-help group), "Powerless in the Face of Death" is exciting, hilarious television...and the bar is raised even higher with "Hate Floats," the follow-up that really should be watched immediately afterward as it continues the story right from where it left off.
"Hate Floats" sees The Monarch rebuilding his empire with street thugs as henchmen, making all too clear the distinction between traditional supervillain battles and actual dangerous violence. We also come to fear Phantom Limb more than ever, as he reveals himself to be much more skilled and capable than any of his contemporaries.
There are plenty of great episodes this time around. "Escape to the House of Mummies (Part 2)" is a clever episode that toys with multi-part cliffhangers by giving you the second installment but not the first or third. (It also has a rather moving scene involving a lunchbox...and the season's only significant appearance by Master Billy Quizboy and Pete White.)
"Victor. Echo. November." manages to combine a very scary attempt to rub out Dr. Venture's life with an absolutely hilarious double-date for the Venture twins. "Assassinanny 911" finds the criminally under-used Molotov Cocktease taking over as babysitter when Brock is called back into action by the Office of Secret Intelligence. "20 Years to Midnight" is a classic find-the-parts-of-the-mysterious-device-scattered-around-the-world plot that should feel overstuffed but somehow never outruns itself. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills" finds the boys discovering the possible identity of their mother (while the sinister Dr. Henry Killinger establishes himself as The Monarch's new number two) and the "Showdown at Cremation Creek" two-parter that closes out the season focuses on The Monarch's wedding to Dr. Girlfriend, an event that does not go unnoticed by Phantom Limb.
Oh, right, back to the DVD itself. There are 13 episodes total with episodes 1 - 7 on disc one and 8 - 13 on disc two. Disc two also houses the bonus features, except for the commentaries, obviously, which can be found with their respective episodes.
It's worth noting that the order of these episodes does not match the order of their original airings. When Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer finished writing the episodes they were concerned that there would be too many Monarch-centered episodes in a row and so they resequenced them for airing on Adult Swim. Unfortunately this caused a few continuity errors (Kim remembering Hank before she met him, a reference to the Impossible family attending a costume party together despite the fact that the family was torn apart in a previous episode), so they've now resequenced them again for the DVD.
I have absolutely no problem with this re-ordering of the season, especially as it was done with the conscious respect for series continuity. I doubt it'd bother many other people, either, but it is worth mentioning.
The packaging itself resembles a battered, creased and stained comic book, which, in the spirit of the season one DVD, makes our crew out to be far more heroic and adventuresome than they really are. Also the fold-out panoramic cover is, in all seriousness, one of the most beautiful DVD packages I've ever seen. Hands down.
The menus are presented in film-strip style, and they cycle through frame by frame when you choose an option...it's very effective, if a little sluggish. The "instructional video" music from season one loops in the background, and this is my only point of contention; I wanted more songs. Season one had a different backing track for every menu (making it easy for me to rip clean versions of incidental Venture music for my own private enjoyment), but this didn't account for all of the incidental music, and I was hoping that the rest (or at least more) of it would be used for season two's menus.
Instead we just get the instructional video theme, which I already had owing to its use on the season one menu...it's disappointing. J.G. Thirlwell's score for The Venture Bros. is a work of art in itself, and since we're not likely to get a soundtrack release this was the only way to hear it clean. They could at least have used the new updated theme from the instructional video in "Viva los Muertos." And I guess I'll never get to hear that absolutely gorgeous battle theme he wrote for season two without characters talking over it and henchmen moaning in pain.
Argh. Life is so unfair sometimes.
Commentary on all 13 episodes this time around, rather than the handful we got for season one. But this ends up being a definite case of "careful what you wish for," because the commentaries for season one were actually pretty informative...there was plenty of information about how Publick and Hammer got together, the geneses of certain characters, the writing process...
This time around...well...it's pretty meandering...which isn't a bad thing...but season one's commentaries got me thinking that this time around we'd get more of the same. Instead very little in-depth material is discussed, and the commentaries consist basically of the two writers goofing around together.
Also, for some reason Doc Hammer is clearly audible, but Jackson Publick is not. It sounds almost like he's in the back of the room and the microphone isn't picking him up. No other review I've read has mentioned this...was the commentary mixed for 5.1 or something and so my stereo speakers aren't playing it back properly? Why would anyone bother to mix a commentary for 5.1?
James Urbaniak (the voice of Dr. Venture and Phantom Limb) turns up for a few of the commentaries, as does Michael Sinterniklaas (the voice of Dean Venture). The guest appearances are frequently humorous but they basically just give Publick and Hammer more room for digression and less room for interesting revelations.
But I'm complaining about nothing. Their exchanges are very funny. In the commentary for "Escape to the House of Mummies (Part 2)" Doc Hammer acts out Master Billy Quizboy finding the Rusty Venture lunchbox on eBay...and it's just hilarious. If anything, it makes you realize how much Quizboy was under-used this season. Also, one of the writers (I forget which!) challenges the other to write the worst Venture Bros. script yet. The plot? It takes place at the bottom of the sea, and the only characters he can use are Dean Venture, Helper the robot, Otto Aquarius from "Past Tense" in season one, and a new character called Holy Diver.
I can't wait for that one.
There is, on the downside, a large amount of censoring on the commentaries...all for legal reasons rather than profanity...but it sure is frustrating to hear an entire conversation bleeped out when you've turned the commentary on for the sole purpose of hearing that conversation.
Tour of Astrobase Go:
A "documentary" that follows Publick and Hammer around their small studio, affectionately known as Astrobase Go, narrated by Pete White and Master Billy Quizboy. We are shown the various stations at which the duo assemble their episodes piece by piece, but it's obviously tongue-in-cheek. A few good laughs but slightly overlong. A serious documentary with cast member interviews or something would have been nice, but something tells me we are never likely to get that.
The only other extra in the set is an assortment of deleted scenes...a whole load of them this time around...season one had very few, and all of them were culled from early animatics. This time around you get plenty of scenes that were cut from late stages of production, meaning they are fully animated and colored. All of this is great stuff but, as usual, episodes run long and something needs to be cut.
A good deal of effort went into these scenes and it's nice to see them included here. I do kind of wish we had a card at the beginning explaining the scene and why it was cut (such as we had for the season one scenes) but that's basically down to me being technical and wanting to know absolutely everything about everything, especially things that don't matter.
Yes, I'm including a little section on what isn't here in this set. Why? Well, season one had more extras. And that makes season two's DVD box seem a bit light in the loafers.
With season one we got two fake documentaries, here we only have one. With season one we got the full-length pilot episode (with commentary) and the 15 minute Christmas special. There was only one pilot, and no Christmas special during season two, so I understand that this material simply didn't exist...but there was still plenty to include.
Why not some clean J.G. Thirlwell music cues? Maybe some of the original voice acting sessions for the pilot that James Urbaniak refers to in the commentary? A gallery of unused art for the DVD set?
And what about all the already-recorded audio material that was released onto the internet? At the end of season one, two audio clips were posted online--officially--detailing two phone calls that The Monarch made from prison...one to Dr. Girlfriend, and one to the henchmen. Why aren't those on the DVD?
Also, The Monarch recorded two Christmas songs that were officially posted online. With Dr. Girlfriend he sang Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth, and with the henchmen he sang Hard-Candy Christmas. Why not include those on the DVD?
But the most glaring oversight of all: the henchmen's wedding song! Again, officially released online, but it would be more than appropriate to include here, as it's featured in "Showdown at Cremation Creek, Part I" in the background...barely audible and cut to hell. Include the full version. Why not? It already exists...it adds value...and it's archived for all eternity.
I really hope some of this stuff makes it onto future sets, if only for the sake of having all the official Venture releases in a tangible format.
It's a little light in the extras department, but there's not much complaining you can do when the main feature is this good.
I look forward to seeing the direction the show will take after this season of twists and turns...this season that broke families apart, killed off some important minor characters, set up new dynamics and relationships between the characters, and possibly even upgraded Dr. Girlfriend to Dr. Wife.
Oh, and what did she say to The Monarch after the credits rolled on the final episode?
We'll just have to wait until next season to find out. Go, Team Venture.