The Venture Bros.: The Buddy System
Season three continues its shoulder-first plow through excellency with The Buddy System, in which Hank makes a friend, Dean kicks some ass, Quizboy gets mauled and a child gets disemboweled by a gorilla. (Oh, right, and Brock might have met his son, only he doesn't know it.) Only Rusty's Day Camp for Boy Adventurers could go so disgustingly, horribly, perfectly wrong.
Bob Dylan sang a lovely little song about a man who cared not to come up any higher as he'd rather pull you down into the hole that he's in. Such could be the motto for Rusty Venture's day camp (in Latin, obviously), as our friend Dr. Venture, incapable of living up to the promise of his family's good name, decides rather to drag it down to his level, cheapening and exploiting it for financial gain.
It's not so much the stench of failure that hangs over Venture's "pride of yesteryear" day camp...it's the much more difficult to stomach scent of squandered potential. The booths and attractions are all run by characters who could have gone so much further in life, if not for their own bad decisions, or the bad decisions of their families. Rusty's day camp is ostensibly a fun afternoon for adventurous children, but is better described as a recruitment facility for tomorrow's disappointments.
The Buddy System alternates between almost unrelated skits in which many minor characters get a real chance to shine (including Billy Quizboy, the "Ghost" "Pirate" "Captain" and The Order of the Triad) and a strange passive plot that involves a mysterious teenager who is obviously playing some significant part in the episode (in case you don't pick up on the fact that all of the characters are reacting to him in tellingly uncommon ways there is a helpful music sting that accompanies most of his appearances, which isn't all that different from the sting you hear when The Monarch appears in other episodes).
On my first watch of the episode I laughed a lot--and pretty much all of the laughter was immensely satisfying--but it felt a bit overstuffed. There seemed like there was too much happening. Various booths and demonstrations. A Monarch/Moppet subplot. The teenager. A gorilla attack. Jonny Quest and Dr. Z. Even Sgt. Hatred turns up at the end to beat up on Dr. Venture's shrubbery. It seemed like too much.
A second viewing, however, made it clear to me that, far from being overstuffed, the episode is actually expertly paced and plotted. It has the perfect mix of advancement and digression. This episode manages to feature a lot of material without it ever seeming short on time. Last season's 20 Years to Midnight, by contrast, featured just a tad too much material for its running time. The result was a great episode, yes, but it did feel a little uncertain of itself.
This time around, though, we manage to spend a lot of time with main characters, secondary characters and a new character without it feeling unbalanced at all. Admittedly, the stuff with Dermott seemed a little heavy the first time through. It's interesting to see Hank's immediate idolization of his new friend, and his attempts to imitate him are both hilarious and appropriate from a characterization standpoint. (In front of the children, Dermott announces his name to Dr. Venture as "Pat McCrotch." Positively bursting with excitement to play along, Hank then gigglingly gives his own name as "Walter Melon.") And Dean ultimately pounding the tar out of the boy is going to rank high on the list of All-Time Greatest Venture Moments, no matter how far down the line such a list is assembled. But one does have to wonder why we're spending so much time with this new character, and why it's important that he's upsetting the normal operating dynamic of the show.
Well, the ending gives it away: Dermott was sent to the day camp by his mother so that he could meet his real father. And, sure enough, he ends up having met him.
But who was his father?
The very first thing I thought was that the woman in the shadows--Dermott's mother--was Myra, but my girlfriend corrected me...the voice was wrong, and her face was differently shaped. Oh well...embarrassing for me, but that's what happens when a show catches you so effectively off-guard. She immediately assumed that Brock was Dermott's father, and on a rewatch it certainly becomes pretty obvious that this is at least what we are supposed to believe.
It certainly does make the Dermott scenes resonate differently. On an initial viewing, the scene in which Dermott heckles Brock during a judo demonstration plays entirely for comedy. Brock is unused to anything but solid admiration--especially from children--and he's visibly shaken when Dermott both back-talks him and indirectly threatens him. Brock was never much one for words, but it's painful to watch him falter here. It's not that he can't think of what to say in return, it's that he can't even believe any of this is happening. The boy is affecting him deeply. Why?
A second viewing casts the situation in a whole other light. Dermott is lashing out at the father who has been absent for his entire life. Brock (owing to a very wise decision by writer Doc Hammer) seems to have no idea that he even has a son. He is loaded with conflicting and confusing emotions. The first time through you will laugh. The second time you are going to want to cry. Hell, you might even cry. And you know what? That's just fine.
It's an emotional episode all around, and we get to witness a perfectly believable--if otherwise unpredictable--outburst by Dean when Dermott makes some inappropriate sexual comments about Triana. Yes, Dean may be hitting like a girl. Yes, he might be stuttering and weeping the entire time. Yes, that was snot dripping out of his nose during the assault. And yet--and yet!--how satisfying was it to watch him pound on that boy? It was a triumph for Dean Venture, an absolutely perfect character moment. He saw Triana being disrespected, and that's all it took to turn him into a hero. He may have been sheltered his entire life, he may be socially awkward and terrified of conflict of every type, but he's got a good heart, and it's no wonder that Triana seems to be slowly falling for him.
Why wouldn't she, after all? She makes clear in Victor. Echo. November. that she knows Dr. Venture is forcing his sons into this sheltered life. She may even know that Dean has been killed and cloned so many times, unbeknownst to him, making him even more sympathetic in her eyes. Whatever failings he may have he's a good kid, and he leapt to defend her honor in spite of his own terror of the boy who offended her. She probably pities him, but she wants to see him triumph. What a wonderful, perfect, excellent season this is turning out to be
I should probably wrap this up as there isn't much more I can do except gush about the truly excellent character choices made during the course of this episode, but let me just touch on a few final things.
1) Anybody who thought Billy Quizboy was going to be treated more sympathetically after we learned his backstory in The Invisible Hand of Fate is going to be very disappointed. (Venture even lectures him after the poor guy gets mauled by a gorilla!)
2) Dr. Venture is officially the worst man who has ever lived...he cloned a boy who was killed (through Venture's own selfishness and negligence) while on a tour of the compound and then ended the episode by handing the half-formed clone to the boy's parents. Jesus Christ.
3) Only the Order of the Triad could take a presentation given by a magic man, a necromancer and a guy who chops the heads off of black vampires and wears their teeth as a necklace and make it completely lame. Orpheus is truly Mr. Rogers in a cape. And you know what? I'd have it no other way.