Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

REVIEW: Adult Swim, Part the Second

Another edition of my sleep-deprived rantings about Adult Swim. Herein I discuss two shows I watch religiously, yet feel quite ambivalent toward:

Venture Bros.

Created by some dude from Connecticut who calls himself "Jackson Publick," this cartoon poses the question that at least a few of us have asked: what happened to Jonny Quest when he grew up? All those "boy adventurer" characters that were very popular in 1960's adventure comic and cartoons and movies, who were there primarly to give the pre-teen audience someone with which to identify, surely they must have grown up. What would they have become? How would life treat them? According to the creators of this show, not very well. Jackson Publick and his cohorts - among them Ben Edlund of "The Tick" fame - posit a life for the boy adventurer similar to that of the former child actor: once they hit puberty, all their prospects go down the drain.

Specifically, "Venture Brothers" revolves around the life of Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, former boy adventurer and son of Jonas Venture, legendary square-jawed scientist/action hero. Set in the modern era, Jonas Venture is long dead, Rusty is in his fortires and painfully aware of the fact that he peaked at 12. Maladjusted thanks to his atypical upbringing, and embittered by the fact that his father was such a godlike figure that he can't possibly live up to him, Rusty makes a living cashing in on the Venture name, selling his father's old inventions and doing the odd bit of government R&D. He has a bodyguard, a deranged secret agent named Brock Sampson, a decrepit robot servant called H.E.L.Per, and twin sons Hank and Dean. Where exactly Hank and Dean came from has been a running gag from the beginning of the show. Was Rusty married at some point? Did he just grow them in a lab? Even after a climactic reveal in the second season premiere, the mystery remains. Rusty's sons prove to be more of a bother to him than a joy; they're a pair of idiots, basically, completely incapable of relating to the real world in any healthy way - then again, they were raised by Rusty, so I can't really blame them. Rounding out the cast is Byron Orpheus, some manner of overdramatic magician ala Doctor Strange, and Rusty's self-proclaimed arch enemy The Monarch, a pathetic little man in a butterfly costume with an equally pathetic army of faceless minions.

There is much to love in the show, not the least is the thread of utter WEIRDNESS that runs through it. So much completely random crap happens, and it's executed with precision. Someone on the "Venture Brothers" writing staff is evidently a big David Bowie fan, as references to his music can be found everywhere in the show (the Thin White Duke himself - or a reasonable facsimile thereof - even appeared in the second season finale, in a completely random way). The one-off villians are completely out there, in tried and true adventure comic tradition: Phantom Limb, a floating torso with invisible arms and legs; White Noise, a redneck composed entirely of static electricity; King Gorilla, a rapist primate with a heart of gold...the list goes on. The Monarch's lieutenant, "Doctor Girlfriend," is a stunning brunette with an incongruously deep masculine voice (done by Jackson Publick himself). This is never explained. And on some weird level, it makes her even more attractive...

But while there is much to love, there is also much to dislike. There's a real darkness to the show, a very depressing undercurrent to the Venture family dynamic. Failure and squandered potential are recurring themes: Rusty Venture lives in the crumbling remains of his father's super-scientific compound, too squashed by bitterness and antisocial tendencies to even be a good father to his sons, let alone prove himself a worthy heir to the Venture legacy. Brock Sampson, super-capable secret agent and assassin, is little more than a glorified nanny, and his psychotic rages in defense of his family are all the more frightening since they stem from his frustration. The Monarch is a total failure as a supervillian, incapable of winning the respect of even the most pathetic of his minions. Never mind the fact that he can never capture or kill Rusty; Rusty Venture is barely even aware of who he is. No character in the show is happy, or has lived up to the potential they could have had. None of them are even well-adjusted enough to live normal lives. In a sense, "Venture Brothers" can kind of be thought of as a deconstruction of modern society. As a society we are no longer capable of building things; we can only get by in the shadow of giants. Perhaps in a decade or two, "Venture Brothers" will be seen as a brilliant work of satire. Today it just seems too relevant for comfort.

Robot Chicken

Here's another one that's almost too smart for its own good. Created by Seth Green, character actor and Geek Culture Demigod, it takes the premise of a sort of stop-motion sketch comedy show. Nearly every sketch is a parody or sendup of some great moment of pop culture: from Star Wars to anime to cult horror films. Green and his merry band of actors and writer pull a lot of tricks out of their bags and a lot of trivia out of their collective behinds to create the sketches. Normally they're done with actions figures, animated in stop-motion style, as they animate a sketch loosely based on the program the action figures. It's quite hard to describe; it really needs to be seen to be understood.

Again, there are moments of sheer brilliance in the show, as they twist a nacent concept into something new and self-reflexively funny. The greatest sketch I have ever seen involved an imagined phone conversation between Darth Vader and Palpatine shortly after the first Death Star exploded. The entire sequence plays out like a teenager telling his father he wrecked the car; it's nothing short of brilliant. "Just build another one?! With what money?! You have an ATM in that torso?!" Fantastic.

But again, there is an undercurrent of mean-spiritedness that runs through the show. I think this is a symptom of Geek culture. Geeks can be very vindictive people, you see. We take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable. Oftentimes a sketch will play that seems like it had its origin in a college dorm at about 2am. Something on par with Smurf reproductive cycles or Velma Dinkley's sexual orientation. And sometimes that's just not what you want to see. Precious childhood memories shattered and all. Did we really need to see the Voltron lions humping? Not really. Did we need to see a farting contest between Skeletor and Cobra Commander? I certainly didn't. But I guess it looked funny on paper.

Whatever the reason, it's certainly weird and funny enough late at night, when you're in the right mindset to enjoy it. Which, I guess, is the whole point.


Blogger James said...

I love the Venture Brothers because it's so dark. I agree with your assessment of the show, and I think it's genuinely great television because it gets at something that isn't discussed. A lot of the humor in the show comes from the arrested development of American culture, but it goes deeper than the lame Family Guy "Hey, remember Good Times!" non-jokes. And for the darkness that is present there is still plenty of stuff that anyone would find funny.

Robot Chicken lost me somewhere. I thought the first season was brilliant, and it still has moments, but aside from going for the easy jokes as you mentioned, and all too frequently going for the Family Guy style non-joke, there is a touch of frat boy mean spiritedness that just doesn't sit well with me.

9:58 PM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Marxo Grouch said...

Just catching up on some back isues here.

I have to say I disagree with you slightly on The Venture Brothers. (Keeping in mind that I haven't seen the entire run of the show.) I really don't get a sense of any "depressing undercurrent." It seems to me that any frustration the characters may have felt regarding their lot in life is something of the past, something they've dealt with and resigned themselves to. Witness, for example, how effortlessly The Monarch adapts to prison life, despite being not at all the type you'd expect to at all. I actually think it just makes the show that much funnier.

7:21 PM, March 17, 2007  

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