The Venture Bros. returns to Adult Swim this Sunday at midnight, after an excruciating 924-day gap between new episodes (a 2012 Halloween episode notwithstanding). For certain fans, it never really left: Like Arrested Development, the show is a visual and verbal thicket, beckoning a second or third or 15th viewing. "Certain fans," though, refers to a relatively small group of people. The quick dialogue, manic interlocking plotlines, and fanboy dalliances like this Klaus Nomi cameo make the show exhilarating and addictively re-watchable for anyone who'll let themselves be sucked into its fully realized universe—even if they've condemned it to a midnight slot on a network that insists on airing solid blocks of Family Guy reruns almost every night. Creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer don't seem to want or even need an Arrested-sized following. But their series deserves one.
It's a show about super science, boy adventurers, and how David Bowie secretly runs a guild for super villains. But it's also about evil and obsession and American decline, about the tragic futility of bridging some of life's greatest emotional distances, and about the possibility of overcoming failure and regret.
Venture Bros. premiered in 2004 as a straightforward parody of Johnny Quest, but quickly transformed into something much greater. The titular brothers are the hapless teenage sons of Dr. Thaddeus S. "Rusty" Venture, a balding failure of a "super scientist" living off the reflected glory of his childhood, when his father, the late, great Dr. Jonas Venture, dragged him along on a series of super-science-ey escapades that were immortalized in a Quest-style children's cartoon.
Child celebrity and super science turned our antihero into a damaged wreck of an adult. This isn't the life that Rusty might have chosen for himself. But for deep and plainly Freudian reasons (check out a Season Three episode called "The Doctor Is Sin") it is the life that he's chosen for his children, the lovably inept Hank and Dean, who are conscripted into their father's dangerous yet often-pathetic misadventures and live on a '60s space-age super scientist's compound that they're basically never allowed to leave unsupervised. But this protectiveness might be for the best, as the Ventures have to fight off occasional attacks from The Monarch, a deeply neurotic and butterfly-themed villain who harbors a pathological hatred of Dr. Venture that I really hope the show never gets around to fully explaining—the most fascinating thing about Venture Bros. main villain is the simultaneous intensity and utter pointlessness of his rage. Luckily for the Ventures, the family bodyguard is a killing machine named Brock Sampson, the show's moral center and an agent of the hilariously named Office of Secret Intelligence, who is himself stuck in a bit of of a mid-career rut.
These core players live within a sprawling, Simpsons-like world. In Springfield, even a throwaway line from the Comic Book Guy could carry a universe of pathos. Similarly, it's hard to think of a recurring Venture Bros. character—of which there are several dozen—who's totally one-dimensional, or conjured simply to be the butt of easy jokes. Venture Bros. works hard for its laughs, so instead, viewers meet the likes of Dr. Henry Killinger, a freelance business consultant and Nietzschean ubermensch toting a Mary Poppins-style flying umbrella, and Billy Quizboy, a former boy genius who's repeatedly kidnapped in order to perform illegal surgeries. There's Dr. Jonas Venture, Jr., a (rather insufferable) super scientist badass who is everything his half-brother Rusty will never be. There's Dermott, Hank's doofus best friend, and Triana, dean's unrequited crush and, the closest thing to a normal person in the entire series—a self-aware inclusion that a lesser show might have found unnecessary.
A show about super science, boy adventurers, and how David Bowie secretly runs a guild for super villains.
Venture Bros.' brilliance lies partly in this ability to connect its Saturday morning cartoon zaniness back to things that are normal and tangible, much in the same way that say, The Larry Sanders Show used the absurdities of celebrity as an entry into psychological territory that was often disquietingly familiar. Behind everything, Venture Bros. is about a family coming to grips with itself (the Season Three finale is appropriately entitled "The Family that Slays Together, Stays Together"). I'm not really that interested in whether Monstroso and Molotov survived their tumble off a mountaintop in the fourth season finale. For me, the real cliffhanger had to do with Hank and Dean, interchangeable dunces who grow into frustrated, hormonal young men over the course of the season. In Season Four, we learn that, contrary to his dad's expectations, Dean would rather be a newspaper reporter than a super-scientist. An increasingly moody Hank spent all of the last season in open rebellion against a father who seemed to have given up on him—even as Dr. Venture starts to show some actual love for his problematic offspring, thanks to developments that are too complicated and spoiler-laden to explain (OK mild spoiler alert: clones are involved). Venture Bros. concerns itself with universal themes, but never in a way that's eye-rolling or mawkish. It earns its references to lowbrow sci fi, action cartoons, and The Human League—it can pull off convoluted in-jokes, because it isn't primarily about the in-jokes.