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.
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.
From one perspective, the show isn't really about the Venture family, either. As the grown-up inverse of the Johnny Quest-style techno-fantasies of childhood, The Venture Bros. is a kind of dark satire on the utopian promises of a more naïve age. Even the villains are lamer than you remember them being in kids' cartoons—the bureaucracy and legalism of the Guild of Calamitous Intent, basically the show's super villains' union, is one of Venture Bros. best recurring jokes. Dave Weigel explained this aspect of the series in the introduction to an April, 2007 interview with Venture co-creator Jackson Publick in Reason:
...as creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer frequently explain, the show is about failure. It's about the vision that inspired the science fiction wave of the 1950s and 1960s, the optimism of the space race, and the baby boomers' beloved, indulged idea that they could achieve anything they wanted.
These were ideas that satirized themselves. Awarding its 1966 "Man of the Year" award to the "Young Generation," Time magazine's editors saluted the boomers as the folks "who will land on the moon, cure cancer and the common cold, lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world, and, no doubt, write finis to poverty and war." Forty years later the boomers have disappointed no one as much as they've disappointed themselves, buckling in to watch movies about how great their parents were as they pop pills and build their Dennis Hopper-endorsed "Dream Books."
This explains why Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, the failed boy genius and father of the series' eponymous brothers Hank and Dean, is such a screw-up...
In the interview, Publick gives off the impression that his show is all about demystification and decline—"I'm still waiting on my jetpack," he told Weigel. Ensuing seasons revealed that there's much more to it than Publick let on. Yes, Rusty's a screwup, as are most other characters in the series. But one of Season Four's more interesting (if subtle) developments was the discovery that he's almost certainly a better man than his more famous and accomplished father. Hank and Dean are idiots, but they're good, honest idiots. and in the messed up villains-vs.-scientists world of the show, their idiocy often becomes its own kind of heroism. The characters are just too numerous and too wonderful—Phantom Limb, Henchman 21, Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, Shore Leave, the list goes on and on—for me to believe that Publick and Hammer created them just to evoke disillusionment or malaise. Venture Bros. has the same slacker optimism as The Simpsons: Springfield is kind of an objectively horrible place, after all. But it lives and breathes, and that's what vindicates it and everyone who lives there. After four seasons, there's still a strong sense of some coming redemption for Hank, Dean and Rusty—and the Monarch—even if it won't be through super-science or super-villainy.
Publick, Hammer, and co-collaborator Ben Edlund (from Firefly) have spent more than two and a half years making the show's fifth season. It's all that Publick and Hammer have been doing since then, which comes out to just over two months of labor per new episode. If the new season is close to as good as the rest of the series, the wait will have been worth every agonizing second. Venture Bros. will probably never become popular enough to justify the live-action movie adaptation that I'm constantly casting in my head (Current lineup: Mickey Rourke as Brock Samson, Benedict Cumberbatch as Phantom Limb, Peter Dinklage as Jonas Venture, Jr., Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg as Hank and Dean, Stephen Colbert as Dr. Richard Impossible, whom he voiced in seasons one and two—and James Urbaniak as Dr. Venture.). But even if there's a ceiling to the show's popularity, future obsessives are out there. I'd like to think that there's a critical mass of people flipping channels late at night, or maybe even reading entertainment columns on magazine websites, who are days or maybe just hours away from one of the most intense and satisfying television addictions of their lives.