In a year of seemingly infinite suck, the cancellation of The Venture Bros. may not represent the most devastating thing to be sacrificed to 2020’s ravenous maw. For avid fans, though—myself included—the news still stung. Over seven seasons and sixteen years (or seventeen, if you want to include the 2003 pilot, which aired a year and a half before the first season began), we’ve watched the show go from a simple, adult-themed parody á la Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law to something richer, more complex, and—oh man, I can’t believe I’m saying this about a series that featured an iron-jawed villain named Baron Ünderbheit—surprisingly moving. We’d endured extended interregnums as Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick (né Christopher McCulloch), the show’s creators (and pretty much sole writers, as well as making up a fair chunk of its voice cast and post-production team), labored to crank out each (occasionally awkwardly-truncated) season.
Yet, here we are: Left hanging on season 7’s now-broken promise that, “The Venture Bros. will return.” And what made the news such a bummer was that we knew, in defiance of the maxim that says that it’s all downhill for a TV series after the third or fourth season (are you listening to us, The Simpsons?), that there was still more story to tell. There were still more opportunities to see whether Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture (voiced by James Urbaniak)—former boy adventurer, inheritor of the vast (if stylistically trapped-in-the-Sixties) Venture Industries empire, and flailingly bad super-scientist—would overcome his childhood trauma and the tunnel vision of his own ego to become a more empathic human; whether Rusty’s twin, teenage sons, the puppy-dog overconfident Hank (McCulloch) and the delicate and increasingly cynical Dean (Michael Sinterniklaas), would cast off their cosseted naivety and engage the world as fully realized adults; whether their bodyguard, the “Swedish murder machine” Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton), would ever stop believing that the solution to any problem was non-stop carnage (oh, God, we hope not), and whether Rusty’s chief adversary, the butterfly-infatuated The Monarch (McCulloch), would fully reconcile his blind obsession with vanquishing his lifelong foe and finally accept that his enmity stemmed from the fact that the two of them have more in common than either would ever wish to admit.
The secret sauce of The Venture Bros. was that, for all its raunchy humor, its abundance of references both fannish and obscure—yeah, Star Wars, Marvel Comics, etc, but also Stiv Bators and Henry Darger—and plot-lines that included Team Venture squaring off against a megalomaniacal Walt Disney surrogate and The Monarch seeking to vanquish his sworn enemy via corporate takeover, the show had heart. Rick and Morty can revel in the brilliance of Justin Roiland’s and Dan Harmon’s increasingly rococo storytelling, but the cynicism of its creators trapped those characters in a world from which there was no real growth, and no possibility of escape. With The Venture Bros, you got the feeling that Publick and Hammer actually care about these silly refugees from a Hannah-Barbera action universe, and were eager to explore their struggles to evolve beyond their present conditions—with lots of exploding gas-pods and malfunctioning shrink rays along the way, of course.
The world and character roster of The Venture Bros. was vast and deep, which raises issues with any attempt to condense its full run down to a scant ten episodes. As a result, the list below is going to be more personal and idiosyncratic—these are the episodes that tickled or challenged me—rather than a compendium of the series’ key moments. Major characters may be missed (sorry, Jonas Jr.), key sub-plots might not be noted. But the episodes below present my portrait of the show at its best and frequently most affecting, and give witness to why some of us mourn the knowledge that we will never again hear the rousing cry, “Go Team Venture!”
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean (S1:E9)
“You have nothing else to do but harp on Dr. Venture? Why haven’t you tried the world domination thing? You afraid of the big leagues?”
“Please, how stupid do I look to you? World domination! I’ll leave that to the religious nuts and the Republicans, thank you.”
The best-laid plans of evil butterflies and men… No sooner does The Monarch have Team Venture at his mercy—trapped in the Amazon and destined to suffer the agonies of the dread candiru fish, which may or may not instinctually embed itself in a victim’s urethra (actual science says not)—than Dean throws the whole plotline off-track by complaining about an excruciating pain in his ‘nads. This gives Dr. Venture the opportunity to call upon his encyclopedic knowledge of the by-laws for The Guild of Calamitous Intent—the major governing body for arch villains—and force The Monarch to take Brock and Hank hostage while Rusty returns Dean to the Venture compound for a medical consult with the middle-aged, hydrocephalic genius Master Billy Quizboy (Hammer) and his albino friend and trailer-mate Pete White (McCulloch).
To this point, the exploits of Team Venture had adhered relatively closely to the Jonny Quest template—there was a trip to a malfunctioning space station and an encounter with (fake) ghost pirates, among others. With “Are You There, God?” the series began laying the groundwork for the growing complexity of its storytelling. Not only did we get our first inklings of Dean’s disaffection with the super-science lifestyle—courtesy of a case of acute testicular torsion—but the ep. also started dropping hints that the relationships between the good guys and the bad guys was as much symbiotic as adversarial—with strict rules as to how each side was supposed to conduct itself, and Brock Samson, having discovered that life within The Monarch’s flying cocoon wasn’t quite living up to the highest standards of arch-villainy, deciding to shake off the lair’s cobwebs with some much-needed mayhem. After a few preliminary steps in earlier episodes, this is first time we really see these characters struggling within the clichés of the adventure ecosphere they inhabit. It wouldn’t be the last.
Escape to the House of Mummies Part II (S2:E4)
“I gotta admit, I always wanted to get Edgar Allan Poe in a head lock. That thing is like a pumpkin!”
Picking up in media adventum, Dr. Venture, after much goading from Hank, Dean, and Brock, calls upon the services of the formidable necromancer—and Venture compound tenant—Dr. Byron Orpheus (Steven Rattazzi) to sabotage the mechanics of the quasi-Aztec deathtrap in which Team Venture is imprisoned, allowing Doc to return to the compound to devise some means for helping the still-trapped adventurers escape. Which of course means that as soon as Rusty’s landed, he’s distracted, getting into a pissing contest with Orpheus over the superiority of science v. the paranormal. Meanwhile, Hank, Dean, and Brock continue their time-travelling adventures, eventually recruiting the likes of Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Caligula, and a reanimated corpse that Hank adorably names Mummy Mum Muggy. It doesn’t help. At all.
BTW: There is no Part I.
Venture Bros. creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick have said that one of the operating principles behind The Venture Bros. was to envision what super-scientists and boy adventurers do in the times between their adventures. “House of Mummies” is about as close as the series ever gets to showing Team Venture in action, even as the episode almost immediately fractures into tangents. The adventure part is glimpsed in random hunks—one sequence directly references one of Jonny Quest’s more unfortunately racist moments, while at another point Dean’s decapitated, but still animate, head is discovered inexplicably perched on an altar. Meanwhile Doc’s work with Billy Quizboy and Mr. White to develop a shrink ray is derailed by schoolboy antics, and Orpheus tries to hone his own shrinking powers by seeking the help of the void-dwelling guru, The Master (H. Jon Benjamin)—here taking the multi-headed and compulsively onanistic form of Cerberus—only to come away schooled in how to better connect with his emo daughter, Triana (Lisa Hammer). A lot of vulnerabilities come to the fore in the process—Triana confesses her terror of sharing her bedroom with a blazing portal to the afterworld, while Billy bucks up a depressed Doc by showing off his much-cherished, Rusty Venture lunchbox (bought on eBay). Touching stuff. Too bad a preview of Part III shows Team Venture still struggling to survive, their predicament completely forgotten by Doc.
Showdown at Crematon Creek Parts I & II (S2:E12 & 13)
“Run orphans, be free! And have your own room, and maybe not have to live in fear of costume guys trying to kill you!”
It’s the wedding of the season! Or the paranormal sleepover of the week. Or the bloody coup of the year. Or the heroic fantasy quest of your dreams. Or—you guessed it—it’s all of them, packed into two frenetic episodes. The Monarch finally pops the question to his three-pack-a-day-voiced squeeze, Dr. Girlfriend (Hammer), thus freeing them from the need for afternoon delights in seedy motel rooms but also invoking the ire of Girlfriend’s now-ex boyfriend, Phantom Limb (Urbaniak). The wedding day goes off the rails almost immediately when The Monarch’s minions, stoked with bachelor party liquid courage, kidnap Doc, Hank, Dean, and Brock as a wedding present, breaking The Monarch’s promise to the future Dr. Mrs. The Monarch (there’s gotta be a better way of writing that) that he’ll stop arching the super-scientist.
Fortunately, Team Venture is surprisingly willing to go with The Monarch’s cover story that Doc was invited as best man, with Hank bonding with Henchman 21 (Hammer) over the latter’s cache of collectibles, and Dean suffering a psychotic break when he traps himself in the bowels of The Monarch’s flying cocoon. Further complications: the star/villain-studded ceremonies (Truckules and David Bowie?) are interrupted by a Guild attack force led by Phantom Limb, and Dr. Orpheus and his Order of the Triad—consisting of gay sorcerer The Alchemist (Dana Snyder) and Blackula-hunter Jefferson Twilight (Charles Parnell)—may or may not make it to the rescue in time, depending on whether the Nien Nunb they’ve conjured from a trading card is able to pilot Rusty’s X-1 jet.
Oh, and for the record, Dr. Girlfriend’s first name is Sheila.
Over the span of two episodes, “Showdown at Cremation Creek” crowds in a ton of incident—including the summary execution, courtesy of Phantom Limb, of a number of super-villains seen in the first two seasons; a reference to Doc’s previous encounter with Dr. Girlfriend; and the confirmation, in defiance of comedy convention, that The Monarch is one helluva lover—and again explores the surprising symbiosis between opposing sides, with Brock taking command of Dr. Girlfriend’s rescue mission and whipping The Monarch’s minions into a suicidal frenzy that turns them from butterflies to “murder-flies.” And while Dean’s comforting descent into a Neverending Story satire takes up a relatively minor portion of the story, it builds upon Publick’s and Hammer’s ongoing exploration of the psychic trauma that’s inflicted on boy adventurers from the cumulative effects of week-after-week kidnappings, culminating in Dean’s hysterical diatribe against guns, rocket ships, and Venus flytraps. Not only do the good guys, and the good-bad guys, win in this season-closer, but we leave with a clear notion that things are being kicked into a higher gear for both the main characters and the series itself.
The Invisible Hand of Fate (S3:E3)
“Please do not be alarmed. We are about to engage… the nozzle.”
Team Venture—all except Brock Samson—take a back seat for a flashback episode tracing the origins of Master Billy Quizboy. From his disgrace on a national game show after Mr. White rigs his answers, to a hard-scrabble existence in the flesh-pits of back-alley trivia nights, to recruitment by Brock and the genderfluid Colonel Hunter Gathers (McCulloch) into the Office of Secret Intelligence (and a fateful encounter with…the nozzle), to Billy’s involvement in the calamitous experiment that turns the deformed Professor Fantomas into Phantom Limb, this episode not only shows how the “boy” genius got to where he is—including how he acquired his eyepatch and cyborg hand—but reveals the histories of a notable portion of the series’ supporting cast, and how they all somehow managed to drift into Rusty’s orbit.
The word “cheating” gets big play in ”The Invisible Hand of Fate,” and in its repeated invocations, explores how Billy Quizboy was manipulated and betrayed by the people in whom he placed his trust. From Mr. White’s oily cajoling to Brock’s and Gathers’ threats to Fantomas’ duplicity, the boy genius who only wanted to excel on his own terms becomes marginalized even among the “freaks” he finds himself grouped with in the professor’s class. You get your laughs with “Invisible Hand,” sure—including a bloodthirsty retooling of the G.I. Joe opening titles—but the closing moments, set to a sensitive bit of library music that Hammer and Publick were startled to discover their fans loved, are enough to make you shed a tear for the lost idealism of one wayward quizboy.
The Buddy System (S3:E5)
“If you touch something that melts your fingers off, tell your buddy. If you get a face-full of burning hydrofluoric acid, it’s your buddy that drags you to one of the many eyewash stations.”
Hey, kids! How’d you like to meet a washed-up, money grubbing ex-boy adventurer? Or be bored by incoherent safety lectures? Or risk being mauled by a rampaging gorilla? Of course you wouldn’t! Well, tough shit, you’re going to Rusty’s Day Camp for Boy Adventurers, anyway—Doc’s gotta find some way to keep the lights on at the compound. In fine Venture fashion, the event is less an opportunity to weave lanyards and play softball as it is a breeding ground for psychic trauma, with the adult Action Johnny (the series’ lawsuit-free version of Jonny Quest) undergoing major meltdowns before a throng of eight-year-olds, Dr. Venture leading a tour into a dangerously neglected enclosed ecosphere, and everybody trying to cope with the uninvited arrivals of Sgt. Hatred —Doc’s new arch-enemy—Dr. Mrs. The Monarch’s Murderous Moppets, and, most significantly, Dermott (Hammer), an obnoxious teenager who’s way too old for the proceedings and way too determined to get under Brock’s skin.
Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer have made no secret about how profoundly their fan base hated Dermott Fictel, and how the creators were determined to keep him as a major supporting character. And, fans be damned, Hammer and Publick were right, and for the best of reasons: He’s the friend every teen has, the joker who tries to bullshit his way through every situation, but who also encourages his cohorts to break free from parental apron strings and take risks. (Frequently stupid risks, sure, but character-building, in their own way.) Not surprisingly, Hank instantly bonds with Dermott, and the latter’s assholery will serve as a major, empowering force for the blonder Venture for the rest of the series. Watching Hank awkwardly trying to sass his old man—and being promptly shut down with the threat of the super-science version of corner time—is about as precious as watching a kitten trying to get the jump on its mother.
Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel (S4:E1)
“Hey, Hank. Killed Hitler.”
In the bloody aftermath of the season 3 closer, “The Family that Slays Together, Stays Together,” everything is pretty much in flux. A gravely wounded Brock goes on the run from the Office of Secret Intelligence after getting H.E.L.P.eR’s (“Soul-Bot”) head surgically implanted into his chest as an artificial heart (Tony Stark is probably filing a patent suit right now), while Henchman 21 seeks out Dr. Venture to clone the remains of his friend, the slain Henchman 24, even as the Doc is commissioned by Nazis—real Nazis, with the uniforms and the Colonel Klink accent and everything—to clone Hitler from the DNA of an ill-tempered bulldog. Meanwhile, Sgt. Hatred is recruited by the O.S.I, forcibly reprogrammed and assigned to replace Brock as the Ventures’ bodyguard, and tries to bond with Hank and Dean. Hank, for his part, is now sporting Brock’s jacket and is not quite ready to accept Hatred into the fold, while Dean is too busy trying to adopt bulldog-Hitler—whom he’s renamed Giant Boy Detective—as his pet. As for Hunter Gathers, and Molotov Cocktease, and Messrs. Doe and Cardholder, and, and, and… C’mon, I’ve gotta break for lunch sometime.
Less a self-contained narrative and more a setting-up of stakes for the coming eps, this season premiere teems—and maybe over-teems—with enough incident to make a casual viewer giddy. And that’s before you discover that Hammer and Publick have decided to give Christopher Nolan a headache by splitting the timeline into interleaving fragments—Brock’s story moving forward in time, the Ventures’ going backward—with only the titles of some of Marvel’s more obscure franchises and the superimposed CGC rating of a rare comic book providing hints as to how the temporal river is flowing. (Not a collector myself, I fortunately sussed out the gimmick about half-way through. Good thing, too: The capper gag when Hank is handed the comic is a pip.) “Blood of the Father…” lacks a bit in emotional gravitas, but it stands as one of the most audacious bits of storytelling that television —animated or otherwise—has ever seen.
Everybody Comes to Hank’s (S4:E12)
“You have to solve this case! That’s what the sign is for! That’s why you have the hat, that’s why you have the whip! Wait… Why do you have a whip?”
“Came with the hat. It’s a detective’s whip.”
While Dean is off in New York City working an unpaid internship at Impossible Industries (that will, of course, go very, very wrong in the next episode), Hank is flexing his entrepreneurial muscles and expanding HankCo. into a one-stop mecca for all your Venture compound needs, i.e: Rusty’s remotes, Rusty’s shoes, and Rusty’s batteries for Rusty’s remotes. Plus a café that specializes in Pop-Tarts, a desk for notary services, and another that lets Hank assume the role of hard-boiled, unlicensed, and fatally unskilled detective when Dermott lets drop that he suspects Brock may be his father. With The Alchemist tagging along just for fun, and the investigation seen mostly from Hank’s romantic point-of-view, all the stylistic trappings come to the table: black and white cinematography, the opportunity to rough up an uncooperative witness (too bad it’s Dermott, Hank’s own client), and a dalliance with Dermott’s older sister, Nikki (Kate McKinnon), who, as a femme, may be fatale in a way James M. Cain never imagined.
It seems an immutable law of television that if you let a series run long enough, sooner or later the producers are going to do the noir thing. The hook with “Everybody Comes to Hank’s” is that it not only indulges Hank’s predilection for trying on various over-ambitious facades, but that, outside of Hank’s literally black-and-white viewpoint, the world is completely unchanged, with everyone else clearly amused at his tough-guy persona. The solution to the mystery of Dermott’s lineage casts a stark counterpoint to Hank’s rosy role-playing, and shades a certain cast member in his worst light, modulated only slightly by a small shred of grace. But the darkness of the episode’s finale is compensated somewhat by a post-credits sequence in which a memory-erased Hank watches a video in which he informs himself that, yes, he’s had, in Hank’s phrasing, “sssssexxxxxx!!!”
“You know, I’ve known Rusty for, like, twenty years, and I have never seen him like this.”
“What, happy? I know. It’s kind of creepy.”
What could be better than taking the X-1 to the sun-kissed, Greek isle of Spanikos, to enjoy the delights of Spanakopita! (No, not the spinach pie, but the inhabitants’ annual festival of… something or other.) From the viewpoint of Rusty, who was first introduced to the celebration as a child and has been coming back every year since attaining adulthood, there could be nothing to top such rustic, if rather peculiar, revelries. This time around, he’s dragged Sgt. Hatred, Billy Quizboy, and Mr. White along with him—maybe not the best idea, since Billy’s presence has lured his arch-nemesis, the ultra-wealthy toxic nerd Augustus St. Cloud (McCulloch), to the island for the express purpose of spoiling the quizboy’s fun, while Hatred begins to smell something fishy that has nothing to do with an ocean-bound economy and everything to do with festivities that seem oddly tailored to cater to one, single, wealthy American.
As has been clearly mapped out over the four prior seasons, Rusty Venture is—not too put too fine a point on it—a right bastard. But he’s a bastard with some notable, and occasionally touching vulnerabilities. Seeing him joyously capering with his Greek hosts—and learning that the whole concept of Spanakopita! (it just feels naked without the exclamation point) stems from a kidnap attempt gone wrong and the islanders trying to soothe the feelings of a frightened little boy whose father would rather retrieve Jackie Onassis from the clutches of Robot L. Ron Hubbard than rescue his own son—makes you feel for a man desperate to snatch any shred of happiness wherever he can. Rusty may sink to the depths of morality another time—and, don’t worry, he will—but in this one, brief moment, we can all join him in raising a plateful of phyllo-wrapped spinach and feta, and joyfully crying, “Spanakopita!”
Faking Miracles (S6:E3)
“Say, did Blue Morpho ever have his own… comic book?”
“Canceled after six issues. Not Kirby’s best work.”
Just because you’re the recipient of a stunning legacy doesn’t mean you’ll know what to do with it. The Monarch is busy trying to reconcile Gary’s (formerly Henchman 21) news that his father—ostensibly a boozy butterfly collector—was actually Blue Morpho (Paul F. Tompkins), a Green Hornet-like crime fighter and—even more uncomfortably—colleague of Dr. Jonas Venture, Rusty’s father. That stuff will have to wait, though, since Dr. Mrs. The Monarch—newly inducted into the Council of Thirteen—is trying get her husband back into the Guild’s good graces by urging him to attend a cocktail party hosted by fellow council member, Wide Wale (Hal Lublin).
Rusty, meanwhile, deploys Billy and Mr. White to root around the basement of the Manhattan-based Ven-Tech Tower for anything that can be quickly rushed to market. The best they can come up with is a hover pod that causes sterility and a puddle of remote-control nanobots that immediately escape and invade Dean via the urethra, messing up the teen’s attempts to cram for his college entrance exam. For his part, Hank, in his new gig as pizza delivery boy (and piloting one of those fatal hover pods), has his first delivery run land him square in the middle of the Guild party, and face-to-face with his current infatuation, Wide Wale’s amphibious, spoiled daughter, Sirena (Cristin Milioti). Composer J.G. Thirlwell had delivered fantastic scores all through the series’ run, but for sheer hilarity, nothing quite tops the silly, tinkly leitmotif he’s whipped up for whenever Hank lands eyes on his crush.
Publick and Hammer are based in New York, so moving the action for the final two seasons to the Big Apple gave them copious opportunities to cram in area-accurate details, from Sirena’s Mafia princess attitude (especially her “Hail Mary” as Hank executes a surprisingly successful—for him—act of gallantry), to the fact that the villainous Wide Wale’s apartment building looks—with no little irony from our present viewpoint—like the Trump International Hotel and Tower on Columbus Circle. Getting Team Venture out of the frozen-in-time security of their compound and onto Manhattan’s potholed streets turns out to be a good move. For the show, I mean…not necessarily for the characters themselves.
The Bellicose Proxy (S7:E6)
“Come in, Brock! We have a level one Guild arching threat.”
“So? What do you want, an aspirin or something?”
From tiny grudges, mighty arch-rivalries grow. Still seeking to score points with the Guild, The Monarch and Gary volunteer to “Big Villain” newly inducted level one bad-guy Augustus St. Cloud as he prepares to take his rivalry with Doctor Billy Quizboy to the next level. To their dismay, they find themselves mentoring a coddled nerd with too much money to spend on his prop collection and the malevolent bearing of a frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity 3. Meanwhile, Doc and Brock, used to swimming in the deep-end of the arching game, take maybe a little too much delight—and deploy maybe too many paintball attacks— in preparing Billy and White for the wading pool that will be their first encounter with St. Cloud. Throwing a monkey-wrench into well-established protocol: Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, who seeks to lure Peril Partnership mole S-464 (James Adomian) into working for the Guild by sabotaging the ostensibly low-risk confrontation so he can reunite with his ex-girlfriend, O.S.I. agent Kimberly McManus (Katie Flahive).
Yeah, yeah, “The Saphrax Protocol” is the actual season—and, for now, series—closer. But, frankly, while that episode has some important developments, it’s nowhere near as fun as watching The Monarch and Gary agonizing over St. Cloud’s equivocal response to everything—they eventually cope by getting him to say, “penis,” over and over—and a final confrontation where both teams of mentors hover at the periphery of the conflict like nervous stage mothers, shouting orders while things go horribly wrong. This is what The Venture Bros. did best: Deflate the clichés of SF adventure by showing flawed humans struggling to live up to the genre’s rigorous constraints. Team Venture, The Monarch, Billy and White, the assembled personnel of the Guild, O.S.I., and all the other shadow organizations that battled hidden from our humdrum, civilian sight—none of them might ever have been able to live up to their highest ideals. But shortcomings or not, we’re gonna miss those jerks.
I settled on ten episodes. I could’ve done more, lots more—it’s a gift when you come across a series that stumbles so rarely. But there is life beyond the compound and, anyway, I have you to fill in the gaps, right? Comment below, please, with your favorite episodes, characters, or bit of super-science. But, please, keep speculation on the Venture family tree to under 27 paragraphs.
Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!