Okay, so I know I always start these things with some message about what I think is important in storytelling and whatever and junk, but this week’s The Venture Bros. was a great short study in how to write a screenplay AND it was funny as heck. Let’s start with the quick anecdote.
If you’re ever running a Screenwriting 101 class, show them Back to the Future right on the first day. That movie is genius, locked in a constant battle with Ghostbusters for the title of “Favorite Movie.” There’s a lot of reasons it succeeds, what with all the nostalgia (for both the 50’s and the 80’s at this point), the comedy, the brilliant performances and all, but I think that what Back to the Future REALLY masters is the art of The Payoff. If you haven’t watched it lately, go back and check it out with this in mind: EVERY SINGLE LINE in the first hour pays off in the second hour. All of it. Right down to the newspaper articles on the wall in the opening credits.
Think about it: When you hear in the first half “I never sat in a car with a boy!” from Marty’s mom, that’s a pretty funny joke on its own. But then because we have that in the back of our minds, when she’s trying to “park” with the boy she knows as Calvin Klein in the second half it’s both a great joke and an awesome payoff. And the whole movie’s like that. Seriously, I’ve seen it a hundred times and new stuff is STILL revealed in every watch. I think my favorite is that in the beginning of the movie Marty is auditioning to play the school dance and then at the end- spoiler alert- he’s playing the school dance! This past episode of The Venture Bros. absolutely mastered this concept of effective screenwriting.
“Venture Libre” (fulfilling what I think is an obligation to have at least one episode title a season in spanish) actually shares the plot with most of the “monster-of-the-week” style Venture episodes: Something that Doctor Venture built is broken and/or killing people. He brings his kids and body guard to fix it, but the kids get separated on their own flights of fancy and then they survive through a combination of their enemies’ ineptitude and the bodyguard’s incredible capacity for murder.
This week the malfunctioning Venture product is a Venturestein, one of Rusty’s few successful military contracts. Introduced in the same Season 2 episode as the awesome all-serial-killer Scooby gang, last we saw Venturestein he was in a car with Brock to go get laid before being shipped off to be a suicide bomber for the government. In the time since then he’s become the Ché-style leader of a commune of other mutated superscience detritus and the government sends the Ventures in to clean up the mess. Well, with the exception of Dean who sticks around at the compound in a fit of rebellion.
While me and collaborator Max Robinson thought for sure this was going to lead to an Apocalypse Now riff, that old chestnut was mercifully nipped in the bud in favor of a broad cross-section of Mad Scientist fare through the ages. The “Marlon Brando as a Sweating Weirdo” well was not left un-pumped with the inclusion of some Dr. Moreau-esque animal men, so don’t worry about that. The whole mission goes as smoothly as you can expect a Venture family outing would go, and soon Hank has jetpacked off into the distance while Sgt. Hatred and Rusty hide in the jungle from a cheetahuman in vintage sneakers and a gang of animal henchmen in a chase sequence that functions great on its own and sows the seeds for the victory in the second half.
Dean’s storyline is a little slow, as in the process of showing his dad how little he cares about superscience he ends up trying to fix H.E.L.P.E.R., who immediately gets up and leaves to go save Rusty. There’s a moral here about sons and fathers, but the most comprehensible point about family that Venture Bros. tends to make is that your kids grow up the way you treat them so don’t be fucked up to your kids. In the process of defying his destiny Dean gets hit up by a Palin-alike named Marsha Backwood, who is sort of a plot cul-de-sac until the pretty cathartic Final Button joke of the episode. Community’s Gillian Jacobs plays Backwood and ends up criminally underused. That’s pretty much my only gripe with the episode, I think. You tempt me with a great guest star like Jacobs and then pull her away? I’ll try and kick the football every time, but dag. Have a heart.
Hank may have the best bits as his caffeine sensitivity (which I usually think we can put on the same rocket to the sun as “Apocalypse Now parodies”) results in a level of competence that he has long aspired to and obviously cannot sustain. There’s less commentary on the cyclical nature of relationships with our parents and more really great knock-downs of all the carefully placed set-ups from earlier in the episode. While Dean’s funniest moments come from naiveté and verbal missteps, Hank is usually at his height when he’s attempting to perform an action so incredibly stupid that the only person who could get away with it would be his idol and father figure Brock Sampson. There’s no Brock in this episode (sigh.) but seeing shades of Hank’s training under the mulleted murder machine come through gave him a great sense of the sort of long-term growth that Venture Bros. is good at.
Not a wasted moment, a series of great jokes and some cool character growth in the usually treadmill-like world of serialized television. I have little doubt that these first two fantastic episodes are indicative of the quality of the rest of the season, let’s hope next week’s OSI-Centric episode finally gives us the Brock Fix we want. Go Team Venture!