Friday, 12 February 2010

The Eighth Best Television Programme Of The 00s

Go, Team Venture!

imageAlongside BBC Four, our favourite new TV channel of the decade must surely be Adult Swim, an offshoot of Cartoon Network in the US. Originally a twice-weekly programming strand shown at night on the channel from 2001, it became a standalone channel of its own in 2005. In the UK (which briefly had it’s own equivalent, CNX*), Adult Swim took up a nightly block of programming on Bravo between 2006 and 2008, and played host to many of the same programmes as its US counterpart, with the occasional repeated UK animation, such as Modern Toss. Anyway, Adult Swim has been the source of many of our favourite programmes of the 00s, such as Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo from slightly earlier in our rundown.

(*CNX sadly lasted less than a year between 2002 and 2003, and showed a mixture of Adult Swim shows from the US, and action movies, including several greats from Hong Kong, including the UK premiere of 2012. With ratings being lower than anticipated, the channel switched to more teen friendly shows, rebranded as Toonami, and shifted off to the ‘kids’ section of the EPG. A great pity, as it was a brilliant little channel. But then, this isn’t about CNX.)

Adult Swim also played host to several others narrowly missing our shortlist, such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force (which we suspect a few people might’ve expected to make our hundred), Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show precursor Tom Goes To The Mayor, utterly superb Hanna-Barbara-fest Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, the misanthropic cel-shaded majesty of The Drinky Crow Show, or the (sadly pilot-only) show from genius cartoonist Michael Kupperman, Snake ‘n’ Bacon. All fantastic comedy shows, every single one of them groundbreaking in different ways, and each of them very, very nearly taking up space in our top hundred of the decade.

The greatest programme of them all however followed the fortunes of a pair of gormless but well-meaning all-American teen twins, their self-centred scientist single father, the family’s ultra-violent  mulleted bodyguard, and their robot helper. At first glance, The Venture Bros. is a fairly traditional half-hour animated series about heroes and supervillains from the old school, but it has a darker, grown up, more realistic edge than any animated comedy we’ve ever seen. And we don’t mean that in a self-consciously shocking “AIDS LOL” Family Guy-type way. There’s a whole friggin’ infrastructure at play here. AN ENTIRE INFRASTRUCTURE.

imageThe gist of the programme deals with the adventures or the, er, Ventures, and largely with the efforts of butterly-fixated supervillian The Monarch to bring down self-styled superscientist Dr Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, a bald, embittered former boy adventurer, forever trying and failing to live up to the reputation of his famous father. Despite the show’s title, Dr Venture is the real focal point of the series – as a child he had been star of the ‘Rusty Venture’ television series, following his heroic, chisel-jawed, ultra-successful scientist father (Dr Jonas Venture) on a number of thrilling adventures, but at this point he has grown into a middle-aged misanthrope, struggling to live up to the reputation of his heritage, struggling to keep his late father’s company Venture Industries afloat, and struggling (albeit not very hard) to be a father to his two sons.

Rusty is assisted by secret agent bodyguard Brock Samson, a blonde man-mountain of throbbing gristle, able to kill scores of assailants with a biro, who despite which proves to be more of a father figure to the two boys than their biological pater.  The twins themselves prove to be characters more suited to a Saturday morning ABC line-up – both relentlessly optimistic and misguidedly loyal to their father, Hank sees himself of the more daring of the pair (a less annoying and more human Scrappy Doo, if you will) while Dean is more of an introvert, though in practice both of them are equally clueless, not helped by their only formal education being delivered subconsciously in the special beds developed by their father.

imageThe lives of the supervillains at play are equally interesting. Main baddie The Monarch is beset by jealousy that his Number Two and current squeeze – gravelly-voiced vixen Dr Girlfriend – might go back to her ex-boyfriend, the suave, pencil-moustachioed evil mastermind Phantom Limb, while his henchmen are mainly made up of unfit geeks desperately trying to avoid reality. Rival bad guy Doctor Hatred turns out to be a chemically ‘cured’ paedophile, bound by law to mention his previous convictions whenever meeting a prospective arch-enemy.

That’s only to name a few of the magnificently rounded characters taking part in the series, we haven’t even got to the likes of the brilliantly named femme-fatale assassin Molotov Cocktease, the Venture’s necromancer lodger Doctor Byron Orpheus, or Teutonic man-machine evildoer Baron Werner √únderbheit, and we could carry on with these descriptions for several paragraphs yet. More interesting is the way the series’ protagonists are allied to one of two organisations, the good guys being assisted by the Office of Secret Intelligence, the baddies being controlled by shadowy umbrella organisation The Guild Of Calamitous Intent, controlled by a shadowy figure later revealed to be David Bowie. Except, of course, there are power struggles and internal politics inside each of the two organisations, just to take things to yet another level of interestingitude.

imageA poorly described synopsis of the Venture Bros universe from the witless wordsmiths of an unpopular television blog like this doesn’t really do justice to the multilayered Venture background, so we’ll move on to the deliciousness of the script. Real-world angst is hugely and entertainingly evident here, so in a meeting between rival teams of supervillains, the host megalomaniac bickers with his Number Two over whether she’d bought regular cola or diet for the refreshments table. Their plans for world domination are presented to henchmen using PowerPoint documents, providing the criminal mastermind in charge doesn’t accidentally load in a Microsoft Word file. Megalomaniacal masterminds are restricted by the conditions of a treaty between the trade unions of the good and bad guys, meaning the bloodiest vengeance they’re able to wreak on certain nights might be restricted to pissing in their fountain. And all this just becomes clear for the first few episodes, it’s after that things get really interesting.

In short, The Venture Bros looks at the world from the perspective of a 1960s Jonny Quest cartoon adventure series that carried on existing long after the cartoons stopped being shown, with everything becoming more corporate, but with the main players becoming increasingly flawed. As show creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer point out in the commentary track of an early episode, the series is “about the beauty of failure. it’s about the failure that happens to all of us. Every character is not only flawed, but sucks at what they do, and is beautiful at it”. Stock cartoon conventions are given an unsettling realist edge regularly – one scene see masked goons storm the Venture compound, leading Brock Samson to creep around the building, silently slaying them with his trusty blade. As he dispatches one such goon, the fatally wounded hench pleads that Samson stay with him, as he doesn’t want to be alone when he dies. In a slightly unsettling way, that is quite beautiful, and something you just wouldn’t see anywhere else.

imageMoving on to the look and feel of the show itself, it’s way more gorgeous than an animated show on a cable network ought to be. The digitally painted backgrounds are lusciously detailed, with the appearance of old-school cell animation being given to the foreground characters (even though modern animation methods are used). From the offset, the look of the thing is so great, when we saw the opening scenes of the first episode we assumed Jamie “Gorillaz” Hewlett was somehow involved (mainly because we don’t know very much about current animators – we don’t have many go-to references). This attention to detail even extends to the DVD sets of the show, each featuring  some brilliant concept art. Indeed, we’ve used some of it as the background to our own Twitter page.

We could easily carry on about how brilliant The Venture Bros. is for thousands more words, about how the all-encompassing story arc takes in a number of superb references to 1990s British and European pop music, or how it has one of the greatest theme tunes and title sequences of all time, but we’d suspect you’d all stop indulging us long before we got that far. In fact, you’ve probably stopped reading already, and we can only hope it’s because you’ve skipped to the end in order to find out how you can experience the show for yourself. So, here’s that bit now.

WATCH IT NOW ON: Since the Adult Swim block stopped making up late night Bravo, there hasn’t been a way to watch The Venture Bros on British television for a few years, though Adult Swim UK does live on through their website. Sadly at the moment, only short clips from the series are available on there, but full episodes from season four are due to appear soon. For those looking to see the programme from the start (definitely the best option – there are a number of recurring characters and multi-season plot arcs), only the first series is currently available on Region 2 DVD, though this is happily offset by the fact it can be yours for just £6.85 including postage from both The Hut and Zavvi.

imageFor sensible mutli-region types, the first three seasons are available, with the third also available in glorious sex-o-vision on Blu-Ray. The best price we can find for these is currently Deep Discount, who offer the season one, season two and season three R1 sets for around £13.50 each, including shipping from the USA. If it’s the season three Blu-Ray you’re after, it’s around £22.16 including shipping from the same place, though that does come with a bonus audio CD of J.G. Thirlwell’s wonderful music from the show. If you’ve already seen season three on “television” (i.e. downloaded it from the internet), it’s worth pointing out that the DVD of that series features completely uncut episodes, with the pixellation and bleeped-swears of the TV broadcasts removed, making for an even more enjoyable experience.

image (The full Venture Bros. cast of characters, circa season three. Click for full-sized image.)


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