You’ve Probably Never Heard of One of the Best Shows on Television

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
May 31 2013 4:10 PM

You’ve Probably Never Heard of One of the Best Shows on Television

venture_bros
The Venture brothers.

Adult Swim.

Do you like Archer’s mid-century modernist aesthetic and fascination with the bureaucratic machinations of superheroes and villains? Do you like Arrested Development’s self-referential callbacks and its obsession with how failure and dysfunction are handed down from one generation to another? And sure, I’ll go there: Do you like The Wire’s complex web of characters whose motivations and relationships are slowly teased out over season-long and even series-long arcs?

Then you will probably love The Venture Bros.

Advertisement

Written, directed, designed, edited, and largely voiced by two men, Eric “Doc” Hammer and Christopher McCulloch (aka Jackson Publick), The Venture Bros., which airs on Adult Swim, is one of the best—and certainly most original—shows on television. In four seasons produced over the course of a decade—the fifth premieres this Sunday—the series has grown from a goofy, oddly specific riff on Jonny Quest cartoons and other pulp adventure stories into an elaborate and wonderfully realized universe.*

The premise is complicated enough: Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture (voiced by James Urbaniak) attempts to recapture the fame and success of his world-famous super-scientist father, with his two sons Hank and Dean (the titular brothers) and their herculean body guard Brock Samson (perfectly voiced by Patrick Warburton) along for the ride. And that barely hints at the world of bizarre and hilarious characters, twisting plot lines, and superbly specific referential humor that makes the series so damn exciting.

There’s the self-absorbed, butterfly-themed villain The Monarch and his Jackie Onassis-channeling 2nd-in-command/romantic interest, Dr. Girlfriend; the New Wave music enthusiast Albino and his hydrocephalic best friend, who met competing in illegal underground Quizboy competitions; the secret intelligence officer who bears a striking similarity to Hunter S. Thompson; the family of industrialists who illustrate just how messed up the Fantastic Four might have turned out; Phantom Limb, a villain with invisible appendages who vies for control of the organized villainy union, the Guild of Calamitous Intent, currently controlled by (who else) David Bowie. Actually, there’s a lot of David Bowie.

It’s the kind of show where no thread is ever dropped, where jokes and characters mentioned once in the first season suddenly become major plot points in the fourth. And it’s the rare comedy where characters actually grow, change, and develop over time—and the more you watch, the more you learn about characters’ histories and just why everyone is as messed up as they are. It can seem impenetrable, but the rewards for attentive viewing are considerable.

Few TV showrunners have as much control over their final product as Hammer and Publick, and that control surely has much do with the utterly singular voice and perspective of the series. Unfortunately, the amount of work involved has also meant long delays between seasons: It’s been nearly two and half years since the finale of Season 4 aired. (There have been two specials in the meantime.) And for much of that time, the show was unavailable on any streaming services.

But now is the perfect time to jump in. You can finally binge through the first season via Netflix. If you’re skeptical, I’d recommend starting at episode 6, “Ghosts of the Sargasso,” an episode featuring a hilarious parody of Scooby-Doo style rubber-masked Ghost Pirates; Brock Samson executing one of the most delightfully foul hands-free combat techniques I’ve ever seen; and the excellently meta Bowie-riffing cold open linked above. If that piques your interest, Hammer and Publick recently released an epic 8-minute summary of the first four seasons, which should give you enough background to start watching this Sunday.

It’s true, the specificity of Hammer and Publick’s vision and references can become overwhelming. But for every extended joke comparing Hanna-Barbera characters to famous misanthropes of the ’60s and ’70s there’s a great Star Wars joke pitched right into the pop-culture strike zone, giving the show a kind of something-for-every-nerd appeal. Give it a chance. It just might be your new favorite show.

* Correction, June 3: This post originally misspelled the first name of fictional character Jonny Quest. There is no ‘h.’

Chris Wade is a producer for Slate Video and occasional contributor to Brow Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Right of Free Speech
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.