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

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.

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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.’

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