Our number seven entrant on this list, Archer, has a lot in common with the number six entrant. So much so, that I couldn’t, in good conscience, rank it ahead of this one. Archer’s creators got their start on Cartoon Network’s adult swim, which is where The Venture Bros. currently (I use that term loosely) reside. Both shows are essentially animated sitcoms, with Venture being the more traditionally animated one. And like Archer, both utilize a setting that’s both dated yet futuristic. And while Archer may be a more modern Get Smart or a parody of James Bond and other spy-centric shows and movies, The Venture Bros. is basically a spoof of Johnny Quest with lots of nods towards comics and geek culture sprinkled about.
The Venture Bros. is the brainchild of Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. It first began as a fifteen minute crudely animated pilot that first debuted in 2003 on adult swim. Unlike most adult swim programs at the time (the ones created for adult swim, that is), The Venture Bros. did not use repurposed animation from other programs like Sealab 2021 or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. The animation it did sport though was certainly still low-budget when compared with other similar cartoons. The pilot successfully introduced the main cast for the series. There’s Doctor Venture, a “super” scientist of questionable morals and credentials who is apparently riding the coat tails of his long deceased father. Doc is essentially the Johnny Quest of this show, only he grew up to be a complete failure. In the pilot, he’s trying to hawk a death ray to the UN at a peace conference. His body-guard, Brock Samson, is a short-tempered bad ass with a righteous blond mullet. He’s Race Bannon without a conscience, and the appearance of the assassin Molotov Cocktease implies that Brock has a secret past. The actual Venture brothers the title refers to are Doctor Venture’s twin sons, Hank and Dean. They basically serve as caricatures of the goody two-shoes characters that often showed up in adventure shows. Hank looks like Fred from Scooby Doo, while Dean looks like a Hardy Boys reject. They’ve, up to this point, lived sheltered lives at the family compound and have almost no sense of danger or any awareness of the world around them. The two get into some trouble, without being fully aware of it, while their dad attends the peace conference. Both are pursued by The Monarch, Dr. Venture’s self-appointed arch-enemy. For as bad as Dr. Venture is at science, The Monarch is every bit his equal as a super villain. They’re also pursued by a one-off character, a ninja, who we are lead to believe wishes to assassinate Dr. Venture but it turns out he just wants to masturbate on Venture’s death ray.
This is the type of humor the series would become known for. The pilot was deemed a success and the show was given a thirteen episode first season with each episode running a half hour, a rarity for original adult swim programs. The animation was given a boost in quality, as was the writing and voice acting. Public and Hammer voice the majority of the cast, with Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton voicing Brock Samson. The main cast of Venture, Brock, and the two boys were kept intact, with “wacky neighbor” Dr. Orpheus brought in later (he’s a necromancer). The Monarch though was fleshed-out further, given a back story, as well as a stable of disposable henchmen. Conflicts between he and his right-hand woman, Dr. Girlfriend, highlight some episodes while his two most prominent henchmen, 21 and 24, are the other featured members of his stable. The Monarch, as it turns out, is a professional super villain contracted to harass Dr. Venture. He’s a member of The Guild of Calamitous Intent, which governs the conflicts between heroes and super villains and ensures the conflicts exist in perpetuity, essentially providing a reason why certain villain cliches exist. Venture, by virtue of his adventuring past with the original Team Venture, is still considered some kind of hero even though he’s almost irrelevant. The main theme for the show is failure, and both Dr. Venture and The Monarch embody it. Venture as the failed scientist, and Monarch as the failed villain for Venture often ignores his very existence.
Several other characters debut in the first season that would go on to make repeat appearances. There’s Professor Impossible and his family who are an obvious parody of the Fantastic Four. Unlike the comic book heroes, Professor Impossible (voiced by Stephen Colbert) is a villain who keeps his mutated family hidden. His wife’s skin is transparent, his brother in-law is constantly on fire and in tremendous pain, while the their take on The Thing is a special needs man covered by a giant callous. There’s also Baron Von Ünderbheit, a hulking man with a steel lower jaw, who is best characterized by The Monarch as a “dime store Dr. Doom.” As the seasons have gone on the cast has been increased ten-fold. Many characters who seemed like they were just part of a throw-away gag-line in past seasons, like Sergeant Hatred, would eventually show up and play meaningful roles down the road.
The Venture Bros. distinguishes itself from other comedies by being adaptive. During the first season, the show seemed like it would parody Johnny Quest indefinitely with the family going on a new adventure each week. Instead, to throw everyone off, two of the main characters were killed-off in the season finale. This proved to signify that the show would not always remain so static, as there was a major shake-up with The Monarch as well and new villains were brought into the fold. Later seasons would further change the dynamic of the main cast and more hero and villain organizations were introduced. The plot of the show would become more complicated and intricate, and to the surprise of probably many, its various mysteries and cliff-hangers are actually quite interesting and rewarding. It still could be criticized for becoming too complicated, as no longer can one simply tune-in to any given episode and understand what’s going on. And some of the major changes to the cast could be criticized as being the wrong move. One very funny comedic duo was broken up when one of the characters was killed off, and it being several years since that happened, I’m still not convinced it was the right move.
As the show became more popular, adult swim kicked in more money. The show is now well-animated, and while it still retains its retro charm, it also just plain looks good. The fact that the characters actually change their appearance from season to season, even sometimes episode to episode, makes it a more interesting viewing experience than many animated shows on television. By far, the show’s greatest strength though is its writing. The plot for an episode can fall flat at times, but the dialogue is often so good, and so funny, that it doesn’t matter. The show is full of colorful one-liners that could serve as the basis alone for a blog entry. The characters also remain consistent, even amid the numerous backstabs and double-crosses, and very rarely does the show introduce anyone who isn’t worthwhile.
While some of the choices to take the plot in complicated directions can be criticized, by far the easiest way to criticize the show resides in the length of time that elapses between seasons. Publick and Hammer handle the writing, and like another great comedic duo Parker and Stone, are procrastinators. Unlike Parker and Stone, Publick and Hammer aren’t locked into a contract with their network which demands episodes be delivered by a certain date, so there have been numerous hiatuses for The Venture Bros. Part of the delay also is tied up in the show’s budget, which is much larger than most adult swim shows so renewals likely do not occur fast enough for a normal turn-around between seasons. To further illustrate the point, here is the premiere date and episode count for each season:
Season 1: 8/7/2004 (13)
Season 2: 7/25/2006 (13)
Season 3: 7/1/2008 (13)
Season 4.1: 10/18/2009 (8)
Season 4.2: 9/12/2010 (8) *the season finale was an hour-long
Season 5: 6/2/2013 (8)
A mockumentary on Shallow Gravy, a fake band in the series, aired in 2011 while a Halloween special aired in 2012. A “movie” “All This and Gargantua-2” aired on January 19th of this year and was basically an hour-long special to tide fans over until season 6 begins, but there’s no air date set for the first episode of season 6. It was first expected to premier in the fall of 2014, and then early 2015 (though the hour-long special is technically the first episode of season 6 so I guess it made the premiere of early 2015), but so far we have no idea when it will continue.
The lengthy production cycle, and the some-what sub par season 5, has dimmed enthusiasm for The Venture Bros. going forward. I wonder if season 6 will be the final season, or if there’s desire from all parties to continue the show beyond that. What the show has provided so far has been comedic gold. The humble parody it first began as has evolved into something so much more and hopefully when season 6 does resume it will reignite the franchise. Even so, the first five seasons have been so strong that The Venture Bros’ place on my list is well-deserved. With a strong season 6, it could even continue to rise higher!