25 October 2009

Because it was on TV: The Cultural Synthesis of The Venture Bros, Part I

Undoubtedly one of the greatest television shows of the Millennium, a brand new season of The Venture Bros showcased a stunning Season 4 premiere last week. In honour of the season's highly anticipated second episode coming tonight, I'd like to take a minute and examine the cultural synthesis of the show.

Used to be that only The Simpsons could digest and expunge such an astounding amount of pop culture in a 22-minute long episode, but The Venture Bros have proved more than capable of achieving the feat (albeit to a much more specific cultural degree). Whilst shying away from summarizing Proust, no other show on television has successfully consumed and ratified more nerd culture (Okay, Robot Chicken has a good effort here). The Venture Bros' wicked permutations of the culture, along with its consistency and deep meta-narrative push it on a level above the rest. Let's begin with the basic outlaying plot premise:

Johnny Quest and Hanna-Barbera...on crack (Literally)

At first glance the show is a very simple Johnny Quest parody. Each main character fits the paradigms very well (ie Super-Scientist, his bodyguard, naive boys), although each are spun from the initial character thread into ludicrous hyperbole. Much of the jokes in the early episodes of the first season took off from this concept - Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture as a pasty and extremely neurotic scientist, Brock Sampson the height of all-possible masculinity and the boys, Dean and Hank locked in a mindset of domestic arrested development.

By the end of the first season however, and into the second continuing to this day, the show has become much more than a face-level spoof. In fact I would argue that the show has easily become much better and deeper than the show it initially parodied. The characters while starting out as much more intense variations of themselves by nature found themselves in much more sinister situations. The test of character in these intense situations has proven to showcase stronger personalities than the banality of the original Sixties program. This has been supplemented by the use of a plethora of original characters and concepts from said program, made available from Time Warner's ownership of both Cartoon Network and Hanna-Barbera properties.

Here's where we get our first major Cultural Synthesis. The show, unlike Family Guy or The Simpsons rarely just mentions in passing jokingly a character from pop culture. The Venture Bros instead regularly features very direct representations of characters, from Race Bannon in "Ice Station - Impossible!" (S1;E7) to David Bowie in "Showdown at Cremation Creek (Part I)" (S2;E12). It presents an interesting universe, an apparent blend of cartoon adventurism and realistic features of our own world. To add to the depth is the pop culture references within the show to the Rusty Venture cartoon show (see "Escape to the House of Mummies Part II" S2;E4 and "ORB" S3;E11), further blurring the lines of what is pop and what is reality in the series' universe.

To mention all of the cultural references in The Venture Bros would be an astounding task and as such I am not going to try here. I will mention some of the many uses of Hanna-Barbera characters as well as updated or sarcastic takes on cliched situations. I already mentioned Race Bannon but Johnny himself makes appearances (as a strung out, quasi-realistic take on the psychological toll adventuring would take on a small boy) in "Twenty Years to Midnight" (S2;E5) and "The Buddy System" (S3;E5). Hadji appears in "The Doctor is Sin" (S3;E2). Also worth mentioning here is the strangely psychotic take on the Scooby Doo tropes in "¡Viva los Muertos!" (S2;E11). Each main Scooby Doo character is here represented as a mass murderer or otherwise tragic figure from the 1960s and 70s. Here's a nice little summary of that. It's an interesting dynamic that all of the characters' relationships to each other within the Scooby Doo mythos is immediately recognizable, yet their sociopathic personalities are also very apparent. Everything is played towards exaggeration. It's one of the best cultural meldings in the series and fully demonstrates the creators' realistic take on supposedly cartoony situations and chiches. I mention this realism with a tremendous grain of salt, my point being that an entirely new genre is created when they spin a serious take on a looney situation for laughs. Marvelous.

Many of the plots of episodes derive from comic or superhero tropes, which I will discuss in Part II, however there is also the element of mystery or adventure cartoons present in many episodes, the most notable being "Careers in Science" (S1;E2), "Ghosts of the Sargasso" (S1;E6) and "Dr. Quymn, Medicine Woman" (S3;E6). The aforementioned "¡Viva los Muertos!" fits this bill quite nicely as does ""Escape to the House of Mummies Part II" whose side-story has no main plot but is entirely composed of adventure cartoon tropes without resolution. As the series progressed the show has moreover parodied superhero plotlines, which I will discuss next week.

Be prepared, dear readers. Be prepared.

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