As South Park themselves lampooned, “The Simpsons did it first,” became the common refrain for how that show paved the way and pushed the boundaries in terms of what kind of jokes, themes, and commentary that Western animation could explore on TV. While Japan already had a long-established tradition of mature and gritty anime by that time, it was The Simpsons that convinced mainstream American audiences that cartoons didn’t necessarily need to be for kids. They could be smarter, they could deal with heavier issues, they could reference Kubrick and Kurosawa – and they could do all that while still being as funny as any live-action sitcom.
Successors like Family Guy, King of the Hill, South Park, and even Matt Groening’s own Futurama each tried their best to live up those glorious first 12 seasons of The Simpsons (still the hottest streak of comedy gold in television history), and they each succeeded to varying degrees. But as every fan likes to say, “The Simpsons did it first.” Now in the new golden age of Western adult animation, critics often point to the emotional nuance of BoJack Horseman, the metaphysical inventiveness of Rick and Morty, and the dense serialization of Archer as touchstones. Well, we’re to say The Venture Bros. did it first, and The Venture Bros. did it better.
Now don’t get us wrong, we’re enormous fans of BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty and Archer – but we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about how Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer’s Adult Swim masterpiece influenced the three greatest animated series of the 21st century. After all, The Venture Bros. never did get the reverential recognition as a pioneer that The Simpsons still enjoys (even as it lifelessly limps along). And it never did crossover from cult favourite into the pop culture zeitgeist in the same way it’s protégés did. After an extended hiatus, The Venture Bros. has finally returned for it’s seventh season, so it’s high time it gets the credit it deserves.
The Venture Bros. may have started as a twistedly irreverent take on Johnny Quest, but over the years it’s evolved into the most complex and versatile cartoon of them all – built upon dense mythology and a wealth of deep cut genre references. Plus, its penchant for packing every frame with clever running jokes, callbacks to long-forgotten storylines and creative sight gags would make even hardcore Arrested Development fans dizzy. Most importantly, it introduced three new elements into Western adult animation: extensive world-building, heavily serialized continuity, and genuine emotional development for it’s gargantuan ensemble of 40+ characters.
BoJack Horseman is practically modelled after Rusty Venture, echoing tragic themes of stunted man-children who peaked far too early because of fame and unhealthy upbringings. Whether the star of an 90s’ sitcom or a beloved boy adventurer from an 80s’ cartoon, both BoJack and Rusty deal with masculine failure, parental trauma, narcissistic overcompensation and self-destructive insecurity. But more than just pathetically sad, the most uncomfortable moment of each show exhibit Rusty and BoJack displaying a disgusting predatory willingness to take advantage of vulnerable young women who look up to them, and commit statutory rape.
The lines these protagonists cross are ugly and not easy to forgive, and that’s the point. It isn’t done to be shocking or edgy, these dark depths serve as cautionary tales and wake-up calls to the toxic fans out there. You root for BoJack and Rusty to grow, even as they continually regress, but therein lies the intensely human struggle to be better. The Venture Bros. often pays copious homage to geek fiction, but it also delights in mocking the fans who grew up to be toxic males. Every costumed character in The Venture Bros. is essentially a white boy playing LARP, trapped in a make-believe bubble, and blissfully unaware of the damage they cause.
That being said, the show that seems most directly inspired by Team Venture has to be another Adult Swim gem called Rick and Morty. From sharp satirization of superhero tropes to horrific yet hilarious explorations of philosophically heady science-fiction concepts, both shows revel in unraveling an idea and taking it to it’s darkest, funniest and most logical conclusions. It’s easy to subvert or make fun of conventions (ala Deadpool), but what both do so well is find entirely fresh takes on well-trodden genre conceits that are bizarre, absurdist, existentialist and hysterical. Indeed, many of Rick and Morty’s bravest narrative moments mirror The Venture Bros.
Rick and Morty murdering parallel versions of themselves, and moving to an alternate reality to live with a parallel version of their family*, is pretty radical. Has any show continued on by replacing it’s original characters (outside of it’s titular leads) with copies before? Come to think of it, The Venture Bros. did one better with a similarly bold swap, when Hank and Dean Venture (the show’s actual titular leads) were murdered and replaced with clones back in season one. It’s a messed up world(s) that Hank, Dean and Morty live in, and at it’s core, both shows are about children traumatized by being dragged along on their parental figure’s egoistical escapades.
(* The 2014 episode where this happens, “Rick Potion #9”, bears a different but equally striking similarity to The Venture Bros.’ “Operation P.R.O.M.” in 2010. Rip-off is a strong term, but both episodes involve Rick / Rusty developing love serums made from the DNA of insects. In both instances, the serum mutates it’s subjects into Cronenberg-esque human-mantis and human-flies respectively. Like we said, The Venture Bros. did it first.)
In terms of structure and style of humour though, Archer is the show that most resembles The Venture Bros. Taking from James Bond and G.I. Joe, both shows satirize covert intelligence agencies, rollicking espionage adventures and super spy archetypes. And both shows feature a prestige drama’s worth of continuity and exceptionally witty running gags. In fact, seriality is integral to one’s enjoyment of each show’s wild rollercoaster of surprise reveals, a-ha moments and rapid in-jokes. Every little detail and throwaway gag will come into play later on (sometimes many, many seasons down the road) in game-changing and mythology-altering ways.
Likewise, The Venture Bros.’ constant willingness to let it’s characters age (and evolve emotionally, or even die permanently), blow up premises, change settings, and start with fresh with entirely new status quos, provided the road map for Archer’s own daring seasons of reinvention. Archer Vice (season five), Archer Dreamland (season eight), and Archer Danger Island (season nine) saw the series shift from spy parody to 80s’ crime lords, 40s’ film noir and 30s’ adventure camp respectively – proving that fans will follow into the unfamiliar if the writing is intelligent, attentive to established continuity, and enterprising enough to experiment.
Because so much thought goes into every storyline, and the fact that it’s one of the few remaining shows that’s traditionally drawn and inked, there have only been six seasons of The Venture Bros. over the last 14 years. But the show has finally returned for it’s long-awaited seventh season, and its remarkably still in peak form. Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, along with his teenaged sons and lethal bodyguard Brock Samson, has now moved to New York City, and leveled up to become a big-time “protagonist”. Which means that he now must face “Level 10 antagonists” from the supervillain bureaucracy known as The Guild of Calamitous Intent (GCI).
Simultaneously we also follow Rusty’s former enemy, the butterfly-themed villain The Monarch (and his lone henchman Gary) who has been downgraded to a “Level 4” after his previous failures against Team Venture. Not only is he disillusioned with lowly status, he also grows resentful of his wife Dr. Mrs. The Monarch (formerly Dr. Girlfriend), who has been promoted as the de facto leader of the GCI (and thus also The Monarch’s boss). To get back to arching Dr. Venture, The Monarch now masquerades as the vigilante The Blue Morpho (whose backstory is far too convoluted to explain) in order to secretly murder villains ahead of him in the rankings.
That was just a threadbare summary of the labyrinthe narrative that has been woven over the past seven seasons. And while the show succeeds in being thrilling and immensely funny even sans context, if you’re a newbie, we’d advice you to catch-up on the show’s 70-odd episodes for the maximum resonance (don’t worry, the show was so far ahead it’s time that 2004’s first season still feels cutting-edge today). But if you’re a long-time fan like we are, strap in because season seven is set to pay off long-running mysteries, deliver shocking twists and unveil hidden backstories that will (once again) redefine the show’s core relationships. Go Team Venture!
Season seven of The Venture Bros. is currently airing on Adult Swim.