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The Venture Bros.: Season One

Imagine if Hanna-Barbera made "Jonny Quest: The Next Generation" — only it starred Jonny as a bitter, pill-popping, fortysomething single dad who lived in the shadow of his dead superscientist father. Imagine if Jonny had two idiot teenage sons (one of them looking suspiciously like Race Bannon) whom he dragged around the world on hilariously pale imitations of his father's exploits. The names have all been changed, but that sort of begins to sum up the Cartoon Network's brilliant Adult Swim cartoon The Venture Bros. — a relentlessly inventive, laugh-out-loud funny sendup of Hanna-Barbera's "exotica" adventure cartoons of the 1960s and '70s.

Venture is the brainchild of writer-director Christopher McCulloch (working under the nom de plume "Jackson Publick") and painter/rock guitarist Eric "Doc" Hammer, who contributes scripts, editing, and special effects to the series, now in production on its second season. (McCulloch and Hammer each do several character voices, as well.) Both men are in their 30s — and in many ways, The Venture Bros. feels like a fever-dream distillation of every cartoon, rerun, and genre entertainment that's crossed their eyeballs from childhood to now, filtered through a lens of grown-up regret. The show's pilot, 13 broadcast episodes, and 15-minute "Christmas special" create a surprisingly rich world, with production values (and storytelling ambitions) head-and-shoulders above most other Adult Swim shows. Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture (voiced by Hal Hartley regular James Urbaniak) plunders his father's legacy while living with sons Hank and Dean and their mulleted, hair-trigger bodyguard Brock Sampson (Patrick Warburton) at the crumbling Venture Industries compound. (These days, the compound is a "museum of failure," packed with obsolete electronics suffering from the same sort of decay as Steve Zizzou's submarine.) When all else fails — and it inevitably does — Rusty holds high-tech yard sales, teaches superscience at a Mexican community college, and scrapes together a few bucks by renting a room to necromancer Dr. Orpheus and his Goth teenage daughter, Triana. This surprisingly banal existence is constantly disrupted by ghost pirates, Sasquatches, evil twins, midlife crises, adolescent panic attacks, and elaborate revenge plots by the steel-jawed Baron Von Underbeit and the butterfly-obsessed supervillain The Monarch. Voiced by McCulloch, The Monarch is one of the most hilariously lame costumed baddies ever committed to animation — a flamboyant, ranting neurosis-bundle who's lost the respect of his henchmen and is quickly losing the love of his second-in-command, the smoking-hot but mannishly-voiced "Dr. Girlfriend." Over the course of the show's first season, McCulloch and Hammer build far richer characters and more elaborate narratives out of all this wackiness than they have any right to — abetted greatly by strong voicework from Urbaniak and Warburton and a thumping techno-exotic score by J.G. Thirlwell. While doing vulgar, bloody spoofs on everything from "Quest" to "Scooby-Doo" to "The Hardy Boys" to "Doctor Strange," the production team mixes in a surprising amount of bitter domestic comedy. They chart the distintegration of The Monarch's relationship over several episodes. They dive into the single-parent travails of Orpheus and the Oedipal angst of Dr. Venture. They hint at an incestuous world of petty superscientist rivalries. And they play with elaborate flashback structures that reveal that most of the characters went to college together in the early '80s. It's one of those rare TV shows that builds a universe that feels larger than the confines of the screen — and it's built a deservedly rabid cult following.

Cartoon Network's The Venture Bros.: Season One two-disc DVD set contains all 13 broadcast episodes, the series pilot, the "Very Venture Christmas" special, and a handful of deleted-scene animatics. The full-frame transfers (1.33:1) are good, while audio comes in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. In keeping with Adult Swim DVD tradition, the extras don't take themselves very seriously. McCulloch and Hammer lend funny, loose-limbed commentary tracks to six episodes — spending almost as much time talking about their testy friendship and which characters they'd like to have sex with (between bouts of complaining about money and telling stories out of school) as they do discussing the episodes at hand. There are also two featurettes: "Behind the Scenes of the Venture Bros. Live Action Movie" (21 min.) features the voice actors for The Monarch, Dr. Girlfriend, Dr. Venture, and two Monarch henchmen pretending — in costume — that they're participating in a lame EPK for a live-action version of the series. And "Animating Hank and Dean" (4 mins.) is an absurdist riff on the (nonsensical) technical tricks that go into the creation of a simple moment of animation from the series, narrated by supporting characters Mike White and Billy Quiz-Boy. The two-disc folding paperboard packaging comes decorated with spectacularly lurid artwork by comics legend Bill Sienkiewicz.
Mike Russell

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