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The Venture Bros.: "Every Which Way But Zeus"

Illustration for article titled The Venture Bros.: "Every Which Way But Zeus"
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Hi, everyone!  Zack Handlen, your usual host, is deep undercover on a project called "Operation:  Naptime", and he's graciously allowed me to step in and cover tonight's episode.

One of the interesting things about the Venture universe is that everyone's found a way to cope with being a part of it.  No one seems especially satisfied with the way the world works, but rather than constantly dwelling on the absurdity of it all, people in every corner — spies, super-scientists, costumed heroes alike — just sort of shrug and get on with it.  (Not entirely unlike real life.)  It's one reason that the show has never let too many 'normal' voices into the mix:  you don't want to have anyone slowing things down by asking the question "Why are you all doing this?".

That's why it was so curious that, when it became clear in this episode (which, by the way, had extremely confusing pacing for what's usually one of the tightest-plotted shows on television; I'm not sure whether to blame the writing or the fact it probably had to be edited for time, but more than once, it seemed like there were bits missing from scenes) that someone pretending to be Zeus was kidnapping henchmen and forcing them into battles to the death on an abandoned farm, General Treister was so quick to dismiss the possibility it was the actual head of the Greek pantheon.  In a world where every other imaginable sci-fi/fantasy archetype is real, and extremely dysfunctional, why wouldn't the gods be real and out of their goddamn minds?

But no, in an episode crammed with returning characters — many of whom are red herrings thrown out during an extended homage to Dr. Strangelove — the reveal of the identity of the main antagonist reaches all the way back to season 3, to "The Lepidopterists".  It's another guy who just can't let go of the past and live a normal life, even though escaping death would seem to be a perfect way out of the juvenile failure spiral that is the Ventureverse.  The Strangelove parody is not only well-executed (the OSI conference room is a dead ringer for the movie's war room, and Henchman Zero echoes one of its most famous lines when he urges Billy Quizboy and Pete White to "stop fighting and fight!"), but it's thematically appropriate as well.  Just as Strangelove author Terry Southern was obsessed with the notion of powerful people in high places who were completely out of their minds, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer keep returning to the theme of people with vast resources and abilities who nonetheless are emotionally stunted and spend most of their time in petty bitching.

In a lot of ways, the b-plot — where Sgt. Hatred feels so sorry for Dr. Venture's obliviousness to the fact that whoever's behind the disappearances has no interest in him that he and the boys stage a fake kidnapping just to assuage his ego — is the most revelatory.  It reminds us once again that while Dr. V is, in many ways, the prototype of the failed loser around which the show builds its reality, he's also one of the few people with a shred of self-awareness and a realization of what he's become and how it affects the people in his life.  Just as he did in "Return To Malice", he recognizes that he's a failure and does his best to muddle through it, and just as he did in "Self-Medication", he realizes that he's considerably less fucked up than most of the people around him — and shows a surprising tenderness to the position he's put Hank in.  Of course, this is a comedy, so he ends the episode discussing his love life with a battery-powered teddy bear, but The Venture Bros. has always been deeper than it seems, and "Every Which Way But Zeus" continues the clever reversal it's made since season 1, turning two of its most pitiable characters — Dr. Venture and Henchman 21 — into two of the only people who have shown anything like real growth.

Rating:  B+

Stray Observations:

- Predictable as it is, I always get a kick out of the bitchy relationship between Billy and Pete, like tonight where they keep arguing with one another even as they're being kidnapped.


- Aside from the choppy, incoherent feel of the episode, another thing that kept it from being an A for me was the characterization of Shore Leave.  His speech to Pete White was implausibly preachy, not to mention inconsistent in the way he rightly condemned Pete for engaging in the 'gay=sissy' stereotype, and then turned right around and insisted Pete himself must be gay because he's wearing a pink shirt.

- It went on just a bit too long, but man, that scene where Hunter and Brock talked about Robyn the stripper's sad tits was just merciless.  "Mournful tits.  They're like two suicide notes stuffed into a glitter bra."  Also great was Hunter's defense of the strip club:  "You make that wholesome place sound dirty."


- I'm surprised Doc can still manage to eat Apple Mummy, given its childhood associations.

- "I fought an 8-year-old!  And the only reason I won is because he fell on a spike!"


- "All of you are in peculiar underpants, while I am not, because I am special!"  Great to see General Treister back; Toby Huss is one of my favorite voice actors.

- It's getting harder to read Dean as he gets older.  On the one hand, he's made it fairly clear that he has no real interest in super-science (though his actual life goals aren't all that more realistic), but in his leisure time, he seems to enjoy reading what appears to be a turn-of-the-century electrical magazine.  If his father is a failed super-scientist, he seems to be training to be little more than a crazy old coot.


- Zack will return next week, and am I jealous:  looks like the show will be taking a stab at noir.  Thanks for your time, folks!