It’s been two years since Venture Bros.’ last season finale, and, well. Things have happened, haven’t they? Boy have they happened. So there’s some immediate comfort in just how little has changed on the show. “The Venture Bros. & The Curse Of The Haunted Problem” picks up more or less where season 6 left off. Rusty, Hank, Dean, Brock, and Sgt. Hatred are still living in the Baxter Building-knock off Jonas left them, and Rusty is still as grouchy as ever. At the start of the episode, Hank is still delivering pizza, and it looks like his relationship with Sirena, daughter of notorious crime boss Wide Wale, is progressing nicely; Hank apparently has panic attacks (or something) whenever he and Sirena try and get intimate, but she’s surprisingly patient and supportive with his awkwardness. The show doesn’t really have a deep bench of female leads but she’s charming, and it’s nice to see Hank—goony, well-meaning, fundamentally kind-hearted Hank—get a win.
More than anything, what’s impressive is just how comfortable it feels to come back to all this. I had my problems with season six; the longer the show runs, the more edge it loses (by necessity; if Rusty hadn’t softened a little, this would be fucking interminable), and at a certain point, it’s hard to figure out what it’s all about anymore. One of the primary satiric drives of the series is the way it consistently undermines its intermittently grandiose plotting with the idea that these are all, at heart, just a bunch of little boys playing with action figures and making pew pew noises. Yes, people die on the regular, but putting adult consequences into a black-and-white, heroes-and-villains kind of world is where a lot of the humor comes in.
When this works, especially if you combine it with the show’s surprising amount of affection for its characters, it’s terrific. Where things get tricky is that once you work through the primary conflicts—Rusty dealing with daddy issues, Hank and Dean dealing with the whole “clone” thing—it’s hard to know where to go next. I find it nearly impossible to get that invested in the show’s larger mythology, due in no small part to the fact that the show itself is designed to keep undercutting that mythology. Without the psychological torment, it’s becomes something approaching a hollow exercise, just repeating the same notes over and over to increasingly diminishing effect.
Still, even at its weakest, the show remains watchable, and in retrospect, season 6 may have simply been an intermediary stage as the core concept shifted into something new: less an empathetic comedy about failure, and more a hang-out show with a cast of lovable losers. Seven seasons is a long run for any series, even one with an abbreviated episode order like this, and a certain amount of reinvention over time is to be expected. And really, the characters and world here have enough nuance that reinvention is possible. What started off as a funny, if mean-spirited, Johnny Quest parody has gradually evolved into something more complicated, weird, and humane. Who’s to say it can’t keep evolving?
“Curse” isn’t exactly a revelation on those terms. The first part of what turns out to be a two-part episode, it’s comfortable to do what the show has always done: take the surface details of a familiar comic book plot (in this case, a possessed machine that takes over an entire building!) and deliver it in the Venture Bros. inimitable style. Which means that the “haunting” manifests as alarm clocks that keep playing Jonas’s hologram and “Street Life,” theme song from the 1981 Burt Reynolds thriller, Sharky’s Machine.
As ever, the specificity and clear personality behind the references go along way towards making them work. After all, you can hardly accuse the show of pandering to its audience with something like this. (I mean, I’ve heard of Sharky’s Machine before but even I’ve never actually seen it.) Plus, the song even serves as a plot point; not only is it references in “Careers,” Billy mentioning it to Rodney and the others is what sets the final plot beats in motion. At times Venture Bros. feels like the fully-realized play world of a child, and the degree to which it’s possible to imagine the character and upbringing of said child is a point in the show’s favor.
The fact that the show is also willing to dig back into its own archives for references can be at once daunting and exhilarating. Sometimes the mythology is too much, at least for me; even reviewing week to week, I’ve struggled to keep track of the intricacies of the various guilds and intrigues within intrigues, and at its worst, the writing will offer up a convoluted plot on the assumption that convolution alone is enough to make a story interesting. But the depth of the world-building is still impressive, and when references draw on the viewer’s history with the series as well as the characters, things get interesting. This week, “Curse” brings back the P.R.O.B.L.E.M. machine first introduced way back in second episode of the entire series, “Careers In Science.” That’s some deep cutting right there—but while it may take a second to remember, it’s also not so obscure as to be obtuse.
“Curse” also has Hank once more donning the mantle of Enrico Matasa, first introduced in season 5’s “Momma’s Boys.” Here, he’s using it to try and win over Wide Wale; when Sirena’s bodyguard Rocko figures out Hank is dating Sirena, he gets Hank fired and locked out of the building. So what’s a boy to do but adopt the guise of a super villain, knock out some thugs with drugged pizza, and convince Wale to take him on as part of the team? This is, of course, a very stupid plan, albeit better than Hank’s earlier attempt to kill Wale, but that’s pretty much par for the course for Hank—if you could somehow combine his enthusiasm for life with Dean’s intelligence, you might have a fully competent human being. Instead, we get some questionably accented theatrics, and the reveal that Wale has managed to capture Blue Morpho (aka the Monarch) between this season and last. Wale orders Enrico to kill Blue Morpho as proof of his loyalty. See what playing villain gets you?
Back at the Venture building, Dean has called in the Order of the Triad against his father’s wishes to deal with the haunting. Wackiness ensues (including ghosts of the various people and animals who died due to Venture-related causes) before the original Team Venture arrives on the scene with the most stunning revelation yet: the P.R.O.B.L.E.M. machine is actually a device designed to revive Jonas’s corpse in case of disaster. The fact that the light is on means that Jonas, or some version of Jonas, is awake. They pry open the front of the machine and find a head and some rudimentary organs. The head starts screaming—just in time for Pete to show up and hit it with an axe. Chaos!
We’ll have to wait till next week to see how this plays out. But bringing back Jonas (however briefly) is a good way to get back to one of the foundational traumas of the entire series, Rusty’s horrible childhood. It’s a complicated, brutal concept that powered some of the best episodes of the run, and while it’s entirely possible this is just a one off gag, it’ll be interesting if Publick and Hammer are able to find some new angle on the material. Regardless, I’m excited to see what comes next. Go Team Venture!
- Dean is a vegetarian now, and Rusty is, of course, a dick about it. (I think the vegetarian thing might have come up last season, but I’m not sure.)
- Apologies for not talking about them more, but it’s lovely to have the Order of the Triad back. Orpheus is such an endearing dork. (“Yes, Orpheus, I know you.” “Oh, really? Seven unaccepted friend requests would say otherwise.”) (Also: “Hey, demon isn’t gonna bring up what happened to my momma, is it?” “Well it is now.” “Yo, demon! No mamas!”)
- “Real life hacking is just… typing.” -Pete
- Orpheus’s line “HE IS THE DEVIL’S CONCUBINE” might be a reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which Van Helsing shouts “She is the devil’s concubine!” (It’s a stretch, maybe, but that’s what I thought of when I heard the line.)
- I’m including a link to the season 6 finale review below, but I gotta say, I think I was too hard on that one. Rewatching it for this review, I’d bump the grade to a B+ at the very least.
- P.R.O.B.L.E.M. stands for “PROgress Biological Life Extension Module.” (Which means I should be typing it “Pro.B.L.E.M.,” I guess.)
- Dean mentions the fact that the P.R.O.B.L.E.M. light went on at least once before; this is a nod to the earlier episode, in which it was revealed that an old toy of Rusty’s had melted over the circuits. I’m not sure if this is a retcon or what, but hey, it’s a nice nod.