The Venture Bros. is that rarest of all beasts: a great show that actually improves with each subsequent season. Perhaps the thing I love most is that the characters do genuinely grow as people, as does our understanding of them. And just for once, no, that isn't merely a euphemistic way of saying that they learn the same tired old lessons about caring and sharing we have rammed down our throats in so many other shows. No. The characters in the Venture Bros. really do develop into more complex and interesting people. Horribly, deeply flawed people, but people nonetheless. People that we genuinely want to get to know better. People that, for all their faults, we may find that we have even come to like.
Parallel with this, the show's internal universe (the "Ventureverse" if I may) likewise grows into a more complex and interesting place. Fundamentally, this is a show that satirises the adventure comics and cartoons that so many of us grew up with - Johnny Quest in particular. The satire we find in the Venture Bros. is by turns cutting, affectionate, and even brutal, but always devastatingly spot on. Indeed, given that Cartoon Network actually has the rights to the Johnny Quest franchise, Johnny Quest himself, now fully grown up and profoundly traumatised by his bizarre upbringing, has regularly made guest appearances throughout this series. So it is fitting then that just like the shows it parodies, over time the Venture Bros. has developed its own extensive internal cosmology and pantheon of players. Here again, one of the things I love most about this series is that even the bit players emerge as credible, memorable people with their own agendas and stories. None are merely throwaway cardboard cutouts.
It is also interesting to compare the current generation of [adult swim] cartoons with the one that preceded it. The humor in Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021, for example, often stems from the characters being so absolutely selfish as to qualify as literally psychopathic. Similarly so for Robot Chicken. By contrast, in shows like the Venture Bros., things are less cut and dried. The characters are certainly not saints; in fact, to borrow a line I used in an earlier review I wrote for season one of Archer, "the characters are all selfish, petty, and utterly and completely venal: the three great ingredients from which comedy is made". This is not quite so true of the Venture Bros. as it is of Archer, but it is true enough nonetheless. But at the same time, we are no longer dealing primarily with characters entirely devoid of compassion or humanity. They may, to varying degrees, actively dislike and even resist their own tendency towards basic human empathy, but they are no longer simply psychopaths. The brutal abstract craziness of the older generation of shows is not entirely lost. Rather, we might say that much like the eponymous Venture brothers themselves, it has emerged from childhood and at least begun the process of integrating itself into a more complex and more fully grown up world.
Finally, no review of the Venture Bros. could be considered complete without mentioning this show's gloriously retro sense of style. Once again the show has much in common with Archer in that it's impossible not to notice the jet-age aesthetic. But whereas in Archer this comes across simply as a pop-art homage to the shows that inspired it, and which it in turn parodies, in the Venture Bros. the chosen aesthetic is far more of a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the show's creators clearly have a genuine affection for the style they affect, even as they mock its absurdities (try searching for images of Doc Hammer on the web sometime and check out his wardrobe). At the same time, in the Venture Bros., unlike Archer, we are very much aware that we are in a world that has moved on since this form of modernism was indeed modern. Concord-like aircraft and cheesy 1970s-style wood panelling become emblematic of a generation of inheritors; or dare I say, of two such generations. Of characters who have not built upon what they were given, but rather, have presided over its decline.
And so we end where we began: with the characters. Deeply flawed, deeply human. But if we ourselves are to take away any lesson at all from this series, it should perhaps be simply this: Tragically flawed as we all might be, it may yet be possible for us too to go forth into this no less flawed and no less tragic world of ours and have some ripping adventures of our own.
Go team Venture!