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Is it me, or does every Nazi want to clone Hitler?

October 21, 2009

It was a good weekend for cartoons, what with Clone Wars taking on Hitchcock’s Notorious on Friday night and The Simpsons’ twentieth (!) “Treehouse of Horror” (not its best offering, in my opinion — that honor will always go to episodes IV and V — but still entertaining) on Sunday.

But Sunday night also brought possibly the best news for cartoon-loving nerds everywhere: Venture Bros. is back, baby!

It’s hard to sum up what makes Venture Bros. so damn entertaining. On the surface, it’s a parody of the old Johnny Quest-style adventure shows. But reducing Venture Bros. to a one-note premise like that is like saying that Battlestar Galactica was about homicidal space robots. It’s the truth, in a way, but it’s missing all the layers and complexity that made the show compelling.

Like the very best comedies, Venture Bros. builds its jokes on the strength of its characterization and continuity. Any particular scene will have numerous things going on: the omnipresent pop-culture references, in-jokes specific to the audience’s knowledge of the show’s history, foreshadowing for future plot lines that will only make sense upon later rewatches. As with shows like Arrested Development — or the The Simpsons in its heyday — I can (and have) watched episodes of Venture Bros. over and over again, and gotten something new out of them every time.

(Spoilers for the premiere after the jump)

“Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel” starts season four off with a bang. (Yes, literally — we pick up directly at the explosion which ended season three.) The episode has a typically Byzantine dual story structure: the A plot follows Brock’s recovery and quest for vengeance in linear fashion, while the B plot — involving Sargent Hatred’s new bodyguard duties, 21’s quest to bring 24 back from the dead, and… a bunch of Nazis with a dog containing Hitler’s soul — is intercut in reverse chronological order. In other words, this is an episode that really won’t make sense until you’ve watched it at least twice.

God, I love this show.

The usual dense layers of pop-culture references abound, of course. My favorite is the extended Raiders of the Lost Arc gag, complete with Orpheus wearing Belloq’s outfit from the climactic Nazi face-melting scene. The larger plot has also been moved forward a great deal with Brock’s initiation into the mysterious S.P.H.I.N.X. organization and the revelation that Hunter Gathers has been undercover since his (supposed?) sex-change operation in season two.

Apparently, this season will be split in two, with the first eight episodes airing this Fall and the last eight next Summer. I can’t say I’m happy about that, but it means there will at least be plenty of time to rewatch and dissect the first batch before we push to the end.

Of course, if you’re already a fan of the show, you probably already know all of this. And if you’re not, all I can say is: do yourself a favor and DON’T start with season four. Really. The first three are out on DVD. Watch them in order and you’ll enjoy them a lot more, I promise.

… unless you don’t like cartoons that expect you to pay attention because they’re not going to spell things out or dumb them down; complex, multi-generational storytelling; serial plotlines with an enormous cast or colorful, recurring characters; non-stop historical, literary and pop-culture allusions and homages; or humor that’s both sophomoric and sophisticated. Then this probably just isn’t the show for you.

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