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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f all the mature cartoons currently on the air, only “South Park” and “Family Guy” have truly succeeded in breaking into the mainstream. But if there’s one series that deserves it just as much as those two, it’s Adult Swim’s “The Venture Bros.” The “Jonny Quest”-inspired satire is among the brightest and best cartoons ever made, and though most people have probably never even heard of the show, any true fan of animation would be sorely missing out if they didn’t tune in. Unfortunately, while the third season represents a major turning point in terms of storytelling, it’s also not the best that “The Venture Bros.” has to offer. In fact, it’s a bit of a letdown after enduring such a long wait between seasons, but despite the hit-and-miss nature of the episodes, it remains one of the most original shows around.
Notorious for their nail-biting cliffhangers (the show’s first year killed off the title characters only to later reveal they were just clones), Season Three of “The Venture Bros.” begins mere moments after the second season finale, with the Monarch’s henchmen left to pick up the pieces after their fearless leader was attacked. Quick to avoid any discussion on just what Dr. Girlfriend was trying to tell the Monarch before they were so rudely interrupted, the season kicks off not with the Venture family as usual, but with the Monarch on trial by the Guild of Calamitous Intent. It seems there’s quite a lot of bereaucratic red tape that one needs to go through in order to properly apply for supervillainy these days, and in an attempt to prove his innocence by way of arrogance, the Monarch tells the story of how he went from being a henchman for Phantom Limb to arching his lifelong nemesis, Dr. Thadeus Venture.
For as fun as “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny” is, however, it’s one of many episodes this season dedicated to lots of exposition and back story. That’s part of the allure of “The Venture Bros.,” of course, but creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer take it too far at times. Granted, the Monarch is more than worthy of his own episode (especially when it means more Dr. Girlfriend), but did we really need a flashback for Master Billy Quizboy (“The Invisible Hand of Fate”) as well? Probably not, though the episode does feature two of the season’s best gags: a G.I. Joe parody and a lengthy sequence involving a seemingly pointless robotic sensor known only as The Nozzle.
Both episodes appear in the first half of the season, and though “Shadowman 9” ultimately proves to be a solid premiere upon second viewing, it does little to prevent the otherwise unsatisfying start generated by those that follow it. “The Doctor is Sin” is a strange little story about the fine line that divides heroes and villains, while “Home Is Where the Hate Is” only reminds the viewer why no one could ever replace the Monarch as Dr. Venture’s archnemesis. “The Buddy System” and “Dr. Quymn, Medicine Woman” get back to basics, but the season doesn’t truly hit its stride until “Tears of a Sea Cow,” which finds the Monarch raiding the Venture complex only to discover no one’s home.
The episode’s success is mostly thanks to the appearance of the supervillain’s two favorite henchmen, Number 21 and Number 24, who are hands-down the show’s greatest characters. These guys never fail to entertain, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that my favorite episode of the season (“The Lepidopterists”) also happens to be the one where they’re featured the most. There are actually plenty of great moments in the episode that don’t include 21 and 24, but nothing is funnier than watching the two of them trying to convince the macho Number 1 he’s going to die during the mission.
The villains steal the spotlight for most of the season, which is one of the reasons why it fails to live up to the excellence of Season Two. The Monarch, Dr. Girlfriend, and Number 21 and 24 can do no wrong in my mind, but new recurring characters like Sergeant Hatred and Dr. Girlfriend's moppets, Kevin and Tim-Tom, are just plain annoying. It also takes until the two-part season finale (“The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together”) before the Brock Samson we know and love is finally let loose. When all is said and done, Brock quits, a fan favorite dies, and the series ends on yet another monster cliffhanger that will have you wishing you could hop into a time machine and travel to the date of the Season Four premiere. As it stands, you’ll have to wait like everyone else, which sucks, because that only gives you more time to ruminate whether the third season was a disappointment or a misunderstood stroke of genius.
Special Features: The third season marks the first time that “The Venture Bros.” was produced exclusively in high definition, and it looks incredible. The colors are crisper than ever and the action really pops off the screen. It's probably not worth switching over for, but if you've already upgraded to HD, there's no reason why you shouldn’t pick up Season Three on Blu-ray. The single-disc set also includes audio commentary by Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick on every episode, a handful of deleted scenes, and a bonus CD containing the first volume of The Venture Bros.: The Music of JG Thirwell.