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Boy Idiots, Mad Scientists, and Swedish Murder Machines

Like Brock Samson -- secret agent, muscle-car afficionado, and magnificently mulleted engine of stabbing-intensive death -- the joys of Adult Swim's The Venture Brothers sneak up on you before going in for the kill.

The twisted little brainchild of Chris "Jackson Publick" McCullough and Eric "Doc" Hammer, Venture seems at first glance like a simple parody of Jonny Quest and other 1960s Hanna-Barbera action series. Like the Quest family, Dr. Thaddeus Venture, his twin sons Hank and Dean, and their bodyguard Brock travel the world in a wicked cool superjet, battling supervillains, ancient menaces, and the obligatory armies of spear-gun-toting frogmen. Unlike the relatively well-adjusted Quest family, Dr. Venture is a weedy, pill-addled failure, scavenging the rapidly diminshing remains of his brilliant father's empire; Brock will vigorously copulate with anything sufficiently female, and is prone to hair-trigger fits of murderous frenzy; and Hank and Dean are, suffice to say, not the sharpest crayons in the box.

Thankfully, their enemies -- as numerous as they are inexplicable -- aren't much sharper. The Venture supporting cast is stuffed to the gills with colorful, indelible, and often hilarious characters: The Phantom Limb, Dr. Byron Orpheus, Master Billy Quizboy, Molotov Cocktease, and so many others. It's like McCullough and Hammer just can't stop creating these guys, drawing ladel after ladel from a simmering subconscious stew of every geek touchstone of the past 30 years.

From Marvel Comics to Star Wars to prog-rock albums about hobbits, if it was in the bottom of your closet, on your stereo, or hanging on your wall in your childhood, chances are you'll see it here, in amusingly sordid fashion. As voiced by Stephen Colbert, Professor Impossible -- Venture's version of the Fantastic Four's Reed Richards -- is the creepy, manipulative, borderline sociopath we all knew the real Reed could be. And if Season One's riotously humiliating death for Jonny Quest's Race Bannon didn't sufficiently violate your childhood memories -- neighborhood children ride his soiled corpse down the street -- Season Two's appearance of Jonny himself as a mustachioed, pantsless, gun-waving junkie should finish the job quite nicely.

McCullough cut his creative teeth working with Ben Edlund on his uproarious live-action and animated adaptions of The Tick, and Edlund's gift for pitch-perfect dialogue and absurdist humor seems to have rubbed off. When Brock -- voiced to manly perfection by Patrick Warburton, who also played the live-action Tick -- is reunited with Molotov, the ex-Communist femme fatale who stole his heart, their passionate clinch is interrupted by Brock's discovery of her cast-iron, hammer-and-sickle-emblazoned chastity belt. "Sorry, dahlink," she coos. "I still can only go to second base."

"I thought the Cold War was over!" Brock howls in agony, and stalks off to the bathroom.

Much like Futurama or Arrested Development, the longer you watch The Venture Brothers, the funnier it gets. McCullough and Hammer aren't afraid to build up a running joke throughout an entire season, or longer. And they're not above playing a brilliant trick or two on their audience. After Season One ended with Hank and Dean's apparent death (in an "Easy Rider" homage), McCullough and Hammer kept mum about the boys' fate. Preview images released before Season Two showed no trace of Hank or Dean. And the first half of Season Two's opening episode was one long, gloriously staged head-fake, right down to the retooled opening credits. When Hank and Dean finally reappeared, the motive and method for their return was as hilarious as it was ingenious. (Suffice to say that if you have death-prone children, it's handy to be a superscientist.)

But for all its mayhem and amusement, a regular Venture viewer will quickly realize that there's a lot more going on here than snide pop-cultural potshots. Nearly every character in the show's sprawling cast is given far deeper characterization than they rightfully deserve, with surprisingly moving results. Brock may be a "Swedish murder machine," as one foe dubs him, but he's also a stand-up guy, doing his best to provide the boys with the paternal guidance and affection they don't get from their wretched pop. Molotov Cocktease seems all steel and leather at first, but in private, she melts into kittenish adoration at the mere thought of Brock -- and from the easygoing way he calls her "Mol," we know these two crazy kids really care about each other. The boys are sweet, well-meaning, and totally unequipped to handle actual life in the outside world. Crazy superscience and evil villains are the only filter they have to process reality, and it's left them isolated and damaged in ways they can barely begin to grasp.

And right about that point -- the point where it's several hours after you've seen the latest episode, and you realize you're still thinking about the characters -- The Venture Brothers truly has you in its grip. Watch long enough, and you'll find yourself rooting for girlish, ineffectual supervillain The Monarch to work things out with his foghorn-voiced paramour, Dr. Girlfriend. You'll feel strangely warmed by the realization that Jonas Jr., Dr. Venture's freakish, malformed twin brother (don't ask) is as kind, brilliant, and generous as his brother isn't. You'll pity Dr. Orpheus, the Ventures' histrionic necromancer neighbor, in his desperate, hapless attempts to be a good dad to his beloved teenaged daughter. You'll muse over the odd, grudging camaraderie developing between Brock and dapper arch-villain The Phantom Limb. And you'll start wondering when Dr. Venture will pull his head out of his ass, get over the crippling loss of his own impossibly perfect dad, and be a better father to his poor, doomed kids.

Too many of today's "grown-up" TV programs seem snarky and self-referential, sarcastically handling anything resembling real emotion from a safe distance. Real sincerity and sympathy seem to have been left for cartoons and other children's fare. (Thank goodness the Brits still embrace it, if the new Doctor Who is any indication.) The great big humanist streak that The Venture Brothers displays, alongside its considerable hilarity, makes it easily the best animated series, and one of the best comedies of any kind, currently airing. In a move that Brock Samson would envy, it makes a convincing feint for your funny bone, but ultimately strikes right at your heart.

Catch new Venture adventures Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, or see the latest episode at AdultSwimFix.com.


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