I've long counted myself as a fan of "The Venture Bros.," but I've resisted doing one of these lists because I wasn't around for the first season. However, going over the episode lists today, I realized that I have seen most of the missing episodes via reruns. And as we continue the long, long wait for season six, it's a good time to look back on the series' high points. Team Venture has been with us for over a decade now, and gone to some very strange and interesting places. As always, picks are unranked and ordered by airdate below, and I will totally cheat and count multi-parters as single entries. Minor spoilers ahead. Go Team Venture!
"Dia de Los Dangerous!" - I'm not clear when exactly I first saw the "Venture" premiere, but it always stuck with me because of how neatly it sets up all the major characters and relationships. Early on I was a big fan of the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend, who despite their oddities have a very healthy and warm relationship both at home and in the field. This is also a good example of the show's formula, which would gradually be subverted as time went on: bodyguard Brock has to protect the cheerfully daft Venture boys, Hank and Dean, and their selfish super-scientist father Doc "Rusty" Venture from myriad comic book dangers. Many fans watched the show simply to see Brock beat people up, which he does here with great gusto.
"Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean" - More hijinks aboard the Cocoon after the Monarch manages to abduct the whole Venture family. Dean, however, has sustained an embarrassing injury which requires medical attention, so an uneasy truce is called while this is sorted out. We switch back and forth from that point between Dean's humiliating surgery and the Monarch's birthday showdown with Brock Samson. While not the most eventful episode, it's one of the most enjoyably silly ones that gives all of my favorites some time to shine. I always liked the episodes with the main characters hanging out and dealing with personal issues better than the crazier, more conceptual episodes full of genre parodies. However...
"Escape to the House of Mummies Part II" - There's something to be said for the ambitious conceptual episodes, especially when they're as well done as this. We start in the middle of a wild time-traveling adventure, where Team Venture is stuck in a pyramid full of booby traps. Doc manages to escape and goes to find help, but gets sidetracked by a bet with Dr. Orpheus. We get to spend some time following Orpheus on a trip to a hell dimension to confer with his master (via poor Triana's closet), while Doc reminisces and does bad science with Pete and Billy. Occasionally we also cut back to Brock and the boys, whose adventure just keeps getting weirder and wilder, culminating in a priceless "Star Wars" reference.
"Guess Who's Coming to State Dinner?" - And then there was the time that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln recruited Hank and Dean to help him foil a "Manchurian Candidate" style assassination attempt on the president. This one has my vote for the funniest episode - it has the best one-liners, bad puns galore, and the uncomfortable innuendoes are off the charts. Brock trying to fend off Mrs. Manstrong's advances is one of my favorite bits in the whole show. I love how all the authority figures are just terrible, and even Honest Abe is kind of a jerk. The second season was definitely my favorite, where the show's sensibilities fully gelled and the creators got much more comfortable lobbing absurdities at us. Speaking of which...
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills" - How did they ever came up with a character as dementedly wonderful as Dr. Henry Killinger with his Magic Murder Bag? I love the slow reveal here, where it turns out that the sinister newcomer who finagles his way into the Monarch's confidence really is there to help him, despite the reasonable suspicions of his henchmen and Dr. Girlfriend. The Ventures tangling with loony Myra Brandish is fun, and Orpheus visiting his master is always a treat, but really I love this episode for the domestic drama at the Cocoon base. Slowly but surely, the Monarch gang was revealed to be a family unit as well as an archvillain outfit - and likely a much more functional family unit than the Ventures.
"Showdown at Cremation Creek" - I love a good wedding, especially when there are supervillains, an extended "Never-Ending Story" parody, and David Bowie in the mix. This two-part finale to the second season was the ultimate expression of the show's love of comic-book carnage and '70s-'80s popular music as the Monarch and Dr. Fiancee take an eventful plunge into matrimony together at last. The epic battle between the Guild of Calamitous Intent and the Monarch "murderflies" is one for the ages, especially with Brock in command. And once I figured out who Klaus Nomi was, it made perfect sense that he and Iggy Pop have superpowers in this universe. And the cliffhanger ending, which I'm not sure was actually ever fully resolved, was perfect.
"The Buddy System" - Another fairly low-key outing, where Dr. Venture decides to run a day camp out of the Venture compound, recruiting several of his friends to help. The Monarch sends in the Moppets to infiltrate, and there's an irritating, mouthy kid named Dermott who riles up Brock. This episode is best enjoyed by established fans who get to see old favorites like the Ghost Captain and Action Johnny again, and puzzle over a new mystery. "The Venture Bros." is at its best when it juxtaposes the fantastic with the utterly mundane, and you don't get much more mundane than a safety demonstration, no matter how much the Order of the Triad tries to jazz it up. Of course, this was also the debut of Dr. Mrs. The Monarch's new costume. Nothing mundane there.
"Return to Malice" - Henchman 21 becoming a fearsome badass in the wake of Henchman 24's death is one of my favorite developments in the "Venture" series. Here, he gets to work through a lot of baggage while kidnapping Hank and Dean, and we get to the crux of his obsession. Meanwhile, this is also a great episode for Sergeant Hatred, who initially wasn't one of my favorite characters, but who I warmed up to quickly. There's so much wrong with the guy, but he's still terribly sympathetic. He tries so hard to live up to his new good guy status and his job as bodyguard, but like everyone else on the show, his failures haunt him mercilessly. Doc and the Monarch's Mrs. also get a rare private moment together, which was sort of oddly sweet.
"Any Which Way But Zeus" - The gladiatorial battles between so many of our favorite sidekick characters is a lot of fun, but this episode is here because it lets Hank confront his father about some long-simmering issues, and reveals that Doc actually does care about both of the boys, even if he expresses it in some pretty unhealthy, twisted ways. This is one of those conversations that wouldn't have happened in so many other shows, but here it lets Hank put a lot of fears to rest and move on. And as a result, the show gets to move on too. This was roughly the point where I realized that "Venture Bros." was never going back to the old formula again, but that was a good thing. The characters were changing, becoming more nuanced and interesting.
"Operation P.R.O.M." - The fourth season was when the Venture boys started to grow up and rebel in various ways. Hank got a great arc culminating in "Everybody Comes to Hank's," but Dean's maturation didn't really kick off until the finale, where Doc attempts to throw the boys their own prom. With Hank and Dermott's help, Dean finally summons up the nerve to try and win back Triana - and turns into a complete jerk in the process. There's a lot going on here, with the Monarchs, Molotov, and SPHINX lurking around, Doc hiring prostitutes to be the boys' dates, and everyone trying to figure out what kind of sexual act a "Rusty Venture" is slang for. Inevitably, everything ends in crushed hopes and giant mutant bugs, which is exactly as it should be.