“The child is grown / The dream is gone / I have become comfortably numb.”
– “Comfortably Numb”, Pink Floyd
“I spoke to a Man down at the tracks / and I asked him how he don’t go mad / He said ‘Look here, Junior / don’t ya be so happy / and for heaven’s sake, doncha be so sad'”
– “Marquee Moon”, Television*
In terms of broad vision, there’s not much difference between The Venture Brothers and Rick & Morty. Both are cartoons that take a premise from a particular bit of children’s pop culture (Johnny Quest for the former, Back To The Future for the latter) and use it as both a vehicle for comedic violence and sociopathy, and as a center of gravity for a worldview warped by pop culture, with practically everything being a reference of some kind; neither story is content to sit on those references like so many other adult cartoons, taking them to strange, vivid, deeply sincere emotional places. But they take these visions in precisely opposite storytelling directions – my first instinct switching between them episode-by-episode was that this was kind of like going from a Lennon song to a McCartney, but even more than that, it’s progressive rock versus punk.
“What can I do to this guy that life hasn’t already?”
Much like a Pink Floyd album (whose music even cameos in the show), The Venture Brothers is an increasingly dense network of ideas, beginning with a simple conflation of different references (starting with the eponymous duo, who reference Johnny Quest, Scooby Doo, The Hardy Boys, and Buddy Holly all at once) and slowly building up in-jokes, psychology, worldbuilding, and relationships. An off-hand reference to “the quiz craze of the 80s” in the first season flowers into the backstory of Billy Quizboy two seasons later; a few references to the Guild Of Calamitous Intent ends up creating a rich culture of weirdos whose compulsive need for the romance of supervillainy is kept in check by a bureaucracy of rules; Brock, the bloodthirsty bodyguard, goes through a very slow awakening to become the most credible moral force in the story.
At the centre of this world is Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, who answers a question nobody asked: what would a grown-up boy adventurer look like? Apparently, “a superscientist Tony Soprano”. Rusty is a bitter hack, completely and totally disillusioned with the entire ‘adventuring’ deal, lazily throwing together his father’s leftovers and simply going through the motions of superscience with as little effort as possible. I don’t think anyone’s ever put it this way before, but Rusty actually works really well as condemnation-via-neutral-presentation of a certain kind of nerd, smart enough to have insight into their problems but so lazy and afraid of actual failure (as opposed to failure-to-live-up-to-potential) that they settle for easy, short-term solutions. The show is great at showing Rusty’s perpetual cycle of bitterness, having some insight into his life and then immediately walking it back.
“It’s powered by a forsakened child?!”
“Might be – kind of – I mean I didn’t use the whole thing!”
The difference between Rusty and Tony Soprano is that Rusty’s creators don’t force everyone to follow his rules, and all the characters are on their own individual journeys (in fact, by the end of season three, Rusty is actually the least important person in his world). It’s hard to pick a favourite here – I already mentioned Brock’s moral awakening, but I also love the journey of the Monarch, who shows the most sympathetic take on “passionate young punk trying to hold onto his ideals as he matures into an upper-middle-class lifestyle” I’ve ever seen; his relationship with Dr Mrs The Monarch (nee Girlfriend) is a genuinely affecting one as they both balance their personal needs with their love for each other.
There’s also the relationship between 21 and 24, the Monarch’s two most consistent minions. One thing the creators bring to the table is a deep understanding of what makes a pair of characters work, both comedically and emotionally – they need to share a basic understanding of the world and then take it in totally different directions, and in this case, 21 and 24 are both giant geeks, but 21 is the romantic and 24 his exasperated straight man trying to bring him back to reality (“For the last time, I don’t wanna be Jet Boy and Jet Girl – I don’t care if I get to be Jet Boy! Those names suck!”). At times, their relationship with each other reminds me of my relationship with nerd culture as a whole – a shared belief that lightsabers are cool but only one understands that a guy taking on someone with a toy lightsaber will absolutely get his ass kicked.
“It’s industrial espionage, you’ve come to steal our great ideas! You’ve been foiled, we have none!”
That’s really what’s at the heart of the show: each character’s relationship with the Romance, with Rusty obstinately remaining disillusioned while everyone else lands on a different point on the spectrum and shifts their position constantly. Rusty’s world is one that not only can be quantified, it was quantified a long time ago by people a lot smarter than us – one thing I have seen a lot is how much the show has been embraced by burned out ex-gifted children (yo) who draw comfort from a world where all the cool stuff has already happened, all the heroes are gone, and all that’s left are children who were never given the tools to survive on their own, just trying to make the best of it that they can and even failing at that.
The emotional peak of the first three seasons is Rusty being visited by Dr Henry Killinger, the demonic Mary Poppins that visits characters to tell them exactly what they need to hear in the nicest, most efficient way possible. To have your psychology broken down to its simplest, to be told who you are and what you have to do to be happy in simple, concrete terms is the dream of any neurotic; to turn away from this out of terror and confusion and go back to your neurosis is normal and human. Doesn’t every neurotic fear that the only way to be happy is to become the bad guy?
My people have another saying– “gubba nub nub doo rah kah”. It means, “whatever lets you sleep at night”.
By comparison, Rick & Morty is a punk album. Like all Harmon products, each episode runs under his story circle theory, which is a clear tragic arc refined to its simplest form; to me, this is much the same way punk rockers (and blues musicians before them) used simple, basic song structures to deliver energy and personality in a way your average listener could understand and appreciate. More importantly, it means each episode of the show is about a principle, pushed to an extreme. Jerry believes himself to be a good person, and he believes it so hard that he’s willing to hold a bunch of alien doctors hostage insisting that they cut off his penis; Morty does his best to protect a sentient singing space fart out of the preciousness of life, things like that.
The immediate effect is obvious. Any individual R&M episode is a powerhouse of plot, slamming through extremely simple stories with an astounding drive that pulls you right in; the show lacks the density of VB, using only a few ideas and pushing them to their limit, and this is true on a series-wide conceptual level as well as an episodic one – the regular cast is limited to Rick, Morty, Jerry, Beth, and Summer, and the two plots per episode are always driven by one of those five characters, and almost always enhanced by Rick’s intergalactic/interdimensional abilities. That is to say, the series is the purest distillation of the phrase ‘high concept’, and you always know what you’re gonna get with it, and the trick is to take you somewhere you don’t expect.
“Ah, Summer. First race war, huh?”
What makes it work is that, unlike Venture Brothers, this world can’t be quantified. The series has a vast, bizarre imagination when it comes to visuals; there might only be one kind of creature in this show referred to as a Cronenberg, but all the aliens have a strong body horror thing going on (and usually, several things hanging off them that look like testicles). Occasionally, you’ll get a character who is actually a reference to something (like Scary Terry, a riff on Freddy Kreuger), but more often than not, the character design is totally original, sometimes to a level that is awe-inspiring; the show’s references are, more often than not, the plot devices the characters use, the things Rick builds or finds.
To put all this another way, a principle + tragic structure + weird visuals = an episode of Rick & Morty. What holds the whole series together as a complete unit is the development and refining of the characters’ principles, and it starts with the fact that Rick, like Rusty**, will never change. He knows what his highest principle is (serve the self) and he’ll chase it ruthlessly and relentlessly, tearing up everything in his path with not an iota of guilt because all of life is meaningless, and it’s what makes him awesome in both the colloquial and archaic senses of the term – “I’m gonna go take a shit,” is a brilliant, brutal moment of pure ownage, but, you know, he wipes out a civilisation. His life is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
“That’s planning for failure, Morty. That’s even worse than regular planning.”
Next to this immovable object is the unstoppable force, Morty. Rick describes himself as the Rickest Rick in season one, because he’s the version of Rick that refuses to compromise even with other Ricks (who created a civilisation of Ricks and Morties), and he notes that the Rickest Rick would obviously have the Mortiest Morty; he’s obviously just throwing the kid a bone, but over time it becomes clear that Morty does have a trait that makes him strong, and often stronger than everyone else around him: a willingness to change his notions of the Sacred. Everyone remembers his quote from “Rixty Minutes”:
“Nobody belongs anywhere, nobody exists on purpose, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
For a lot of people, this was a mindblowing articulation of something they’d always felt, a comforting sentence they could tell themselves to get out of bed in the morning. I recognise the need for it, I recognise what it means to people, but if that were all it was, this story would have no value to me personally. The circumstances of my birth weren’t too dissimilar to Summer’s, except it wasn’t a traumatic revelation at sixteen, it was a basic fact of my existence I was always aware of; the major flaw of the show to me is that it always treats nihilism as a traumatic revelation. Morty’s speech has value to me because it’s part of his process of development. He saw what happened in “Rick Potion #9”, he saw how easy it was to walk away from a massive disaster he caused, he saw how many universes there are and how unimportant he and the details around him are, and decided to change his principles moving forward. And it doesn’t stop there – in episodes after that, Morty builds on his worldview and self-awareness, trying to find the balance between his feelings and reality.
What Morty learns and Rick always knew is that pre-emptively imposing a narrative always, always makes things worse. Jerry is one of the most obviously flawed characters on the show because he needs to see himself as a loving husband and father and all-round great, smart guy, and unlike Vic Mackey he doesn’t have the skills to fake his way through it (the penis plot is great, but I also love him passionately arguing that Pluto is still a planet), but it’s also something we see with Beth, who keeps getting caught up in being the smartest person in the room and can get snippy and insulting whenever anyone challenges that (best seen when she gets pissy and childish with the therapist).
What we end up with is something actually kind of like Metal Gear Solid – morality developed through the scientific process. Morty enters a situation with a hypothesis (you always save an innocent person from a Purge), follows through on it, looks at his results, and adjusts the hypothesis for next time. The end result of this is that Morty loves his family, takes pleasure in simple things like comedy, and generally tries not to make anybody’s life more difficult than it needs to be, especially his own. This isn’t unique in general, and this particular iteration of it feels very much in line with what [adult swim] shows have been trying to do since they started making stabs at more serious content – Morty takes all different feelings and ideas from shows like 12 oz. Mouse, late-era Sealab 2021, and yes, even The Venture Brothers and puts it through a simple, practical context. And because of the discipline of the storytelling, not only does the emotion feel earned and thus more profound, Morty gets something that is unique on [adult swim] and definitely uncommon in general: a sense of accountability and responsibility. Rick takes the view that all principles are stupid and useless, and the show’s particular brand of plotting shows that many of them are rooted in ego, hurt feelings, and often nothing at all; Morty’s journey is one of finding which principles are effective and which aren’t.
“No! I care about the true spirit of the divine! I care about the Universal Truth! But being a magic superhero that keeps chasing the same guy? It’s completely gay! And that is coming from a guy that voluntarily has sex with men!”
The thing about watching an episode of Venture Brothers and then an episode of Rick & Morty is that you’re watching two people start in the same place, and slowly get further and further apart until they no longer resemble each other at all. And yet, like twins separated at birth, there continue to be uncanny parallels. Obviously, the animation of both just keeps getting better and better, though in exact opposite ways – R&M is an evolution of the Hanna-Barbera approach to TV animation, choosing extremely simple character designs that cycle through the same five or six expressions, and improvement is about more intricate designs, weirder aliens, cooler technology; the style itself remains pretty much the same. VB was always more intricate, closer to the Disney TV cartoons of the Nineties in approach if not design, a pulp comic book in motion, and as it ages, not only do we get more complex designs (like eye colours, which I understand are one of the hardest things to animate), we get more complex facial expressions; you can track Brock’s journey through the final three episodes of season three just through his silent reactions.
This is a reflection of how both shows deepen over time. Rick & Morty shoots for the universal, like so many dramatically structured works before it. Rick, Morty, and Beth can all casually break the fourth wall because their world doesn’t have to be internally consistent – they aren’t characters so much as ideas, abstractions of people that can be plugged into the next plot, and over time those ideas become more complex until we have the precise moral outlook that leads Morty to stay with his family and reject Rick in the season three finale. The Venture Brothers pulls off a lot of narrative tricks, from the episode with four different possible explanations for Billy Quizboy’s hand and Phantom Limb’s powers, all the way up to a fake second part of a three parter, but what it can’t do is have Rusty tell Dean that this will be their darkest season yet. R&M takes ordinary principles and blows them up to an absurd scale; VB takes larger-than-life ideas and reduces them to the hilariously ordinary, and for that to work we have to be able to treat this as a real world with real people in it. No R&M character has the psychological depth of even a tertiary character like Phantom Limb; as it ages, VB just keeps feeling denser and denser as the weight of history (personal, social, societal) builds up.
“What is it your kind’s always saying? Don’t think about it.”
What interests me is how these two stories, far and away [adult swim]’s most popular shows ever, each managed to reflect the world and especially the internet at the time they aired (and I freely admit this is my personal view of things). The first three seasons of The Venture Brothers aired between 2004 and 2008, and at that time, it really did feel like the end of history. The general hopelessness of the Bush era has been well documented; Baby Boomers’ favourite cultural artifacts were still sacred cows, and everything that followed was a remix or parody or mashup or reimagining of what had come before. There were no more heroes and no more inventors. There was only history, and all we could do was react to it, and build an identity out of those reactions.
Inbetween 2008 and 2013, the world underwent a few changes. A new brand of leftism gained steam, with a new set of rules and a new social contract, and it aimed to not just reject history but destroy it, to use a moral outlook to create new, better ideas. In response, a new brand of right-wing ideology rose up. There’s a clear sense of Good and Evil, and if you don’t choose a side, one will be chosen for you. At the same time, these new ideas are being incorporated into the vast scheme of things, women and queer people and people of colour (and, er, Neo-Nazis) are showing the collective things it’s never seen before, wonderful things and horrible things, expanding the world into dangerous new territory. I don’t think Rick & Morty is intentionally showing how to survive the ’10s (the show tends to be pretty open about what it’s doing at any given point), but I don’t think anything else shows better how to retain a sense of individual self in these interesting, principled times.
“I couldn’t run fast because I had a lighter up my ass.”
“Okay, now I believe you’re Hank’s friend.”
And I think both shows have survived and will survive the times a-changin’ further. Much like Cowboy Bebop, the references that make up The Venture Brothers are so wide in scope and so dense in number that they create their own world, and the emotional glue that holds them together will appeal to burned out ex-gifted children for as long as the world keeps producing them. And even if that emotion doesn’t move you, the complex, interesting, wonderful, terrible, utterly human human beings that make up the show are still there for you – I believe hearts will be sent a-flutter over Brock half-heartedly but sincerely saying “Go Team Venture” to the heat death of the universe. And as I said, Rick & Morty‘s universal (literally) nature means people will be delighted by Rick’s escape from the Galactic Federation Prison long after everyone’s forgotten about the fucking Schezuan Sauce debacle.
I haven’t seen seasons four and five of The Venture Brothers since they originally aired; I have very positive memories of season four, which showed the characters making efforts to grow and overcome the failures of the past to create a new and better future; unfortunately, I remember slowly going off the show around season five, feeling like it had said everything it had to say and was just spinning its wheels, and I didn’t even bother with season six, which I understand walked back some character development and introduced too many new elements (I’m going to watch/rewatch them all after this article goes up; perhaps that will be a followup article). Moving forward in VB means introducing new ideas while still building on what came before, and it’s not surprising to learn that the balance is hard to strike.
“It’s probably a bad time to mention it, but any astronauts you had in space are definitely dead.”
Meanwhile, more Rick & Morty is definitely on the horizon, with [adult swim] ordering seventy new episodes and the creators promising a faster creative output. A common criticism of the series is that it doesn’t sufficiently punish Rick for being a nihilist asshole enough; I believe this to be slightly wrongheaded (I don’t need a TV show to carefully delineate right and wrong for me), but it’s accurate to say that the show lets Rick off the hook more than it does the other characters. There’s hints of an internal life in Rick, that he’s refusing to recognise his own emotional needs, and the show definitely lets him have his cake and eat it too in that he’s never been forced to pick between himself and Morty – he’s always been able to think his way out of a problem to an extent that Vic Mackey couldn’t. I’ve been getting a lot of thrills out of riding with Rick as he keeps thinking and owning his way out of every problem he’s faced with, but for the show to become something more than an ownage-generating machine, it has to genuinely push Rick to his real limits. Let’s hope the show is up to that.
*Much thanks to The Solute’s resident punk nerd Conor Malcolm Crockford for supplying me with the appropriate punk song quote.
** You could imagine some horrifying combination of the two: Risty.