The first episode of Season 4.5 of The Venture Bros., "The Diving Bell Vs. The Butter Glider," probed the dark secrets (literally) lodged inside Doc Venture. Also, the Monarch wants to diddle a mechanical butterfly. Damn we missed this show.
So Venture Bros. is back on the air for the first time since the annual coming of the Krampus (that is, December 2009). Despite this gap between episodes, "The Diving Bell Vs. The Butter Glider" felt like an old-school (uh, Season 2) Venture adventure — it had plenty of Brock, the use of the Shrink Ray (which, if I'm not mistaken, didn't work the last time we saw it), and an adventure-of-the-week science fiction trope that was twisted perversely. In this case, Brock, the boys, and Shore Leave had a Fantastic Voyage-style adventure inside a mysteriously ill Doc Venture. This voyage yielded more effed-up dark secrets, which no one seems particularly phased by.
In fact, the only thing this episode lacked was any dialogue whatsoever from the comatose Doc Venture (James Urbaniak), but that wasn't a deal-breaker. The show plugged that gap with its secondary cast, namely Pete White, Billy Quizboy, and Shore Leave, Brock's sailor boy SPHINX teammate who's flamboyantly modeled on Shipwreck from G.I. Joe. At Comic-Con, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer mentioned that we'd be seeing more Shore for sure. This is a good thing, as Shore Leave's a hoot. His quips were groanworthy-awesome (he brought cockles back from his pirate adventure, "Sonar's lighting up like Tony Manero's gonna dance on it!"), and he played an excellent foil to Brock's über-macho surrogate parenting (Shore Leave encourages Hank and Dean when they're quoting the Operation commercial ad nauseum).
Along with giving ancillary characters larger roles, this episode did a great job acknowledging that time has passed between the half-seasons. The Murderous Moppets have become the Pupae Twins have become little butterfly henchmen. Hank is manning the machine gun. Dean is diagnosing his ill father (no Dean, "lazy face" is not a real disease). Also, the reveal that SPHINX has set up shop in an abandoned shed on the Venture Compound has been dealt with deftly — it turns out that the boys discover SPHINX every other week, so they're constantly mind-wiped. This process is having a deleterious effect on their neural functions ("Dean, what day is today?" "Sagittarius!").
The mind-wipes speak to a running gag we haven't seen in a while — Brock's avuncular (but half-assed) tendency to maintain the boys' innocence. When we discover that the cause of Doc's embolism is SPOILERS a shrunken submersible piloted by dead clones of Hank and Dean ("The Sevens"), Brock's Panglossian side really shines. He tells them that total strangers stole their clothing, shrunk themselves, went into Rusty, and died. Also, the scene of Hank and Dean hugging their clones' skeletal remains for dear life was priceless gallows humor.
The only so-so spot was the tension between Monarch and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch. The Monarch has purchased an extravagant Green Goblin-style Butter-Glider, and it's causing him to neglect both his Wife and arching Dr. Venture. There wasn't anything wrong with this subplot (the Monarch's "I Can Show You The World"-esque paean to his Butter-Glider was artful), but I feel we've seen marital foibles like this before, particularly in "Return To Malice." Still, it was welcome to see the Monarch's supervillain friends again, particularly Princess Tiny Feet and a cancer-stricken King Gorilla (whom the Monarch callously compares to David Byrne in Stop Making Sense).
At this point, Venture Bros. has evolved past a Hardy Boys/Johnny Quest pastiche and is now becoming full-blown pop archaeology. This season premiere — that aired in millions of households — was laden with shout-outs to now-arcane things like Innerspace, and Pete and Billy's totally pointless lightcycle ride was equal parts Automan and Street Hawk. The show's annotations need annotations, and that is why we love it.
ADDENDUM 1: Jackson Publick confirmed yesterday that Nathan Fillion will be lending a voice this season.
ADDENDUM 2: Has this made the rounds? I don't think so, but if it has, apologies.