30 October 2009

Stop shooting that comic book! A Venture Bros. Review

Lord, deliver us from 1978.
-- Agent Cardholder, "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel"

Adult Swim lists the Season 4 premiere of The Venture Bros. as Episode 46, but that may have been the most straightforward part of this dense, complex but worthy episode.  There was enough material in this half hour for two episodes, but somehow Jackson Publick and the rest of the real-life Team Venture managed to pack it all into a single installment.  On that basis alone, Adult Swim's decision to air it on five consecutive nights was well justified.

Here's the synopsis:  "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel" follows the series' central characters, along with Henchman 21, Sgt. Hatred and Dr. Orpheus, as they all deal with the aftermath of Season 3's explosive finale.  (In this case, the adjective is no exaggeration.)  Peppered with references to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), the episode uses Marvel Comics #1(1939) as a framing mechanism.

Told in traditional, linear fashion, "Blood of the Father" would have been challenging enough to follow.  As it unfolds, however, it quickly becomes clear that we are dealing with two distinct and parallel plot lines.  Both lines start at the same point: the season-ending explosion that decapitated both HELPER the robot and 21's best friend, Henchman 24.  The episode's coda, the short scene that always follows the credits at the end of a completed VB episode, marks the end of both lines.  The additional challenge comes from the opposite directions of the lines.

The forward-moving line, which opens the episode, features Brock Sampson alone.  When the explosion occurred, Brock was literally walking away from his job with the Office of Secret Intelligence.  Severely wounded, then patched up by OSI doctors, Brock resumes his escape,  convalescing for several months before deciding to return to action as a free agent.  But things have changed in his absence (including his weight).  Each scene in this line is marked with the title of one of the stories that comprised Marvel Comics #1.

The other plot line, which involves Dr. Venture and the twins, moves backwards.  In the aftermath of the explosion, Venture finds himself harassed, first by 21, then by neo-Nazis.  21 wants Venture to use his spectacular (and illegal) cloning facility to recreate 24.  To pay for the operation, 21 offers Venture his family heirloom: a mint copy of Marvel Comics #1.  Later, bringing with them a dog that holds Adolf Hitler's soul, the Nazis threaten to kill Venture unless he uses his cloning skills to give Hitler a new body.  The scenes in this line also get visual tags, but these show the value of 21's comic book at the point each scene occurs.  Since the scenes appear in reverse order, the value begins at zero and ends at $500,000, the book's value when Venture first receives it.

Unfortunately for 21, the residents of the Venture compound don't understand what he has given them.  To them, it's just another comic book, and in each scene it appears, it takes a form of abuse that only copies of, say, Human Events, should have to endure.  Even after being turned into a doggie toy by Dr. Orpheus, the poor book is still worth $850, but the last abuse finishes it off.  Once 21 learns of his book's fate, he turns to Orpheus to resurrect 24, only to be turned down again.

(Like the episode itself, both the title of this post and the picture atop it revolve around the book.  In the screen cap, 21 is arguing with Doc Venture just before his visit with Orpheus.  The title arises because, at one point, Hank shoots -- yes, shoots -- the comic book.)

And that dog does have Hitler's soul locked in it, as becomes apparent to everyone but Dean, whose mental state has been deteriorating.  To Dean -- apparently the only person who can finish Hitler off -- the dog is just a pet, and his best friend, until the Nazis return.  Eight months after their first visit, they are displeased to see that Hitler remains in canine form.  It falls to Orpheus, Sgt. Hatred, Venture's archenemy-turned-bodyguard, and a rebuilt HELPER to try save the day.

I can't say I enjoyed seeing Hatred become Brock's replacement.  It's hard to root for anyone so pathetic that OSI has to drug the pedophilia out of him.

Various message boards, including the official one at Adult Swim, have suggested that eight months pass from the beginning of the plot lines to their end, but I think that's an underestimate.  We don't know how long it takes after the explosion for the Nazis to first arrive, nor do we know how long Brock's recuperation lasted.  Either length must add to the eight months, and judging from the magnitude of Brock's weight fluctuations, it's likely that both of them do.  I'd guess that the total length is somewhere between 12 and 18 months, not the popularly reckoned 8.  Perhaps later episodes will clarify the issue.

As I said, that's a lot to pack into 23 minutes of animation, and there's quite a bit I haven't mentioned.  You probably will need at least two viewings to understand it all, but it's worth the effort.

Grade:  91/100.  I initially knocked it down to 87 because of Hatred's increased role, but I've become more forgiving.  A little bit more.

Update (2 Nov 09): Jackson Publick has provided a ruling on the timing.  On his blog, he says that the episode takes place over nine months.  Brock's weight changes would seem to suggest a longer span, but everything else fits.

23 October 2009

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (3) The Chinaman Button

"Mr. van Haas, I'm making this as easy for you as... pushing a button." -- Phil Thurston

Someone presents you a box with a single button. Pressing the button triggers two chains of events. One chain leads to the legal deposit of a potentially life-changing sum of money into your bank account; the other, to the death of a random person, whose identity cannot be revealed.

Do you press the button?

This little device, and the dilemma it presents, is central to The Box, the Richard Kelly movie that opens in theaters in two weeks. Episode 15 of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, doesn't feature either a button, a box or even an Asian, but it centers on similar dilemma. That's why, when I first saw ads for The Box, I decided that I should post a review of this episode. The little button below doesn't kill anything, but it does play the teaser.

Teaser for The Chinaman Button

The title writer Henry Slesar gave Episode 15, "The Chinaman Button," was racist, and he surely knew it. He further knew that, when the episode first aired, that term had long since fallen out of favor. I can only imagine that he chose the title for its ability to attract audience attention. After all, as of 20 January 1974, RMT had been on the air for only two weeks.

Slesar gets away with this offense for only one reason: the only character who regularly uses the term "Chinaman" in the story is its villain, a crooked advertising executive. As "The Chinaman Button" opens, Phil Thurston (voiced by Paul Hecht) returns from vacation to discover that he has lost his most valuable account. Unfortunately, much of that value came from Thurston's overbilling his client -- a fraud exposed by Walter van Haas (Mason Adams), a humble accountant that the client had just hired.

Not content to have escaped jail time (or even firing), Thurston launches an elaborate retaliation. Rather than kill or injure van Haas, Thurston decides to try to expose him as a venal person.

To that end, Thurston creates a virtual "Afrikaner Button" for van Haas to push. Posing as a representative of a South African law firm, Thurston "informs" van Haas that he is the only heir to a wealthy cousin, many times removed, who lives in Johannesburg. Thurston refuses to identify this cousin, but does tell van Haas that his cousin will soon meet an untimely death. To receive millions of dollars, van Haas needs only to wait for his cousin to die. Unfortunately, van Haas can only receive the money if he keeps silent about his relative's impending death. In accepting this offer, as Thurston hopes, van Haas would expose his own base nature. The exposure would be doubly sweet for Thurston, since both the South African law firm and van Haas's "relative" are entirely fictional.

Initially, van Haas angrily rejects the deal, and tells Thurston to buzz off. Fate, however, has other plans, setting off a battle of wills between the ethical van Haas and the corrupt Thurston. If van Haas rejects the deal, he wins, but if he agrees to it, Thurston gets his revenge. But as one of RMT's most satisfying endings shows, both men have overestimated their positions. By the time "The Chinaman Button" ended, I almost forgot about its questionable title.

This episode may be entitled "The Chinaman Button," but the Internet has caused it to age prematurely. Before the Internet, creating fake stationery, an essential element of Thurston's scheme, required no small amount of money, along with influence like his. These days, anyone with a simple computer can create such stationery. And as Nigerian scammers and others have long since proven, even stationery isn't required to convince gullible users that they can get money from rich Africans who don't actually exist.

Score: 91/100. "The Johannesburg Button" would've bumped it up to 96.

Musical note: Here's the second-act curtain. Although this short, dizzying piece of music separated scenes in many episodes, it was never used as a curtain again.

Curtain 2 from The Chinaman Button

20 October 2009

Tuesday Gridiron: Fear the pigeon!

It's come to this for the Oakland Raiders:

Notice how well the pigeon's feathers match it's new teammates' uniforms.  At least now the Raiders have shown some coordination this season.  Maybe this week, the Raiders can stop by Lake Merritt and sign a couple of the Canadian geese who hang out there.

Go Team Venture!  Because Yahoo couldn't handle my fantasy-football team's intended handle, "The Guild of Calamitous Intent," I named it "The Venture Brothers," instead.  So far, the team has performed as though either Dean Venture (left) or Jim Zorn (right) were coaching it.  As of 15:00 Chicago time Sunday, the Vikings' defense -- the only reliable part of my team all year long -- had just collapsed, and this Team Venture found itself staring at an 0-6 record.  But then Patriot QB Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes to stake my team to a precarious 9-point lead.  In the Monday night showdown, my kicker, Nate Kaeding, outperformed my opponent's lead running back, Ladamian Tomlinson, leaving me with a solid 13-point win.  Finally, the Venture Brothers win!

Post-ponement:  Speaking of my team's namesakes, I had planned to post a review today of the Season 4 opener of The Venture Bros., which first aired Sunday night.  It's not too difficult to follow the timeline in Episode 40, but nor is it straightforward.  Fortunately, Cartoon Network has decided to re-air the episode every school night this week.  I'll have more to say next Monday, but I can now give it a rating of 8.7 out of 10.  The episode has one element that cost it a full point.

12 October 2009

Is Rush Limbaugh the next Silvio Berlusconi?

Right now, the answer to the title question is "no" -- but could it one day switch to "yes?" Until this month, all the Floridian radio host (left) and the Italian prime minister (right) had in common was the fact that both men were misogynist boors who had too much money, power and media influence.  In the past week, though, we've seen a couple of news items that, if they pan out, may make Limbaugh more powerful than ever.
  • Last Friday, the Miss America Organization named Limbaugh as a judge for the 2010 Miss America pageant, scheduled for next January in Las Vegas.  Thus, Limbaugh gets to attach his name to another American icon (even one as badly aged as Miss America).  And, he gets to leer at pretty young women and get away with it.
  • A much larger occurrence is Limbaugh's recently announced bid to buy the St. Louis Rams.  It's hard to imagine this bid succeeding -- the NFL players' union has already announced its opposition -- but if it does, he will have developed another similarity to Berlusconi, owner of Italian soccer superpower AC Milan.  (My favorite soccer team? Whoever is playing the Rossoneri this week!)
The point is that Silvio Berlusconi used AC Milan, among other organizations, to gain control over the Italian media.  From there, it became much easier for him to conquer Italy itself.  Perhaps Rush Limbaugh, with his actions last week, is trying to follow Berlusconi's footsteps.  Given that Italian law is steadily closing in on Silvio, Rush is going to have to watch his steps much more closely than he has in the past.

God, I hope Rush Limbaugh fails.

03 October 2009

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (2) Radio-dial games

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater succeeded as well as it did for a wide range of reasons, most of them having little to do with the plots of its episodes.  At some point, I'll have a complete list of success factors, but tonight, I'll start with three.

As its name implies, RMT aired on CBS Radio affiliates* that broadcast their signals on the AM spectrum. (In 1974, radio stations preferred AM signals to FM -- though that was changing.)  CBS Radio let its member stations run RMT at any time they desired.  Most stations did this every evening, at seven minutes past some hour.   Chicago's WBBM was the big exception, to which I'll come back presently.

If you've ever played with an AM radio at night, you know that, unlike FM stations, you can easily catch stations from hundreds of kilometers away.  Even today, some of the most powerful AM stations in the US count on having nighttime listeners well outside their home markets (and away from the Internet).  For me, a third-grader listening in exurban Chicago, it meant that, on a given night, I could catch an episode at 20:00 aired in Louisville or Detroit, hear it again at 21:00 from Minneapolis or Denver, then catch it a third time from WBBM -- at 22:30.  It's hard to imagine that RMT didn't get a noticeable part of its audience from nighttime road travelers.

But back to Chicago and WBBM.  Since Chicago is in the Central time zone, and not the Eastern or Pacific, 22:30 was (and remains) the airtime for NBC's Tonight Show.  In other words, WBBM scheduled RMT to intentionally challenge Johnny Carson's popular late-night show.  With David Letterman and ABC's Nightline still well into the future, WBBM's gamble succeeded brilliantly.

At least it did with the grade-school set.  In 1974, as now, most families put their younger children to bed at 22:00 on school nights, if not before then.  Watching TV of any kind at 22:30 was a no-no for kids.  Back then, few families had more than two television sets in the whole house; sneaking peeks at Johnny Carson was simply impossible.  Sneaking a listen to RMT, by contrast, was easy.  While few bedrooms had TV sets, almost every bedroom could have at least one cheap radio, like the one at left.  Even with a radio that big, it was a trivial matter for a kid like me to curl up to it, set it to WBBM hide everything, myself included, under the blanket.  Mom and Dad didn't suspect a thing.  It wasn't hard to imagine that kind of scene repeating itself thousands of times every night, in Chicagoland alone.

Elsewhere, I suspect, a weaker version of the same thing happened.  RMT succeeded partly because it became "appointment radio," and partly because, in an era when broadcast networks still dominated television, there just wasn't anything better on the boob tube.

But did I simply listen to the RMT episodes?  Well, at first, I did.   Soon enough, I realized that certain curtains -- those pieces of music that marked the end of each of an episode's three acts -- frightened me.  What's really weird is that only one these particular curtains, three of which you can hear below, showed up in horror stories.  Most of them occurred instead in crime dramas.

Curtain 1 from And Nothing but the Truth
Curtain 1 from The Lady Is a Jinx
Curtain 2 from The Lady Is a Jinx

Over time, I turned my fear into a game.  As the end of any act approached, I put my had on either the volume dial or the tuning dial.  The moment I thought a curtain would start, I turned the dial, waited a second, then moved the dial back to its original position.  If I avoided the start of any of these curtains, or if a less scary curtain turned up instead, I "won."

The thing is, in RMT's early years, its curtains used very sharp music, such as the samples above.  I have no doubt that, not unlike John Williams' efforts in Star Wars I-III, that music effectively masked an awful lot of awful plots.

*The big exception was RKO Radio flagship WOR, which carried RMT in New York.