BoJack Horseman & Venture Bros Explore the Downside to Nostalgia
BY The Screen Spy Team
Published 8 years ago
By Justin Carter
So let’s talk about nostalgia; to paraphrase Zero Punctuation, nostalgia makes you say stupid things. Things from our childhood will always be seen through rose-colored glasses, a sort of mental block built in from birth. Nobody wants to grow up, not really, because being an adult is only slightly less dreadful than an 8-hour car ride with Justin Bieber. It’s usually easier to bury the flaws from our childhood rather than acknowledge them, because to do that is to bring up the uncomfortable thought that some things from our youth were terrible and we should finally accept the cold finality of adulthood. Unless it’s done comedically of course, because it’s always easier to acknowledge how much something sucks when you can laugh at it. Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched two shows that acknowledge the downsides of nostalgia through comedy, both of which I’d like to talk about today.
First on the plate is BoJack Horseman, a Netflix original that made its debut this past Fall. The titular character, an anthropomorphized horse, is a washed up TV star from the 90s who wears nostalgia like a frat boy wears a wifebeater. He’s the kind of guy at a high school reunion who would try to reconnect with an old flame or get drunk by the punch bowl alone and everyone would look at him with pity and contempt; a slightly hairier version of Dustin Diamond after Saved by the Bell ended, but without the arrests and appearances on Celebrity Rehab. His one chance at revitalizing his now dead career comes when a book company wants to publish his memoir and hires him a ghost writer named Diane.
I watched BoJack over the course of the weekend when it first came out, binging multiple episodes at once, and I’m not entirely sure that was the right move. The show is great, but watching episode after episode after episode brings about a gradual shift from laugh out loud comedy to dark, drug-fueled introspection completely out of left field. Which isn’t saying that I didn’t like it when it happened; by the time the season ended, I knew what had caused each character to end up where they did and understand why the writers put them in that position. It’s a tricky thing to do in comedies, because the nature of the beast more often than not is to just make them easily watchable at any point in the day. BoJack is, especially in the second half, a serialized show, so missing one episode could mean you’re missing out on some of the jokes.
Next up is the Venture Bros, a Cartoon Network series whose sixth season starts on Monday. The titular brothers, Hank and Dean, are a pair of emotionally and educationally stunted teenagers; their father Rusty is emotionally insecure, financially unstable, and a general underachiever; and their bodyguard Brock is a giant mass of muscle who spends his time murdering, listening to Led Zeppelin, and sleeping with basically any woman within a 7-foot radius. Venture Bros. can best be compared to shows like Johnny Quest and Batman the Animated Series, but with a great big old scoop of Kick-Ass on top. The former comparison comes from the fact that they literally do have Johnny Quest in a few episodes as a homeless drug addict who later goes through recovery. Also helping is how the Venture family was influenced by the Quest family, with Rusty being modeled as an adult Johnny, Race Bannon for Brock, and Hank and Dean being substitutes for Johnny and Hadji.
Driving the Batman comparison is Rusty’s arch-nemesis the Monarch, who is his arch-nemesis basically just because he says so. He’s like the Joker in that he has a serious axe to grind with the elder Venture and comes up with ridiculous scheme after ridiculous scheme to kill him, ranging from literally infiltrating the doctor’s mind, having sex with one of Venture’s guard robots, to using an acid magnet. But whereas Joker has clear and defined reasons for constantly going for Batman, Monarch’s reasons for giving Venture the time of day aren’t really explored. There’s some very minor details revealed about their time at college together, but overall it’s been cleverly avoided. There’s even an episode where two of Dr. Mrs. The Monarch’s henchmen ask what Venture did to earn the Monarch’s hate, and when she gives general answers, it only increases their frustration:
Kevin: ”Well, why does he [The Monarch] hate Dr. Venture?”
Dr. Mrs. The Monarch: “Because he can’t fake it…Because he’s the real thing!”
Tim-Tom: “No, mum. What did Dr. Venture do to the Monarch to make them enemies?”
Dr. Mrs. The Monarch: “Nothing worth destroying a career…a marriage. I know what I have to do, you boys stay here!”
Kevin: “Why can’t we get a straight answer?!?”
Kick-Ass is mentioned because like Mark Millar’s comic book trilogy, everything in the Venture universe is a broken and twisted version of the very things that influenced it, from the Batman parody of Captain Sunshine that pokes fun of the gay undertones between the Dark Knight and Robin to the Venture’s tenant Dr. Orpheus, who’s like Dr. Strange with the theatricality turned up to 11. But whereas Millar uses Kick-Ass to express his hatred for the comic book superhero medium and himself for being stuck in it, Chris McCulloch and Doc Hammer use the Venture Brothers to show how these cartoon and superhero icons would be in a real world that has long forgotten them, like U2 before they forced their album on everyone with an iPhone.
Despite the show being named after Hank and Dean, the series has expanded its scope to include a multitude of heroes and villains from generations both new and old, revealing the war between good and evil to be as much about bureaucracy and a code of ethics as it is punching dudes and stopping them from creating an ice age or robbing a bank. The core characters view the superheroes, giant robots, and costumed butterfly as a regular part of their everyday lives for better and worse, such as Orpheus, performs a salute with his superhero team the Order of the Triad and Rusty annoyedly tells them to leave his kitchen. Or another moment in the season four episode “Assisted Suicide” where Rusty tells Hank about the effect being a boy adventurer has had on him:
Rusty: “I’m just turning 16 and having a birthday pool party…so the band suddenly stops playing, and I hear, ‘And now, the man of the hour, Rusty Venture!’ All eyes on me, right? Then suddenly, almost predictably, the Action Man shoots my groin with a shrink ray right as that fucking jackass Colonel Gentleman pulls my shorts down…what I went through today was ‘like a nightmare’. What happened when I was 16? That is my life.”
The reason I paired the two of them, aside from both being really hilarious and a great way to spend a Saturday night, is how they both handle nostalgia. Instead of going for the romanticized version of how things were, both shows take nostalgia to a nice bar, have a drinks, and then proceed to beat the living hell out of it. They can best be described as “depressing comedies”, and I know that sounds about as logical as Ricky Gervais sounding humble, but it fits. though the shows are comedies, they’re written in a way that reeks of self loathing, like people who’ve read 50 Shades of Gray.
One episode of BoJack focuses on his on and off girlfriend/publicist Princess Carolyn and her struggle to not get upstaged at her agency by her rival Vanessa Gecko, her incompetent assistant, and by BoJack himself. At the end, Carolyn beats her nemesis and gets BoJack a role, but BoJack turns it down. Carolyn looks outside as her phone goes off, wishing her a happy 40th birthday, and she realizes how much time she’s sacrificed to BoJack romantically, that crushing depression that comes with realizing you truly can’t have the thing you want.
BoJack the show is more than happy to strip away the doughy flesh 90s family sitcoms like Full House and Boy Meets World, revealing a broken monster, a husk who lives out his days with a roommate he picked up off the street and constantly abuses.Throughout the series, his life is revealed to be sadder and sadder, from putting up with his parents’ constant fighting and emotional abuse as a child to being forced to boot the Horsin’ Around creator Herb Kazazz (and his own best friend) off his show, to his childhood idol giving him a rousing speech before killing himself. But despite viciously ripping apart nostalgia and formulaic comedies, the show isn’t afraid to be a little formulaic itself. In what was either a deliberate or accidental reference to how most sitcoms will rarely change their status quo for longer than an episode, BoJack sabotages his roommate Todd’s chance at success in order to keep him in the house and maintain the familiarity he’s used to. Though rather than stay in that formula for the remainder of the season, Todd eventually finds out what BoJack did and the two end up separating on good terms.
Like BoJack, Venture Bros. isn’t content to wallow in nostalgia and the formula of old 90s action cartoons. Remember how in old cartoons the kid protagonists would always be in mortal danger, but never die? The finale for the first season of the Venture Bros breaks that trope in half, killing Hank and Dean in the final minutes before the credits roll, Rusty telling Brock to just pick up the boys’ dead bodies with no grief. Season two opens with the reveal that Hank and Dean are both clones, having died a total of 15 times during the family’s adventures from being murdered by twisted versions of the Scooby-Doo gang to shrinking themselves in a submarine and creating a clot inside Rusty. The boys are unaware that they have clones until watching them die essentially as cannon fodder in season three and aren’t made aware that they are clones until the Halloween special. Of the two, Dean takes it the hardest, distancing himself from his family, burning the learning beds Rusty built for the boys meant to give them an (incredibly outdated) education, and giving biting sarcasm whenever possible. Even before then, he has no desire to get into super-science like his father. Neither he or Hank are even good at being boy adventurers either, and the only reason they have that title is because they inherited it from Rusty, who tried and failed to fight against that life himself:
“Dean believes this crap! He should have been ‘Rusty Venture, Boy Adventurer’. Hank got this life thrown at him, and he fights against it, just like I did…He can’t win. He’s a Venture. He’ll never shake it.”
The show does this often, making the characters archetypes that eventually deviate from their mold and become more fleshed out as the series has gone on. In addition to Hank and Dean, there’s two of the Monarch’s henchmen, 21 and 24. They were a pair of physically unfit nerds who did nothing but talk about pop culture and were the Monarch’s best men by simple virtue of not having been killed by Brock. But after 24 died at the end of season three, 21 bulked up and has become someone who can go toe to toe with Brock and be complimented on his training. Despite the increasingly growing signs of mental instability during season 4, 21 walks away from the Monarch and ends up being the sole member of SPHINX after its members switch back to the OSI.
Really though, what makes Venture and BoJack great is how they’re ultimately about growing up. Their bleak outlooks on life are balanced out by the growth their characters and their universes have made. Hank and Dean have become boys who want their own lives away from being super scientists; Hank owns a store (a store built inside his house that sells things his father owns, but still) and is part of a band, and Dean is rebuilding the family robot H.E.L.P.eR. and wants to become a reporter. The end of season five has found them embracing their being clones, and Dean finally being able to move on and accept that being a clone can be pretty sweet.BoJack’s premiere season ends with his memoir selling like gangbusters and leading him to land Secretariat, the role he’s wanted for years.
BoJack and Venture are about more than knocking nostalgia down a few pegs. They’re about finding out who you are and making a name for yourself instead of following a path laid out for you. And watching Team Venture grow over nearly six years and BoJack over one weekend is time well spent, in my opinion.
Also, a guy dressed like the Cobra Commander getting an arrow in the face while a kid dressed in a supersuit sits on his lap. And animal people on drugs. They’re about that, too.