The Venture Bros. isn’t the only show on television that would base the plot of an episode on the bouncing ball from Duran Duran’s “Is There Something I Should Know?” video. Pop culture is as much a part of the lives of TV characters as it is of ours; it’s not hard to imagine that particular prop showing up in an episode of New Girl or Fresh Off the Boat, or, once upon a time, on Community, where it might have fueled a multi-episode arc. But only on The Venture Bros. — which concludes its sixth season this Sunday on Adult Swim — could that bouncing red ball be the key to the entire universe.
Another series might sneer at its characters for being so invested in such obvious ephemera, but The Venture Bros. doesn’t mock Billy Quizboy — a hydrocephalic former child genius approaching middle age with nothing in his life but a trailer, a struggling super-science company, and a snippy albino roommate. Billy cares so much about that red ball that he would give up everything, selling his company to archenemy Augustus St. Cloud, just to get it back. Clinging to totems associated with their favorite music is just how everyone on this show gets through the day.
That simple act of surviving is, on this show, a lot harder than it sounds: Not only does the threat of death by science, magic, or good old-fashioned neck-breaking loom over everyone at all times, but also the characters are just miserable. The most common description of the show is that it’s about failure, which makes sense given that the central character, Rusty Venture, is a washed-up former boy adventurer — a bald, middle-aged Jonny Quest saddled with several psychology textbooks’ worth of neuroses and pathologies. All of the other characters are struggling with their own life choices and suffocating in the bowels of indifferent institutions, but that’s not the only way they’ve failed.
The best moments of The Venture Bros. investigate what a person’s life would be like if they spent it trying to adhere to the absurd standards of their pulp heroes and villains — if they acted out their relationship with pop culture to an even unhealthier degree than usual. Rusty’s boyhood exploits were the basis for a successful children’s cartoon, and for much of his adult life he’s been measured against a version of himself that isn’t even real. The villains who make up the bureaucratically constipated Guild of Calamitous Intent base their actions on what would make for cooler “arching” — elaborate games of make-believe, governed by stringent bylaws to ensure that no one ever really gets hurt.
Consuming pop culture — and music in particular — is part of how people are indoctrinated into this world. When Rusty tries to introduce his son Dean to the ways of superscience, he does it not by explaining the laws of thermodynamics, but by strapping his child into an egg-shaped chair, slapping giant headphones on him, and putting Yes albums on the turntable. You don’t need to know anything about “science” as long as you’re in touch with the muse of progressive rock. During the experience, Dean sees himself as a star child riding a dinosaur, before finding himself trapped in a “Floyd hole” by the end of Dark Side of the Moon. (Rusty is forced to throw Dean into an ice bath to shock him back to consciousness, a life-or-death situation just as serious as a guy with a death ray.)
Over the past six seasons, Venture Bros. creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick have taken full advantage of the legal gray areas unique to animation by populating their show with all manner of characters based (often very closely) on real people. The Guild of Calamitous Intent was a haven for musicians in the 1950s, and two older characters are strongly implied to have started life as The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly. The idea that you can escape fame by becoming a costumed villain is one of the show’s best and subtlest jokes. David Bowie shows up near the end of Season 2, with his sidekicks Iggy Pop and Klaus Nomi; eventually it’s revealed that he’s actually Sovereign of the Guild. (His attack drones are referred to as “Diamond Dogs.”)
Bowie’s presence is ridiculous, and sweet. (The writers go out of their way to try to suggest that the Sovereign is not, in fact, David Bowie, but painting him as an all-powerful shape shifter feels like more of a fitting tribute to the Thin White Duke.) More important, it provides a non-moral, non-villainous way for everyone to relate to him as a character — no matter who you are, you have an individual and very strong opinion about Station to Station. Hero or villain, everyone is equally unfulfilled, and music provides a way for them to relate to one another from within the often constricting boundaries of their traditional genre-defined roles.
Rather than serving as simple reference gags or character Easter eggs, the music these people like says something important about who they are. While waiting to enter a yard sale at the Venture compound, The Monarch (Rusty’s one-sided archenemy) and his then-girlfriend (now wife) get into a fight over the sexual orientation of one of the guys from Depeche Mode. When a supervillain complains about a possible name for his evil organization, he says it sounds like they’re “headlining the Lilith Festival.” These are prototypical Venture Bros. musical references — just a tad obscure (and period-specific), but dire to the people who care about it. When The Monarch screeches, “Come on, he’s in Depeche Mode!” he could just as easily be commanding an assault. Pop culture, and especially music, is a reason for action in this world.
The obscurity of these references is part of the joke, but it’s also part of what makes them sad — the music that the characters of The Venture Bros. love (as do the creators) has, in part, been forgotten, or at least has shrunk enough in the collective memory that the reference can produce humor on its own. (These double meanings extend to show’s backing score, which includes things like winking plays on The Andy Griffith Show theme song for some of the more grotesque moments.) Pop culture, here, is an outlet for unbearable sadness compressed into a lifetime of pressure; when Rusty tries to write and sell a self-titled musical, he’s using the grand musical theater format as a way of holding onto his former glory, of proclaiming to the world that he still matters. (“I’m Rusty!” he cries in vain.) And when Hank and Dermott, the show’s other sad boys, write a song for their band Shallow Gravy, it invests a piece of outerwear with deep, heartfelt meaning.
The music the show references isn’t cool. But it’s the music that these characters are attached to, and it’s the music that moves their world. “That’s a priceless artifact and part of our collective childhood,” Billy says of the Duran Duran prop, before launching into a speech that connects the ball to John Hughes; Wu-Tang; all of the New Romantics; and Billy’s best, most important life experience of all. It doesn’t matter that it’s just a toy. Will the show’s characters ever escape their attachments? Maybe next year, maybe no go.