Satire isn't a new genre in writing. As long as mankind's been able to look inward at his own absurdity, he has been making it a point to make fun of himself and the people around him. It's an act that goes back to man's earliest days. Hell, in 2000 B.C. the Egyptians were satirizing the hard work and employment that merely being an Egyptian required. Of course, you also have the satires that are considered Western classics. A Modest Proposal, in which Jonathan Swift argues that the Irish should eat their children as a solution to country-wide hunger, was actually a mockery of England's wealth and the habit rich people have always been in of ignoring the needs of the poor.
These satires, which were aimed at serious topics of employment and wealth, were replaced in the 20th century. Media grew at a blazing pace over the last century, exploding into forms of radio, television and film. As these forms grew, they took on tropes and tried to represent life in the form of straight comedies like Leave it to Beaver, Mary Tyler Moore and The Dick Van Dyk Show. Decades of this helped grow a huge wealth of material, tropes and patterns about what life should be like but what people knew life wasn't like. It shouldn't be a surprise that America eventually made a habit of satirizing everything it could get its hands on. The turgid comedy Married... with Children was a satire of the classic American family comedy. Its lead, Al Bundy, was a deadbeat father who just wanted to work his shift at the shoe store, come home, drink a beer and zone out in front of the television. Of course, he wanted this done while expecting his wife, Peggy, to cook and take care of the home. That idea, that women were the housekeepers and men were the breadwinners, had been engrained in American society for centuries. It has its roots in social transformations that occurred in England hundreds of years before, and Married took the notion and spat on its grave. Al was constantly humiliated for his performance in bed, his meager income and his poor role as a father. Peggy's homecooked 'meals' were microwaved quick dinners. It was a complete inversion of the wholesome families of portrayed in earlier decades of television.
It was never incredibly witty, though it was probably a necessary part of American television. Sometimes you just have to take a hammer to social structures, and Married did that to the typical family that had been idealized for decades, one that never existed in reality. Satire found other sources to mine besides Americana, though. The 90s found pleasure in mocking entertainment that had come before it. James Bond, long a male sex symbol and a dashing representation of England and its spy network, found himself lampooned in the guise of Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. Mike Moore's original Powers film deserves an article all its own, but it was one of the original attempts at mining the vast source of pop entertainment that had developed throughout the 20th century. It varied between the worst toilet humor, to quick and witty repartee and chuckle inducing physical comedy. The film may not have won everyone's love, but it stands as one of the great satirical breakthroughs specifically because it mocked the great cultural touchstones that had developed over the last few decades. Better, it opened the door to even greater satirical pieces.
The Venture Bros. came to life in 2003 on Cartoon Network's late night broadcast block known as Adult Swim, which had been home to a long trail of decaying anime carcasses and the cheapest animation that American studios could produce. Venture Bros. was, from the start, something very different. First of all, it had the benefit of writers who actually had a theme that would unify the show: Failure. The fevered vision of genius creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, two names that most men can only dream of themselves inventing, Venture Bros. took the ancient Johnny Quest formula and, like its predecessors, subverted its entire source material. Where Quest had shown a triumphant Doctor Quest adventuring across the world with his son Johnny, while showing the triumph of Western society and the technological marvels of the Space Age, Venture dares to ask "What if Doctor Quest was a failure?" This lead to a show in which the lead scientist, Doctor Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, is only making ends meet because he's been selling the inventions of his deceased father to the U.S. government for money. Thaddeus is, himself, almost incapable of inventing anything worth owning, and the great corporate and scientific empire his father had created (itself a mirror of Quest's own vast wealth, as well as that of other moguls such as Tony Stark) is rapidly falling apart. In this show, Thaddeus was what Johnny Quest would have been if he'd grown up humiliated, embarrassed and unable to step out of the shadow of his father. Thaddeus' own two sons, Hank and Dean, are Johnny Quest types themselves. However, they, too, mock the original Quest show. Young boys don't miraculously find their way out of one dangerous situation out of another without some scars, and the two of them end up dying in a (hilariously) fiery explosion at the end of Season One.
Archer, in contrast, had little vision to unite it as a show and instead chose to rely on quick gags, sex humor, and an endless mockery of the 'international spy' trope in a way that was similar to Austin Powers before it. Where The Venture Bros. attempted to develop, mockingly, a deep universe for its characters to inhabit, Archer was, from its inception, a show that relied on an endless series of gags. Archer, although an admittedly gifted fighter who can handle himself with a gun, is endlessly inept, unable to comprehend basic numeric and geographic concepts, and is outshone intellectually by his partner, Lana Kane. Yet Archer is the darling of the spy agency in many ways, largely because his mother owns it, but also because, despite his idiocy, Archer manages to survive an infinite number of dangerous situations while parading through a stream of sexual escapades. It really throws up James Bond's tropes in many ways, and it does remain funny. Whether it's agent Pam's addiction to Cocaine, or creepy scientist Krieger's holographic anime bride (yes, you read that right), Archer bombards the senses with endless mockeries, humiliations, gags, and sex humor.
And this is where The Venture Bros. and Archer largely divert as storytelling mediums and why The Venture Bros. is the superior show (which is not to say that Archer is a bad show by any means). Venture Bros. is now about to begin its sixth season while Archer is concluding its sixth. Let's work our way backwards, beginning with Archer. Faced with a boredom dilemma, writer Adam Reed introduced a number of changes at the end of Season Five and leading into Season Six. One change, which reduced Archer's spy agency to a drug dealing agency, was fitting with the overall tone of the show. It introduced new ways to use the characters in different situations. However, the show has essentially remain unchanged. It's still a constant parade of gags that runs wide, not deep. That lack of depth is why the second change, making lead character Lana Kane pregnant (and Archer's admission that he loves her), is undeserved. These type of deep character moments only mean something when depth has been applied to the characters over time. Archer is fast paced, ruthlessly mocking and essentially a Gatling gun of jokes, but it could never be accused of being deep. It's the lack of depth that makes the character admissions and changes so, well, meaningless. They're the sorts of things shows do to stay fresh, but they don't change the audience, characters or story in any way that feels like any of those elements will have a lasting impact.
The Venture Bros., on the other hand, spent years not only creating an increasingly deep mythology, but also using its unifying theme of failure to evolve its characters. Thaddeus Venture, at forty, is not suddenly going to become dad of the year. He's still obsessed with becoming greater than his father, mostly by making a horde of money and proving to his younger brother, Jonas, that Thaddeus is the greater scientist. It's shallow, sad and the ultimate demonstration of failure in the show. The thing is that it's true to the character, and you feel bad for Thaddeus when you see the way his domineering father treated him. People learn from the failures of others, though. Bodyguard Brock Sampson moved on when he realized his life had become stagnant working for Thaddeus. Brock, another version of the 'international man of mystery' trope, is a former spy himself that has fought, and fallen in love with, a former KGB operative named Molotov Cocktease. However, Brock has slowly pulled away from her and his stagnant bodyguard lifestyle, to reach a point where it seems he may even find love elsewhere. Venture children Hank and Dean, having been cloned, also grow. Hank has come to understand the world he lives in is incredibly absurd, embraced it, and grown into a daring young man that still makes hundreds of mistakes, but that is definitely not repeating the self loathing steps of his father. Dean, forever romantically obsessed with Triana Orpheus and beat down by his own fears, humiliations and sense of inadequacy, seemed the most likely candidate to grow into the same self hating man that his father Thaddeus is. However, Dean has slowly been asserting himself, rejecting his father's attempts to remake him into another 'mad scientist' type, and has generally become confident and assertive. At least, more assertive than he used to be.
That difference between Archer and The Venture Bros., the willingness to create character depth versus not, is why The Venture Bros. triumphs in a way that Archer has struggled with. The Venture Bros. makes for an almost nonstop laughfest. This isn't just a matter of personal opinion, everyone from Comic Con to The A.V. Club laud The Venture Bros. hilarity. However, the show has also slowed down to give its characters time to breath and grow. Rather than relentlessly make pot shots at each other's expense, Venture has sacrificed a few jokes for character development. That's also why, if someone got pregnant on Venture, it would feel earned in a way that Archer does not. Again, this isn't an argument that hopes to slam Archer. However, in ten years, when you think back on stories that had significant impact, Venture is going to stand out. It had the jokes to stay on television just as long as any other show, but also gave its characters the room to develop will make them memorable for years to come. It's also why the show has so much life left in it. That deep mythology it invested in, alongside its rich characters, give it ways to grow that Archer simply doesn't have available to it.
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