“This is exciting, like when we were young and dumb and everything was dangerous and pointy.”
It makes perfect sense that a fictionalized Christopher Lambert, the former Highlander himself, is the height of celebrity in the fictional universe of The Venture Bros. His bargain-bin mediocrity is exactly the kind of pitiful societal apogee characters like Rusty and the Monarch long to reach, his exaggerated personal mystique the product of badly-aged movies that looked dubious even in their prime. “In real life he looks like Ted Danson,” Rusty says of him in awed tones. In ‘A Party for Tarzan,’ season 6′s penultimate episode, Dr. Venture and his rivals talk through their bizarre life experiences in a series of not-too-serious noir voice-overs that flirt with big happenings without ever really committing to any of them. It feels like a make-or-break moment where a hard-hitting finale could really energize the show, or else more narrative teases and cop-outs could condemn season 6 to the sort of soft-focus “meh” of, say, real Christopher Lambert.
Seven episodes in and Rusty still feels afloat in this season. What does he want? What’s he working toward? What conflicts exist between him and others that aren’t the product of (amusing, if elaborate) contrivance? His courting Christopher Lambert as an entry point into high society investor-type crowds feels like more of the same rather than an extension of earlier episodes’ dips into his issues with assuming control of his brother’s empire. That it never even feels like a possibility that he’ll bite it when Dr. Mrs. the Monarch pulls the trigger speaks to how unwilling the show has grown to change things up. It feels like a mistake, too, to open with that jump forward. Instead of a mounting feeling of inevitability as Rusty slowly completes his inadvertent transformation into the Blue Morpho, it just feels like connecting dots.
I don’t want to undersell ‘A Party for Tarzan,’ though. It might be my favorite episode of the season. The voice-over, a device I’m not typically wild about, is delightful here, providing colorful windows into the frustrations, joys, and fears of 21, the Monarch, Dr. Venture, and Dr. Mrs. the Monarch. It’s some of the season’s best character work, all wry self-deprecation and world-weary grit. Gary’s tale of being abducted by the Monarch as a kid as part of a cosmically idiotic scheme to make the last name ‘Venture’ illegal is charming, and so is the way he balks at being ordered to kill Wandering Spider. His Bundy gambit to abduct the guy is a good throwaway joke, too. The Monarch’s level-obsessed explanation of Guild rankings is clean, concise world-building, and a depressing reminder of how far he’s fallen. It made me wish the series had done more legwork to establish why he hasn’t rebuilt the cocoon and recruited another army.
The episode has more than a few visual treats. Rusty’s genuine reaction to the eclipse (“Oh, that really is beautiful.”) is a touching moment, and the eclipse itself is gorgeously drawn. The way that Christopher Lambert’s face is never quite shown is also oddly wistful, making him more Questing Beast than man, an unattainable object to be desired by all. ‘A Party for Tarzan’ is funny, slick, and engaging from start to finish, but it guts without consequence the buildup to the Morpho/Venture mixup and splices in in too many cutaway cliffhangers. Next week is going to go a long way toward showing whether or not The Venture Bros still has stories worth telling.