Geek humour has often been criticized for using pop culture references as a crutch: because there's a ready-made audience that will clap like trained seals at the first nerd reference, some just make the minimum effort at actually telling good jokes.
As a result, pop culture-based humour seems to have acquired a bad rap on its own. It's overused, overdone, masturbatory. But as well as its other virtues, The Venture Brothers manages to create a rich world from its initial mixture of Johnny Quest and superhero send-ups. The parody element never goes away, but it's part of a world that also includes character development, continuity, and one of the blackest senses of humour you've ever seen.
The Venture Brothers isn't really about the titular Brothers, fraternal twin boys who, in the beginning, believe they're like the Hardy Boys or other boy adventurers. Hank and Dean don't realizing how ignorant, stupid, and out-of-the-loop they really are, both with the outside world and what's going on around them. This status quo changes, but they're never the main characters.
No, the real focus of the story is their father, Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, a bitter waste of a scientist who never had any glory days. Many things have screwed him up, and the result is someone how hates the world and struggles to find recognition as a super-scientist. While he does so, Rusty is as awful a father to his boys as his father was to him, but generally doesn't give a crap.
Rounding out "Team Venture" is bodyguard Brock Samson, a stone-cold badass who can destroy anybody with his body and a knife, but nonetheless is a better father to the Venture boys than Rusty ever was.
The antagonist is "The Mighty Monarch", a butterfly-themed villain who shares Rusty's bitterness and craziness and a hate for the other man that is as deep as it is unexplained. His partner is Dr. Girlfriend, later Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, a deep-voiced woman and the brains of the outfit.
The cast is populated with a lot of other characters, parodic and original. One of the strengths of the pop culture side of The Venture Brothers is that characters are not just lifts of characters from other stories, but seem to be composites of various things, along with individual traits that make them richer creations. The references are the foundation of the series, but they are done well.
But the appeal of The Venture Brothers is more than that. Even if it's a very funny series, as it goes on, it builds up enough plot and continuity to be one of those works that demonstrate American animation can tell serialized stories. The Venture Brothers is a just plain great story, one that covers generations of adventurers / fuck-ups. It keeps adding character after character, and most of them are great.
Another thing about The Venture Brothers is how beautifully bleak it is. Yes, it's hilarious, with great one-liners, slapstick, and wit. But the central theme of the series is failure, and most of the humour depends on knowing how crazy, ugly, and hateful most of the cast is, and how many of them are heading for a dead end. In some cases, these things are the character's own fault, while others are caught in the middle—and in other cases, we are unsure. And it is so incredibly hilarious.
The Venture Brothers is a show that feels like a labour of love. It's a series made by people who love popular culture and love storytelling and made a show that brings it all together into something new and amazing. Something that's well-crafted and caustic and doesn't use popular culture as a crutch, but integrates it into a well-made whole. The newest season is coming up, and I can't fucking wait.