Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Of An Awesome And Ass-Kicking Nature: Archer review


ARCHER: 'Pipeline Fever'

Of all the programmes I am or have been covering since starting this blog a month ago, Archer is the one which has posed the most difficulty. Not because of anything wrong with it, but because whereas I've been reviewing movies and games for the better part of a decade, doing so for television is a new, and welcome, challenge. When writing about something as experimental as Community, as touching as Parks & Rec, or with as much history as Doctor Who, there are easy avenues to turn down once you've covered the basic territory of whether the episode worked or not, and why. While Archer has an exceptional cast of characters, all with such a clear place in the programme's comedic makeup, it has never seemed to me to be looking to establish any great thematic depths or longstanding history. Its sole aim is to make its viewers laugh as often and as hard as possible, which it does very well.

The problem with this is that jokes are subjective. I can tell you the moments I found funniest and write down some of the best lines, but ultimately your appreciation of them will come from the context the show sets them in and your own sense of humour. Plus, Archer leans so heavily on its gags that to spend a review detailing them would probably suck out all of the fun. I'm not saying this because I plan to stop reviewing the programme - there's still ten episodes left in the British run of the second season and I intend to be there all the way - but it's a fascinating challenge to be posed with, when a series' goals are so perfectly formulated and executed, yet defy easy critical appraisal. What I can confidently say is that this week's Archer was very silly and great fun.
I think that if there's any one area I'll be able to return to in these reviews, it's how much work goes into creating full backstories for each character. Even though we're obviously not supposed to take them seriously - as with everything the programme does, they're exaggerated to a gleefully ridiculous extent - nothing is ever forgotten or denied. Last night, stranding Archer and Lana in the middle of a Louisiana swamp was an ideal opportunity for them to let their quirks push up against each other, notably Archer's dickishness and Lana's frustration at her partner's lack of discretion and consideration.

There was a lot to love about their interactions, not only in the always outstanding voice work (Lana's elongated "noooope!" and "yuuuup"s are more of those running gags which get funnier every time they're wheeled out), but also in offering an idea of how these two former lovers interact when on their own. It's not drastically different from when they're around their office co-workers -who got a slight subplot of their own, which was only really building to one main joke, but an hilarious one - but helps our understanding of how they got together in the first place when we mostly just see them arguing or annoying each other. That's also true here, but hints of warmth come through in Archer's willingness to confide his biggest fears to Lana and her being impressed with his improvisational skills when their equipment sinks along with the boat they had commandeered.

Having Archer demonstrate his talent was another important note, given the amount of havoc he'd caused up until that point: it can be frustrating to follow a protagonist if he doesn't seem to deserve his position, even when they're this funny. That reminder of why Archer is sent on all ISIS' most important missions, despite announcing to everyone on the plane in the opening sequence that he was a secret agent, blowing up the airboat engine ("I've waited my entire life to use this exact phrase: I'm commandeering this airboat!") after getting overexcited at living out his Burt Reynolds fantasies, right down to the Deliverance vest, or then sinking the boat in a panic during a crocodile attack. Archer is a buffoon, but at least we were reminded that he's a buffoon who can get things done when he has to, no matter how difficult he has made it for himself.

On Lana's behalf, we got a glimpse back at how she came to join ISIS from a background of radical environmentalism (and huge afros). She has been one of the less well-defined characters on the programme to date, mostly serving as the straight man to Archer, but as usual, the writers pitched the little piece of backstory exactly right as a lead-in to what we know about her right now. Certainly the frustration of being an environmentalist, putting in a lot of passion and effort to often little result, makes sense of how she's been able to deal with playing second fiddle to Archer for so long. It also revealed what makes Malory a good fit as Head of ISIS, since all we've seen of her in a professional capacity has involved schemes to defraud the government or her employees. Here she immediately spots the young Lana's fearlessness in the face of danger and offers her a job where that bravery would be put to good use.

The subplot in the ISIS offices didn't offer anything new on the characters, but they all work so well together as a comedic set that their scenes were among the episode's funniest. Echoing Lana's newly revealed passion for the environment, Malory realised that ISIS could be taking advantage of tax breaks by making the office more energy efficient. The idea was abandoned pretty quickly, but not before we'd taken a glimpse into one of Krieger's more personal experiments, sent awry by no longer having enough power to sustain his... specimens, and learned that Pam has some seriously unhealthy toilet issues, to the extent that Carol/Cheryl and Malory had convinced her that there was no female bathroom so she'd use the men's. Carol/Cheryl desperately trying to get Cyril to shut up as he was about to blow their story was a terrific sight gag (recalling Lana trying to shut Archer up from revealing his identity as an agent on the plane), and Malory calling Pam an 'it' in outrage at the "things that come out of [her] body" was no less brutally funny.

The episode was a great example of why the Archer formula works so well, balancing out its base sense of humour with great character writing and the odd obscure cultural reference - I had to look up the 'Old Dan' joke, which it turns out was from a Wilson Rawls novel called Where The Red Fern Grows, while Archer's misunderstanding of The African Queen was hilariously misguided. It may not always have be easy conveying Archer's pleasures in review form, but there are few programmes I'd rather learn with than this.

Best Moment: "Suck it, Samwise!" Archer had a great night for vintage quotes, but nothing beats Lord of the Rings sarcasm, especially when berating the other guy for being nerdish.


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