Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Totally McQueen: Archer review


ARCHER: 'Swiss Miss'

The second season of Archer finished in the US before I could give it any coverage, which is a shame as it quickly grew into one of my favourite new series. By a happy coincidence, I stumbled across the opening episode of that same season at 10pm last night on UK television, albeit stranded on 5*, a spin-off nobody knows exists of a channel nobody watches. So hopefully my coverage will inspire a few of British readers to seek it out and perhaps any American readers who might have missed it to go back and take a look.

In all honesty, 'Swiss Miss' is an enjoyable enough episode, but not one of the best. Archer's dedication to getting laughs out of every spare second of screentime makes it a programme always worth your time, but the strike rate is slightly below its average here. Unusually for a second season premiere, it makes little effort to reintroduce the characters and takes them out of their home environment (ISIS headquarters), meaning that a few of the character-based jokes may fall on deaf ears for newcomers. I'll do a brief recap of what the series is about after the jump and explain why you definitely want to stick around even if this episode doesn't quite grab you.
At its core, Archer is a workplace comedy. A particularly filthy workplace comedy, for sure, dressed in spy spoof clothing, but this is a series whose primary appeal is the people who populate it. Sterling Archer, agent for the perpetually insolvent spy agency ISIS, is James Bond with every characteristic taken to extremes. Relentlessly egotistical, obsessed with sex, drinks like a shoal of fish and with a vindictive streak several miles wide, he's tolerated around the offices for his skill in the field and because his mother Mallory happens to be his boss, undermining him and his ego at every turn. (His codename is 'Duchess', after her deceased dog). His work partner and ex is Lana, whom he spectacularly once called a 'quadroon' (look it up), who dumped him due to his mother issues - and for being an inconsiderate, self-obsessed boor. Other ISIS employees include the sex-addicted accountant Cyril, whom Lana hooked up with in the first season to get back at Archer; a secretary who regularly swaps her name between Cheryl, Carole and several others to get people to notice her (and who also has a strangulation fetish); Pam, the less-than-dignified HR director; Krieger, the Q figure with less than stable mental health, an epic line in quotes and a nasty habit of getting his interns killed; and Ray, a suave analyst who is openly gay and has a natty moustache.

One of the show's biggest strengths is its voice cast. Despite being animated, Archer does more work through dialogue and character than visuals, and H. Jon Benjamin (Archer), Aisha Tyler (Lana) and Jessica Walters (Mallory) manage to create comic dynamite despite the cast reportedly recording all their dialogue separately. The animation style, vaguely reminiscent of classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Jonny Quest, plays into the old-school vibe to great effect, but doesn't push itself much. In fact, the CG explosions in 'Swiss Miss' are among the more elaborate effects the series has brought in, and they're pretty rudimentary by most standards. But the visuals serve as little more than backdrops: Archer's characters may not be hard to sum up in an explanatory paragraph, but it's the way they pair up and bounce off each other, the intermittently revealed biographical notes (in this episode, we learn that Ray used to be a top slalom skier and Pam grew up on a dairy farm) and the ongoing shared jokes which give this world its texture and vibrancy.

For 'Swiss Miss' to work best, you need to be vaguely attuned to how these characters think and act. That might make it a little offputting for newbies and some of the biggest laughs may pass overhead - such as Archer apparent bonding with young charge Anka over the facades they put up to deal with difficult childhoods, curtailed by his inability to realise he is talking about himself - but stick with it. Sure, there are cock jokes galore, but that's just one of the many layers the humour operates on. The characterisation is another, but in this episode you also get Archer dispatching a foe with a killer nod to Roger Moore in Live And Let Die. Later episodes bring out a wealth of ridiculous but clever wordplay (you get a ferrier-furrier joke in the first scene of this episode) and unexpectedly obscure literary references to accompany some gloriously lewd gags. There's also the black turtleneck, but I'll leave that for you to discover on your own.

'Swiss Miss' is a passable episode of a standout series, perhaps not all that welcoming but offering just enough to pique interests in future, stronger episodes. If you can start at the beginning then do so - the Archer first season DVD is apparently available in the UK - but if nothing else, keep the faith that everything you even vaguely enjoyed in this first episode - and though not exceptional, there's plenty of fun to go around - will be multiplied tenfold over the coming weeks.

Best Moment: Archer roasts an assailant, Roger Moore-style.


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