Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Way Too Complicated To Explain: Archer review


ARCHER: 'A Going Concern'

If Archer's second season opener last week wasn't quite up to the show's usual standards of hilarity (although Germany must now forever be known as 'the Alabama of Europe'), it's followed by one of the most hysterical episodes the series has done to date. If you're new to the series, and I suspect many people in the UK will be, it's a perfect place to start. The show is almost always better when confined in or around the ISIS offices, forcing the staff to bounce their various neuroses and derangements off each other, doubly so when Krieger, the 'Q' figure with a bad habit of killing his interns, is involved. Last night he was, and on LSD. While performing brain surgery.

And then there's the joke about the sink.
From start to finish, this episode is a winner. Archer has so many assets as a series and when firing on all cylinders, there are so many gags going on at once that it can be difficult to know what to laugh at first. It all starts out low key, with Malory (head of the agency) threatening to sell ISIS after losing all her money in a Ponzi scheme. Worse still is that she's planning on selling to Len Trexler, director of rival intelligence agency ODIN, who intends to sack all the staff - except for Lana, who will be given Malory's position as director provided she sleeps with Barry, one of ODIN's more ODIous agents. (See what I did there?). Archer also has a vested interest in stopping the deal going through, because Malory - his mother - and Trexler are planning to marry and go on a romantic cruise together once everything has been signed off. In true Archer style, there's only one sensible course of action: staple a mind-controlling microchip into Trexler's brain and submit him to A Clockwork Orange style visual torture until he loathes the sight of Malory. Obviously.

Though Archer's utterly filthy sense of humour is probably the first thing any newcomers will notice (again, if you can find a dirtier joke on television than that sink gag, I'm waiting to hear it), my personal adoration for the series comes through its willingness to be completely, unashamedly silly. Why was Pam acting Jamaican all of a sudden? No particular reason, except for the fact that it was very funny and allowed her to call everyone who refused a toke of her joint 'racist'. Why did the gang have to map out their plan using sex harassment dolls? Because they could. Why does a side effect of the mind surgery an LSD-tripping Krieger performs on Trexler end up being a strange obsession with a rabbit - named Rabbert Klein, no less - and its lettuce? Because by god, it was hilarious.

In a traditional sitcom, there are catalysts within the central plotline to make the escalating conflict seem more natural, even if heightened for comic effect. Archer just throws stuff in seemingly at random, such as Krieger's revelation that he's been giving Carol/Cheryl LSD, before accidentally taking some himself. There was no prior reason for the LSD strips to be introduced in that scene, ever less so for Krieger to suddenly absorb the effects through his finger, other than because it allowed his usually less-than-stable self to go even more over-the-top at the point when he was needed at his most rational. (That's right, I said Krieger and rational in the same sentence). 

It gets away with this indifference to what I suppose you'd call narrative because the pace of its comic momentum is built with such precision. If the episode started out at the level of absurdity at which it ends,  it would be alienating and difficult to get involved in the story. By starting out slowly and incrementally stacking new layers of lunacy on top of what is a reasonably well-used situation (the threat to the characters' home), there's an entry point that is recognisably realistic enough that by the time Krieger is rubbing his nipples at the sight of Trexler's increasing terror at a slideshow of horrors ('FAMINE' 'WAR' 'OLD PEOPLE'), the fact we've seen this situation evolve out of something relatively sensible makes it all the funnier.

Having these characters be so well defined is no small help in smoothing that transition either. This episode is a good one for newcomers - even better if you've seen the season leading up to it since there are some great callbacks, but still - because it has all the key players working together, bringing out their weird obsessions and habits more clearly than when they're alone or in pairs. So we get Archer's mother issues in full swing, Malory's duplicity in using Trexler to refill her bank account and her distrust of everyone around her in wiring her desk to explode should anyone try to open the drawer (with good reason, to be fair), while Lana is caught up between wanting a role that fulfils her ambitions and the ridiculous, appalling thing she's asked to do to get there, Pam is the counselor who desperately needs counselling, Krieger's completely off his nut... there's so much going on here in terms of dynamics and relationships, yet it's easy to pick up on because the interactions between the characters is so naturally uproarious and engaging.

Archer isn't what you might call a deep show, in that plots are mostly treated as disposable excuses for great gags and even the most ardent academic would have trouble coming up with more profound themes for the show than 'tell more sex jokes', but its obsession with getting laughs out of any and everything, combined with the exceptional voice work and character writing, make it a ludicrous joy that is as much worth looking forward to as any more intellectually challenging work. Even if you're usually neither fond of spy parodies (which this only is in the broadest sense) nor cartoons, track down this episode and see if you can make it even halfway without being somewhat charmed. I could write thousands of words detailing all my favourite bits, all the little asides and in-jokes happening in the background, but you have to hear those voices, meet this office and experience the madness being raised to ever greater heights as you are dragged helplessly along with it.

Best Moment: So many to choose from, but it all comes back to that jaw-dropping joke about there not being a sink in Malory's office. As much as you might want to know, you also really don't.


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