Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Isolation Booth: Archer review


TELEVISION REVIEW

ARCHER: 'Placebo Effect'

As predicted last week, Archer's cancer story didn't make it beyond a second episode. Fortunately, both episodes were very funny, even if 'Placebo Effect' couldn't quite match the sheer deranged energy on show in 'Stage Two'. This was probably because there was significantly less action around the office, which is where the programme is usually firing on all cylinders. Even then, the subplot at the office, wherein Cyril uncovers Krieger's Nazi past (what, you didn't notice?) admittedly wasn't all that interesting, although Cheryl and Pam continue to be a goldmine for inspired non-sequitur gags. Duuuuuuh.

The main plot had Lana following Archer on his cancer-fuelled rampage - yes, you read that right - after he discovered his chemo medication was in fact sucrose and Zima. Despite the link of Archer's cancer, it really didn't continue the previous episode's story in any significant way, but as a standalone it had some terrific callbacks and a handful of inspired set-pieces. Archer and Lana aren't (quite) so insane a pair as Cheryl and Pam, mainly because this relationship has a straight man in Lana, but the characters have so much antagonism and a weird kind of affection between them that their double act is both strong and deep enough to sustain a full story. Cheryl and Pam, I think, work best in the Zoidberg-esque way of stealing the show from the background.
 
That Lana and Archer double-act was really what made this episode work and helped it overcome some of its more familiar elements. The whole revenge plotline didn't play out in any unexpected ways, being a pretty standard 'follow the clues to the big boss' story without any twists, while the cancer was little more than an excuse to hang it on. The side-story with Archer befriending a fellow cancer patient in old woman Ruth, meanwhile, wasn't very interesting to watch and nor did it have a particularly funny payoff, with the 'Archer being a badass' moment not hitting as hard as it needed to.

Speaking of which, while the various titles that the office drones came up with for Archer's video - 'Terms of Enrampagement' from Archer; 'Citizen Dickbag' and 'Casablumpkin' from the typically misguided Cheryl, who still doesn't know what cancer is - were good for a chuckle, the ending itself felt too easy. For sure, we don't need another story about Archer having cancer, but to reset everything back to normal in the space of a scene didn't ring at all true and only emphasized how throwaway the entire cancer arc has been. As I said last week, Archer isn't exactly a programme you look to for careful story writing - it's the characters that bring us back and deservedly get all the attention - but to deal with something as big as cancer in such an off-hand way was a very strange choice that didn't end up justifying itself. Or maybe it's just the fact that I'm currently watching Breaking Bad, making me more conscious of its potential as a storytelling device.

Anyhow, none of that is to say that there wasn't some great stuff on show last night, despite those annoyances. Archer was on great form for one, both hugely weakened by his condition but still acting like the same id-powered moron as usual. He's had a lot of endearingly geeky moments this season ("Suck it, Samwise!"), far moreso than I remember from the first season, and this time around it was television shows that seemed to be the focus of his attention. His side-story with Ruth ended up revolving around her affection for Regis, but the big laughs came from his turning a torture session into a deranged version of Family Fortunes - or Family Feud, as I gather it's called in the US. I don't know which host fronted Feud across the pond, but here we had a man called Les Dennis who is famous for his tragically naff sense of humour, which only made Archer's every "...our survey says!" call-out all the more hilarious. We didn't have an 'isolation booth' in our version of the show, but the context was clear enough to allow the joke to work anyway.

Also inspired was the callback to Lana deliberately deafening Archer in 'Movie Star', albeit with the roles reversed. Twice. I'm a huge fan of escalating jokes, which have been the foundation of many of the greatest comedies every put on screen (Airplane! has an amazingly high joke count, yet many of its best ones are expansions of gags from earlier in the movie), and the fact that Archer carries its comedy not only over single episodes, but across seasons, only makes me love it that little bit more. Lana being rendered deaf by Archer firing a sawn-off from right next to her ear would have been funny enough, but the fact that he justifies it by saying they were now even took it to a whole other league. Same goes for the Man On Fire parody of Archer sticking a grenade up a villain's backside, which was funny for Archer's descriptions of what each grenade felt like, even moreso for him then confusing them, then absolutely hysterical once both he and Lana were deafened for a second time.

Needless to say that even though 'Placebo Effect' had too many irritations to qualify as top-tier Archer, there were still more than enough moments of hilarity and continuity jokes to elevate the episode way above the average television comedy in terms of laughs and character work. H. Jon Benjamin and Aisha Tyler's voicework becomes even better when combined (I'm still amazed that the cast record all their lines separately) and little moments like Lana getting the munchies from Archer's second-hand pot smoke are funnier than gags that lesser programmes spend entire episodes building up to. The more I think about single lines and moments, the more I find to love in this episode (Krieger not just being a Nazi but a Hitler clone, leading to Pam's "Clone Wars" zinger; Lana's truckasaurus hands being mentioned again; the pointless but brilliant use of arcane knowledge, e.g. 'urethra' and Woodsy the owl), making it even more of a shame that it couldn't quite come together as a whole.

Best Moment: "Well, you never know what's on the board! Our survey says...!"

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