Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Only One You Can Trust: Archer review


TELEVISION REVIEW

ARCHER: 'Double Deuce'

Despite Archer being one of the silliest programmes on television, one of its most enjoyable tricks is being able to throw out pieces of back-story on a casual whim, not only making for some inspired ridiculousness (such as in last week's episode,  where it was revealed how Lana's history as an environmentalist ended up getting her a job at ISIS, for example) but also deepening an otherwise hyper-exaggerated set of characters into more rounded people. Naturally, it also allows the writers to set up more intricate jokes further down the line.

'Double Deuce' took that strength and foregrounded it, taking one of the most peripheral characters on the programme - Archer's perpetually abused manservant Wodehouse - and placing him at the centre of an episode that showed him to be a more heroic and tragic figure than either we or Archer could ever have expected. It's an unusual episode not only for its focus on a minor character, but for how seriously it treats a lot of his story. Given how Archer's natural position is stuck somewhere between 'profoundly ludicrous' and 'outright insanity', this tonal shift does jar a little - even though there are, as you'd expect, no shortage of very funny jokes - and results in an episode which has a lot to offer, even if it's not quite as comedically filling as in previous weeks.
 
Wodehouse discovers in the newspapers that members of his old WWI army unit have been dying in strange circumstances, leading him to believe that someone is killing them off to claim a tontine they had all paid into. Incidentally, this episode strengthens my belief my belief that Wodehouse's name is spelt in the manner of P.G., rather than 'Woodhouse': a tontine featured prominently in P.G. Wodehouse's Something Fishy - also known as The Butler Did It - and give Archer's sophistication with literary references, I refuse to believe that's a coincidence. Those who don't know what a tontine is should probably brush up on their Simpsons. (Or Agatha Christie, if you're of a more literary inclination).

Wodehouse has one of his surviving army friends over to discuss what is happening, leading to them telling Archer - who is stuck looking after the Wee Baby Seamus - the story of how the tontine came to exist and a tragic death in Wodehouse's past. Typically for Archer, he starts off treating the two old men as an irritation ("I can do baby or I can do geezer murder mystery, but I can't do both!") but soon becomes so enraptured in their tale that he ends up dumping the baby Seamus on Malory, through whose 'distinctive' style of parenting we also get a glimpse into how Archer came to have his myriad mother issues. Or as the other characters put it in a running gag: "Wow. A ton of stuff just suddenly started making sense!"

The stories are not especially original, but are well told and as usual, add a lot of texture to Archer's discordant world. I love how the programme is set outside any specific time period, but having these historical references makes it feel more credible than a straightforward mishmash of spy movie technologies and iconographies. I have no need nor desire to know if there's a year or decade Archer is supposed to be set in, but having these flashbacks to events like a World War establish it within some sort of wider timeframe, lessening the feeling that everything is taking place in a self-contained chronological bubble.

Wodehouse's deep friendship with his commanding officer Reggie is what takes up the majority of the running time. There's a strong implication of the two sharing a more intimate relationship ("Fag?") and even if it's never stated outright, it would explain Wodehouse's determination to look after his 'good friend' by venturing into No Man's Land to search for him when his bi-plane is shot down, and his vengeful fury when Reggie is subsequently shot as a result of a German sniper spotting the light from the pair's cigarettes. This part of the episode was taken seriously - as least by Archer standards - which made the story more moving, but also seem a tad out of place. Jumping back to the present found plenty of comic potential in Archer's increasingly awed reactions to his manservant's story, including a priceless delivery of the line "That's a lot of scalps!" from H. Jon Benjamin, but the tale itself was told with the grave tone in which Wodehouse would realistically remember it. 

The returns to the present day consequently felt more like the Archer we tune in for. There was a lot of enjoyable material at the expense of the two old men's fears of being murdered by whomever was after the tontine, especially in their fortifying Archer's flat, and even moreso in the short excursion back to the ISIS offices so Archer could drop the baby off with Malory. Getting a first-hand insight into her approach to parenting gave some hilarious insights into how Archer developed all his Oedipal insecurities ("That's how the world works, dear, and I'm the only one you can trust.") and later tied into Wodehouse's story, when a young and very pregnant Malory breaks into the Moroccan bar where the grieving Wodehouse is working, seeking protection from enemy spies out to kill her. 

This was a lovely bookend to Wodehouse's story, tying it back into the present day with an explanation of how he came to work for the Archers and why Malory treats him with so much more respect than her son, who for a minute even seems humbled by what he learns. Not for long though, as in typical fashion he ends the episode by tossing the baby up in the air before kicking an innocent man off a roof. 

Ending on that note was a fantastic reminder that this is still the Archer we love, no matter how tragic the geezer murder mysteries lying beneath its surface, and though this wasn't the most hysterical of this season's episodes so far - although as usual, the ISIS office workers' decision to set up a tontine of their own yielded some huge laughs from Pam and Cheryl/Carol being their usual unhinged selves - it was an engaging insight into the past of an under-utilised character that may not produce any immediately apparent changes to the programme's tone, but does give us a more cohesive and complete world to return to next week.

Best Moment: Archer 'resolves' the murder mystery in the only way he knows how.

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