Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Vinegar And Water: Archer review


ARCHER: 'Tragical History'

It always seemed to me that Cyril is a better cog for building comedic situations than he is for instigating them. Yes, he has his sex addiction (it's a thing!), but he's by a distance the most sensible of the characters hanging around the ISIS offices. Admittedly, when your work companions are Pam, Carol/Cheryl and Krieger, that's not hard, but he's never struck me as someone who is funny on his own in the way that they are. 'Tragical History', the weakest episode in Archer's second season, bore out that theory pretty well.

The episode wasn't helped by its plot revolving around a rare misjudgment when it comes to Cyril's character. As I said, he's the sensible one. It's funny when terrible things happen to him because he's so straight-laced. He's also kind of inept, which was the episode's starting point, but is capable of sensible thought to a degree that the others aren't. A little strange, then, to have the episode's story revolving around him acting with such blind stupidity.
I suppose the argument would be that by the time he has finished being humiliated by his fellow office workers, due to his inability to score even one of the two required points to win a darts game, his insecurities mean he'd pretty much take whatever opportunity comes his way to recover some standing. When he's approached after the game by a mysterious Englishman - is there any other kind? - offering him the chance to upload a small virus to the ISIS mainframe, which he would then be able to stop by uploading an antidote, I suppose we're supposed to believe that he's at such a low point that he'd jump at the chance.

Except, would that strategy make sense for any of the characters, even those profoundly lacking in basic logical thought? When working for (what purports to be) an intelligence agency, it doesn't take much of a leap to piece together than a strange man approaches you with an opportunity that involves doing potential damage to the running of the agency, plus sweetening the deal with cash, it probably isn't going to end well. For a programme which normally has fairly tight writing, the plot demands an enormous leap of faith to seem in any way credible.

The episode isn't bad, because Archer has so many in-jokes and comic rhythms playing under the surface that it's almost funny just to see its characters together before they even do anything, but that gaping flaw put the brakes on its comic momentum whenever Cyril was involved. It's cool that he saved the day at the end with a well-executed bluff, but that show of intelligence only made his earlier behaviour seem all the more jarring. 

Other than being the means by which a virus is uploaded to the mainframe, he's not even all that important to the episode - he spends a lot of it being ignored, feeling sorry for himself, then recruiting Archer into doing all the hard work once he realises there's no other way he can get out of trouble without revealing his foolishness. It's a Cyril-centric episode because he's in it more than usual, rather than because he serves any vital purpose outside the first ten minutes or so.

When he's not around, or at least is relegated to the background, the episode improves. Krieger, as usual, comes up with the goods in his tragic love story (in so many ways) with a virtual anime girlfriend he has created in his computer. The Planet of the Apes send-up was a bit forced and obvious, which is again unusual for Archer (I'm not sure who wrote this episode, but wonder whether it was a newcomer to the staff), but Krieger's view of reality is so drastically different from everyone else's that the contrast between what they saw as a pervy simulation and he saw as the love of his life was over-the-top in just the right way. 

So too was Pam and Cheryl becoming addicted to the computer virus' little 'What Whaaaaat' routine, taking every opportunity to play it again, much to the annoyance of everyone who was trying to resolve the havoc it was wreaking on their systems. I'm sure everyone's had songs or clips which got stuck in your head, and playing that out against the backdrop of a massive security breach allowed the characters' different attitudes to their jobs (all self-serving, but by distinctive means) to clash in several rounds of Archer's trademark office sparring.

The episode ended with one of the series' more ambitious set-pieces, a fight between Archer, two female ninjas and Cyril's English manipulator (named as George Spelvin, a joke in itself), and a pretty great closing line. From last week's episode about Wodehouse and now this week with Cyril, it seems that the writers are trying to bring its support characters more to the forefront this season. That's an admirable goal, especially when Archer can usually do character writing so well, but also means taking the risk that while some will find new depths, others will end up falling flat, as happened last night. Having such a questionable plot didn't help, but Cyril just isn't really that much fun when given centre stage. He already has his place in the Archer workplace and as he discovered, sometimes it's best just to accept that.

Best Moment: Though the episode struggled as a whole, there was no shortage of great one-liners. The random use of 'legerdemain' and 'bailiwick' was a joyously silly example of the show having fun with needlessly arcane language. Word of the week potential...?


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