Friday, 8 July 2011

The Destruction Of Sennacherib: Archer review


ARCHER: 'El Secuestro'

If you're wondering, this article is named after the poem which Pam has tattooed on her back - and yes, I had to look it up - revealed in one of the biggest laughs of one of the funniest episodes of Archer to date. That's quite the compliment, as anyone who has been following the programme and my coverage of it will know. For English readers, I repeat - Tuesday nights, 10pm, 5 Star. God knows I'd usually prefer not be associated with anything Channel Five-related, but Archer really is worth it.

Even with the last two years proving among the all-time greats for American televised comedy thanks to this, Community and Parks & Recreation (both of whose new seasons were recently announced as starting in the US on September 22nd, by the way, so make sure you've got that evening free), I'm generally delighted with any half-hour that contains two or more huge laughs, supplemented by a steady stream of strong chuckles to fill in the gaps. 'El Secustro', however, had huge laughs pretty much from start to finish, with my only remotely credible criticism being that no matter how many times I rewatch it, there are probably a load of little background jokes that have gone unseen due to my laughing so hard. For my money, it only misses out on being one of the all-time great episodes of television comedy because its loose plot makes it feel a tad unfocused, but so many great jokes are born from that absence of structure that it's hard to particularly care.
It's an episode which does everything that Archer usually does brilliantly, only to an even higher standard than usual. It's a character-heavy episode, this time revolving around Carol/Cheryl. (Cheryl here, for convenience). In a previous write-up, I wondered whether the character was a viable target for the kind of back-story episode which has deepened our understanding of Wodehouse and Lana, among others, this season. She's so exaggerated in her stupidity, to the extent of not knowing what cancer is in the previous two episodes, that I feared she was too far beyond the realism barrier to be credible enough to believe any sort of history would justify her behaviour.

As it turns out, I should have remembered to never underestimate Adam Reed, amazingly the sole credited writer on almost every episode to date and having had a co-writer on just four.

Cheryl being a trust-fund baby makes perfect sense: although her distorted view of normality is still insanely over-the-top, it's rationalised just enough by how she has grown up so isolated from the rest of the world. If your existence revolved around a manor empty except for your pet ocelot, and your only friends being co-workers in the ISIS offices, I doubt anyone could come out of that with even the tiniest shred of common sense intact. She's also made more human and tragic not only by the constant threat of kidnapping that hangs over her head, but also the continued decision to hold down the dead-end job she has no need for (and with a midget who freaks her out on the commute) because she gets to lead what she imagines to be a normal life. Of course, that tragedy is easily forgotten by the fact she's still a wildly perverted, dimwitted, spoilt brat - in an hilarious way, of course - but it's just enough for her to have a foothold of truth in the delightfully barmy construct that Archer calls its reality.

Despite centring around Cheryl, this episode gave most of the key members of the cast (Krieger is the only one missing) the chance to play around with some of their strongest material yet. Pam, for once isolated from her double act partner, is hilarious in her every appearance, from taunting the kidnappers who seem completely unable to hurt her in any meaningful way ("Who taught you to punch like that, your husband?") to that glorious moment when she faces up to Malory and disrobes to reveal her hidden passion for the writings of Lord Byron - which in turn, led to Lana's most hilarious "Nooooope!" to date. I also love the idea that she paid her way through college by participating in, apparently without much difficulty, an underground fighting ring.

Archer's gradual evolution from immature spy to full-blown geek also took another big step this week, from his hilarious excitement at Cheryl owning an ocelot ("Look at his little tufted ears!") to knowledge of Isaac Asimov's rules of robotics. H. Jon Benjamin seems to revel in every chance to use his 'excited nerd' voice and, as with tonight, it never fails to pay huge dividends. One of the most consistently entertaining in-jokes is how the characters can be privy to all sorts of arcane knowledge - in addition to Byron and Asimov, this episode featured lines related to Trainspotting and the Lindbergh kidnappings - yet be completely oblivious to the most basic facts of everyday life. In the two-parter preceding this, it was Cheryl not knowing what cancer is. This time around, Archer managed to confuse the IRS for the IRA.

Finally, there was Malory. Jessica Walter has such a wonderfully distinctive voice, able to soak both her Malory and Lucille Bluth characters in a blend of scotch, superiority and bitterness, that she's can make lines funny by reading alone. Yet it's her weird little asides which are where she is really able to shine: I don't know how many times I rewound just to hear her say the words 'pygmies' and 'sneaky little chief', but it was very early into the morning before I could push myself to finishing an episode which I both really wanted to see the rest of, but could never quite get past the brilliant delivery of those lines. She was generally in wonderful form, trying to wangle herself a piece of the Tunt (heh heh) fortune whilst offering the kidnappers the lowest possible price to get Pam back, but those two 'pygmy' lines blew just about everything else out of the water.

These reviews do tend to turn into a thousand words laying out the jokes which made me laugh the most, without much in the way of true commentary or analysis, but even if Archer did go in for deeper meanings and big themes, I don't know whether I would be able to resist anyway. One of the best things about the programme is being able to remember and share every one of its enormous laughs, and maybe even get new people to watch just for the opportunity of revisiting those gags all over again. In many ways, Archer doesn't try to do a whole lot, but it is driven by a handful of core strengths - I'm reluctant to keep on stating how amazing the voice cast is, for example, or how much delight there is in the absurdity of the constantly escalating in-jokes - which are outstanding enough to make it easily the highlight of anyone's television week. I can't wait for the third season to start: it'll be a brutal battle for comedic supremacy come September between this, Community and Parks.

Best Moment: Too many to choose from. Malory's pygmies ("Guess how many pygmies died cutting it down? Hint: Six.") edge it, but Cheryl explaining why Pam's f**kbuddies describe her as a 'moped' kicked the episode off on an amazing high.


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