Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Profoundly Self-Centred: Archer review


ARCHER: 'White Nights'

Maybe it was inevitable that after a near-perfect season, Archer had to take a dip at some point. It's a shame that it should happen two episodes before the finale, with both 'White Nights' and last week's 'Jeu Monegasque' proving disappointments by the programme's otherwise exemplary standards. Having watched ahead, at least that run of form doesn't continue into the finale, which is an appropriately dark and hysterical way to wrap up a terrific season.

'White Nights' seems to mainly exist to set that episode up, sending Archer into Russia (with a huge chunk of exposition explaining everything right at the start) in order to determine once and for all whether Nikolai Jakov is his biological father. It's a plot thread picked up from way back and while callbacks usually represent one of the many high-points of Archer's humour, it feels here like grabbing at loose threads to set up a story that is flimsy at best. There are many funny moments, especially Archer's continuing ability to lead ODIN Agent Barry into suffering horrible amounts of pain instead of him, but at a stage in the season when the series should be gathering momentum ahead of a big finish, it seems stuck in second gear - despite much of the episode comprising an extended chase sequence. 
Does it go without saying by now that this is a 'mission' episode? As I mentioned last week, it feels like all the weaker Archers are. In fact, the less the programme plays up the 'spy' aspect in 'spy comedy', the more effective it seems to be. Tonight's events unfolded almost entirely during Archer's mission to Moscow, leaving the office staff - you know, the core group - to only one or two scenes, most of which involved them following Archer's progress and revealing how Mallory and Jackov's affair is common knowledge due to Pam's blabbermouth tendencies.

Even Lana featured as little as she ever has, brought in solely so she could again refuse to have sex with Barry and get an admittedly pretty good line about being asked to go undercover as, what, the only black woman in Russia? Funny how Ray had otherwise usurped her in the spy-ierarchy (pun), but I suppose that even with his trademark obnoxiousness and sexism, Archer couldn't have got away with punching her in the face. Nevertheless, Archer's usually cleverer when it has to bend its rules, even ones as small as that, and considering how highly Mallory seems to think of Lana, her suddenly becoming second choice was a bit distracting.

That's pernickety, but probably would have gone unnoticed in a more inspired episode. Archer's at that difficult stage now where it has produced outstanding quality on such a consistent basis that anything less becomes weirdly distracting. The fact that there were some decent gags in 'White Nights' only made it more confusing that the episode never quite took off. Last week I suspected that it was the lack of Pam, Cheryl and Krieger which made it suffer, something that can be levelled even easier this time around, but actually their lack of involvement wasn't too annoying because there wasn't any place for them in the story to begin with.

It may come back to the fact that Archer's main partner for much of this episode is Barry, a character who is fun but with whom we haven't made much acquaintance. He reappears in the finale as well, to much greater effect, meaning that once again this episode seems to be taking a hit in order that all the pieces can be lined up for the grand finish. It's hardly the first time a programme has done this, but it's rare that such episodes feel like anything more substantial than pure set-up, as is the case here.

The reason for getting Barry into Russia is kind of flimsy - would Mallory really care about Ray and Lana's excuses unless it suited the plot for her to do so? - and though he's an amusing punching bag for Archer to use to ensure his own survival, he doesn't even do a lot once he's there. He provides an escape route, before being unceremonious dropped off a balcony by Archer. Again. His anger at Archer is established, as is the crippling injury he sustains from once again going on a mission with him  - the shot of him lying in a hospital bed in a worse shape than ever before is the programme's humour at its darkest - but once again, there's little payoff in this episode.

Thank heavens for H. Jon Benjamin, who almost single-handedly holds everything together with his phenomenal voice work as Archer. 'White Nights' is a brilliant showcase for him, as such an Archer-centric episode allows him to bring out the character's full repertoire of smugness and play on a number of long-running in-jokes. He delivers Archer's little asides, where he seems completely thrown by the idea that anyone might not see the world in the same way as him, with an ego-driven bafflement that never fails to be funny. ("Why are you wearing silk socks?!" "Is that a joke?"). Of all Archer's callbacks, there was also a big one right that went all the way back to the first episode, not of the season but the whole series, as Archer wished he'd 'paid more attention to his training' in a gag that might have one of the longest delayed pay-offs since Doctor Who's Sarah Jane finally revealed to the Tenth Doctor in 'School Reunion' where the Fourth had dropped her off thirty years earlier.

Some of the more spy-related stuff fell flat, like the joke about the Russian soldiers' inability to shoot straight (as far as action movie clichés go, it's too easy a target - pun again), but the one about Archer continually landing on shards of broken glass worked a bit better, despite only really being relevant to Die Hard as far as I can remember. Yes, there have been other instances of characters having to keep moving despite their feet being torn up by glass or other hazards, but John McClane is the only culturally famous example I can immediately remember and it's certainly not a widely acknowledged cliché. Although maybe its more subtle nature was what gave it the edge over the 'can't shoot straight' jokes. Either way, those were the episode's two main running gags, and neither ended up scoring laughs anywhere near as big as others this season.

Enjoyable but never outright hysterical, 'White Nights' suffered for obviously being a transition episode that probably didn't need to exist at all - I'm pretty sure the point of getting a sexy Russian spy to prove her loyalty by saving Archer's life could have been done in a five minute intro in the finale, whilst the Barry stuff could have just called back to his earlier injuries. By Archer's standards though, 'enjoyable' has to be considered a disappointment and the comedown from the magnificent 'El Secuestro' continues. Fortunately the finale puts an end to this short-term blip and will next week wrap up my coverage of the second season of the programme's UK run (Five Star, Tuesdays at 10pm, although if you're not watching by now...) in a more suitably raucous fashion.

Best Moment: Barry takes the fall for Archer. Again.


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