Friday, 27 January 2012

Television - Archer 'El Contador' review / Parks & Recreation 'Bowling For Votes' review


'El Contador' was a pretty formulaic episode of Archer, sticking the 'mission A-plot / office B-plot' structure that has formed the backbone of the majority of its episodes to date. That's hardly a bad thing, though, because this is a series where plot serves as little more than excuse to let these characters riff off one another under slightly different circumstances. Missions give Archer and Lana a semblance of privacy to air their many, many grievances, while the office is a perfect stage for Pam, Cheryl/Carol, Mallory and Krieger to generally be ridiculous. Nothing wrong with formula.

Apart from the Archer/Lana bickering they naturally create, the missions are usually the least interesting part of an episode, which was once again the case here: the problem with formula is that weaknesses tend to stick around. It's fine when the assignment takes the characters to some outlandish setting (an airship, for example) or is just irresistibly daft in concept (the 'Heart Of Archness' mini-season) but 'El Contador's jungle setting and bounty-hunting were too generic to really engage with.
Fortunately, that flaw was more than covered by virtually everything else the episode had to offer. Yes, a more original mission and location might have made it great as a full half-hour rather than a collection of fantastic individual moments, but since this is Archer, those individual moments stacked up pretty fast and memorably.

The episode was peppered with terrific line and sight gags from the outset, most notably in the first scene where Cyril was promoted at Ray's expense ("Unless we need someone undercover as a shopping cart...") and a little later, where a very obvious but very funny line about Pam's disgusting personal hygiene was perfectly set up ("It tastes worse than it smells!" ...and you can guess the rest). The office was, as usual, where the biggest laughs come from, because Pam, Cheryl and Krieger continue to be the most outlandish comic trio on offer. Adding the bitchy but relatively straight laced - putting aside the acid-tripping excursions to gay clubs - Ray to the mix could be just the right ingredient to mix things up a little. Pam certainly wasted no time in letting him know she's not getting over his being in a wheelchair any time soon: "How about you, Ironsides? You rollin' dirty?"

Krieger's experimentation with hallucinogenic tea came out of nowhere, but then, it wouldn't be a Krieger plot if it made sense. He convinces his co-workers that they can get around an upcoming ISIS drug test (not much need for this to appear either, other than to set the plot in motion) by paying him for a special concoction he has brewed up. Naturally it's not exactly an easy journey and soon Pam is seeing Ray as a Decepticon (and ripping up a loo to 'defeat' him, in one of many callbacks to the awesome physical prowess she demonstrated in the classic 'El Secuestro'), Ray thinks Pam is melting, while Cheryl is freaking out because the floor has turned to lava. It didn't go much further than that, although the climactic gag was pretty great, but the cast, as usual, knocked their lines for six.

Over in the jungle of an unnamed country, Cyril has been ordered to accompany Archer and Lana on their mission to kill a drug lord and bring home the bounty on his head. (ISIS were not exactly immune to budget cuts before the financial crisis, so they're in real trouble now). A lot of the Archer/Lana arguing came across as a bit contrived and relied too heavily on reused material. There's a line at which an excess of callbacks just becomes laziness and while this wasn't that bad, at times it came close. What gave proceedings a little spice was the revelation that Cyril turned out to be a pretty good agent, at least when it came to infiltrating himself into the drug lord's trust - in the field, he's as blunderful as might be expected and doesn't offer much in hand-to-hand combat. The writers played a neat trick in showing how his nerdiness as an accountant - reading all the documentation, expertise with maths - proved a boon, complimented by an unexpected ability to think on his feet. Just as Ray could be a neat addition to the office set, Cyril (often the series' weakest character) could blossom in the field.

The manhunt near the episode's end was disappointingly brief, as there are no doubt some incredible laughs to be had from Archer struggling to stay alive whilst pursued by heavily armed foes (all his lines growing out of the situation, however short-lived, were among his best - crocodiles on three wheelers?) and an entire episode dedicated to that concept would be quite something. 'El Contador', though, didn't sit together so well as a whole, but was enormous fun in its individual parts. Archer traditionally gets better and better as each season progresses, and this is a strong base to be starting from.


Parks remains comfortably near or at the top of the best television comedies on air right now, but its position is increasingly threatened by the problematic evolution of its lead character. As perfectly as Amy Poehler plays her, Leslie Knope is becoming more and more of a caricature as the weeks go by. She was never exactly sensible to begin with, but her obsessions and neuroses are starting to take over in a way that feels ever more unnatural.

It doesn't help that the whole situation revolving around her running for office feels rather contrived, with the entire Parks department seeming to take inordinate amounts of time from their working lives - if you could call them that - to campaign on Leslie's behalf. We're also seeing little of the hyper-competent Leslie, whose talent mitigated her more ridiculous personality traits: Ben seems to have taken over as an external embodiment of her sensible side, leaving her acting like a lunatic while he clears up the mess.

Case in point: Leslie's campaign is gathering a bit of momentum, so she starts taking focus groups. This being Pawnee, the responses are not exactly rife with political insight. One man hates all people called Leslie after meeting one he didn't get along with; a woman thinks the campaign is throwing Leslie's short stature in voters' faces; another man can't see Leslie as the sort of person he would go bowling with. It's this last point that Leslie objects to, only taking his comments literally (believing he'll vote for her if she takes him bowling) rather than seeing what he is really saying (that he can't relate to her as a person). It's a comedic contrivance that feels out of character for the Leslie we think we know, and one which exists solely to get key cast members to the bowling alley. Compromises sometimes have to be accepted to get a story moving, but the skill is in disguising them as more elegant progressions than they really are. This episode did not succeed in doing that.

As a side-note, it was doubly egregious to have Leslie later pulling out the 'it's because I'm a woman' card at the diner with Ben, even if she did (sort of) retract it a moment later. At her best, Leslie is a feminist ideal because she battles through difficult circumstances to achieve her aims through talent and perseverance. She is easily infuriated by injustice, but there was no justification for her coming to the conclusion, however briefly, that the focus group might not have liked her for her gender. That her nemesis did eventually turn out to be particularly bitter and sexist was only more insulting, with the writers making Leslie right even though she had no reason to be. If it was supposed to be a feminist statement (the worst kind of feminism, if so), it was undermined by having Ben step in to defend Leslie's honour. The moment would have been more exciting were its circumstances not so confused and misconceived.

Fortunately, the B-plots have been the salvation of many episodes such as this one and were once again. The cold calling scenes were a delight, showing microcosms of each character's personality as they attempted to engage with members of the public to solicit donations: Jerry ended up giving out his social security number, Andy's ambitions didn't quite match his execution ("We're looking for donations more in the $10k range..." *crosses fingers*), Donna's call quickly turned into a sex chat and Chris' relentless optimism paid dividends. April, of course, didn't react well to relentless optimism winning the day, so vowed to emerge victorious in the fundraising campaign, even though she had little interest in the prize of two tickets to the Pawnee monoplex. (The fact that it was a monoplex is just another of the wonderful details making Pawnee so vibrant in its eccentricities).

April's attempts to make connections with the people on the other end of her line didn't produce results as lucrative as hoped, despite her extensive range of brilliant accents, so she resorted to more underhand tactics upon learning that Chris' girlfriend is about to break up with him. Her text invite to Millicent led to the break-up happening early (Andy didn't get a lot to do in the episode, but his carrying Champion outside because "he doesn't like awkward situations" was a treat) and her winning the day. The problem was that April's cynical edge has softened more than she would like following her exposure to her perpetually goofy husband, so she realised her tactics went too far upon learning how hard Chris had been hit by being dumped. She invited him to join her and Andy at the monoplex and gave him the shortest of hugs. A scene showing her realising the error of her ways might have made the progression more fluid (we don't see the breakup, or Chris' reaction to it, until April is making him feel better) but the scene achieved plenty of emotional potency on its own by reversing what we expect from the two characters.

Ron's C-plot at the bowling alley was another source of big laughs. This was an episode rife with potential Swanson .gifs, from his nodding approval at the minimalist menu at the restaurant fast-food booth to outrage not only at Tom's infantile bowling technique ("Son, people can see you!") but also its success rate. Ann was once again reduced to set decoration, but got a good laugh from her dismay at Ron putting her up as 'GIRL' on the lane scorecard, a fun throwback to his tactic of not acknowledging her name. His and April's plots worked because they showed perfect understanding of the two characters at their centre: for Parks to return to its best, it needs to start granting Leslie that same grace.


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