Friday, 17 February 2012

Archer 'Lo Scandalo' review / Parks And Recreation 'Dave Returns' review


After slightly missing the landing of a great premise last week, Archer took of the oldest dramatic conceits available - the murder mystery - and hit every mark perfectly. This is a series often at its best when plot is used purely as context for allowing its characters to interact under increasingly fraught circumstances. A murder mystery in a confined space, in other words, was an idea so perfectly suited that the real puzzle was how Adam Reed hadn't thought of doing it until three seasons in.

When I say 'mystery', it's in the loosest sense of the word, though. Malory was the only person who could possibly have done it (without cheating and bringing in some random outside villain at the last moment) and while there was a token attempt to disguise the fact with a double-bluff - it seemed so obvious that genre convention dictated it must be someone else - it was never undertaken with much conviction. Malory attempted to prove her innocence through the fact that she had been grazed by a bullet, even though we've known her long enough to be aware that she's precisely the kind of lunatic prepared to injure herself to prove a point. That the predictable premise didn't matter in the least is a credit to how much fun these characters are.
If the resolution of the 'mystery' was clear from the beginning, the manner in which the episode unfolded was consistently, delightfully surprising. First, Archer and Lana are called to Malory's flat to help her dispose of a dead body, which turns out to be the Italian Prime Minister ("Don't they use a king?") in a gimp suit - sorry, zentai - and with what is tactfully described as a rubber eggplant lodged in a particularly dark place.

Realising what must have gone down, Archer remembered how much he loved spaghetti and meatballs - because Italian, duh - only to realise that the fact he whipped up a meal before calling the police didn't exactly sit well with his planned defence. So Krieger was called in, who invited the rest of the office staff to help him dispose of the body. A policeman then turned up at the door to investigate an anonymous tip about the Italian premier having been assassinated - if such a call were taken seriously enough to send anyone, would a single dishevelled detective really be the only person sent for such a crime? - and everyone was forced to cover their tracks by pretending they were having a dinner party, in fancy dress for some reason.

It was bordering on the nonsensical, but stuck together just well enough for the randomness to be ridiculously entertaining and a perfect excuse for such ridiculous gags as the affected accents during the dinner party (Carol, of course, going wildly over the top, and Lana enduring the humiliating role of the maid, Calpurnia) and Krieger's general enthusiasm for his work and collecting various 'souvenirs'. The screwball dialogue between each of the characters was on top form, especially during the initial scene where Archer and Lana kept on discovering things about the murder that they really, really didn't want to know (and ongoing gag, but strongest during those early scenes where the viewers were still acclimatising to the situation as well) and the dinner party, which had the entire cast around a single table, in old timer luxury dress, pretending to be having a respectable dinner party ("Nobody cares, Figgis, you're only invited to round out the numbers"). All that without mentioning the terrific cutaway, revealing Malory's hatred of the Irish - for staying neutral in WW2 - and positing a magnificently racist dilemma involving a potato.

Having criticised a few episodes this season for falling back too often on repeated catchphrases, 'Lo Scandalo' was almost entirely free of them, bar one trademark 'nooooope!' from Lana. Consequently, it felt like one of the freshest, most thrillingly unpredictable episodes in some time. The ending fell a little flat, since it involved Lana narrating what was already patently obvious and one unnecessary link to the still-unknown identity of Archer's father, but the fact that these people have become so blasé to performing increasingly appalling deeds at Malory's behest that they couldn't even bring themselves to care about political assassination was a clever way to wrap everything up without anything really changing. Although wouldn't fingerprints have been left on the packages containing the various pieces of the Premier, thus implicating everyone except Malory? I don't expect the series to follow up on that - story arcs are not what this series does - and don't even particularly want them to, because this was one of the strongest stand-alone episodes of the season that worked precisely because it was ready to ignore all the rules in favour of having a wildly enjoyable evening of murder and sodomy-by-eggplant.


Two confessions: despite his increasingly fervent fanbase, I have never watched a single episode of Louie, or seen anything but the briefest snippets of C.K.'s stand-up routine. Second, my acquaintance with Parks & Recreation began at the start of its third season and, having heard that the preceding two years mostly involved the series finding its feet, have not bothered venturing back to watch any earlier episodes.

Consequently, there were a lot of things about 'Dave Returns' that were unknown to me, but form a part of the series' history. I knew Louis C.K. had been on the programme, but did not know he played a cop called Dave, nor that he had been romantically involved with Leslie. It was also the first time Ron's alter-ego, Duke Silver, had graced my screen, despite having been talked of in the kind of hushed tones otherwise reserved for Janet Snakehole and Burt Macklin, FBI. It's a credit to the writing behind 'Dave Returns' that all these elements were immediately understandable and enjoyable, even for a (relative) Parks noob like myself.

Now here comes an even trickier part. The reason for my never having dedicated any time to sitting down in front of Louis C.K.'s acclaimed material before is because, from what little I have seen of him, he has struck me as someone who writes clever material which has never really connected to my sense of humour. Who knows why, since a lot of what he says - and apparently says, via the many loving words that have been written about him - are ideas I can empathise and connect with. It's just that none of the snippets of him doing interviews, or clips of his TV series, have translated for me into actual laughs. That was the case tonight, where the character was a lot of fun - particularly his habit of speaking using police terminology - but didn't get many laughs out of me

This was a strong episode for the most part, C.K. may only have got a few chuckles out of me, but his super-serious manner of playing the character brought the best out of Adam Scott's Ben, who was allowed to be the crazy one for a change. His irrational fear of police officers provided some terrific material, from his pained attempts to seem casual and caring when meeting with the police chief in his first scene, to C.K. having to order him into the loo (instead of constantly paying deference to other cops cutting in front of him) in the episode's last. C.K.'s Dave was certainly a good fit for how the sort of person I would imagine as populating the Pawnee police force - essentially good, but overzealous and not above abusing their power in small ways to gain an advantage - but it's difficult to imagine how he and Leslie could ever have fallen in love. As was heavily played up in the episode, he's nothing like Ben at all, and his grizzled demeanour seems an odd fit for the enthusiastic Leslie. Maybe I should go back to watch those earlier episodes just to find out.

Ron's second identity as Duke Silver was terrific, especially in his requisitioning April to help him keep it all under wraps, destroying mugs and Jerry's hearing along the way. I like how many facets of his personality Ron keeps hidden to maintain his super-manly libertarian persona, and every new one manages to be both surprising but a perfect fit for the character. I had never considered Ron playing a saxophone before, but it's now perfectly clear that it's exactly the kind of instrument a man like him would play - along with, possibly, a hand-carved wooden flute.

His coming to the rescue and salvaging Andy's campaign song was a terrific cap to the episode, playing into the Silver legend while keeping him off-screen. Perhaps Ron has already been seen playing the sax, but I hope not - Duke Silver seems a lot funnier to me as someone who only exists in the imagination. It was also fun seeing a different side to Andy, who really wanted to do his best for Leslie but was continually frustrated at his inability to raise the song - or its performers - to the level he wanted. He's such a cartoon that to see him working hard at something brings him down to a human level for something other than being adorably Winnie The Pooh-esque, right down to a mug full of honey. Watching him struggle against the limitations of his talent was a consistent source of laughs - banging his head on the floor - tinged with just a touch of sadness.

The C-plot saw Tommy attempting to build on his earlier, nominal success of getting Ann to go out on a date with him, but once again failing to make any progress due to his inability to express himself in any other way than through a variety of annoying personas and gimmicks. The two characters weren't a good fit last week, with Ann apparently agreeing to the date out of desperation alone, and it only became more uncomfortable this time around. Tom's manic personality and boundless ambition are brilliant comic devices when he's set a task to accomplish for the Parks Department, but less so when attempting to make a legitimate connection with someone.

Kudos to the writers for not toning him down at all, but significantly less so for trying to pair him up with someone so obviously unsuited to him as the low-key Ann Perkins. She might have gone out with Andy once, but that was before her character had been properly developed, and his relaxed dim-wittedness is a much easier fit than Tom's relentless, annoying energy. That he finally succeeded by 'wearing her down' is not the best foot for a romance to start off on, and it's difficult to see what new material the pairing has to offer from here. Once again, the writers' difficulty in working out what to do with Ann proved the weakest part of what was otherwise one of the season's strongest episodes.


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