Friday, 24 February 2012

Television - Archer 'Bloody Ferlin' review / Parks & Recreation 'Sweet Sixteen' review


'Bloody Ferlin' was Archer on auto-pilot for the most part, but this is one of those programmes which can get laughs even when coasting. There wasn't much to the plot and the premise was well trodden comedy territory, drawing on the old 'uncivilised redneck' trope. Ray's hick brother is in trouble from a corrupt sheriff, so Ray, Archer and Carol head to West Virginia to lend a hand.

There was a neat twist on expectations at the end, spinning on how viewers tend to take as truth anything spoken by characters presented sympathetically, but for the most part the jokes tended to be of a more predictable variety. Moonshine? Check. Ray hides his homosexuality from his brother? Check. Archer tries to bang a hot redneck chick? Check. Rednecks misinterpreting the Bible for their own ends? Check, albeit with excellent attention to detail - look up the passage cited.
Fortunately, Archer has a good habit of finding new approaches to old material - it isn't as though spy spoofs hadn't been done countless times before - and there was just enough of Adam Reed's twisted humour here to keep the laughs coming, even if not quite as hard or fast (phrasing!) as the programme at its best. Jack McBrayer made a decent fist (phrasing again!) of his guest star spot, although as a viewer of 30 Rock, his distinctive voice was occasionally distracting, especially given how he was playing a similar sort of character to Kenneth.

While he and Ray bounced off each other pretty well, Archer and Carol shouldered the bulk of the laughs. Archer's general debauchery was in full swing, given constant reason to reassess his disgust at the prospect of being shot in a small yokel town ("Fourth thoughts!") thanks to the bathykolpian Jenette and ready supply of drugs and alcohol. Carol, meanwhile, was brought along by accident - having woken up in the back of the van - but proved useful in acting as Ray's beard, even though she might not have actually known they weren't really married. Her attempts to adapt to the West Virginian lifestyle were pretty magnificent though, whether killing and shaving a rooster - bringing back the series premier's glorious 'bawk bawk!' line - or being over-enthusiastic about wielding red-hot pokers during the climactic shoot-out, whilst wearing a towel, no less.

The ISIS office subplot was another involving the staff keeping a secret from Malory, with the only minor twist being Lana's presence in place of the absent Carol. Lana is an excellent straight woman, constantly despairing at having to go along with the idiotic schemes concocted by her co-workers, and her presence brought a dryer kind of humour, through a series of escalating feeble excuses, than Carol's brand of compound insanity. On the downside, Pam didn't have anyone to play with, and though her graffiti work in the loo cubicles was hilariously over-the-top (apparently leaving a message for her drift racing crew, as if they'd ever be able to see it), she wasn't given much to do. The episode similarly struggled with Krieger, achieving what previously seemed impossible by making his appearance... boring?

The problem was not only the number of times this type of plot has been done before, but its lack of a destination: Malory was never going to head out to West Virginia, and her anger never felt enough to justify the lengths the staff went to cover up Archer and Ray's disappearance. While office subplots rarely achieve neat narrative conclusions, the best ones layer insanity until everything comes tumbling down like a Jenga tower... of insanity. With the episode playing everything by the book, that sense of rising madness never materialised, leaving both plots to peter out, driven more by individual moments of fun than a fully cohesive half-hour of comedy. Middle of the road Archer is fun - especially the new habit of ending on a shot of Archer talking to an animal - but a little frustrating when only last week demonstrated the heights which can be hit when the programme is really trying.


If this week's Archer achieved a reasonable level of entertainment value despite spinning its wheels, Parks marked the low point of what has been a disappointing season. Don't get me wrong, there have certainly been high points - notably the hysterical Born And Raised - but most of the big story arcs have fallen flat and Leslie too frequently reduced to comedic ineptitude, rather than the hyper-sincere and dedicated bureaucratic genius she ought to be.

She was further than ever from her old self in 'Sweet Sixteen': remember when she delivered a perfect speech despite being ill to the point of hallucinating last season? This episode had her making basic blunders through overworking, though the only evidence we had of her mistakes being down to fatigue was the word of Ron Swanson. We've seen Leslie in hyperactive mode so many times before that her making mistakes this time just appeared out of character, rather than proof of Ron's case. Rinse and repeat the truism about 'show, don't tell'.

 His determination to get her to take a break retread a lot of old ground, relying on second hand emotional cues - Ron able to provide Leslie with a voice of calm common sense - and callbacks to old jokes - the eggs refrain - that suffered diminishing returns, especially in attempting to mine goodwill for an episode that seemed unwilling to earn it on its own terms. The same goes for Jerry, who was peripheral to a lot of the action despite the party being set up in his honour. He may be the programme's human punching bag, but we've seen him humiliated so many times now that the joke has become more tiresome than fun. As a background joke, Jerry taking a hit or two can still draw laughs, but 'Sweet Sixteen' returned to the well time and time again with no fresh ideas for doling out punishment. Mostly, it just made the other characters look inconsiderate.

Having Jerry born on February 29th was a nice character note - of course someone as long-suffering as him would only get a real birthday every four years - but it seems odd, given how the episode's events happen the day after, that it should air a week before the first day of March. Perhaps 'Sweet Sixteen' was thrown around in the schedule - although I haven't read anything to that effect yet - but when dealing with a specific day or holiday, Parks - and most programmes - usually air as close to the event as possible. There seemed no particular reason for this episode to jump a week in advance of its viewers, making the story feel strangely out of place.

I've already stated my dislike of the Tom and Anne 'relationship' in previous reviews, so shan't repeat myself here, other than to say that it seems to once again prove how the series is struggling to find things for its supporting characters to do now the comedy revolves almost exclusively around Leslie, rather than the ensemble. The 'lesson' learnt by Tom and Ann at the end suggested they should put aside their material frustrations with each other, which could have been a worthwhile message but for their characters being two of the cast's most superficially developed. Tom only functions as a cartoon and attempts to humanise him collapse at the first hurdle by undermining the brainless enthusiasm that makes him fun. There's no room for emotion in his propulsive desire for glamour, fame and money - he's fond of his Parks Dept. workmates, but only in a secondary capacity to his ambition - and demanding he slow down and reveal hidden depths is a horrible miscalculation for a character whose deliberate shallowness is central to his appeal.

Ann, meanwhile, isn't much more than a pretty face. Rashida Jones has enough charisma and comic timing to get the occasional laugh, but her character has almost nothing to offer below the surface. Ben has taken over as Leslie's straight man and her only remaining personality trait is an inability to find a satisfying love life. That's an odd message for a largely pro-feminist comedy, compounded by her now being expected to be happy settling for someone she finds deeply annoying most of the time. It's an ill-fitted pairing that obviously won't last, making plots like this one feel even more perfunctory and like the viewer's time is being wasted. Aubrey Plaza, at least, got some laughs from her drunken fury at becoming the referee for the pair's shambolic relationship. Her desire for alcohol when trapped between the two of them was completely understandable.

Even Andy's involvement failed to draw any serious laughs, a telling sign of how poor this episode was, considering he has saved so many of the season's weakest efforts to date. The overall message linking this week's three plots was the importance of having a friend to guide you through hard times: Leslie had Ron, while Tom and Ann had the reluctant April. Andy recognising Chris' need for companionship after a difficult few months - having fired Ben and been dumped by his girlfriend - was sweet, especially for dog owners aware of how comforting a wagging tail can be, but never found much in the way of laughs. At least it was a little different from previous Andy plots, which is more than could be said for what the rest of the cast had to work with. 'Sweet Sixteen' marked the lowest point to date of a season which, like its protagonist, seems to have forgotten the importance of whole-assing one thing that matters, rather than half-assing a whole lot of others.


1 comment:

Shaun said...

Maybe the fallout from Archer, Ray and Carol’s trip will happen next week, you never know. Do they really shave Roosters? I think this season so far has fallen flat from season 1 and season 2, I am definitely not saying that season 3 hasn’t been good, just not to the level of awesomeness of that last 2. The Isis subplot this weak a bit discombobulated, but come one you got to watch Pam shock beating a pig. Hopefully with the last four episodes they will amp up the awesomeness and blow our minds and make us anxiously awake Season 4 to release. Working nights at DISH I have to record Archer and watch it after I get off work. I don't have to wait until I get home though, I can use my sling adapter to stream the recorded show to my iPhone while I am waiting for the bus, although the uncontrollable laughter sometimes gets me in trouble.