Friday, 9 March 2012

Archer 'Skin Game' review / Parks And Recreation 'Lucky' review


ARCHER

Archer is at its best when at its most unpredictable. Most successful sitcoms fall into a pattern of familiarity, where the audience enjoys hanging out with the cast once a week and the kind of comic rhythms they share. Archer has those things, but its ability to surprise, to spring an absurdist joke out of absolutely nowhere, is perhaps what most sets it apart from the pack. (And the fact of it being animated, obviously). I fell in love with the programme when Archer completely randomly did his 'bawk bawk' to Carol in the pilot: there was no reason for it, no prior indication that the character would feel compelled to do anything like that, just a hysterical little moment getting laughs from deep left field.

The series falls back a lot of its in-jokes, be it the aforementioned 'bawk bawk', Lana's elongated 'Noooope's or Archer's increasingly arcane spheres of reference, but as funny as those gags are, they suffer diminishing returns due to never being as unexpected, as random, as the first time they were used. This hasn't been a bad season for Archer by any stretch, but it has relied a little too heavily and too often on established gags rather than embracing its more seemingly improvisational nature.

Fortunately, 'Skin Game' set the record straight in spectacular style.
 
Last week's episode seemed to be setting up a lot of continuity heading into the end of the season, but once again, most of it ended up being discarded. Archer likes continuity in the small details, like the 'Seamus' tattoo on its protagonist's back, but as evinced by the absence this season of the baby himself, narrative continuity tends to get pushed to one side. The robotic resurrection of Archer's near-wife, Katya, doesn't count because continuity suggests long-term effects: here, there's no reason to believe Katya's return, or her elopement with Barry, will change anything in the Archerverse, other than perhaps for the occasional one-off episode like this one.

Whilst I might be inclined to criticise other programmes for such a throwaway approach to its storylines, it's a technique which suits Archer perfectly. As mentioned, randomness is a big part of its appeal, so having a deep well of characters and situations to pull out of the hat at any given moment can be a boon, grounding its unpredictability with a slightly stronger emotional connection for its characters. Krieger could have produced a brand new sexy gynoid in his stinky lab, but having it be Archer's wife gave the story a ton of material to draw on, from Malory's disgust at her son's technosexual relationship, to Lana once again called to play straight woman to a hilariously depraved situation thanks to her prior, much regretted, affair with Archer. It's a safe bet that there will be no greater line on television this year than: "I don't really have a road map for my ex finding your robogina in the sink." Although "It's like a transistor radio and a veal cutlet had a baby", thrown out almost immediately afterwards, came damn close.

Add to that Carol's referencing of a fortune-telling gypsy woman she frequents and a spell in a hospital where she was forced to make 'therapy cranes' (a line integrating a 'bawk bawk' for good measure), and you've got an episode bursting with the kind of inspired one-liners and situations that no other series can deliver like Archer. The storyline may have revolved around Archer coming to terms with his dead wife returning as a Krieger-constructed gynoid*, but it was mostly about his despair at discovering her mechanically-enhanced vagina gave him flashbacks to an incident involving a wig-wearing vacuum cleaner as a child, and horror at discovering that not only is it detachable, but she's left it in the sink for Wodehouse to clean, but only after he's poached her an egg.

All that stopped the episode being a classic was its excessive number of callbacks to last season's finale, right down to Ray conducting a wedding in the final scenes, only for it to be disrupted by Barry. The Graduate reference also lacked context and lacked any kind of punchline of its own, relying on the kind of 'remember this?' humour which is the staple of much lesser comedies than Archer should be emulating. The elopement, too, didn't really feel earnt in any way, just a way of bringing the episode to an end. Barry's appearance wasn't foreshadowed or justified in any way - why would he even be looking for Katya? - and, for once, a lack of continuity became detrimental when his murder of Jackov in the previous episode was almost entirely ignored. Nevertheless, 'Skin Game' is strong competition for Lo Scandalo for the title of funniest episode of the season (so far), with it being no coincidence that both are strong showcases for the series at its most gleefully unpredictable.

*Gynoid, aka a barely-used term for a female android, is a fantastic word and one I'm surprised the episode didn't pick up on, given Archer's love of weirdly specific details.


PARKS & RECREATION

'Lucky' was written by Nick Offerman, making it no surprise that the episode was one of Ron Swanson's best for some time. As with many of the characters, Ron has suffered from the heavy focus on the campaign storyline, often being pushed to the background or over-exaggerated when given an opportunity to come forward. He wasn't even a particularly vital part of 'Lucky' either, but Offerman obviously has such an in-depth knowledge of his character that his every line was a delight, from his seduction by steak (with room for after dinner omelettes, naturally) to his brilliantly timed bleeped obscenity when the lonely Chris took him in a hug.

To Offerman's never-ending credit, he even managed to get reasonably amusing results out of the Ann - Tom pairing, which has so far been nothing but an ordeal for characters and viewers alike. They were interacting mostly as friends here, sharing silly jokes and getting drunk together, which is a little out of character for sensible Ann, but at least showed the two having something approaching chemistry. We know they're friends, even if Tom is unbearable a lot of the time, but her being willing to engage with his quirks - like the Jean-Ralphio handshake - gave a dimension to their romance beyond him being an insensitive doofus and her rolling her eyes and settling for someone clearly unsuited to her.

Getting the pair drunk was another good call, because there are few casts like that of Parks who can do blotto quite so brilliantly (the sight of Leslie trying to get her bearings in the background of the bar scene was one of the episode's biggest non-Swanson laughs) and it got both characters to loosen up. Tom's stretch limo also allowed for the terrific sight gag of Ben having to walk back and forward to give instructions to the driver.

Leslie's plot wasn't bad - although the 'uptight Ben' angle was both somewhat contradictory to how he has been presented before and very quickly abandoned - but reduced her to a passenger in her own story. She had little impact on anything that happened, with her drunkenness secondary to interviewer Buddy Wood's desire to run down Pawnee and her attempts to retrieve the tape futile after the airport staff had already discarded it. Amy Poehler is terrific at playing sozzled and the small details she dropped into Leslie's body language were consistently amusing, but having her storm away from the interview only made her appear weak and thin-skinned, two qualities rarely attributed to the character no matter what her alcohol intake. We've seen her conquer more difficult conditions than a few tequila shots before, so her inability to find a response to Wood's hazing felt more like a failure for her as a politician rather than him as an impartial interviewer.

The April - Andy story featured a welcome callback to Andy's college course in Women's Studies, which he somehow passed despite struggling to do anything in his oral exam but recite memorised facts (which, to give due credit, is actually pretty good for him). Other than offering a smidgen more insight into Chris' post-breakup loneliness, the storyline was mostly an excuse for Ron to shine: certainly no bad thing. It also continued April's path towards becoming something approaching a considerate human being, with her cynical excuse for trying to hook Chris up (so she didn't have to speak to him anymore) ringing hollow. Fortunately, this development hasn't blunted her sarcastic side, just shown how her honeybear-happy husband is proving an unintentionally positive influence on her.

It's the kind of sweetness Parks does well, albeit this time given the unexpectedly sharp aftertaste of Andy's teacher respectfully brushing off Chris' advances to favour Ron's rugged charms instead. Even in Pawnee, good intentions don't always win the day and Chris takes another hit as his reliance on robotic charm fails him once again. This series adores the fallible side of human nature, in all its comedic glory, and Chris is going to have to learn to chill out if he's ever to find a lady in a town shared by Ron Effin' Swanson. Although despite his affinity for strong-minded brunettes, would Ron really hook up with a woman who orders a spinach salad?

Having Ron on top form is a a cast-iron guarantee of Parks excellence and while there were some quibbles to be levelled at the other storylines, 'Lucky' was fun throughout. The series now goes on hiatus for just over a month (returning on April 19th), making it both a little odd that it should head into a break on such a low key half-hour - I suspect it wasn't planned this way - but also a relief that a troubled season should give way to the returning Community on a relatively strong note.
  

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