Friday, 2 March 2012

Television - Archer 'Crossing Over' review / Parks & Recreation 'Campaign Shake-Up' review


Even though I know Archer is not a show that usually takes the long-term consequences of its characters' actions particularly seriously, I loved how 'Crossing Over' finally touched on the issue of Sterling Archer being such a raging alcoholic. It's only of those details that has often lingered beneath the surface, but rarely provided more than a couple of sight gags at the expense of James Bond's never-ending Martini habit. One of the great things about Archer is how perfectly creator Adam Reed has visualised the character as a comic creation based around the sort of person Bond might be in real life - a booze-addled, sociopathic sex fiend with a penchant for devising increasingly laborious puns - and expanding on that idea provided some terrific comic material.

The ISIS secretaries also function in relation to Bond's world, as dark reflections of the chaste and sweet Miss Moneypenny. She's the woman perpetually trapped in Bond's friend zone, good for a quick flirt every now and then but too good for him to ever consider settling down with. In some ideal world, perhaps she's the sort of girl he'd like to - although in the novels, Bond always imagines he'd marry a stewardess - but knows it would never work. At the end of The Man With The Golden Gun novel, Bond admits to himself that no one woman would ever be enough. (Goodnight, the Bond girl there, also happened to be his secretary). Pam, one of the two secretaries in Archer's workplace, is pretty much the opposite of that, even more sexually and physically deviant than the man himself. Much as he would hate to admit it, the writing was on the (cubicle) wall.
Following a particularly heavy night of drinking, even by Archer's standards, he wakes up with the Large Hadron Collider of all hangovers and discovers the woman who provided him with the best sex of his life was not the stripper he vaguely remembers, but Pam, presently occupied dropping a particularly heavy load down his loo. It's an immediately perfect set-up, with Archer torn between the shame of copping off with a woman so staggeringly primitive in her physical and sexual development, yet also having the time of his life with the sex. Brilliantly, Pam was less impressed by Archer's prowess in the downstairs department, no surprise considering her reputation for Biblical-scale depravity.

Being hopelessly at the mercy of his addictions, he and Pam were soon going down in the up lift, along with every other place, no matter how inconvenient, where they could get a few minutes' seclusion. Archer's attempts to keep it all secret from his co-workers didn't quite get the big laughs it could have, but H. Jon Benjamin and Amber Nash's voice-over work was exquisite throughout, making it a curious omission how little substantial interaction these characters have shared until now.

Their scenes underpinned the episode with a theme about Archer having to come to terms with who he is, reflected in the main plot about the defection of Nikolia Jakov defecting from the KGB after Bionic Barry somehow takes control. All of these characters have strong links to Archer's history: Jackov is one of several candidates to be the character's father, and he assumes this to be the case when the two finally meet at the ISIS safehouse. Although the paternity is never confirmed, the episode got some unexpectedly powerful emotional weight from Archer's realisation that the man who might be his father died at the end, perhaps as a consequence of his own inability to restrain his sexual impulses.

The scene of the two sitting around a table drinking did some subtle work in showing how these two men have a fair bit in common, including propensities for booze and violence, despite their outward differences. I'd like to image Archer possibly being half-Russian is a sly dig at Bond actually being Swiss-Scottish, despite his association with all things English, although that's optimistic at best.

As for Barry, he's the man who murdered Archer's wife in last season's On Her Majesty's Secret Service-inflected finale. He's not a particularly deep character, but once again it's a nice touch how Archer's nemesis, his Blofeld, was born out of the protagonist's complete disregard for the safety of those around him. Barry was rescued by the Soviets after Archer left him to fall off the side of a building, having already been the cause of all sorts of hilarious trauma for the former ODIN man. It's not a deep back-story, but the two characters' hatred of one another is so completely rooted in their own failings as human beings that it never fails to be satisfying. Barry's only going to all this trouble to cause Archer as much pain as possible and, given how murdering Jackov was just a 'goof' on the side, it will be interesting to discover what his ultimate plan is.

There are three episodes left to go this season, including a two-part finale guest starring Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, and having Barry lingering in the background with some grand scheme could make things very interesting. Archer may not often take seriously the consequences of individual actions or moments, such as the quickly discarded cancer plot from last season, but it can be surprisingly tight at maintaining and developing key points of continuity. The history between Archer and Barry ties into virtually every significant piece of serialisation the series has ever done, making it perfect fodder for an end-of-season arc, especially if we get as much inspired character work as made 'Crossing Over' both so much fun and end on such a powerful note of regret. Archer's moments of self-awareness may not last long, but they've provided some of the best episodes this series has ever done.


'Campaign Shake-Up' returned Parks to some sort of stability following last week's low-point, achieving a solid number of laughs, particularly through some memorable guest performances, even if the season's two current plots - Leslie's political campaign and the Ann/Tom (urgh) romance - continue to fall dramatically flat. To be fair, the campaign was used as well last night as it ever has been in the past, but even though its components were more entertaining than usual, as a whole it suffered from a feeling of overfamiliarity preventing it from becoming anything truly special. These story beats have been done ad infinitum over the course of the season, from Leslie having to win over a significant local figure (previously a retiring police legend, this time the leader of the Pawnee Senior Union) to her struggles at overcoming an unexpected hitch towards victory, be they overcoming her own neuroses or an unexpectedly powerful opponent.

Following up 'Campaign Ad', Leslie starts out with her campaign numbers in the ascendancy, rising to 30% against opponent Bobby Newport's 45%. (Other candidates included porn star Brandi Maxxx and the excellently named Manrico Della Rossa). The Newports aren't ready to take defeat lying down, though, so hire a top Republican campaign strategist to fight the battle for them. Jennifer Barkley is pretty much the anti-Knope, full of Leslie's enthusiasm and generosity (in a certain light), driven entirely by money rather than passion and unemcumbered by any sense of morality. She's unashamedly only there for the money and her love of winning - you'd think the Republicans would currently be getting better PR were that the case, though - going so far as to feed Leslie bits of information about her strategy just for her enjoyment of the competition.

One thing the campaign plot has largely left to one side is the idea of each candidate's political leanings. Leslie is, quite obviously, to the left, as befitting a series with decidedly Democrat sensibilities, but it has never been as prominently emphasized as in 'Campaign Shake-Up'. Barkley is a perfect right-leaning mirror image of Leslie, and there's some subtle satire in how she has achieved everything Leslie would love to, but only because her approach is guided entirely by her Randian sense of self-determination. Leslie is running for office because she wants to make Pawnee a better place. Barkley just loves the thrill of the competition and will do anything, including outright lying, to claim the win.

It's a little uncomfortable for the series to suddenly be indulging in such overt political commentary, to the point where it seems prepared to label those on the right as either brainlessly entitled or mercenary and uncaring, but I suppose The Simpsons, in many respects, has been no less subtle in propagating it own ideology over the years, ironically considering its position as a liberal programme on the intensely conservative Fox network. Parks & Rec has come to define itself by its positive candour and goodwill to all, though, so for it to suddenly start taking political jabs, whether justified or not, feels a little out of step.

There's no reason for the series' creators not to indulge their personal politics - there has always been a strong feminist message in play - but this seemed a turn towards the negative campaigning that Leslie has previously spoken out against, with this episode's 'villains' - even though, to the episode's credit, Barkley was presented as a perfectly pleasant, if insincere, person outside her political dealings - defined by characteristics stereotypically associated with the right.

Regardless of the messy politics, Kathryn Hahn's Barkley did provide a brilliantly formidable foe for Leslie to overcome, a figure she has been lacking in her campaign so far. (Paul Rudd has only appeared in the shortest of glimpses, though he has episodes to come). In particular, it was fun to see Leslie find someone she couldn't keep up with, and not as a result of the sudden bouts of incompetence that have plagued her throughout this season. She and Ben - the latter being subject to some very funny accidental insults - are at the top of their game here, playing every angle they can but still coming up short against Barkley's shameless cynicism. As in 'Campaign Ad', they will have to adapt their approach to match a new kind of threat, one which won't be defeated by honesty and optimism alone. For once, it's a successful twist in the campaign arc and will hopefully inspire more inspired developments in the future - perhaps the short hiatus Parks will take after next week will give the writers time to sit back and think about the questionable direction much of the season has taken.

The B-plot set in the Parks Department offices was the strongest and funniest part of the episode, albeit with strong competition from Carl Reiner's glorious cameo as the head of the Seniors' Union and his wonderfully mad story of the 'flat man' who lost the middle third of his body in surgery. Chris realises that the Department is running behind due to Leslie's focus on her campaign, so tells Ron that either a major government project be completed in the near future, or someone will have to be hired to fill the Knope-shaped gap in the workforce. Naturally, both options are anathema to the staunchly anti-government Ron, so he swallows his pride and sets about wooing Ann Perkins to complete the most menial task he could find (even moreso than repairing the city's 'defective' basketball hoops that the balls can't fit through), developing a new kind of water fountain that Pawnee's citizens won't be able to drink from in their, let's say, whole-mouthed way.

Apart from providing a sight gag that only got funnier each time it was repeated, the plot finally got the entire Parks Department operation together on something approaching their day jobs, inevitably ending in chaos. Ron had a great episode, from his pretending to be interested in Ann ("Nonsense. We are close friends.") to complete dismay at being trapped in a Catch-22 where his Department actually has to do something for a change. Leslie has long been the glue holding the office staff in some sort of check, so seeing how quickly their attempts at brainstorming devolves into a fully-fledged water fight, with Donna hosing down a miserably Jerry in the background, was a clever and very funny reflection of that fact.

Andy, as usual, got the biggest laugh with his 'kamikaze' attack on Chris and their contrasting facial expressions afterwards. Tom and Ann were restricted to one line (too many) and while the development of April towards a more hard-working, good-hearted person continues apace, she and Ron have a sweet friendship and mutual respect that never fails to pay off. 'Campaign Shake-Up' wasn't quite Parks back to its best, but represented, for the most part, a step on the right path.

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