Friday, 16 March 2012

Television - Archer 'Space Race Part I' review / Community 'Urban Matrimony And The Sandwich Arts' review


ARCHER

Archer's third season has overall proved more consistent and more confident than its second, with few episodes more representative of that than 'Space Race Part I'. Season Two was about consolidating the best recurring gags, perfecting the funniest personality traits for each character and getting the rhythms right between the already outstanding cast members. The second half of that season brought many of the best episodes the series has ever done, including my personal favourite, 'El Secuestro' (although Movie Star is a gem too, although now is not the best time to try and formulate a list).

Despite a few early blips, the third season has raised the level of ambition whilst consistently delivering excellent episodes. In fact, if I have any criticism, it's that some of the in-jokes were fallen back on a little too heavily at first, with fresh material harder to come by than it needed to be. Nevertheless, even for a series that has been brilliant since its pilot, the first of this two-part season finale shows how far Archer has come in every aspect of its production.
 
First off, let's talk about guest stars: Burt Reynolds was a lot of fun and a terrific choice for the season premiere, but Bryan Cranston is on a whole other level. Having seen him turn in one of the most mesmerising dramatic performances on television in Breaking Bad for the past few years, it's easy to forget what an outstanding comedian he is. It's a testament to his greatness as Walter White that Malcolm In The Middle's Hal seems like such a distant, but beloved memory, as that was the programme which first brought him to many people's attention, including mine. He played his character straight, wisely choosing not to overshadow the established delights of the interacting ISIS crew, but small inflections here and there (when cutting off Archer's air supply, or in the perfect delivery of his long-awaited closing line) showed how much fun he was having. His profile as a serious actor is rising quickly, on screens both big and small, so it was a treat to have him back in the comedy saddle once again.

Beyond the predictable Cranston brilliance, the very plot seems like the sort of thing Archer wouldn't have dared try even a year ago. First and second season episodes were almost entirely office or mission-based affairs, but this year we've had a pirate adventure, a murder mystery, and now an excursion into orbit. The clearly increased budget - go back to last season to see how much more slick and adventurous the animation is this year - has allowed Adam Reed to go whole hog on the production front, with episodes like this one the clear beneficiary. Even a detail like Lana's vomit looked pretty great, doubly so when splattering across Cyril's face as Archer rode on his back in zero gravity. Even the effects in the corridor battle between the ISIS crew and the 'mutineers' looked great, with plasma blasts and concussion grenades going off with colourful abandon.

Best of all, though, that Archer sense of humour remains not only intact, but expanding. There are all the old favourites - Archer and Lana's overlapping 'Yeeeerrrrp' and 'Noooooope' was wonderful, not to mention 'danger zone!' - along with little details that have developed over time - Archer's giddy joy at doing zero gravity somersaults - and plenty of one-time gags, like Malory's eyes peeking out from her oversized spacesuit, Archer finding time for a quickie with Pam in zero-gravity (which must have made the MOAB complicated), the idea that Pam's weight could be enough to throw a spaceship off trajectory, and the hilariously dirty plot twist at the end. And better yet? There's still another half of the story left to go. Danger zone!


COMMUNITY

Enough has already been said about the Community hiatus, wonderful to have it back, possibility of bringing in new viewers, and so forth, so I'll jump right into what really matters: this was a terrific episode, showing the series can do more grounded material just as well as its more famous outré concepts. There tends to be a bit of a backlash when sticking to stories based more in identifiable rather than Dreamatorium reality, as was the case with 'Geography Of Global Conflict', an episode I thought was great fun but which drew a surprising amount of criticism from the fanbase. 'Urban Matrimony' had a nice balance which should protect it, though, not since few fans will likely be willing to lay into the series after promoting it as the second coming as comedy Jesus during the hiatus.

Abed and Troy's decision to 'dewhimsify' themselves was, with Community inimitable self-reflexive irony, the main source of weirdness. Having known Abed as the series' meta-commenter for so long, it's immediately weird when he starts imitating (what he sees as) a normal human being, playing it with the same slightly off-centre pitch as when Data made the similar attempts to humanise himself on TNG. Remember that episode when Picard is trapped alone on the Enterprise and Data is trying to master small talk at an official function on the planet below? I don't know if it's intention - would be wonderful if so, but I suspect it's possibly a step too far even for Community nerditry - but Danny Pudi's 'normal' performance reminds me a lot of Brent Spiner in that episode. He's just making small talk, but exaggerating enough to make it amusingly incorrect. He plays it up slightly more than in last season's 'Critical Film Studies,' but only because here his 'normalcy' is part of the joke, whereas in that episode, it was designed to surprise. Donald Glover gets some laughs too, but Pudi/Abed is the dominant presence between the two.

Even apart from the grounded storyline, this was a slightly unusual episode of Community in all sorts of ways. The excellent time card gags and flipbook of what is inside Jeff's heart (Annie's boobs - not the monkey - naturally near the top of the list) were rare examples of the writers breaking the 'reality' of the show to tell a joke. Shirley, meanwhile, has rarely been the focus of any important storylines, with Dan Harmon and his writers obviously finding her the most difficult character to write for (Pierce, at least, has the advantage of being able to fulfil the villain role). Yvette Nicole Brown is the programme's most underrated performer, consistently getting laughs but never getting enough of a spotlight to really come into her own. 'Urban Matrimony' brought out the best side of her: caring but not preachy, taken seriously as a character but with plenty of opportunities for laughs.

Andre is a sweet foil - although the moment he started calling her 'woman' was too sudden a turn from loving fiancé to domineering misogynist - and gave her the chance to stand up for what she believed, while also offering Jeff and Britta the benefit of her experience without resorting to Christian clichés. Hopefully she will get more of an opportunity to explore that side of the character in future, doubly so if it means we get to see the more tragic side of Pierce. Chevy Chase is a pro at everything that gets thrown at him - the episode's tag with him trying to get to grips with an out-of-control ice cream machine was hysterical from start to finish - and playing off his inherently dislikeable qualities with a tinge of sadness always works well. Chase showed last season how effective he is as a dramatic actor, emphasized last night with in the revelation of his sacking from Hawthornes, conveying his fears of redundancy in the episode's most moving moment (although the pre-credits proposal was a close second).

Britta's storyline about her horrified discovery that she appeared destined for matrimony despite her feminist ideals ("I come from a long line of mothers and wives") was a scorcher, with Gillian Jacobs hitting the bullseye with every delivery ("A thought wearing another thought's hat" was a classic, while her line about dying Ugandans also weirdly prescient). Her and Jeff's drunken swagger was great and, though his daddy issues have been more than exhausted by now, the comedic chemistry between Jacobs and McHale remains one of the series' most potent combinations: the argument at the altar was full of delightful bits of physical and verbal comedy. Alison Brie was the only character largely sidelined, but was as disarmingly adorable as ever when called upon, whether bringing out her enormous wedding scrapbook or delivering a slightly out-of-character Jim Belushi spike (surely more of a Jeff or Abed line?).

'Urban Matrimony' was a terrific showcase for the cast and accessible entry point for anyone new to the series, which will hopefully be a lot of people if the heightened publicity has the desired effect. It may turn out that the hiatus was the best thing that could have happened to Community, and the producers at the recent PaleyFest panel sounded confident of a fourth season renewal. Having survived the darkest timeline, those six seasons and a movie are - fingers crossed - looking a more promising prospect than they ever have.

EDIT: According to HitFix, last night's Community scored an outstanding 4.89m viewers and a 2.2 demo rating for viewers between the ages of 18-49. Who knows how many of those watching will stick, but keep up the good work, America!


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