'Space Race Part II' ends Archer's strongest season to date with one of its weaker episodes, twice as big a shame since 'Part I' was so much fun. There was plenty to appreciate, but the episode's attempt to draw laughs from a succession of anti-climaxes, building towards an epic (using Archer's word) final battle before backing down in the face of something approaching realist logic, was more subversive than effective. This is a series whose best episodes often operate around the principle of orchestrating single comedic notes into grand crescendos of weirdness and perversity. Though the build-up was in place, the pay-offs shied away from every opportunity. Interesting idea, disappointing in practice.
The plot was a good example. Archer narratives usually only serve as an excuse to put the characters in situations where they can rub each other up the wrong way in different locations, without going deeper than the basic outline of a story. It's a great fit for a programme with such well-defined characters, whose interaction is always going to be what viewers come back for. Unfortunately 'Space Race Part II' didn't have much of a plot at all, meandering through several different scenarios without making much effort to paste them together, apart from them all taking place on a space station heading for Mars.
Buried somewhere was the idea that Bryan Cranston's Drake was planning to terraform Mars and establish a colony, using Lana - the perfect female specimen, as proven by her arbitrarily being rendered near-naked for much of the episode (Archer's teasing about her sagging breasts was very funny, but her insecurity, apart from her hilarious impersonation of him, less so) - as baby machine for a race of human martians. That was quickly pushed to one side, though, in favour of a collection of scenes which, while fun, didn't stick together as well as they should have.
It's naturally the dialogue we're all here for, and Archer leading the others on about not knowing what Animal Farm is ('No it isn’t Lana. It’s an allegorical novella about Stalinism by George Orwell and, spoiler alert, it sucks! Although I was talking about an actual animal farm so never mind.') or setting up a Star Wars parody by blasting into the rubbish compactor - Lana standing safely in the middle of a firefight was a more subtle nod - before backing down to a more realistic plan (again with the anti-climaxes) were entertaining, but needed something to glue them together. Lo Scandalo was one of this season's best episodes, because while it basically involved the characters and their various foibles bashing against each other and creating havoc, its actions were rooted around a well-defined scenario. Here, the various comic situations felt like they were, well, floating aimlessly in space. Last week put the gang en-route to a space station to put down an astronaut rebellion, which turned out to be a coup by the people who had hired ISIS in the first place. This week was a lot of meandering, eventually leading to a hurried resolution of that story.
On the plus side, Bryan Cranston built on last week's entertaining performance, even if he didn't get a running gag à la 'danger zone'. Drake's megalomania escalated as his plan drew nearer to fruition and Cranston's voice became increasingly arrogant and grandiose, escalating wonderfully until everything came crashing down around him when his pride led to Pam getting an opportunity to take him hostage. It was a particularly underwhelming outcome, with his crew surrendering on the basis of not being able to imagine how the project could continue without its leader. It felt like the episode was getting the story part out of the way as quickly as possible - reinforced by a jittery Cyril once again going nuts and accidentally gunning down everyone bar his friends - so it could bring Barry back for a nearly-Aliens showdown that left him trapped on-board the space station while ISIS returned home.
With the episode relying so strongly on a series of anti-climaxes for its humour - Archer's aborted mech battle with Barry being the most prominent - the episode needed a gag to end on and Archer deciding to wrestle control of the shuttle's landing from Cyril rang false as a reminder that, despite his prior moment of 'self-awareness', he was still the same obnoxious goon as always. Despite the missteps, it took nothing away from a wonderful third season of Archer, which experimented with the foundations established in the first two years and broadened the scope and scale of the programme to ambitious new heights. My only criticism would be the lack of significant Pam/Carol interactions, which was the basis of some of last season's most memorable scenes. That oversight might have been due to the series being busy paging Kenny Loggins, though, because this was a season firmly stuck in the... daaaaaaanger zoooooone!
After last week's return was an enormous success in every respect, even ratings-wise, 'Contemporary Impressionists' got plenty of laughs but seemed to misrepresent the tone and style of the series for any newcomers sticking around after Urban Matrimony. As I touched on last week, Community's storylines may be utterly insane for the most part, but are always tethered by some kind of realist credibility, however exaggerated.
Community rarely - the animé styled foosball battle being an exception - took the easy road of having the humour come from stylistic quirks by the people behind the camera, rather than those in front of it. Urban Matrimony's timecard interruptions were very funny, but the visual representation of what was in Jeff's heart marked an anachronistic break from the series' established style of having essentially grounded characters (in that no-one has superpowers or abilities beyond the average human being) find themselves in cartoonish situations, pushing the boundaries of reality without breaking it.
The point I'm circuitously making is that the animated thought bubbles and CGI ego apples in 'Contemporary Impressionists' were really, really distracting and not at all funny. I don't mind the Dreamatorium, because the idea of Community getting its own holodeck is too much fun to refuse (although hearing sounds last week from inside Abed and Troy's imagination whilst outside the room, thus occupying the position of an external observer, was a step too far) and we've stepped into the characters' imaginations before, most memorably in 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas', but the use of cartoon effects is detrimental to Community essentially being a programme about real people in a real place. What makes the Dreamatorium special if everyone in Greendale can bring up a thought bubble, or have a piece of CGI fruit representing their internal struggles? Why not be done with it and finally allow Troy to run through a tunnel painted on the Greendale wall, Road Runner style, rather than having the joke be that however eccentric the characters and situations they find themselves in, the physical laws of Community are essentially those of everyday existence?
Those parts of the episode felt more like how a casual fan might see Community, without any genuine understanding of what makes it tick. Weirdly, despite those aesthetic inconsistencies, the character work was fantastic: it was perfectly in-keeping with who Abed is that he'd hire celebrity impersonators to interrupt his daily life for re-enactments of movies (although surely even he would be discerning enough not to want anything to do with Patch Adams?), not to mention that he'd overlook the need for them to be paid for their services, and the consequences of not getting around to doing so.
As described above, the reversal involves Abed seeing his life in fantasy terms when it is really operating in reality. The final scene between him and Troy was brilliantly effective for taking the risk of showing how selfish the character would come across in a real life context, even though, as part of a sitcom, he has often been held up as the study group's wisest, most enlightened member. Community plays with the boundaries between its realist and sitcom elements, but the two always remain completely distinct. The scene was a clever restatement of that fact, sadly undermined by the CGI pop-ups elsewhere. Annie's right: eventually, Abed will have to come to terms with the fact he doesn't live in a fantasy world, that he'll have to understand real world economics and human dynamics one day, no matter how wonderful his innocent life currently is.
The episode's main set-piece, involving the gang going to a bah mitzvah in celebrity dress to help Abed pay off his debt, brought a couple of solid laughs - Yvette Nicole Brown was back on the sidelines this week, with the episode seemingly aired out of order judging by the introductory scene of everyone welcoming each other back from winter break (?), but her Oprah impression was hilarious - but nothing that built to the heights of hilarity of which Community is truly capable. As with Jeff's addiction to medication (which brought the phenomenal sight of Jim Rash actually collapsing at Jeff's sexiness in aviator sunglasses), the plot felt like more like a gimmick than a naturally occurring development, an excuse to have Britta do a Michael Jackson impersonation and Troy an amusing victory dance. More interesting is how Britta actually seems pretty well cut out for psychiatry, given her spot-on diagnosis of the basis of Jeff's narcissism. It will be interesting to see if she has finally found a field where she's not the worst.
'Contemporary Impressionists' wasn't the worst either, but a very badly timed misstep. It's now or never for the programme to find a new set of fans and improved ratings, with the competition of Big Bang Theory out of the way until next week (and no matter how much Community viewers would disagree, there's a big thematic overlap between the two) and increased awareness following the return from the hiatus. This was an episode which turned Community into a live-action cartoon, when what it should be is a sitcom with cartoonish elements. That's a bigger difference than it sounds and my feeling is that the former is even more niche and offputting to mainstream viewers than the latter. Hopefully everything will be back to (Greendale) normal next week - although the title, 'Digital Exploration of Interior Design', suggests the full Dreamatorium episode and thus more fantastical than ever - because too much in this episode felt more like a slightly-off impression of Community than the show itself.
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