Saturday, October 1, 2011

Archer 3-02: Heart of Archness Part 2

(I'm getting conflicting info on whether this three-episode block is in fact the end of the second season of Archer or the beginning of the third.  Wikipedia says the latter, and it's always trustworthy, so that's what I decided to go with for the blog post header, but my OCD brain is probably going to lose sleep over this.  Details!)

A few weeks ago I talked about Frisky Dingo, an Adult Swim full-scale assault on the superhero genre.  Adam Reed's follow-up series to this was Archer, a series that does much the same thing for the equally iconic (and equally frequently parodied) spy genre.  Archer is, however, a bit more conventional -- it's the usual half-hour for comedy, is more episodic (although this episode is a bad example of that) and has a more common style of animation and comedy.  The animation is meant to be realistic, drawing off human models and 3-D techniques to an extent that resembles rotoscoping.  Truthfully, this style edges into the uncanny valley -- the characters look just real enough that their jerky or overly mechanical movements can  (This goes double for the assorted floozies Archer beds throughout the series, which have the same kind of pubescent awkwardness that attempts at 3D computer-generated porn have.)  In the end this creates a style which is no less disorienting than that of Frisky Dingo.

The comedy often strikes me as a spy-ified version of 30 Rock.  Instead of the Adult Swim-style awkward humour Archer prefers to throw as many jokes at the screen in a short time as possible, and grant that the audience is intelligent enough to catch at least most of them.  The broad range more or less ensures this -- this is a show which places in close proximity jokes about anal sex and ones about William S. Borroughs.  There's also a strong focus on workplace humour, with a lot of subplots dedicated to characters like Pam the HR head and Cheryl (or is it Carol?) the secretary having office-bound adventures.  At times it seems like the central joke of Archer is that in real life a James Bond-style spy agency would be run with just as much beauraucracy and office politics as any other job.  All of this makes it more in line with many modern comedies than the weirder style of humour favoured by Frisky Dingo.

At the same time there are clear continuities -- the megalomaniac, childish hero Archer and his long-suffering butler Jeeves are successors to Xander and Stan -- and it's certainly just as auteurist as the previous series, with Reed writing or co-writing every episode thus far as well as providing the voice of Gillette.  The general source of humour -- the collision of the fantastical with the mundane -- is also the same.  All of this can be taken to mean that Archer is not just a successor to Frisky Dingo but an improvement on it, using the same template to move towards a more perfect television show.

"Heart of Archness" is probably the most ambitious thing the series has attempted thus far.  It's a three-part serialized storyline placed in between seasons, almost a kind of split-up Archer: The Movie.  The show has used serial elements before, mostly in terms of the characters' relationships, but there was always an episodic structure that these elements were placed around.  Which isn't to say that there's no concern for the episode, as each of the three parts seems to form a distinct chunk: the first part was about Rip Riley hunting down Archer, this week is about Archer's fall from grace as the pirate king, and presumably next week will concern the spies' escape from the pirates' prison.  This is basically the conventional three-act structure, with each episode being given its own act.  The second act, usually the most interesting in any given film, is all about introducing complications to what we thought we learned from the first one.  It also usually ends with our hero(es) at the lowest point, with seemingly no hope, and this episode certainly fulfills those criteria.

Part 2, however, starts at the office.  I've mentioned the gap between the fantastic and the mundane as at the heart of Archer's humour, and these office scenes fully play off this clash.  The spy-focused characters -- Archer, Lana, Mallory -- are fundamentally viewing things through that lens, as basically an action movie, while the office characters treat it all as another job -- Carol doesn't want to work late, Pam just wants drinks after work, and Cyril is worried about how all of these adventures will affect the budget.  In a way this is a very clever satire on the action genre.  We all cheer when the boss proclaims that all resources will be devoted to the hero's mission, but Archer shows us the put-upon beauraucrat trying to find room in the budget for this largesse.  Essentially, there are two completely perpendicular world-views -- the managerial and the cinematic -- and no one in the series is able to see both.

This is what gets Archer in trouble with his new tribe of pirates.  In essence, he can't view the pirate clan as a business that needs money just as he doesn't notice the more mundane business-like elements of ISIS.  Archer, the quintessential man-child, only views life as a string of exciting attractions.  It's this myopia that gets him in trouble, but it's also what makes him an appealing comedy lead -- Archer becomes the one who does what we cannot and should not, id unleashed.  He usually comes into conflict with a stern, rules-abiding figure, the superego if we want to go fully Freudian.  Lana, Cyril, and his mother all fill this role at various points in the series, but in this episode it takes the form of David Cross's guest character Noah, a kidnapped anthropologist who acts as translator and middleman.  Curiously, the character is designed to resemble Cross himself, translating the idea of the familiar guest star (I'd bet there's a significant overlap between the audiences of Archer and Arrested Development) into a seemingly alien form.  Archer does this tie between character and actor a lot, further contributing to its sense of the uncanny.

Of course, the binary between id and superego isn't as clear-cut as that.  The office characters all seem to have their own barely-repressed but viciously hungry desires, from sex-addict Cyril to masochistic Carol to the hedonistic Pam.  As much as characters like Noah or Cyril may seem to be the sensible side of the equation, they're fighting a losing battle, as in Archer human desire is always crushing the superegotary attempts to destroy it.  The only difference is between those who try to resist this force and those who don't.  So it's no surprise that a thieving Cyril and a drunk Pam end up sleeping together instead of being the straight men they're supposed to be.  And it's also no surprise that underneath her dowdy HR-rep sweater Pam bears a giant back tattoo (revealed in an earlier episode but called back to here.)

(I apologize for that screenshot.  Really.)

Besides Archer's pirate adventures and the usual office debauchery we also have the C-plot of Ray and Lana trying to rescue Archer.  Of course, this is a bit of a Gilligan's plot as their rescue mission obviously can't be successful this episode, and they end up being caught fairly easily.  As a C-plot in a half hour show, we don't spend a lot of time with them, and what we do hangs upon the two central jokes of the characters: Lana's barely suppressed feelings for Archer, and Ray's stereotyped gay persona, now given hedonistic reign with an unlimited credit card.  Besides the obviously problematic natures of these jokes (Ray in particular has gone from a competent agent who happened to be gay to one shade short of Billy Crystal over the course of the series), these are also things we've seen before not just in this series but in countless other comedies.  Archer and Lana's love-hate relationship feels ported over from some other show without any of the usual Reed skewing, and is as familiar and basically uninteresting as any other sitcom romance.  These are two of the weaker characters on the show, and it shows when they're given nothing else to do but bounce off each other.

At the end, then, this middle of the three-parter is essentially more familiar than one would think.  The classic Archer formula is a mostly self-contained major action story, some chaos back at the office that is its own story while also fitting into a general arc like Cyril's downward spiral, and maybe some advancing of the characters' relationships in a serialized way.  There are plenty of shows (particularly comedies) that function just like this.  The major difference here that the episodic plotline stretches across three episodes, but in the end it'll probably be ultimately as self-contained as what comes before it.  Really, at this point the line between episodic and serialized television has become blurred, with most shows deciding to adopt a mixture of the two, and this is shown by how easily Archer pops over the line and back again.

There's nothing wrong with a show that's conventional, or episodic, or that broadly fits within the main storytelling modes of its time.  At the same time it's necessary to carve out your own identity even within the form you're using.  This is what Archer really succeeds at: what we see is familiar, but slightly off-kilter -- the definition of the uncanny.  At the same time there's a simple level of competence that elevates Archer above most of its contemporaries, delivering gags that are bpth unexpected and executed perfectly.  The traditional sitcom may be moribund, but Archer provides an example of how a comedy can be great without needing to innovate.

Next Week: Anatomy of a (bad) sitcom.

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