Saturday, March 24, 2012

Archer 3-12: Space Race Part 1

(This is either the ninth or the twelfth episode of the third season, based on where you place the three-parter that aired in the fall.  Wikipedia sayeth this is number twelve, so I'm going with that.)

So, how seriously are we supposed to take the plots in Archer?  Of course, this is a comedy that plays fast and loose with reality, history, and narrative sense, set in some strange mixture of the 1960s Cold War world and our present day.  The plots are usually obvious take-offs of spy movie conventions -- in this episode the Moonraker-esque space jaunt.  It's all supposed to be rather silly, but is it possible to say that an episode of Archer is poorly plotted?

Not that "Space Race", the first of a season-closing two-parter, is that poorly plotted episode.  For the most part it operates just fine, moving the main cast from one space-related set piece to another, and ends with a decent twist that was, like any good twist, in retrospect totally telegraphed from the last scene.  The implausibility of this all -- a group of secret agents being sent into space with a day's training -- is pretty much par for the course.

Despite this, there are moments when the strain of the Archer formula starts bogging down the show.  Discovering that Pam and Cheryl stowed on board is not really a surprise because, well, they've done that on pretty much every other far-flung adventure the spies have had, and the show needs to get the full cast up into space.  They're hilarious characters, but they don't really do anything in this episode to justify their presence beyond their usual weird-sex schtick, and I'm starting to worry that the show is relying too much on its breakout characters.  I mean, Pam is great, but there's a definite danger of her becoming the next Kenneth.

The episode as a whole feels kind of padded out.  This is always the danger of two-parters, the usual format for stories that don't quite fit into the standardized episode format but could probably be trimmed down to maybe an episode and a half.  This episode in particular is all first act, focusing on getting our characters up into space and setting up what should be a fun showdown with Astronaut Bryan Cranston's[1] band of space mutineers next week.  The jokes and plot beats all seemed sort of repetitive.  How many times do we have to see Lana vomiting after all?  Once is clever foreshadowing for the inevitable pregnancy reveal next episode, after the fifth time it's overkill.

And... I sound like a giant curmudgeon again, don't I?  Of course, Archer doesn't have to be relentlessly moving the plot forward, and some of the most fun moments are random tangents.  For people that are invested in goofing off with these characters, this episode was a lot of fun (see, for instance, Todd VanDerWerff's glowing review.  I don't want to rag on TVDW, who I usually like, but this review kind of reads like an account of a great party instead of a television show.  "And then those guys I love showed up, and we all sung Danger Zone together!")  I don't want to dismiss that pleasure -- as I've argued before, part of the sitcom tradition (which is at least a strand in Archer's DNA) is that it's an environment of virtual friends that you can easily step into every week.

But Archer is not, and never really has been, a hang-out show.  Even if the plots aren't usually the most interesting part of any given episode, they are there for a reason.  Most obviously, they provide a steady stream of new material for the episode's running gags to bounce off of.  So a lack of progression in plot leads to a lack of progression in jokes.

There are certainly one-liners in Archer, but pretty much every episode has a string of running jokes.  These jokes are developed over the course of the episode, put into new backdrops, permutated in strange ways, and finally taken to a ridiculous crescendo.  There's something of this here -- we have, for example, Archer spending most of the episode trying to get Drake to say "danger zone", one of his well-established pop-culture obsessions, but this only happens in the closing line of the episode.  Here the structure of the jokes mirror the structure of the storyline, with Drake's seeming ignorance being flipped around to reveal that he has always been in a savvy, superior position.  And it's a really fun treat for TV addicts.

Sometimes these jokes can be sustained and developed across multiple episodes or even the course of the series.  For example, in a previous episode Archer became addicted to sex with Pam (which is apparently mind-blowing), and one of these scenes included a paddle as an unremarked-upon background element, suggesting a kind of undefinably chaotic, slightly kinky, sexual whirlwind.  In "Space Race Part 1" the paddle returns as a kind of hilariously precarious zero-gravity modesty-saver.  It's an inspired bit, even if I am rather uncertain about Pam's presence in this episode.

However, the key to this structure is the progression, which this episode neglects too often.  One of the recurring lines here is "Read a book", always preceeded by an unlikely character lecturing another on some obscure academic point, a part of Archer's tendency towards out of place high-culture references.  This is funny the first couple times, but the same joke is just repeated too much without variation.  The same holds for Lana's above-mentioned vomiting, or any of the other recurring gags.

"Space Race Part 1" is far from being a bad episode of television -- there are a lot of genuinely funny parts, and nothing really unpleasant.  It basically takes the Archer cast and lets them play around in a more science-fictional setting than usual, and so for fans of these characters it's a treat.  But it's worth examining because it seems to reflect a kind of laziness that established series sometimes drift into, where it becomes merely enough to set your characters spinning, have them do their thing, and go home.  The Simpsons is probably the most visible and extended descent into this -- instead of more ambitious earlier episodes, the plots eventually descended into "The Simpsons go to X" or "deal with Y".

Obviously Archer isn't at that level, at least not yet, but this could be an early warning sign.  Or maybe it's just the kind of sub-par episode that every show turns out.  But it does make me a lot less sure that Adam Reed (pretty much the sole writing staff) knows the real strengths of his show, the more subtle structural strengths instead of wacky characters.

Next week: "I know what an analogy is.  It's a thought with another thought's hat on."

[1]I'm all about the Cranston, and he does a great job as the rogue commander here, being so trustworthy that the obvious betrayal seems genuinely surprising, but at the same time believable.  Still, he might be too good an actor to be a celebrity guest star.  I didn't realize that it was him until the end credits, and while looking back you can hear his distinctive cadence come through at points, there's never really a "Hey, it's that guy!" moment.  Which is good in its own way, but it's strangely subdued for a show that devoted a whole episode to "Hey, it's Burt Reynolds!" earlier this season.

(On the other hand, I can't imagine the voice of Bryan Cranston is a huge ratings draw, Emmys or not.)

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