Sunday, April 21, 2013

Archer Season 4: The Good, Bad, and Ugly, From Gay-Baiting to The Bechdel Test

Adam Reed's Verbal Vision

How can a comedy be this good four seasons in? And when is it going to start going downhill? I wasn't totally convinced by Archer in its first season – namely by Adam Reed's writing, with its focus on gross-out-body-function-and-freaky-sex jokes and deliberately dumb-ass tone. As I wrote, I thought the stellar ensemble voice acting was what sold the show. But in its second and third seasons it got legs (that's a thing, right?), with dramatic, almost-emotional seasonal arcs and character development for the protagonist. Granted that the character development goes straight out the window – much like Archer's fiancee at their wedding – for a return to status quo in subsequent episodes, it nevertheless kept things more interesting than a standard animated-or-otherwise sitcom without causing the show to completely devolve into soap opera.

Season 4 largely gets away from these developments, and while a break from the mock-drama might be a smart idea, it also feels like a drop in ambition. Instead of continuing to climb, the show has spent a season cruising. (I think that's a mixed metaphor, but since I don't drive I'm not sure.) It's also become even talkier, with exposition blathered out lazily at the beginning of episodes and scenes– a running gag but not necessarily a funny one. On the plus side, however, the dialogue is better than ever, with Reed figuring out how to hone the stupid-sarcastic tone into something memorable and at least as irresistibly imitable as Buffyspeak, and the cast's timing as brilliant as always. The dispersion of the innumerable-per-episode “Shut ups” (and variants, though not many variants) is enchantingly different every season and the cast seems to take personal pride in mastering this aspect of Reed's verbal vision. Which is totally a thing.

Other than the drop in drama, a few more complaints about this season: Barry and Katya coming back and then doing almost nothing for the rest of the season was too Chekhov's gun-y for me, although Katya's new impatience with Barry is a promising dynamic. This is a universe, after all, where humour is generated by the fact that every exchange, no matter how trivial (and they're all trivial), is volleyed at top force, like a Howard Hawks movie (His Girl Friday or The Big Sleep) in which everyone is hyper-aware of their inarticulacy in an overeducated-but-dumbed-down early 21st century.

Archer's Girls

Almost consequently, it's also a universe in which women are allowed to be hard-edged without undermining anyone's masculinity. Or rather, the entire show is designed to undercut the ludicrous masculine ideal suggested by the James Bond/Don Draper main character. Cartoons can do that, maybe uniquely among media: take an outsider's stance and satirize the pop culture they're a part of, including its gender stereotypes. That's why it was a disappointing to see Archer showily rescuing Lana more than once in the later episodes of the season, seemingly deemed necessary to nudging them in a romantic direction. I'm not sure if I'm more irritated as a feminist or as a fan who doesn't want to see anything merely conventional creeping into this show's universe.

As the show's resident oversexual/asexual loonies, Pam and Cheryl don't have the problem that befalls the main characters of comedy when the writers suddenly have to make them romantically viable. They're also great from a feminist perspective: again, the cartoon medium seems to allow Reed to get away with creating female characters who are grotesque to a degree that would be just too scary for a male viewer in a live female comedian. (Unless, like Mimi on The Drew Carey Show, the embodiment of female grotesquerie is their schtick.) Which is groundbreaking for women in comedy even if it's a bit scary for the female viewer to realize just how scary female characters can seem if they're both “unfeminine” and non-objectified. (Lana is still objectified, but so is Archer, so it's all good – a point that Reed seemed to want to underline this season in an episode where Archer gets his closed burned off while clinging to the roof of a car in a chase scene which ends with him being flung, naked, onto the hood of another car.) But in this comedic universe, it works to Pam and Cheryl's advantage, because their female grotesquerie makes them even harder core than the male characters.

Pam in particular seems to be one of the writer's favourites. Last season we got to find out that she was a sexual being despite her obsession with food and excretion, and this season she joins the team as a field agent. On the other hand, other regulars are lazily neglected. After regaining the use of his legs (again), Ray has nothing to do for the rest of the season except stand around looking disgruntled while the other characters insult him for being gay (which mainly consists of pointing out the fact that he's gay). (Reed seems to be experimenting this season with political incorrectness for its own sake, not as a comment on itself or anything else. It's annoying.) And after giving Ray bionic legs (the second Chekhov's gun in the season), Dr. Krieger is also basically left out of the rest of the episodes. As for Cyril, he just gets to be permanently emasculated, and even Malory has little to do this season. There are no great exchanges between her and Archer – has Reed tired of exploiting their dynamic, the source of such great tension (and even a tiny bit of stakes) in the previous seasons? To be fair, it can't be easy writing for an eight-man-and-woman band, but Reed seems to have got through this season by picking his favourite characters and running with them.

Also, don't ever get Kristen Schaal on your show without giving her anything to do. Just sayin'.

On the other hand, do you want to know how well Archer passes the Bechdel Test? For example, in the final episode Pam and Cheryl are shooting the breeze in the always-abundant action downtime that always involves eating and/or drinking, making absurdist speeches about siblings relationships in the kitchen of a submarine, when Malory strolls in searching for liquor with the query, “Eugh! Is this the infamous Edie?”, which, however disdainful, does suggest that she's well-versed in her employees' sibling stories. Jump to the helm, where Cyril and Ray have had their faces smashed in by Archer's bad and/or prankish driving but only get to make a couple of sarcastic noises in response. It's as if the verbose Reed loves the aimless chatter of women but can't think of anything for the men to talk about except plot points (or, often, women – usually, Archer's mother). Nobody likes anybody in this universe, but the women are always up for a gab, whereas the men are more likely to sourly sulk, in this season especially.

The season of course ends with the revelation that Lana is pregnant. Not necessarily the jumped shark itself, the pregnancy of one of the main characters usually means that the writer(s) is/are running out of ideas and the show is and/or should be winding up. Despite all of the laugh-out-loud moments of Season 4 and Reed's perfection of the show's dialogue, I'm almost hoping that Season 5 will be the last season of Archer – and that Reed will pull it together after the breather of Season 4 and finish things off with an inventive, high-stakes bang.

But what's going to happen with all of this romantic stuff? Will Reed continue to take the lazy route of channeling Archer and Lana into more traditional gender roles in order to bring them together, when their chemistry was always a matter of their prickly parity? (One of the nice progressive touches of the show that makes it feel very 21st century is the way that women have to take as well as dish out insults, including insults about their appearance, which Archer levels at Lana all the time.) It's true that the kind of permanent character development Archer would have to undergo to make their relationship workable goes exactly counter to his type, the comedic asshole (also seen in drama with Hugh Laurie's House), who can't change very much without compromising the source of his appeal – or 80% of every episode's humour. (There aren't many female counterparts, but Jennifer Saunders' similarly flighty, narcissistic, substance-abusing Eddy on Absolutely Fabulous is a notable one.) But if Archer has decided that it has to tie up loose ends by shipping somebody, will Lana and Archer get together (to raise her bastard child?) only for Katya, now sick of Barry, to reappear and Archer to be forced into a choice? Jesus, I hope that's not it. Nobody needs the series to turn into Archer's Girls. Although, that's a badass idea for a cosmetics line.

It's worth noting that Howard Hawks, in a comedy every bit of relentlessly cynical as Archer, His Girl Friday, found a way to persuade the audience that his couple belong together without making anyone change or adopt more traditional gender roles. Is it another case of the closer we come to actual gender parity, the harder time we have fictionally representing it? Walter Burns doesn't have to, and never would, make any gesture (let alone a suicidal self-sacrifice) to show Hildy that he loves her; all of his actions throughout the movie trying to manipulate her into staying have shown it, as he sort of mutters at the end, and although she'd sort of love for him to make a grand romantic gesture, she'd probably sort of hate it too. She has a conventional idea of what love and romance should be that she has to give up in order to accept the things she actually wants and the fact that Burns is the only one who can give them to her. It's too bad that, so far at least, Reed doesn't seem to take his own comedy classic seriously enough to allow his characters to work out a relationship that would make sense for them rather than imposing a conventional idea of romance on them.  

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