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.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Flesh, Shame, and Feminism in Game of Thrones

My first encounter with the Game of Thrones series was an episode in which women seemed to take their clothes off in every other scene, which was more than a little off-putting. I have since been enticed into the series by a fan, and halfway into the first season find it a worthy popcorn-munching epic soap, full of intrigue, entanglements, and fun characters with gripping trajectories. I also acknowledge the plethora of strong, interesting female characters, although – as the New York Post's comparison with “the supposed second-class citizens” of Mad Men suggests – I wonder what it means that it's so much easier to portray progressive women in a macho retro setting, whether “historical” or fantasy. Having supposedly won most of the battles of feminism makes it that much harder to portray women of remarkable agency, the staple of not only The Faerie Queene (Game of Thrones's ultimate ancestor) but all of those great 19th century novel heroines, from Elizabeth Bennet to Jane Eyre to Dorothea Brooke. Popular fiction seems to have always known this secret: although one could hardly call the battles of feminism won in 1936, Margaret Mitchell produced one of the strongest and most unorthodox heroines of all-time by writing an historical epic in which a spoiled Southern belle has to learn how to survive in a war-torn society. It's as if we can't recognize an interesting female character if she's neither the victim of a patriarchal society nor fighting to make her way in it.

More disturbing from a feminist standpoint than this need to set strong female characters against the relief of a retro backdrop, however, is the series' notorious reliance on female nudity. The female geek audience has risen in visibility thanks to the internet even as fantasy has found a general audience at the movies, and GoT's eagerness to court a female audience is evident not only in its spotlighting of female characters (which may also speak to the series' ultimate grounding in the values of soap opera, like Mad Men's) but also in its clever, post-Orlando Bloom casting of more pretty male actors than you've probably ever seen in one show before (and for the most part with bodies that have evidently been worked on much more than the women's have). But why, then, does the series assume the male gaze when it comes to the depiction of nudity?

For some feminist viewers, such as the pseudonymous “Louis Skye” at Week Woman, this has been a deal-breaker. Skye's analysis of the use of nudity in GoT, however, is even less subtle than the series itself. Early in the first season, Daenerys Targaryen is essentially sold to the pseudo-Mongolian Dothraki warrior Khal Drogo by her creepy, rapey brother, who spells out for her that she is a pawn in his game of getting back his throne as he strips off her robe to assert his power over her – and offer her for the assumed male viewer's delectation. Drogo proves equally rapey, taking his wife without regard for her consent or pleasure. The effect is to make Daenerys an object of pathos and, consequently, strong dramatic interest, and while the series may achieve this by creakily Victorian means, we should pause to consider that four of the other most important characters in the series at this point are also “disempowered”: the bastard Jon Snow; the dwarf (and obvious Author Avatar) Tyrion Lannister; the tomboy child Arya Stark; and her brother, the paraplegic child Bran Stark. Clearly Martin has a soft spot for misfits, outcasts, and underdogs and prefers to generate dramatic interest with maximum efficiency by putting his characters at severe disadvantages.

The pathos of Daenerys's situation is in direct conflict with her exploitation as a sex object on the show, which weirdly repeats her exploitation within the show. To be fair, this conjunction of porn and sympathy in relation to female characters has a pedigree in fantasy that goes all the way back to The Faerie Queene, while also being reminiscent of the attitude to women in Jacobean tragedy, which the series resembles in its swirling sexual/political intrigues; the difference is that the 21st century feminist viewer at least expects the men to get the same treatment. (Although for all I know, so did the 16th century feminist reader of The Faerie Queene.) And there is one scene in the first half of the first season that shows what such equally distributed exploitation might look like.

I was initially incensed that Daenerys barely even has any dialogue in the first couple of episodes, as if to emphasize her passivity and objectification. In my feminist fume I initially failed to notice that her husband, a hunky silent type who doesn't speak “the common language,” is not given any subjectivity in these early episodes whatsoever. Drogo, with his own shapely breasts hanging over the top of his girdle, and with more eye makeup and better cheekbones than any woman on the show, gets the brunt of Martin's/the series' writers' hilariously unreformed Orientalism: the “exotic” warrior is an Other who is at once more masculine, brutal, and potent than the other men on the show and more perversely feminine. And this is perhaps why – as Skye fails to note – in the scene where Daenerys starts to gain agency by teaching her husband how to make love to her properly, the golden globes of Drogo's comely bottom are displayed for the viewer. The big lug has to learn to be vulnerable if he is ever to pleasure his wife and fall in love with her, and in the series' language of nudity, nudity – and objectification – mean vulnerability.

Doubtless the main reason why the men of GoT are not objectified as drastically as the women is the American media's Phalliban, to use Mark Simpson's term. The erect penis, after all, is what makes the difference between softcore and hardcore, while the flaccid penis is not erotic at all. GoT may seem porny, but, like The Faerie Queene (as analyzed by Leslie Fielder in Love and Death in the American Novel), it's at least equally puritan, with a seriously messed-up relationship to nudity. Nudity could signify female power, except that it is explicitly used, at least early on, to signify vulnerability. Does this bring a note of shame into the assumed male viewer's enjoyment of all this flesh? Even in the early 21st century, it seems that the pornification of entertainment isn't accomplished as easily as saying “Let's let adults look at naked adults for pleasure, like adults.” The culture has far too many hang-ups concerning sex and gender for nudity to ever signify pleasure as a single meaning.