Friday, 22 April 2011

TV REVIEW: Archer Season 2

Relax. It was just cancer sex.

It wouldn't be too off base to say this has been a banner year for television comedy, what with so many shows coming into their own, from Louie to Community to Parks and Recreation. The understood limitation of what television comedy can do has been moved so many times I wouldn't even know how to pin-point where it is anymore. Yet I'm going to say that Archer, this season at least, has been the best. Because while some shows have pushed boundaries and some shows have been mind-blowingly hilarious, I think Archer might be the only one to be consistently outstanding at both. Something in this season of Archer just clicked, going from what was an always amusing if scatty Season 1 to a gloriously confident, always hilarious yet much more focused second season. It managed to keep the insane amount of laughs yet layer them with smartly told character stories, and in doing so became the best season of anything thus far into 2011.

Archer's success this year is even more impressive when you consider that at its core its a black comedy. Something that traditionally doesn't work all that well on American television, I think in part because of the greater episode count, and in part because Black comedy can become tedious in long form very quickly, however funny it is. Perhaps because characters are often the one constant in sitcoms, so watching writers revel in their misfortune week in week out becomes a decidedly arduous experience you can't latch on to, let alone have any investment in and eventually it just becomes depressing. I think Two And Half Men is the darkest show on network television, devised entirely around the bad guy taking pleasure in the good guy's failings, the rich guy laughing at the poor guy, and the cynical guy laughing at the earnest guy. That's the show, and the trap black comedy always ends up falling into, becoming a platform for writers to spit shit at people who don't share their values. Archer avoids that, because while its a very dark show, its humor comes from the characters, you laugh with them more then you laugh at them, and humor is only occasionally drawn from bully-porn, which is of course the best way to sieve that particular well.

The show's ensemble is ridiculously strong. In the first season, there was very much the sense of the show figuring out what to do with its supporting cast whilst Archer himself (in a endlessly ingenious voice-over performance by H. Jon Benjamin.) carried the show. This year every character has a defined identity and is capable of being hilarious. I'd almost say every supporting character could be the lead of a show I would watch. I particularly enjoy Judy Greer's Cheryl, who makes possibly the thinnest character into one of the most hilarious, almost purely on the strength of her delivery. Its almost needless to say Jessica Walter is great as Archer's mother Mallory, because what else would you have expected. The show made a very wise decision to add season 1 recurrers Krieger and Gillette to the mix on a regular basis, both acting as all-purpose joke-hitters, both played terrificly deadpan. But it's Archer's show and boy is that character a force of awesome this season, with Benjamin nailing every line whilst staying true to character at the same time.

This was most notable in the mini-masterpiece that was 'Placebo Effect', in which a cancer ravaged Archer went on a rampage against those who had tampered with his medication. It merged so many of the elements that have really come to the fore the season. The growing confidence, the character led story, the dark comedy and an increased sense of adventurousness into one 20 minute package that exceeded even raised expectations. It was one of those episodes, not too dissimilar to Community's 'Modern Warfare', where you knew you were watching a classic as it was one and as the thing got better and better, you pretty much want to stop and applaud at the end. Some good shit. Amazing really, because I never would have thought Archer was going to top ' The Double Deuce', was filled in the back story on Archer's aged manservant Wodehouse to poignant/deeply amusing effect. But what was great about this season of archer was that it kept topping itself, but not necessarily by raising the stakes or bending the reality, but by going from a cynical show with some hilarious cyphers to a show where each episode's plot was less disposable, and contributed to a larger arc or served to layer the character. It became funnier by getting more detailed, by caring where things came from and where they went, so a seed layed in episode 6 could be paid off in episode 12. Or in other words, it built a universe, with an increasing number of characters, as the best television comedies like The Simpsons or Arrested Development do.

What I loved about this season of Archer, is it had that drive to be better every week, to try new and ever more daring things week to week, and for that enough it would be one of my favorite shows. But what's amazing is that it's managed to be fucking hilarious to a degree that one wouldn't have thought possible with all this storytelling going on. The modern '30 Rock' rule says that a sitcom has laughs in it, if it tries to tell a story in an episode. Plots are used to mine laughs and abandoned for something else to get more laughs. The best shows though manage the balance, and Archer more then any show airing right now, is doing that perfectly.


Rating: 9/10

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