When it comes time to pick my best comedy of the last year, it’s going to be a three-way tie between three shows: NBC’s Community, NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and FX’s Archer. Each of them brings something wonderful and very different to TV when they’re on: Community is the power hitter of experimental storytelling and genre mixing, Parks the reliable world of small-town lunacy, and Archer a surprisingly literate yet delightfully raunchy take on the conventions of spy movies. When those three shows aired at the same time on Thursday night at the start of the year, it was a trifecta of unbridled entertainment, and the absolute perfect decompression after a hard week.
As such, I was naturally heartbroken to see that Archer wouldn’t be joining the NBC sitcoms right away in the fall, since its longer development time and shorter season order meant that it’ll be held until the start of 2012. But with a few weeks to fill before the launch of The League, FX made the decision to let Adam Reed and company try something different and come back with a three-episode arc called “Heart of Archness,” designed as both an entry point for new fans and a resolution to the second season cliffhanger. None of the three episodes – or even the whole – was the peak of the series, but it was a damn funny arc and sixty minutes full of the reasons why Archer deserves its spot in the pantheon of modern comedy.
Picking up after the cliffhanger in which Sterling Archer’s fiancee Katya was thrown off a balcony by a vengeful bionic ex-agent, we learn that Archer has been MIA from ISIS for three months, and his domineering mother Malory has pulled out all the stops to locate him. When he’s found tending bar on a French Polynesian island, Malory tasks a bounty hunter and the entire ISIS staff to pick him up, a move that eventually places Archer in no less of a role than king of the pirates. Naturally, Archer is less than competent in this leadership role, and the action escalates to a series of gunfights, stints in prison, and the loss of no more than two eyes and an entire lacrosse team. (RIP, Archers of Loaf-crosse.)
It was interesting to see them immediately pick up after the events of the season finale, as opposed to trying something completely out of left field, but doing so speaks to what Archer does so well. For a show whose cast ranges from inept alcoholics to power-mad divas/scientists, that mocks the conventions of the spy genre, and that relies on crude phrasing for the majority of its jokes, Archer may well be one of the smartest comedies on television. So much of its humor is built on a fast-paced wordplay that’s not only dependent on callbacks to previous lines (“Danger zone” anyone?) but relies on references as obscure as Olympic shot-putters and the discovery of blood types. The show has used four of of Arrested Development‘s cast to date (the newest of whom we’ll get to in a bit), and I really do feel that it’s become the spiritual successor to that show – a comedy that’s hilarious on its own thanks to rock-solid writing and casting, but one that really rewards you the more attention you pay.
“Heart of Archness” was certainly in that vein, as all three episodes were full of the show’s best established jokes. There were the old reliables like “phrasing,” Archer not understanding the “core concept” of autopilot, the spree of tinnitus that seems to follow him wherever he goes, and an indignant “go ahead and pout!” (to a character in a wheelchair no less). Visually, we see that animators haven’t forgotten to add tattoos, from Archer’s shoulder tattoo of the Wee Baby Seamus’ name to Pam’s horrifying full-back Lord Byron poem. And on the obscure side, there was a callback to one of the show’s earliest jokes, when it turned out that hapless accountant Cyril accidentally embezzled ISIS funds and used the password “Guest”; and a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to Malory’s accuracy when Sterling shoots up a radio (“All six, right in the 10 range”).
And in addition to those recurring gags, Reed and company also delivered a few new ones with discussions sure to excite the language enthusiasts I know Archer counts among its fanbase. The first installment introduced a debate on what was and wasn’t a ruse, while the second and third episodes had an ongoing language gap between the Archers and pirates thanks to the former’s penchant for idioms. Each of the actors involved had a lot of fun with these concepts, with Archer’s amusement at such an outdated term and the increasing frustration from both Sterling and Malory as their intent was lost in translation. (“I never realized just how much we rely on idioms,” Archer muses in a rare contemplative moment.) These bits were all hilarious, and I’m positive we’ll be seeing more of them when the show returns in January.
So each of the three installments worked in the big picture of Archer, but how did they fit together as an independent story arc? Overall, I’d say it was a strong entity that benefited from having three episodes to develop a narrative structure: the first episode set up the rise of Archer as pirate king, the second dealt with how grossly unequipped he was to manage it, and the third saw his escape and return to normalcy. We saw the seriousness that the show was developing in its second season (with plot lines concerning breast cancer and illegitimate children) continue as Archer tried to work through his grief over Katya’s murder, but it maintained the irreverent attitude that keeps it from being maudlin (his coping mechanisms mostly center on sleeping with women on their honeymoon). And the conflict-ridden relationship between Archer and Lana also received an extra layer of shading, with Archer admitting Lana’s basically his only friend and Lana holding the truth of his pirate king vacation over his head for a later date.
If there’s a gripe against the story arc, it’s that it came at the expense of some of the other things that make Archer work as a comedy. Archer is quite good at delivering the action of its spy setting – and “Heart of Archness” had classic bits ranging from pirate gunfights to a shark being shot in the frickin’ face – but the show’s strongest moments come when it embraces its hostile work environment and unites all of its dysfunctional cast* to deal with bureaucratic minutiae. Given that half the cast was out of the office, it made sense we wouldn’t have that, but the existing office arcs of Cheryl being forced to wait at her desk and Cyril frantically recovering accidentally embezzled funds weren’t the high points of the story. (Though Pam and Cyril getting drunk together made for some great comedy.)
*The biggest sin of the “Heart of Archness” arc was that we didn’t see Dr. Krieger even once during the action. I get that the storyline wasn’t one he fit into easily – and he’s probably still mourning his “rolling probable cause” van – but his particular blend of insanity even by the show’s standards is one I always miss when it’s not there.
But even though they didn’t always share scenes in these episodes, the individual performances still knocked it out of the park. H. Jon Benjamin is always the star in this show, and he had some great material to deliver that used the full arsenal of Archer’s reactions: disbelief at the existence of pirates in today’s world, childish glee when he takes the role of pirate king, indignant rage when he’s forced to give up his new lifestyle. Aisha Tyler was reliably professional and frustrated as Lana, Chris Parnell brought every ounce of desperation to Cyril, and Jessica Walter stretched Malory’s rage to the limits as she became increasingly unhinged by her son’s disappearance. I continue to admire the show for putting everything together so well, and orchestrating the transitions it does, when none of the actors actually record together in the same room.
And to that menagerie of ridiculously clever actors, “Heart of Archness” also gave us two welcome additions to the cast in Patrick Warburton and David Cross. Both are excellent comedic actors in their own right, and their characters played remarkably well off of Archer. Warburton’s already created one of the most solid animated characters in recent years with his temperamental cop Joe Swanson on Family Guy, and his bounty hunter Rip Riley was equally memorable – particularly in the first episode, when the ineptitude of Archer drove him to near-homicidal levels. And Cross’s “slave pirate” Noah was a fantastic punching bag for both Archer and Rip, whose anthropology studies branded him as the nerd the cool kids couldn’t help but gang up on. Both of them were terrific, and I do hope that we’ll be seeing them in future episodes.
Between new characters, new catchphrases (I’m really trying hard not to use “Just jackin’ it” in daily conversations), and of course Archer shooting a shark in the frickin’ face, I’d call “Heart of Archness” a rousing success and a welcome snack between seasons. The show ended on a surprisingly dark note at the end of season two, and it was reassuring to see that not only could it deal with that issue but use it as the impetus to tell a story that’s both more involved than a typical episode and able to indulge in over-the-top adventures. And now that we’re back to the status quo – Archer has wrapped up his mourning period to the point he’s almost forgotten Katya’s name, and save Gillette everyone’s back at ISIS more or less in one piece – my excitement’s even more primed to see what they get up to next season.
Secondary Objectives (okay, just a bunch of quotes):
- “Is that how you crash a wedding? Yes it is, Bionic Barry. Yes it is.”
- “Actually, yeah, gotta give him the sploosh.” “And whatever my equivalent of sploosh is. Which I guess is just sploosh. Only with semen.”
- “Hi, it’s the 1930s! Can we have our words and clothes and shitty airplanes back? … Call you back, 1930s. And, hey, watch out for that Adolf Hitler. He’s a bad egg!”
- “You’re so hot for him I could reheat this chili in your cooch.”
- “WOOOOOOOO! Two personal records, for breath-holding and sharks shot in the frickin’ face!”
- “Oh my God! I have psycho-kinetic powers!” “Well, be sure to only use them for good.” … “No.”
- “No, yeah, I just wanted to make sure you said the phrase ‘pirate fortress.’ Which apparently yeah, you did. Said the word ‘pirate,’ followed by the word ‘fortress.’”
- “Holy shit! You just killed, like, fifteen pirates.” “Wow. If the five-year-old me knew that, he’d have a huge boner right now. …Don’t really know why I said that.”
- “I’m half-drunk and slathered in… every bodily fluid there is. So this is about as pirate kingy as I can get.”
- “He’s a small business owner!”
- “Look at him! He is lithe.”
- “I’m not remunerating you to think, Noah. Even if you were a slave. And your three-fifths of an opinion is noted.”
- “Way to eschew traditional gender norms, pirates.” “I know, they’re fascinating!”
- “Oh my God! And rice?!”
- “Don’t talk like black people. And how should I know? I’m still ripped.”
- “Winner, winner, chicken dinner.” “Shouldn’t it be some kind of crab dish? Because of the crabs.”
- “Oh my God, be more Chinesey.”
- “Sterling, get your things!… He’s gay.”
- “All I wanted was to mourn the murder of my crazy hot Russian fiancee by becoming a pirate king! But I guess that was too much to ask!”
- “Oh, my God. Just screw already!” “And then kill each other! And then shut up. And then kill each other again. And then call me. So I can watch it.”