Archer: "Killing Utne"
B+

Archer: "Killing Utne"

TV, by and large, is not a medium that can tolerate a lot of weirdness. Actually, come to think of it, there's precious little American weirdness even out there anymore. Outside of adult swim every night on Cartoon Network, America's TV, film and literary landscapes will have occasional blips of oddity but nothing approaching a full-on assault of the weird type movement. People might say that, say, Lost is a weird show, but it mostly adheres to all of the rules of narrative as we understand them. It's only weird because it tosses random plot twists at us faster than anything else. But, after a fashion, that weirdness becomes predictable and ceases to be weird.

And, if we're being honest, there aren't a lot of outright weird shows on adult swim either. Most of them stay within a fairly narrow confine of what's truly out there, and the ones that push the envelope in that regard - whether narratively or thematically - largely end up being off-putting. (I'm certainly not going to argue that Squidbillies, say, isn't weird, but I've rarely been able to watch a full episode of it. And the thing is only 15 minutes long!) So when I hear that a TV show is "so weird," as I've been hearing a lot with Archer from some of the converts it has, I take it with a grain of salt.

And, again, if we're being honest, there's nothing all that weird in Archer on the face of it. It's basically The Office crossed with Alias, played for all the absurdism that implies. I think what people mean when they say the show is "so weird" is that the thing doesn't seem to play by TV's rules but, rather, it's own set of rules. I don't think anyone expected that Torvald would somehow make it out of the ISIS dinner party alive in tonight's episode, but I also don't think that anyone expected how thoroughly Archer would commit to the gag, unless they'd seen Archer before (and if you haven't, welcome aboard). Doing an elaborate story about how the main characters pawn off the death of an assassin and a UN big muckity muck on one of said character's co-op board nemeses is not the sort of thing you're going to see on The Office or even something as typically "out there" for network TV as Family Guy.

But I think what makes Archer work is not necessarily the fact that it's doing anything groundbreaking and new. Indeed, much of what the show is doing is very, very old. It's just executing all of this in some fun ways. Think, for example, at that long shot (over a minute!) of just the background drawing of the door reading "Beekman" as the ISIS gang framed her for the deaths. There's nothing happening on screen. It's just a bunch of dialogue. It might as well be an elaborate radio comedy, and because of that, the writing has to be sharper than it might have been otherwise. When I wrote about The Inbetweeners earlier this week, I said that one of the things that makes that show work is how it finds all the steps from cliche problem to cliche solution that make the process funny. In a way, Archer does the same thing, creating these little rolling balls of catastrophe that take on their own momentum.

Tonight's episode centers on a dinner party Malory is hosting to get Torvald to throw some contract security work from the United Nations in ISIS' direction. To that end, she's going to stage his near-murder and miraculous salvation by her agents. Naturally, to make everything as real as possible, she's not going to tell the others what's going to happen. And naturally, the caterers she hires specifically because they'll be able to pull off her fake murder plot are actually plotting to kill Torvald (who, it bears mentioning, is voiced by a very funny Jeffrey Tambor just dropping by). More importantly, though, if last week was specifically a piece of workplace satire, this week's episode is one that calls on the idea that people don't really know each other when they get out of the workplace and try to relate to each other in the "real" world.

In particular, I liked the idea that Archer's lambasted for not bringing a date to the party (specifically after he asks his mother whether he should bring a date, not wanting to be the one guy without one), even though Carina (formerly Carol/Cheryl) is there with Woodhouse - I'm assuming it's this and not Wodehouse, since that would be a little TOO easy - and Pam has brought some unstable element from the ISIS labs (who's building a sex robot that's "learning"). It's a great tweak on this time-old plotline, especially as each new pairing gets more and more insane, and it leads nicely into Archer having to go find a date seemingly by just wandering outside. Naturally, that date is also trying to kill Torvald, but we can't be picky much of the time.

The thing Archer is doing right now that makes it more than worth watching and the thing that makes me think it's something more than just the "so weird!" it's been promoted as is the same thing that makes this episode take just a little while to get going. The series is trying to build a fairly complicated web of networks between all of these characters, and that web needs a little time and maintenance to keep growing. So much of the early going in this episode was a little lighter on the jokes and a little heavier on the character stuff. That said, though, once everything got to the party, the storyline really took off, and the jokes got much sharper, to the point where that near final scene of the coworkers burning the bodies was impeccably timed, even though the entirety of it happened offscreen. That requires great ensemble work, and it's obvious Archer has a great ensemble.

But that rather doesn't matter when confronted with an episode as full of great little moments and jokes as this one was. If it wasn't quite to last week's daffy genius, it still hit a solid streak around the middle and didn't let up. Archer is a very funny show, yes, and it's a weird-ish show, the kind of show you don't expect to see in primetime on a major cable network. But mostly, it's a show that's building a very specific world and an even more specific set of characters. After these first few episodes, I can't wait to see where it goes next.

Stray observations:

  • "And I don't want another one of your sullen whores using my medicine cabinet like a Pez dispenser."
  • "Oh no. We won't give our baby chocolate. He can have carob."
  • "Torvald is an enormous poonhound."
  • "What's that smell?" "Gravlax and failure!"
  • "I call him fistarooboto."
  • "You know he's not the shot putter, right?"
  • "All I've had today is, like, six gummy bears and some scotch."
  • "They're fingers, Pam. Not kielbasas."
  • "One more dead body in here and that bitch Trudy Beekman will have me back in front of the co-op board."
  • "You're gonna need some calcium after I do something bad to your bones."
  • "What is the frequency?" "Kenneth?"
  • "Only if the back of his skull picked that exact moment to explode outwards."
  • "Cyril, I paid her, I get to carry her corpse."
  • "Oh. I thought we were laughing at the dead people we set on fire."

More TV Club