The more I watch TV comedy, the more I think good TV comedy stems more from editing than anything else. The best comedic performances and writing just won’t work if they’re surrounded by too much dead space. Pacing is everything, and while the actors and directors can work with a tightly-written script to produce strong pacing on set, it’s in the editing room that the exact right ratio of jokes to non-jokes comes together. It’s no secret, then, that I think Archer has some of the best comedic editing on TV, and sometimes, when I go through an episode, I stop laughing simply because I’m so impressed by how well the episode is guiding me from laugh to laugh. (Apparently, appreciation of good craftsmanship overrides all my other emotional responses.)
The show utilizes certain tricks to get that good pacing, too. I talked a lot in season one about how the show reminded me of a radio comedy, where often, the truly funny stuff would be happening somewhere we couldn’t see, so the laughs came from listening to the actors describe it. In interviews, Adam Reed has talked about how the show’s dialogue mix is stitched together painstakingly, from all of the actors’ performances, coming together so it sounds as if they’re talking to each other, a technique that gives him and the editors ultimate control over the show's pacing. And, of course, there are even smaller tricks that help with this, like the by-now famous way the show uses overlapping dialogue from the next scene to put a comedic button on the previous one. “Legs” makes liberal use of this technique, and I’m honestly surprised I’m not tired of it by this point in the show’s run. That may be because other shows haven’t ripped the technique off (somewhat surprisingly), or it could be because that knitting together of scenes is a vital element in building chaos on Archer.
Because let’s face it: Without chaos, Archer would be nothing. This is a show about people who keep running toward explosions, as Cyril would put it, and when it’s not about that, it’s a show about people causing explosions. (Tonight, it’s both!) There are comedies that can get by with a looser, shaggier vibe, but Archer gains all its humor from constant forward movement, from the sense that things are spinning out of control, and it’s simultaneously slightly terrifying and totally awesome. This means that the ending of an Archer episode is often hard to pull off—I’m not sure the whole “the furnace overheats, so everybody just falls asleep!” thing was the strongest ending tonight—but the first 20 minutes or so almost always work themselves into a steady boil.
One of the things I’ve liked as the show has evolved is the way that it feels more and more confident to abandon the traditional “mission/office storyline” structure that so defined it in its early going. Most shows evolve away from their early structures, of course, but I’ve generally liked best the Archer episodes where everybody’s in roughly the same location and getting in each other’s way, which more or less describes this one. Archer, Lana, and Cyril are off on a mission to Rome, but they get sidetracked by the fact that Archer’s unable to requisition a rocket launcher from the armory, because his mother hasn’t listed the weapon as one of the items the team will need in Rome. (I suspect there would be no more Coliseum if she had.) Archer decides to get said authorization, and then gets distracted by the other plot that’s happening: Krieger is giving Ray robot legs. Given Archer’s hatred for all things robotic, he naturally has to stop the electronic menace from running roughshod over all humanity.
Do these two stories really fit together? I honestly don’t know. By the end, it almost seems as if the whole thing has been contrived just to get Archer to fall from the sky and say, “Give me your clothes” in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, and the story is replete with Terminator references before that. But Archer’s ongoing hatred of cyborgs, robots, and other computerized humans makes for some very funny bits, and there’s so much going on around the edges of the story that I never once asked myself this question while actually watching the episode. (Then again, I rarely think critically about Archer while watching it, mostly because the show is so sure of itself and confident about what it does.) This is all an excuse to have somewhere to cut to when the show is done watching Pam and Krieger conduct what appears to be an incredibly disgusting surgery on Ray (that may or may not involve the removal of all of his leg bones—Krieger’s not sure what they’re called), which is, of course, appreciated.
As far as places to cut to go, though, I’m still fond of Ron Cadillac, whose voice actor is actually Jessica Walter’s real-life husband. (I have no idea if the two record their lines together, but they have an easygoing chemistry, even if they record separately.) Ron’s trying to get Malory to take it easy. He worked 30 years building up his six dealerships—with a seventh to come in White Plains (where it is not easy to deal with the city council)—so that he could take it easy in his old age, and he’s encouraging Malory to do the same. The series has always been explicit about the acidly codependent relationship between mother and son, but in this episode, it suggests that there’s the same codependence between Malory and every other ISIS employee. Without her, the place would probably burn to the ground, though I have to imagine Lana would at least stand in the way of that a bit. Anyway, I like Ron, and I like that he brings a different energy to the proceedings and that he seems to be the one guy who can make fun of Archer and get away with it, while still having Archer realize he’s being mocked. (I also like that he seems almost like a character in a ‘60s message picture about social progress, particularly when he decides to share with Lana that one of the head mechanics at one of his dealerships is also “a black.” And good for him! Head mechanic!)
Some of you were talking in comments two weeks ago about how Adam Reed wants to build more serialization into this season. And I suppose in that regard some of the things that irk me about this episode—like the return to what’s basically the status quo by episode’s end—could be harbingers of bigger things to come. (I’m already thinking there’s going to be some sort of big payoff to the cyborg connection between Ray and Barry.) This is not to suggest I didn’t like “Legs,” just that any time somebody starts talking about serialization in a comedy, it gets even trickier to judge one episode against another, because comedies have so little room for plot as is. “Legs” strikes me as a very good episode, but it could become a great one if it’s a part of something larger.
- I’m starting to think a little bit of Krieger may go a long way, as he’s been a steady presence in two of the first three episodes this season, and the scenes that have less of him are ones where I generally find him funnier. Then again, he spent most of tonight with Pam, and Pam makes everything better.
- More really great comedic editing: That opening montage with Ray going about his day and struggling to deal with being in a wheelchair was at once really funny and set up just why he’d take such a big chance on robot legs.
- Cheryl gets off on physical and emotional violence. This is disturbing to know, even for Archer.
- Bionics is from the Greek, probably from the Greek for kick-ass.
- Ron giving Archer shit about his El Camino is something I hope will turn into a running gag.
- Brett gets shot again, but he’s just going to have to hold on. And if that pool of blood isn’t cleaned up by the time Malory gets in on Monday, he’s going to be in trouble, mister.
- “Hey there, spaghetti legs!” Pam has the best bedside manner.