The second I heard Anthony Bourdain say the word “cockwits,” I more or less knew “Live And Let Dine” was going to be one of my favorite episodes of this season of Archer. When it comes to voice-acting, Bourdain isn’t exactly H. Jon Benjamin, but he’s at least enthusiastic, and he has a way with profanity that allows him to fit right into the gang. This ends up making the episode the strongest in this season so far, to the degree where I didn’t even mind all that much that the pointless “Barry and Katya do things” storyline that’s threatening to devour the season whole intruded there at the end. Though did they have to kill Bourdain’s character? Would it have killed them to let him live? And made him a series regular? And shifted the focus of the program to a reality cooking show so gradually that we didn’t even notice when season 12 was just Benjamin and Aisha Tyler struggling to make an entrée out of kale, lamb chops, and Big League Chew?
Bourdain voices Lance Casteau, the focus of a new reality series entitled Bastard Chef. His restaurant, 16 (which is pronounced, I believe, as the French seize), is so popular that Malory can’t get a table, so popular that there’s an actual number for reservations that’s only given out to the people Casteau deems respectable. Casteau’s most recent coup is that he’s hosting the meeting between U.S. and Albanian diplomats, because in the Archer universe, if the relationship between the U.S. and Albania goes south, very bad things could happen. Therefore, it’s important that everything go perfectly. There’s been a threat against the Albanian ambassador’s life, so Casteau—or someone; that was never really clear—calls in the ISIS gang to work security undercover, as people who work at his restaurant and star in his reality show. Lana is named “Mitzi” (failed actress/hostess), and Archer is called “Randy Randerson,” and both of these things are perfect.
Now, to a degree, this episode has the same issue some of the other episodes this season have had, in that it leans too much on jokes from the show’s past. Granted, it’s always great to hear Judy Greer’s ridiculous “rich person” accent (accompanied here by Amber Nash’s Pam going along with the ruse and calling Teddy Kennedy a “scamp”), and Pam being involved in various underground gangs is one of my favorite gags in the series, but one of the dangers of callback jokes is that they can sometimes remind you just how fresh and new those jokes seemed in the first place, then leave you wondering, hey, where are all the fresh and new jokes now? Archer’s in its fourth season, and comedies can have trouble in their fourth seasons, because they’re perched between having lots of history to draw on and still wanting to try new things. Eventually, all comedies settle into a happy little rut where they slowly wear out their relevance by repeating themselves endlessly, but that usually comes in late season five or season six. Season four is still the point where everybody’s trying to figure out how much repetition is a good thing, and Archer is very much dealing with that right now.
But we came to praise “Live And Let Dine,” not bury it, and it is ridiculously funny, packed with a host of great jokes that kept me laughing, including some of the callbacks and running gags. A big reason for this, I think, is because the episode’s format is semi-shifted. The scenes back at ISIS, where Malory is forcing Pam and Carol (or is it back to Cheryl this week?) to get her a table at 16 or Pam’s fighting fish gets it, are done in traditional Archer style, but the scenes within 16 are largely done as takeoffs on a reality show, complete with the identifying banners across the bottom of the screen and animated approximations of reality show camerawork. (My favorites might have been the weird, jittery zooms that popped up here and there.) This isn’t as successful an aping of that style as, say, when 30 Rock did Queen Of Jordan, but, then, who would expect Archer to be as successful as a live-action show would be? Within the constraints of an animated show, “Live And Let Dine” does an admirable job of shifting the show’s format, and it makes everything feel fresher and newer than it otherwise might have.
Stunt casting is always a tricky proposition for a comedy series, particularly an animated one, because it can be so easy to just cast a celebrity as themselves (or a thinly veiled version of themselves) and be done with it, and that’s eventually unsatisfying. To be sure, Casteau is basically a more unfiltered version of Bourdain, one who doesn’t guest judge on The Taste and is trying to get his career started by being provocative (which… kind of sounds like this celebrity chef I used to know in the 1990s). But Bourdain is obviously having such a great time, and Adam Reed’s script is so obviously enamored of the insane world of hyper-masculine chefery, that I ended up not minding at all. In fact, Casteau was one of my favorite things about the episode, and every time the energy flagged, he was there with more profane rants or teardowns of Cyril, er, Chet.
Two other things made this character work as well as he did. The first is that he’s clearly indulging in the reality show ideal of the “bastard chef” to further his own career (evidenced by his gleeful “Boom! Bumper!” every time he said something he thought particularly cutting). This allows the show to keep him at least semi-cheeky, because this is a show that can overindulge on assholes from time to time. The second is just how excited Archer is by seeing the way Casteau treats people, which ends up making him realize he perhaps missed his true calling as a bastard chef. Any time that Archer can find a new and unlikely father figure, it’s a good thing, and Casteau is one of the unlikeliest. Archer’s glee at finding himself in the kitchen—contrasted with, say, Cyril’s devastation at having to hack up those sheep heads—helps buoy the episode as well.
In the end, the threat against the Albanian ambassador turns out to have been Malory, who just wanted to get a table and figured she’d have a better shot if her staff was working at the restaurant undercover. It almost seems as if this will just be a one-off, an episode designed to seemingly indulge somebody on the crew’s love of reality cooking shows. There would be nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, the obligatory moment when the ambassador does die—because Casteau was paid off by Katya and Barry to kill him—deflates the episode just a bit. But it’s not enough to completely kill off the high of what came before, and if Archer just wants to spend the rest of the season examining the tropes of various other reality shows, well, who would I be to say no to that?
- Further proof that Ron is the greatest Archer character in modern history: He brings crackers and jelly to 16 just in case the food takes a while getting there. Those crackers are apparently impossible to open, as evidenced by that close-up of Pam tearing at the packaging with her teeth.
- The joke of Archer dropping the “slippery” bowls—complete with lengthy, unedited sound of the bowl slowly settling on the ground—was always amusing to me.
- After all of that complaining about callback jokes, this is totally hypocritical, but I don’t really care: I am totally on board for an episode all about Pam’s fighting fish.
- In case you missed it, Archer got a fifth season earlier in the week.
- Yeah, I mentioned enough flaws that I could probably bump this down to an A-, but I am going the full A. We need a win, everybody! We need a win.
- Thanks to Zack Handlen for an excellent fill-in last week. Writing about this show in a fashion other than just providing a long list of what was funny is never easy, but he showed me up.
- Everyone: Share your favorite recipes for the Albanian dish in comments. I know we’ve all got a spare sheep head or two hanging around!