On paper, tonight’s installment of Archer is a pretty wild mish-mash mess of discordant concepts: Gorillas? Skynet air conditioners? Internships?! And yet, blissfully, it all works—at least in part because Asha Michelle Wilson’s script doesn’t attempt to smash the three concepts together in any sort of ham-fisted way. Krieger (a.k.a. “Dr. God”) accidentally creating a murderous climate control system after being asked to implement environmentally friendly office thermostats is funny. Cheryl being in charge of a hapless intern is funny. Archer falling madly in love with an adorable animal—in this case, a gorilla the Agency is helping the U.N. transport back to its endangered family—is (always, always, always) funny. Each of these ideas is allowed to breathe in tonight’s Archer, without anything being allowed to suck up all the air in the room. (Well, until…) But the biggest, most joyful surprise of “Photo Op” is who it deploys as its secret comedy weapon: Lana Kane.
Lana is, bar none, the easiest character on Archer to fuck up from a writing point of view. Her survival instincts and base-level professionalism both tend to naturally funnel her into serving as a foil/straightwoman to Archer, who gets to do all the fun, stupid, comedy stuff while the immensely talented Aisha Tyler gets little more to do than making the most of a few cutting ways to say “Hey, don’t do that.” “Photo Op” neatly subverts that issue, though, by giving Lana two straightpeople of her own, in the form of Anniwaa Buachie’s heroic anti-poacher Neva, and Pamela Adlon, reprising her role as former classmate Sandra from last year’s “Cold Fusion.” (An episode that this season’s writers continue to put way more importance on than I was expecting, or, frankly, capable of.) Both characters serve roughly the same purpose in tonight’s script: To allow Lana to claim the “selfish, funny asshole” position she’s usually forced to cede to her ex.
The results are some of the funniest Lana scenes we’ve gotten since last year’s fantastic “Double Date,” as she expresses her ongoing ambivalence about her husband, her job, and especially about the majesty of the African countryside that she and Archer are trudging through. All of which culminates in a laugh-out-loud ending that sees Africa return the mutual disdain, with interest; again, Tyler is so good at letting Lana get wacky that it’s a shame that the show so rarely lets her actually drive the comedy like this. Archer scripts often like to make the point that Lana isn’t as above the idiocy as she likes to play—usually by having the other characters verbally tear her down—but they rarely sell her dysfunction to such comedically potent and silly effect.
Also extremely silly: Both the B and the C plot tonight, which manage to run through an entire Terminator movie in the span of about five minutes of screen-time. Sure, you could predict every beat of both these stories the second they were introduced—obviously, a Krieger-created A.I. was going to go rogue, obviously, Cheryl should not be put in charge of an intern, and obviously, the latter was going to save everyone from the former before being summarily dismissed for violating her “mentor’s” draconian rules. None of which detracts from the comedy in the slightest: I could have watched a whole episode built around this premise, but the fact that it’s buried in this other, also-good story makes it operate as a little treat, in a way that isn’t hampered by its disconnection from the main event. All that, and we get the Archer-Poko the incredibly adorable gorilla team-up, and a great minor villain in the form of a one-eyed poacher with a hatred of gifts. (Between this guy and the deranged hostage negotiator from “Lowjacked,” I really wish Archer was more diligent about naming the non-celebrity guest stars in its credits, because they’ve been killing it this season.)
Honestly, it’s hard to find much that’s off or ding-worthy in “Photo Op.” Adlon and Buachie are both a little underused, maybe, but since that just gives Tyler more room to own the floor for once, it’s hard to fault the choice. The fact that I’m giving this thing an A, despite the fact that Pam only has like two lines, and that there’s no Ray, speaks to what a fleet, funny half-hour of TV this was. More like this, please.
- Guest star report: Our weekly check-ins with Harvey Guillén and Natasha Rothwell as Cloud Beam Marketing continue to pay fewer dividends than expected, but I remain hopeful that the characters will click for me eventually. Buachie and Adlon both end up in the “Hey don’t do that” role, mostly, but both find a few little fun notes to play. ( I love Sandra’s line about rubbing her success in “Jerry’s” “little rat face.”) I also find it very funny that this is the second appearance of Eric Andre’s Professor character and he still doesn’t get any more lines.
- Archer’s potential Agency names: Archer’s Angels, Fun-dercover, Spy-cial. I’m a little inclined to like Fun-dercover, but I still say his naming game is off this season.
- We’re working with an all-women anti-poaching agency because, “The UN found that, when they give expedition money to men, they spend it on booze and whores.” “By the way, we say sex workers now.”
- Not a ton of Malory tonight, but she gets in a couple good “NEVERTHELESS”es, and “My life is worth more than all the rest of you put together!” is a classic Archer-ism.
- “Set lighting to…Daddy Time.”
- I could have used so much more Teacher Cheryl, but her tutorial on the joys of burning trash was some prime Judy Greer madness.
- “You speak English?” “Yes, I speak six languages. But it didn’t stop you from talking.” It’s not that I like seeing Lana get taken down a peg, so much as it’s great seeing her getting to be the kind of funny jerk who might deserve it.
- Pretty much everything with Yonku, the poacher, is gold, but I especially like him noting that all of the element names are made up.
- Is Sandra angling for a job with The Agency? I wouldn’t say no to more Adlon, but it seems unlikely from a casting POV.
- Slight missed opportunity for robot-phobic Archer to not be on hand for an actual machine uprising, but you can’t have everything.
- Non-missed opportunity to give him so many scenes with Poko, especially as he teaches her the sign for “Phrasing.”
- Obscure reference alert: As far as I know, Voltaire never said anything about acting; meanwhile, Lana gets cut off from telling us all about Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology. And Clark Gable starred (with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly) in John Ford’s Mogambo in 1953, playing a guy who annoys the women in his life so much that they end up shooting him, which might explain the Archer appeal.
- Line of the episode: The back half of tonight’s episode is jam-packed with quotables, but I have to give it to Archer, referencing Yonku’s night-vision goggles and camo: “You can’t be both Dutch and Predator! Pick a lane!”
- “Woo-hoo, Africa!” Poisoned Lana is fun Lana. Who knew?