Wednesday, January 23, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (01/23/2013): Archer, Dan Vs., Tron: Uprising, Robot Chicken and Regular Show

Archer's complaint to the waiter about the drink in his hand is fucking glorious: 'Sour mix in a margarita? What is this? Auschwitz?'
Lana's body was modeled after an Atlanta-based flight attendant's, while her bad temper was modeled after Steven Slater's.
Every Wednesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated shows. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

Episodes like "Fugue and Riffs," Archer's wildly funny and violent fourth-season premiere, are exactly why I wanted to expand "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" to include adult cartoons at the end of last year. "When the new year approaches," I asked myself, "do you want another year of sitting through Ben 10 reboots that cause your attention to wander or awfully written Ultimate Spider-Man episodes, or do you want to put that part of your time to better use, like covering adult cartoons that are more up your alley and are worthier of discussion and analysis?"

"Fugue and Riffs" is the kind of adult cartoon episode I should have been focusing on in the first place. It's another sharply written story involving ISIS agent Sterling Archer's ongoing conflict with his mother/boss Malory (Jessica Walter), and it contains a brilliant crossover with lead voice actor H. Jon Benjamin's other current cartoon, more semi-nudity from Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) and esoteric references that are funny simply because they're so damn esoteric (British spy hero Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon! Manning Coles, the duo that created Hambledon! The star of Shazam! Émile Zola!). You won't see Spidey cracking a joke that's a nod to Zola's "J'accuse" letter during Ultimate Spider-Man, that's for damn sure.

'Sorry, kids. Shootouts wasn't exactly what I meant when I said I was gonna make this place more like McDonald's. Gene, you got a barrel of acid I could borrow?'
(Photo source: Brain Explosion)
The season premiere opens with Archer tending the grill at the exact same titular restaurant from Bob's Burgers, Benjamin's other show, while surrounded by the Belcher kids and Linda (John Roberts, the only Bob's Burgers voice actor reprising his role), who gets to berate Archer with one of the various insulting nicknames that have become one of the Adam Reed cartoon's trademarks ("Well, excuse me, Ike Turner!"). Instead of appearing in their more familiar character designs from Bob's Burgers, Tina, Gene, Louise and Linda are awesomely redesigned to blend in with Archer's '60s comic book aesthetic.

I like how the cold open strings us along into thinking Archer is undercover as a burger joint owner as part of some ISIS op, until it becomes clear that it's no op and he has no memory of his life as an ISIS agent, although a few pieces of that life remain. They include fighting skills, which Archer puts to use during a badass and extremely gory restaurant confrontation with KGB assassins straight out of A History of Violence, his literary tastes (he dubs the restaurant's newest burger "a Thomas Elphinstone Hambledurger with Manning Coleslaw") and his metrosexual side ("What I am gonna do is find out who this Archer jerk is... I'm also probably gonna do a spa weekend").

It turns out that two months ago, Archer developed amnesia due to a moment of extreme stress and ran away to a new life as a seaside fry cook named Bob. He married Linda and apparently became her second husband, which makes me wonder what happened to the original Bob in this universe (Alex, I'm gonna go with "What is dead?," and because much of this show's humor thrives on kinky or freaky behavior, I wouldn't be surprised if Linda has been remolding Archer Vertigo-style to look more like Bob). Both ISIS and the KGB are after Archer for different reasons: Malory assigns Lana, Cyril (Chris Parnell) and Ray (Reed) to stage a fake run-in with the KGB in front of Archer to try to jog his memory and get him back to the agency, while bionic villain Barry Dylan (Dave Willis) sends more KGB assassins to eliminate Archer.

Part of the fun of "Fugue and Riffs" is trying to figure out the stressful moment that triggered Archer's amnesia. We're given a clue early on when Malory complains that her son hates seeing her be happy, and when the catalyst is revealed at the end to be neither a bomb explosion nor a Bourne Identity-style, ISIS-sanctioned attempt on his life, but something far less action-y--Malory's wedding to Ron Cadillac, the most successful Cadillac dealer in the Tri-State Area--it makes perfect sense within the neurotic, wracked-by-mommy-issues world of Archer. In a great bit of stunt-casting, the show has recruited Ron Leibman from The Hot Rock and Friends, as well as Walter's real-life husband, to voice Malory's new hubby, who's won over everyone at ISIS during Archer's two-month absence and whose presence this season is bound to reignite an old thread from a couple of seasons ago: Archer's search for his biological father. (Archer reportedly begins to form a bond with Ron in the new season's fourth episode. I can't wait to see if Reed, who's obsessed with the movies of one-time Archer guest star Burt Reynolds, will toss into that episode a reference to The Hot Rock or Leibman's other '70s crime-genre cult favorite, The Super Cops.)

She is the goddess of hellfire, and she brings yeeeewww...
The rest of the fun of "Fugue and Riffs" involves being reacquainted with the elements that make Archer such an entertaining adult cartoon, from the batshit crazy behavior of Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) and office subordinates Pam (Amber Nash) and Cheryl/Carol (Judy Greer) to the self-satisfaction Archer gets from anything he does or says, particularly his esoteric jokes, as if he's a boy who just discovered cursing. Archer may be a competent, book-smart, sharply dressed and jet-setting spy with a sex life many of us Archer viewers would kill for, but deep down, he's really just a kid who never grew up and knows only how to be a narcissistic asshole, thanks to screwed-up parenting from an asshole of a parent. "Fugue and Riffs" reinforces Archer's childishness when he woo-hoos like a kid over the Molotov cocktails he and Lana lob at the assassins, or when one of Lana's attempts to get him to remember ISIS tanks and causes him to go off on a tangent about his love for Shazam!, which sometimes crossed over with the superheroine show The Secrets of Isis in the '70s--a nod to how this episode crosses over with Bob's Burgers.

No wonder Archer identifies so much with Shazam, née Captain Marvel, even in his fugue state. Shazam is a boy in a grown man's body, just like Archer.


Dan Vs. is an oasis of '40s/'50s Warner Bros. cartoon-style anarchy and revenge in The Hub's original series fantasyland of cloying ponies and overly stoic superheroes. But compared to Archer's twisted vision of spies who have their babies tattooed ("You can't tattoo a frickin' baby!") or delight in too-naughty-for-Harry-Saltzman threesomes and drug-loving agency secretaries with a fetish for getting strangled during sex, the espionage scenes on Dan Vs. look like a Spy Kids sequel. Despite the best efforts of the always-game Paget Brewster as Elise (Andy Gibb-ish code name: Dancing Shadow), her missions, like in this week's "Dan vs. the Common Cold," are nothing we haven't seen before in some Flintstones episode about spies that Hanna-Barbera gag writers came up with to cash in on the then-cutting-edge 007 movies back then.

Wow. The Gallaghers' bathroom on fucking Shameless is tidier than this.
The spyjinks in "Dan vs. the Common Cold" may not be all that original comedic-wise, but Elise's indifference to the possible death of Dan, whom she's constantly annoyed with, is a great gag that lets you know you're far from the caring and sharing of The Hub's My Little Pony and Care Bears revivals. I also enjoy hearing Brewster basically talk to herself and kick her own ass while voicing both Elise and her French-accented nemesis Gisele Montgomery, a supermodel-turned-industrial spy (I'm always wondering what those recording sessions where Brewster or some Simpsons regular like Harry Shearer has to juggle two or more characters at the same time must look like in the booth: they probably look cray-cray). The slightly more interesting A-story--and it's a story those of us who fret about falling prey to the current flu epidemic are especially interested in--saddles the previously immune Dan with a bad cold his usually live-wire self is too weak and powerless to fight off, so his body's battalion of anthropomorphic antibodies, who all speak in Dan's voice, does the fighting for him. "This cold is the worst thing ever to happen to me," complains Dan during my one favorite line in this episode, "and I've been at a country music concert."


I'm not surprised that Tron: Uprising killed off Able--the moment he told Beck he knew he's actually the current Renegade and would keep it a secret, Carl Winslow was toast--but I'm surprised it took him this long to stay alive on this show after he correctly guessed the Renegade's identity. Seven more episodes on a superhero drama after he discovered the hero's identity? It reminds me of that joke Norm Macdonald told on The Daily Show about being informed by friends about the Crocodile Hunter's death. "They were like, 'He was 44 years old,'" said Macdonald. "I'm like, 'That's a ripe old age for a crocodile hunter.'"

'There's only minutes left, so you're gonna have to play my little game if you want to save one of them, Batman, uh, I mean, Renegade.'
(Photo source:
Tron: Uprising's season finale is next week on Disney XD, and at this point in the game, Disney hasn't yet made a decision on the show's future, so I'm putting my money on "derezzed." If this weren't a Disney show and Tron had been on a much angstier network, Beck would probably feel like derezzing himself at the end of "No Bounds." After the crazed Cyrus, the first Renegade, forces Beck into a Dark Knight-style predicament where he must choose between saving his friends from the garage or Tron from detonation, Able isn't all that Beck loses. He's without his garage job and he loses the support of the public after he's wrongfully accused of killing Able--not by Zed, a longtime Renegade hater, but Mara. Zed's become a more likable character ever since the events of "State of Mind" made him slightly less skeptical of the Renegade, and at the end of "No Bounds," he believes in the Renegade's innocence, although you kind of wish the moptopped dweeb would exert himself a little more and lift a finger to help out the Renegade and come to his defense.

With only Tron by his side, Beck chooses to keep on fighting, but where did his other adversaries go? Tesler, Pavel and Paige are nowhere to be seen during "No Bounds." Cyrus is the only Uprising character who's more of a threat to Argon City than Tesler, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Renegade ends up temporarily teaming up with Tesler's forces to take down Cyrus--not exactly a new twist on a show like this, but I don't see how else this season could end, other than the Renegade recoloring his white suit from head to toe with Bruce Boxleitner's Toppik hair loss concealer and ambushing Cyrus while completely camouflaged in that stuff.


The big casting coups on Robot Chicken this week are Christopher Lloyd reprising his Doc Brown role and 50 Cent as himself, adding a new member to G-Unit: PaRappa the Rapper. But I got much more of a kick out of a silly Lego version of the somber, shot-in-one-take climax of Children of Men, a great dystopic sci-fi film that always deserved the parody/homage treatment it finally receives on Robot Chicken, even though the film is now seven years old. The actor enlisted by Seth Green and his Robot Chicken crew to voice Clive Owen during the Lego Children of Men is no small potatoes: he's none other than Hustle star Adrian Lester, best known here in America for Primary Colors. Kathy Bates' earthy-humored fixer character from Primary Colors would have howled with laughter over Lester's description of a Lego vagina during the baby delivery scene.

I'm looking forward to the Playmobil re-creation of another Alfonso Cuaron movie, the family-friendly Y Tu Mama Tambien.
I only check out Robot Chicken once in a while, so I was surprised to see that its opening title sequence has been updated after five seasons. Instead of a dead chicken subjected to experiments by a mad scientist, the new titles flipped the script so that the scientist is now the robot chicken's guinea pig. The title of this Lloyd/Fitty/Lester episode is "Eaten by Cats," in keeping with the show's sixth-season decision to switch to causes of death as episode titles, and because it's season six, they're Six Feet Under-style demises (another episode title this season is "Crushed by a Steamroller on My 53rd Birthday"). It's the most inspired episode titling pattern since the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV series' succinct method of "Amy Poehler Wears a Black Jacket & Grey Pants" and "Jon Hamm Wears a Light Blue Shirt & Silver Watch."


Sometimes, the restrictions laid down by Standards & Practices can result in comedy that's funnier than what would have resulted from loosened restrictions, and Regular Show's "The Longest Weekend" short is an example of that. In "The Longest Weekend," a fake art-house movie of the same name--some Notebook-ish tearjerker about an angsty Romeo who can't bear to be away from his girlfriend for too long--inspires Starla (Courtenay Taylor) to talk her boyfriend Muscle Man into spending the entire weekend apart from her to test the strength of their love (if either of them runs off to see the other before the end of Sunday night, they'll have to break up). So during this two-day period of Starla withdrawal that he agrees to subject himself to (with his friends making sure he doesn't try to call her), the park's resident toughie reveals himself to be, of course, a real softie and turns into a basket case, while Starla is equally upset and inconsolable. When both of them finally break and defy their friends' attempts to restrain them by racing into each other's arms at super-speeds that make the Flash look slow, the episode cuts away to clips of golfers being struck by lightning and watermelons being crushed by mallets. Yep, that is indeed a consummation montage we're seeing on a TV-PG cartoon, covering up whatever Muscle Man and Starla are doing to each other, but this parody of consummation montages is made funnier by the fact that the metaphorical visuals are random bits of nonsense (at one point, a man is seen running into a portapotty that explodes) rather than slightly more explicit images like trains penetrating tunnels or geysers spewing.

"The Longest Weekend" is written and storyboarded by Hellen Jo and Ivy author Sarah Oleksyk, who previously worked together on "Pie Contest" and "One Pull Up." Jo and Oleksyk both hail from the indie comics scene, which explains the indie comic sensibility that permeates some of the best Regular Show shorts. "The Longest Weekend" is particularly dead-on about the dumb things young couples like Muscle Man and Starla do for love and the reactions young guys and girls have to chick flicks. Mordecai and Rigby haven't yet reached the age where they realize that during the weepies that their attractive female friends have dragged them to see, comforting the ladies when they're in tears is what gets them to like them, not expressing snarky disdain for what they're seeing. So Mordecai, Rigby and Muscle Man snicker over the clichés and pretentiousness of the movie that Margaret, Eileen and Starla dragged them to, while the girls are totally enthralled and moved by The Longest Weekend, although Margaret admits afterward that the movie is pretty terrible (or maybe she's just saying that to look cool in front of Mordecai).

'OMFG! Ryan Gosling, you're so dreamy, even when you're breaking some dude's hand with a hammer.'
The movie itself is a typical sitcom version of art-house Eurotrash. There's always a pretentious montage in these fake artsy-fartsy films, and here, The Longest Weekend's montage is full of random shots of a piano player's hands and a kite being released into the sky. I would have liked to have seen some effort to make the all-English (but French-made, according to the closed captions) movie look badly dubbed, like in SNL's much-maligned but totally accurate "Danielle" Italian sexploitation flick spoof with Jennifer Lawrence last Saturday. A far better bit of attention to detail during the theater scene is the guy in the backwards baseball cap getting up from the empty front row in the middle of The Longest Weekend (he was probably waiting to see some titties) and quietly leaving for good. That shit always happens whenever a theater shows a divisive three-hour movie like The Longest Weekend. There's always some moviegoer with his date or by himself who loses his patience with the feature and walks out on it long before it's over. The relationship between your ass and an interminable chick flick will never be as strong as Muscle Man and Starla's.

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