Wednesday, January 30, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (01/30/2013): Archer, Green Lantern, Bob's Burgers, Tron: Uprising and American Dad

'She is short-tempered, mean and often takes her clothes off for, like, no reason.' That's the same thing Jerry Mathers wrote about Barbara Billingsley in his peer review.
Archer's latest episode recaptures the most exciting part of Skyfall: the scenes where they filled out paperwork.
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.

After Archer's entertaining crossover with Bob's Burgers, the FX cartoon sort of crosses over with another show I love, FX's Justified, by borrowing its star (Timothy Olyphant) and one of its staff writers (Chris Provenzano) for "The Wind Cries Mary." Olyphant, whose comedic chops on Justified are frequently overlooked (even at the A.V. Club, of all places), blends in quite well with the twisted Archer universe while voicing eternal frat-boy Lucas Troy, Archer's previously unmentioned best friend and an operative from ISIS' rival agency ODIN who may not be as trustworthy--or as straight--as Archer deems him to be.

I love it when a show suddenly introduces some important buddy from the main character's past who's never been brought up by the lead before, and then after one episode or, in the case of Steve Buscemi's Tony Blundetto on The Sopranos, an entire season, we never see his ass again. The original Star Trek did it all the time, Jim Rockford would be frequently visited by war buddies we'd never hear from again (and not even on that answering machine of his), that beloved teammate of Sam Malone's who came out of the closet in a tell-all book he promoted at Cheers never dropped by the bar again for another beer and so on. I wish "The Wind Cries Mary" would have poked a little more fun at this old trope of the previously unmentioned BFF, besides making this bestie turn out to be gay for Archer (and no one else). But as usual on Archer, there are so many killer lines from cold open to finish (and also, welcome back, workplace humor that's been absent for a couple of episodes) that whatever gripes I have about the episode end up--like "the life that lived" in the Jimi Hendrix tune this episode cops its title from--dead.

Stray observations:
* Ringtone gags in sitcoms always suck, but somehow, only Archer manages to make them work. Archer's choice of "Danger Zone" as his ringtone is as predictable as his frequently ridiculed choice of sidearm.

* I enjoyed this line Archer utters to himself because I once considered enrolling in the two-year Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont and then Googled small-town Vermont and thought, nah, that hood's not for me: "Vermont has liquor stores, right? Yeah, they have to. It sucks there."

* Pam: "So why are these damn peer reviews so hard?! Only like 10 people work in this whole goddamn chickenshit outfit!" That'd be dope if Pam punctuated one or two other lines this season with mic drops, using the same battered-looking mic she dropped at the end of that "chickenshit outfit" line.

Here we see a young Dick Cheney practicing how to shoot classmates in the face.
* Archer: "There's, uh, there's kind of a lot of blood down there." A dying Lucas: "Said your mom."

* Lucas: "I only did it because I wanted us to be together. Forever." Lana, off-screen: "Called it!" Off-screen, two-to-three-word asides about someone's sex life have been a favorite comedic device of mine ever since NewsRadio once built a great running gag out of Catherine thinking Lisa was trying to seduce Dave for new office supplies, so she continually goaded Lisa on to shake her stuff for Dave.

* Whoever drew Lana's expression during the episode-closing awkward ride home after Luke's half-finished deathbed confession deserves some sort of nod for Outstanding Achievement in Animating Appalled Expressions.

Lana will never look at suntan oil the same way again.

***

"My god... My 11 year-old daughter watched it when it first came on, on Saturday... Her face was all blotchy with pink/red spots, indicative that she had been crying."

"OMG I ACTUALLY CRIED WATCHING GREEN LANTERN: THE ANIMATED SERIES"

"oh my god. HOW THE FUCK IS THAT EPISODE OKAY?! NEWS FLASH, IT’S SOOOOO NOT!"

"and this is when i lost every last bit of emotional control i never had."

Are girls on Tumblr really that upset about Aya's demise at the hands of the Anti-Monitor, a machine gone mad, in Green Lantern: The Animated Series' "Loss" episode? Those are just some of the Tumblr reactions to the conclusion of "Loss" that I scrolled through during a Tumblr search for "green lantern: the animated series" (after I first caught "Loss" when Cartoon Network repeated the episode), just to see how Tumblr overreacted the previous morning.

That's how young much of Green Lantern's audience is. Their lower-case-letter-averse reactions are both adorable and, unless they're that 11-year-old girl, snicker-worthy. They haven't watched enough TV to be aware that when a beloved robotic main character is killed off to shock the audience, the AI doesn't stay dead (okay, Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Offspring" episode did kill off an android we grew to care about, but Data's daughter wasn't part of the TNG series cast). That type of temporary shake-up of the status quo before it's maintained again happened as recently as Sym-Bionic Titan, which killed off Octus towards the end of its run, only to bring him back just in time to reunite with Lance and Princess Ilana to save Earth for the finale.

In "Loss," Aya sacrifices herself to protect Razer, the self-hating, reformed Red Lantern she's fallen in love with while somehow gradually developing emotions, like when she shed a tear after the Red Lanterns reprogrammed her to betray the Guardians last season or when she attempted to hold Razer's hand in "Prisoner of Sinestro" and he refused to reciprocate. But Aya's emotions haven't fully developed to the point where she'd always be capable of expressing them to Razer (props to GL:TAS showrunner Giancarlo Volpe, by the way, for not having Aya say, "What is 'kiss'?"), so she dies before she gets to kiss him. (Early on in "Loss," a no-longer-hesitant Razer finally makes his move and Aya almost does kiss him, but they're interrupted by an unaware Hal. Speaking of Hal, in the next episode, he's bound to react to Aya's death in nearly as angry a way as Razer will because unlike the reticent-until-recently Razer, Hal always treated Aya like a human being, ever since the very first episode, when he briefly flirted with her back when she existed only in faceless computer form to talk her into allowing him to pilot the Interceptor.)

As TWoP used to say, 'Damn you, Berlanti!,' uh, I mean, 'Damn you, Volpe!'
(Photo source: ahlistenalison)
Some of the impact of Aya's death scene is robbed by both the fact that there's no way a kids' show will allow its breakout character to remain dead for a while and the inevitability of Aya being rebooted and restored at some point later in this second and final season. But the scene remains a powerful moment, thanks to effective score music by series composer Frederik Wiedmann, "Loss" writer Michael F. Ryan's decision to make Razer's sorrow subdued and silent and the matter-of-fact way Jason Spisak has Razer say "No!" when Kilowog's grappling hook construct separates Razer from Aya's remains to rescue him from the Anti-Monitor. That matter-of-fact delivery is such a nice departure from either having Razer shake his fists at the stars and yell "Noooooooooo!" or having him quietly and slowly draw out the vowels of "No" in an unintentionally funny, Keanu-esque way, which wrecked an otherwise well-played dramatic scene for Kevin Conroy when Batman glimpsed the grisly off-screen aftermath of the explosion that took away half of Harvey Dent's face and most of his dwindling sanity on GL:TAS producer Bruce Timm's Batman: The Animated Series.

Other than the tragedy-tinged scenes centering on Aya and Razer (who, at the start of the episode, makes a return visit to the home he once shared with his murdered wife Ilana and seems to have finally gotten over Aya assuming Ilana's form, which must have creeped him out for so long), "Loss" is far from somber, due to Hal's cop movie-style defiance of the Guardians' uptight Science Director (Sarah Douglas from Superman II) and the mostly comedic re-appearance of the supercilious (and for a way-too-long amount of time in this episode, naked) Zilius Zox (Tom Kenny). Now the Red Lanterns' Prime Magistrate, the Reince Priebus-y dickweed returns to Guardian space to make the Green Lanterns' lives difficult again, but this time, diplomacy-wise. The largely business-as-usual tone of "Loss" doesn't prepare us for the sacrifice that takes place at the end, which makes the shock of Aya's death that much more effective, because in intergalactic war, just like in life, nobody's promised tomorrow.

***

"Broadcast Wagstaff School News" contains Gene's greatest moment to date as an unhinged Belcher on Bob's Burgers, and it's not even the A-story. Linda's observation that Gene resembles Bob when he was a boy sparks Gene to transform himself into Bob, with the help of a fake mustache, a pair of scissors handled by Louise and clumps of his own shorn hair Louise glues onto his neck and arms ("I don't know how I got that arm hair to look so sad, but I did it!").

The other Belchers' first encounter with travel-size Bob in the bathroom is the funniest rapid-fire exchange this series has ever done. Bob gets creeped out by Gene's extreme makeover; Linda plays along with Gene when he calls her "Lin," which especially makes Bob flustered (while he speaks for most of the sequence in that low-energy delivery of his that distinguishes him from the more excitable "Animation Domination" dads on Fox); Tina becomes confused by the two Bobs; and Gene copies everything Bob says, which sends a now-shouty Bob past the breaking point and this sequence into a series high point.

The hilarity of the two Bobs easily makes the B-story funnier than the A-story--Tina takes up investigative journalism and follows the poopy trail of an excrement-planting prankster known as "the Mad Pooper"--although the A-story is far from a turd, especially with a guest cast that includes Will Forte and Jenny Slate (reprising her entertaining role as Tina's frenemy Tammy from "Bad Tina") and trenchant jabs at vapid journalism in the age of TMZ. The episode beautifully intertwines the A-story with mini-Bob, like when Tammy pitches a story to Forte's Mr. Grant about "a 45-year-old fourth-grader with a mustache walking around school."

Tina's latest story looks at why Current TV has shittier production values than her student news channel.
(Photo source: Bob's Burgers Wiki)
Tina, Gene and Louise are such enjoyable characters because they talk like real kids and less like precocious stand-ins or Mary Sues for their adult creators, so you don't often see them name-drop celebrities or movies that the writers grew up on and Tina, Gene and Louise are too young to be familiar with. But in "Broadcast Wagstaff School News," Tina cites the Holly Hunter character in Broadcast News as her journalistic role model (whereas I didn't see Broadcast News until I was 30, and that was just a few years ago), while Gene compares tween Bob to Judd Nelson and Louise nicknames Tina "Cronkite."

Now Tina's awareness of Broadcast News can be rationalized as being part of her weird pop-cultural tastes, as exemplified by her hobby of writing porny fanfics like "Erotic Law & Order," "Erotic Good Wife" and "Sexy 60 Minutes." But as for Gene's awareness of Judd Nelson and Louise's knowledge of a deceased anchorman who retired from anchoring when Bob was in high school, I was initially put off by those lines, but who cares? They're amusing lines anyway.

Stray observations:
* Gene's impersonation of Bob makes the similarities between H. Jon Benjamin and Eugene Mirman's voices much more noticeable. Occasionally during "Broadcast Wagstaff School News," even I became confused like Tina and started to think Benjamin was voicing travel-size Bob.

* I love the funky, early '70s Motown-ish "Mad Pooper! Eww!" score cue series creator Loren Bouchard and composer John Dylan Keith wrote for the Mad Pooper montage. A lot of TV composers like to rip off David Holmes, but Bouchard and Keith are the first to come up with a cross between Holmes and Sam Cooke's 1960 hit "Chain Gang."

* I just remembered that Laura Silverman's first big role was in animation, as the voice of Laura, Dr. Katz's April Ludgate-ish receptionist on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, which was where Bouchard also got his start. (Dr. Katz deserves to be remastered and un-Squiggled.) In "Broadcast Wagstaff School News" and other Wagstaff School-related episodes of Bob's Burgers, Silverman voices Andy, while her more famous sister Sarah plays Andy's twin brother Ollie.

* Here's more proof that Louise will grow up to be an action movie director: her ease with operating the camcorder while recording Tina for her first investigative video about the Mad Pooper, although Louise isn't quite Kathryn Bigelow yet and has a lot to learn about the pause button ("And we're clear. I lied. We're not clear. Okay, now we're clear! I'll just edit that part out.").

* Thanks to the Charlie Rose-ish "Tina Table" segment that Tina earns on Wagstaff's student news channel after her big Mad Pooper scoop, I now can't watch Charlie Rose without thinking that the reason for Rose's all-black set could be because he's actually making Tina's mistake of wearing a green blazer in front of a green screen.

* "Me. Tina. Are. Mad. Pooper."

Archer could go for that spa weekend right about now.
(Photo source: Bob's Burger of the Day)

***

Tron: Uprising, which recently dropped a score album by series composer Joseph Trapanese that contains cues that can now be heard on A Fistful of Soundtracks, has been a good example of how to improve upon a sci-fi action franchise that's a corker in the visuals department but is hardly as stimulating narrative-wise. In 19 episodes, we learned more about the title character--now mentoring a freedom fighter named Beck, a reference to the Cyrus-Beck algorithm, not the Scientologist singer/songwriter--and what makes him tick than we did in two feature films where he looked like a guest star in his own films (much like pre-Christopher Nolan Batman on the big screen). This animated prequel to Tron: Legacy hasn't always been perfect--for a while, I cared more about Paige, one of Beck's antagonists, and her feud with another of Beck's antagonists, Pavel, than I did about Beck--but the Tron: Uprising crew seemed to have heeded the criticisms about the writing in the two films, so they've surrounded the lightbike chases and disc fu action with involving and mature stories about such popular Disney XD topics as post-traumatic stress and ethnic cleansing.

And now, it's over. Like I've said before, Tron: Uprising didn't belong on Disney XD, and it would have found a bigger audience and not be trapped in the strange limbo it's currently mired in had Disney aired it on a special Touchstone Pictures-style channel for viewers who have outgrown Phineas and Ferb or Dog with a Blog (Beth Littleford, why?) and are ready to move on to Stakeout and a pre-Revenge Madeleine Stowe stepping butt-nekkid out of a shower.

Tron just died in your arms tonight. It must have been something you said.
"Terminal," the Tron: Uprising series finale, annoyingly ends on a cliffhanger (Clu and Dyson prepare to snatch Argon City from Tesler), but otherwise, it satisfies in the action department (aerial dogfights galore) and reaches a high point in the titular uprising. Tired of relying on the Renegade (and currently unsure of the innocence of the freedom fighter/murder suspect, who's too busy trying to save a dying Tron's life and defeat a repurposed and now-evil Cutler), Mara, Zed (the only mechanic who believes the Renegade's innocent) and the rest of the garage take matters into their own hands and stand up to Pavel when he threatens them again.

In a moment we've been waiting to see all season, each mechanic powers up his or her lightdisc one by one, and Pavel retreats. Unfortunately, the mechanics don't get to lift a finger against Pavel and his guards. And they'll never get to now that a second season is becoming less likely.


***

"Blood Crieth Unto Heaven," American Dad's August: Osage County-inspired experiment with presenting a story about Stan's issues with his divorced parents Jack (Daran Norris) and Betty (Swoosie Kurtz) as a non-musical stage play set during the Depression, is more clever and amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. That's mostly due to the series' typically rapid-fire pacing being muted to fully commit to both the melodramatic genre it's gently parodying and the episode's experiment of recapturing certain aspects of the experience of watching a play with a theater audience, particularly the slightly lengthy scene transitions that stage productions do in order to accommodate the set changes the techies have to make behind the actors (a techie even appears during the episode to quickly sweep away fake trash, but he's unlit, of course).

Stan recalls being traumatized by the horrifying music at a Chuck E. Cheese's.
But the slightly slowed-down pacing is more often a plus than a minus, and if it weren't for that slowed-down pacing, the episode would be missing nice touches like the hydraulic grinding sound the stage makes as it's being raised to unveil scenes that take place in the Smiths' basement (one particular theatrical touch I chuckled over was Stan briefly wheezing from having to hurry back from a flashback to a present-day scene on the other side of the stage). The immersive feel of "Blood Crieth Unto Heaven" makes it a great episode to watch with headphones on. The show's sound designers deserve an Emmy nomination for nailing theatrical sounds like the stage hydraulics and reverbing the Smiths to sound like actors performing within a large theater. Gasps of "Oh God!" can even be heard from an audience member or two during the episode's grimmest plot twist (somewhere, the Avery/Hayley/Roger-as-a-black-maid love triangle must be giving one of Shonda Rhimes' staff writers storyline ideas for Scandal).

Now how does the non-canonical "Blood Crieth Unto Heaven"--written by Brian Boyle and referred to in the episode's live-action intros as an American Dad fanfic scripted by a coked-up playwright and possible sex offender before he croaked--hold up as a story without the theatrical devices? Pretty quite well actually, although on-screen host Patrick Stewart, a.k.a. Avery, would disagree (during his hosting segments, he openly admits that he's confused over whether to view the play as a comedy or tragedy and is later caught napping in his seat). Stan and Avery's lurid pasts would make for satisfying stage dramas if they weren't suffused with buttered crab binges and sex with clowns.

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