Wednesday, February 20, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (02/20/2013): Archer, Gravity Falls, Bob's Burgers, Robot Chicken and Adventure Time

Archer felt a burning in his loins he had never felt before. Thus, he realized he had been kicked in the butt by love.
After the vacuum cleaner in the "Legs" episode's flashback, Katya is the second machine Archer has banged. That can only mean one thing: watch your back, El Camino.
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.

One of my favorite recurring bits back when Conan O'Brien hosted NBC's Late Night was "Closed Captioning," where a disgruntled captioner would sneak insults about Conan and Andy ("Audience laughs. Barely.") into the closed captions. The snarking would escalate into threats to derail Conan's show with pranks like the captioner pulling a fire alarm or flashing his junk on-camera to delight his girlfriend, which the captioner would end up doing. The captioner who types up the captions for Archer may not be as disgruntled about his show as the Late Night captioner was during Conan's era, but he makes Archer's captions equally fun to read by slipping in occasional Easter eggs that can be missed when the captions are shut off, like translations of the unsubtitled Japanese lines uttered by creepy Krieger's holographic anime child bride in the solid Valentine's episode "Viscous Coupling."

The captioning also drops a hint that Archer's cyborg ex-fiancée Katya (Ona Grauer), who also resurfaces in "Viscous Coupling," is conning Archer during the description of her reaction to the recording that Archer badly doctored to try to win her back and make it sound like her current beau Barry (Dave Willis) cheated on her aboard the space station ("KATYA: [almost feral sobbing/screaming]"). Other sitcoms use the Hallmark holiday of Valentine's to display their warm and uplifting side (particularly Parks and Rec), but because Archer is a dark spy comedy, its Valentine's episode involves characters like Katya using their sexual relationships with others to get ahead in the spy game--a view of relationships that's far from warm or uplifting.

And because much of Archer's humor thrives on kinky or freaky behavior, the show's idea of a Valentine's episode is gag after gag of ISIS employees indulging in their usual kinks or getting sexually violated while passed out (in "The Wind Cries Mary," Archer learned he was sexually assaulted in his sleep by his best friend Lucas Troy, while here, Pam tranqs Cyril and Ray and makes them do a tentacle porn video). While this would get tiresome in the heavy Truckasaurus hands of the writers of lesser adult sitcoms, "Viscous Coupling" exercises restraint with these gags by leaving most of the twisted sex-related acts of Archer's co-workers to our imaginations, which is funnier than cutaways that graphically show the freaky-deaky. Simple and effective shots of Cyril and Ray waking up naked, intertwined and with tranq darts in their necks while they discover an octopus swimming in the nearby toilet, followed by hilarious and off-screen "Noooooooooo!"'s, are all we need to put two and two together.

While we're quick on the uptake in regards to gags like the aftermath of the off-screen tentacle porn video shoot or the unremarked-upon ligature marks on the neck of erotic asphyxiation addict Cheryl/Carol after her night out with a fireman, Archer isn't as quick on the uptake in regards to Katya, who tricks him into bringing back to Earth her marooned-in-space beau (with the unintentional help of an oblivious Krieger). Barry, in turn, isn't aware that he too has been tricked by Katya so she could attain her ultimate goal: ousting him from his top position as head of the KGB. In addition to being an enjoyable anti-Valentine's episode about the loneliness Archer has wound up experiencing as a result of his self-serving behavior, "Viscous Coupling" nicely sets up both a future Archer-vs.-Barry rematch and a new role for Katya as Malory's KGB counterpart. And if Archer doesn't take better care of his hearing ("Damn you, tinnitus, you're a cruel mistress!"), a future in which all his favorite Burt Reynolds flicks have to be watched with the closed captioning always switched on may await him.

Other memorable quotes:
* Lana: "Your apartment is one level. How do you have a dumbwaiter?" Archer: "It goes sideways."

* Katya: "Yes, my dear Sterling, come for me. Phrezzing, boom."

* Krieger, as Archer tries to lure him with the image of cyborg fights between Ray and Barry to persuade him to keep Barry trapped in space: "Bup bup bup bup bup! Stop. My penis can only get so erect." Hologram bride: "Honntou ne... [Very true...]"

* Archer speaks for many viewers like myself when he discovers that Ray's choice of bathroom reading is tentacle porn: "Seriously, how is that even a genre?"

Archer experiences sympathy wood, which sounds like the name of Natalie Wood's hippie daughter.
(Photo source: Archer Wiki)
* "Sorry, that's, uh, just a sympathy boner."

* Barry: "So tell Archer I'm coming for him--phrasing, boom--and both Barrys out."

* A frustrated Archer to Krieger: "Hey! Thanks, Neil deGrasse Tyson!" Hologram: "Oooooh, deGrasse Tyson-san..."

Maybe Boris' last name is Buttumvitch.
(Photo source: Archer Wiki)
* A Malory-like Katya: "Now who do I have to screw to get a drink around here?" KGB soldier Boris: "Nobody, ma'am. Unless you wunt. And if you do wunt, I ken be buttum. No problem there."

***

With those Swifty Lazar glasses, Mabel means fucking business.
(Photo source: Proud to Be a 'nerd')
After a couple of decades of reruns, the first season of Gravity Falls resumes on the Disney Channel with a new episode, "Boss Mabel." Coincidentally, the storyline of "Boss Mabel" happens to be somewhat similar to the storyline of the latest Bob's Burgers episode, "Lindapendent Woman." Grunkle Stan challenges disgruntled employee Mabel to a bet that she won't be able to make more dough as temporary manager of the Mystery Shack than Stan will while he gives himself a three-day vacation (which he spends as a contestant on a game show to try to win the bet). Mabel enjoys being a boss who's more fair-minded than Stan, but then Wendy starts to take advantage of her, and both Wendy's laziness and Mabel's managerial inexperience result in chaos. Meanwhile, over on Bob's Burgers, Linda takes a full-time job at a Whole Foods-like grocery store to help with the family's expenses, and she adores her new job ("Ooh, is that a watercooler? Oh God, I'm gonna be gossiping around a real watercooler like on TV!")--until the day she gets put in charge of the store. Everyone there takes advantage of her too, and chaos also ensues.

How do the two Kristen Schaal-voiced cartoons handle the same storyline? Both handle it well, although "Lindapendent Woman" has a slight edge over "Boss Mabel" due to its bizarreness, especially in its running joke of Louise freeing the store's frozen shrimp and its B-story of Tina experiencing her first kiss. The way "Lindapendent Woman" builds towards that important and tender moment for Tina is classic Bob's Burgers bizarreness. Tina has a brief meet-cute with a partially obscured teen shopper (Ben "Jean-Ralphio" Schwartz) from behind the store's dairy fridge, but she ends up with only a Band-Aid accidentally ripped from his bitten-by-a-turtle index finger to remember him by, so in a gender-swapped (and disturbing-for-hardcore-germaphobes) version of Cinderella, she attempts to track down her Cinderfella by slipping the used Band-Aid onto the fingers of local boys.

"Boss Mabel" isn't as offbeat, but it's funnier and cleverer than the average Disney Channel comedy show, thanks to gags like the nightmare that haunts the Gremloblin, a creature that overpowers humans by showing them their worst nightmares if they look into his eyes. When Mabel accidentally lets loose the caged Gremloblin, a quick-thinking Dipper defeats the Gremloblin by simply flashing a mirror in front of him and making him see his reflection, which causes him to experience his own worst fear (in amusingly subtitled monster gibberish): he's starting to resemble his father. I like how this cartoon afflicts its monsters with silly weaknesses that aren't usually associated with monsters in paranormal shows, whether they're daddy issues or weaknesses for Icelandic disco.

Bob cuts off Linda from singing yet another impromptu song.
While Mabel learns to assert herself as temporary boss and everyone's able to save the shop in time for Stan's return from vacation (plus Mabel wins the bet), Linda and the kids aren't able to save a damn thing. She quits her market job after accepting Bob's apology for lashing out at her and giving her a mixed job performance review at the restaurant, which has been deprived of its electricity because without Linda, Bob is even more clueless than Linda when it comes to bills. Because it's Fox and not the Disney Channel, Linda and the kids amusingly walk out on the store and leave it in total disarray, and off-screen, Linda is basically back to square one, returning to a restaurant that will be upgraded from "no electricity" to "still in the red" like at the start of "Lindapendent Woman." Well, at least it won't close like the non-crematorium businesses next door do every week.

Expected arrival time of the exterminators from The Miceman Cometh: four hours.
(Photo source: Stores Next to Bob's Burgers)
Stray observations (regarding both "Boss Mabel" and "Lindapendent Woman"):
* The "Boss Mabel" cold open's button of a carsick kid tourist visualized by Stan as a wallet puking out change made me laugh, even though it's straight out of any How I Met Your Mother episode that replaces bongs with sandwiches.

* "SVZEB RH GSV SVZW GSZG DVZIH GSV UVA" = "Heavy is the head that wears the fez."

A game show host from Gravity Falls (left), the real-life Ron Burgundy (right)
* The game show host (Kevin Michael Richardson) in "Boss Mabel" looks like how former KTVU anchorman Dennis Richmond looked in the '70s. I'm not sure if that's Bay Area-bred creator Alex Hirsch's shout to the badass Oakland TV news legend (in addition to a little shout to Fairfield, California via one of the contestants), but that would be fantastic if it is.

* Gravity Falls is off the air again this week and then returns on March 1? This is why I'm tired of dealing with the kids' channels. Consistent schedules are to kids' channels what real hip-hop, rationality and hydrating before speaking on-camera are to Marco Rubio.

* Teddy misses how Linda used to gently lower the restaurant's thermostat: "Two degrees is everything! Two degrees killed the dinosaurs!"

* Tina is astonished by the milk fridge: "Wow, it's like I'm backstage at a Broadway show. About people who buy milk."

* Gene: "My first promotion! Watch out, glass ceiling!"

* A randy license plate in the market parking lot says "BRN2DRLU," the same plate that belongs to Dr. Yap, the skirt-chasing dentist and wanna-be rock guitarist voiced by Ken Jeong last season. So that means Dr. Yap dropped by the market off-screen, perhaps because he shreds with the Steve Miller Band cover band that one of Linda's co-workers dabbles in. Or maybe Dr. Yap's just there to pick up women. Try the frozen food section, player.

* During the "Lindapendent Woman" closing credits in the kitchen, the animation for Tina and Louise grooving to the fake disco song while helping out Bob is simple but sublime.

* I missed this when it was first posted last week, but St. Vincent recorded a nice cover of the montage music from "Bad Tina" for the "Bob's Buskers" series of Bob's Burgers song covers.


***

I like how "Immortal," the Robot Chicken season finale, plows through 15 sketches (mostly forgettable, but the funniest of these simply ends with the chyron "Fish Glory Holes") before devoting half of its 11-minute running time to a parody of director Drew Goddard's clever Cabin in the Woods, last year's other Joss Whedon sci-fi/fantasy film and the meta horror flick to end all meta horror flicks. "Immortal" is a good example of Robot Chicken's approach to sketch comedy, which is similar to how Key & Peele and Kroll Show approach it (it's also why these three shows play better in reruns than SNL does): sketches rarely overstay their welcome. If one doesn't make you laugh, on to the next one.

The episode's final sketch tweaks The Cabin in the Woods' "the ancient gods that have to be appeased are the bloodthirsty horror genre fans" concept and makes the stoned Adult Swim viewers the ancient gods. Creators/executive producers Seth Green and Matthew Senreich voice themselves and assume the Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins roles from the film, while Green's old Buffy boss voices one of the monsters from the film's zoo, a zombie version of himself, who's got a literal ax to grind with the Fox network execs who cancelled his creations Firefly and Dollhouse. (Zombie Whedon even says "Grr, argh" twice, just like the monster in the Mutant Enemy Productions logo that closes Whedon's shows.) The other creatures in the Robot Chicken version of the zoo range from Aqua Teen Hunger Force's Master Shake to Gabourey Sidibe (her non-verbal appearance in the zoo is a great what-the-shit moment).

A scene from Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing
Because I enjoyed the short-lived Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, which got mistreated by the Humping Robot that is ABC, my favorite element of the Cabin in the Woods spoof actually has little to do with either Whedon or Adult Swim. Guest voice actors Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker get to switch their Apartment 23 personas, with Ritter voicing the virgin of the teen group and Walker voicing the slut. It's hard to dislike a sketch that does that role reversal and has the famously grumpy Alan Moore attacking people with his tentacle-like facial hair (I'd hate to see what "Viscous Coupling" would have done with that). The Cabin in the Woods backdrop is a fun reworking of Robot Chicken's season-ending tradition of Adult Swim head Mike Lazzo declaring Robot Chicken cancelled and the perfect way to cap off a death-minded sixth season I only caught bits and pieces of but enjoyed when a gag or two killed, both literally and figuratively. On to the next one.

***

It's interesting that the most anticipated Adventure Time episode of the season doesn't feature Finn and Jake at all. The Adventure Time universe is so rich and fully realized that it remains entertaining even when Finn and Jake are absent, like in "Bad Little Boy," the second short to center on Fionna the human (Madeleine Martin from Californication) and Cake the cat (Roz Ryan), the Ice King's gender-swapped fanfic versions of Finn and Jake. Since the airing of "Fionna and Cake," the female Finn and her cat have turned into two of the show's most popular (and in the case of Fionna, most frequently cosplayed) characters despite being figments of the Ice King's imagination and receiving very little screen time.

Fionna and Cake run the risk of being boring Mary Sues, but luckily, they're as sharply drawn as Finn and Jake, and Martin and Ryan bring their story-within-a-story characters to life quite well. As a comedic episode about the storytelling process and refining an unappealing piece of fiction so that it clicks with the audience, "Bad Little Boy" is on a par with "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday," one of my favorite Party Down episodes. The short tosses a jab or two at how terrible and haphazard most fanfics are (the Ice King's royal prisoners, who are to the stories in this episode what Megan Mullally's non-geeky Lydia was to the sci-fi movie script in the Guttenberg episode, can't bear to hear their captor read any more of his wack Fionna and Cake fanfics). At the same time, it also finds the joy in that kind of storytelling when it's done with much more skill, like when Marceline--a musician who's no stranger to spinning taut and economical stories, but in song form--steps in and comes up with a Fionna and Cake adventure that leaves the imprisoned princesses satisfied.

The Vampire Queen inserts the Ice King's gender-swapped version of herself--charming but jerky Marshall Lee (Donald Glover, in a role that writer/storyboarder/composer Rebecca Sugar wanted Dante Basco to play)--to shake up Fionna and Cake's world, and it's remarkable how "Bad Little Boy" doubles as a great Marceline episode (and without giving her much screen time too). The story-within-a-story reveals in clever ways how Marceline feels about her past self (Marshall is reminiscent of Marceline's earlier adversarial self, before she befriended Finn) and what she thinks of other Ooo-ians. For instance, her friendly rival and ex-lover Princess Bubblegum, who's in the form of Prince Gumball (Neil Patrick Harris, reprising his role from "Fionna and Cake"), doesn't come off well in her story and is a bit of an uptight killjoy.

Somewhere, NBC's Smash fucking wishes it were as genuinely good as this.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
But what is up with that part of the musical number where Cake morphs into a shapely cat woman while dancing with Marshall? That bit was clearly thrown in to excite the furries in the audience. Like tentacle porn, the furry thing doesn't appeal to me at all, so I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable during that bit (although Cake's shapely form isn't as disturbing as some of the really grotesque forms Jake has morphed into). Okay, Catwoman is hot, whether she's Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anne Hathaway or Tamara Taylor, but a feline with tits and an ass is weird in a not-so-pleasant way, like any time the Ice King winds up in a state of undress or we get a close-up of his nasty bare feet. People of Earth, stop sexualizing your cats! Or your cars! Or octopi...

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