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.
Anthony Bourdain is reportedly such an Archer fan he reached out to its producers for a guest shot on the show. So how does he fare as a guest voice actor in "Live and Let Dine," the latest Archer episode? As a voice actor, Bourdain is a great culinary expert.
But as Lance Casteau, a bastard chef who berates and belittles Archer, Lana, Cyril and Ray while they're undercover as workers at his ritzy restaurant Seize (as in the French word for "16") to protect the Albanian ambassador from an assassination threat, the famously outspoken celebrity chef/author/travel show host/reality cooking show judge fits in well with the "be an asshole to everyone and hurl an insulting nickname at someone" milieu of Archer. Bourdain even has the honor of delivering such a nickname in his first scene, when he calls Lana "giraffe lady."
"Live and Let Dine" is initially told from the point of view of the off-screen camerawoman for Lance's reality show Bastard Chef. The little reality genre touches that the animators replicate are dead-on, particularly the camera lens' motion blurs as the camerawoman zooms in on her subjects. However, I'm glad that Archer abandons the show-within-a-show structure early on in "Live and Let Dine" to basically turn into a swinging-door farce, but Archer-style rather than Frasier-style (which means it doesn't contain any actual swinging doors, it's got a body count and characters get to curse without violating FX's ban on F-bombs). Episodes told entirely from a documentarian's point of view are such a tired and overused gimmick (although I liked Raising Hope's recent episode-long Modern Family spoof--mostly because it mocked the ABC smash hit's sappy and forced end-of-episode voiceovers and had Lucas Neff do a dead-on Ed O'Neill during its climactic voiceover--and "The Office Job," Leverage's Jonathan Frakes-directed Office homage from about a couple of years ago, which I happened to rewatch in its entirety on YouTube right before "Live and Let Dine" aired).
The last seven minutes of "Live and Let Dine" are Archer at its farcical best, with the funniest bit of comedic business being Malory and Ron sharing a table with Cheryl/Carol and Pam, both clad in their socialite costumes from the dinner party in last season's "Lo Scandalo." I could watch an entire episode of this faux-family at the table, with Malory as the uptight mom, Ron as the fun dad and Cheryl/Carol and Pam as the mischievous kids whose behavior he encourages (Ron embarrasses Malory with his propensity for smuggling juice boxes and packets of crackers or grape jam in his tuxedo pockets, due to the slow arrival of food during the high-society activities he takes Malory to). Judy Greer is on fire in "Live and Let Dine," whether she's pretending to be an older socialite at the table or hooting and screeching like a monkey a couple of times earlier in the episode. (Speaking of Greer's fearlessness as a comedic performer, I liked how Miss Guided, Greer's short-lived guidance counselor sitcom, would always cap off its five-second opening titles with a hysterical shot of Greer's real-life high school yearbook photo. Letting such an embarrassing photo turn up in every episode takes muchos cojones.)
Fortunately, the stunt-casting of Bourdain isn't completely superfluous like so many celebrity guest shots are on other sitcoms, and Bourdain's character, a parody of two other celebrity chefs, Gordon Ramsay and Rocco DiSpirito, turns out to be a pawn in Katya and Barry's continuing plot to embarrass and ruin ISIS (the bionic couple's killing of Lance must be a delightful visual for viewers who have grown irritated with Bourdain's cantankerous shtick). However, Katya and Barry are unaware that ISIS is headed towards falling apart without their interference--most likely due to the inevitable power struggle between Malory and Lana, who's miffed over the corrupt things Archer's mom has been getting away with as the head of ISIS, like faking the threat against the Albanian ambassador to get back at the Seize staff for cheating her out of a reservation. Malory could be the real antagonist of the fourth season, not Katya.
* Archer and Cyril's exchange about the former's past credentials as a restaurant manager ("I used to own a restaurant." "It was a burger joint.") is a nice callback to the Bob's Burgers crossover scene in the season premiere. Speaking of Bob's Burgers, Cheryl/Carol and Pam were especially Gene and Louise-like at the table, acting out their clichéd, Marx Brothers movie-style idea of how socialites speak, which is funny because Cheryl/Carol herself comes from money.
* Archer to Lana: "Do you know how TV actually works? They're not gonna broadcast this episode in the restaurant tonight! [Turns to the camerawoman.] Wait, are you, guys?... Like a closed-circuit deal or... Because come to think of it, I actually don't know how TV works either."
* Archer: "He's a master chef, Lana, which turns out is not nearly as gay a job as I thought it was. I mean, it's no secret agent, but it's way above architect."
* Archer's sudden hero worship of Lance echoes his search for his dad, and when his latest surrogate father figure trashes his abilities as a chef at the end of "Live and Let Dine," he takes it pretty hard. Could he be starting to grow bored with the spy life he's returned to and could he be longing for his quiet and unassuming life back at Bob's Burgers? And because Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal have been announced as future guest stars (Gene and Louise were atypically mute in the season premiere), is that a hint that Archer will be making a return visit to the seaside burger joint he left behind?
* Cheryl/Carol, as Pam urges her to give requisitions officer Rodney a handjob in exchange for equipment to decode Seize's well-hidden phone number: "Great, so it's give him a handjob or change up my Sunday routine?... Ugh, this is so unfair! Okay, but I am not spitting in your face."
* Lance's comparison of a sheep's blood-stained Cyril to "a dinosaur's tampon" brings me back to another great gore-related gag involving another Chris Parnell character, 30 Rock's Dr. Spaceman, in which the doctor arrived at work in a bloodied lab coat and said, "I was at a costume party earlier this evening. And the hostess' dog attacked me, so I had to stab it."
* I love both the sound FX and animation for a hungry Pam quickly digging in to a plate of tave kosi. Another standout bit of sound FX in this episode is the cold open gag of the prolonged ringing noises of the metal bowls Archer drops on the kitchen floor.
* Cheryl/Carol's off-screen reactions in her hoity-toity voice to Lance's poisoning of the Albanian ambassador kill me, no pun intended ("I'll have what he's having!" when the ambassador keels over, "Then I don't want what he's having!" when the attaché discovers the ambassador's pulse has stopped and "Oh Teddy! Ever the scamp!" when Cyril emerges from the kitchen in only his underwear).
* Lance: "I coated his glass with cyanide, you idiots! For the toast." Ron: "Ooh, there's toast?"
* Lance: "Six million bucks, which I'm gonna use to deficit-finance a new show where I travel, so I can insult people's cooking all over the globe!"
Who would expect an episode of Gravity Falls to occasionally sound as philosophical, deep and ruminative about our purpose in life as the voiceovers in Terrence Malick's film version of The Thin Red Line? I sure didn't.
"What is life anyway, when compared to the immortality of a high score?," ponders a shrunken Soos while he's literally trapped inside the evil pinball machine he had earlier beaten to top the machine's high scorers list.
"Sometimes I think, is this all there is?," wonders Grunkle Stan later in the episode, after Mabel sticks inside his mouth a magical set of false teeth that, ironically, forces its wearer to never lie when he speaks. "Is life just some kind of horrific joke without a punchline? That we're all just biding our time until the sweet, sweet release of death?"
I would have expected to hear such lofty and dark dialogue during Goof Troop, but not during Gravity Falls. Seriously though, the incongruity of such lines turning up on an all-ages Disney animated series is one of the most enjoyable bits during "Bottomless Pit!," a clever anthology episode consisting of three stories involving the characters' encounters with magical items (actually four stories, if you count Stan's clichéd sports movie where he's the heroic coach of a football team, his sidekick is a fawning robot named Footbot and the trailer, which we don't get to see, is most likely soundtracked with James Brown's "I Feel Good").
|(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)|
Is it me or does this anthology of dangerous supernatural items feel like a family-friendly take on Friday the 13th: The Series? The segments are linked by a framing device in which Dipper, Soos, Stan and Mabel have accidentally fallen into the episode's titular abyss, so to pass the time, they try to regale each other with stories of recent adventures in Gravity Falls that are either fake or true (I especially like how this episode involving a bottomless pit is co-directed by an animator named Joe Pitt).
Each segment reflects its storyteller's personality. Bumbling Soos' segment is sort of bumblingly told (it comes complete with a cumbersome title, "Soos' Really Great Pinball Story: Is That a Good Title? Do Titles Have to Be Puns or Whatever?"), while Dipper's story about himself is a cautionary tale that posits him as more of a loser who's in over his head than a triumphant hero, which says a lot about how Dipper thinks of himself. Dipper's approach to his tale reminds me of the Taxi episode in which the cabbies share their fantasy lives, and when it's Alex's turn to fantasize, he's so neurotic and defeatist that he's unable to enjoy an initially delightful fantasy about picking up a mystery woman in his cab, which the other cabbies are trying to help him to imagine in his head, and he keeps wrecking his own fantasy with terrible mishaps like the discovery that the hot date he's hit it off with (who was played by a pre-Three's Company Priscilla Barnes) is actually his long-unseen niece.
|(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)|
The first segment, "Voice Over," stems from Dipper's insecurities about his own gawky attributes, particularly his frequently cracking pre-pube voice. Old Man McGucket (who, like Soos and Stan, is voiced by series creator Alex Hirsch) presents Dipper with a solution to his Peter Brady-style predicament: an experimental potion that can alter people's voices. After drinking the potion, Dipper sounds way more stentorian (his new voice is provided by announcer A. Smith Harrison), but he didn't anticipate that people would find the sight of a voice like that coming out of a 12-year-old boy to be disconcerting, so when Mabel and Soos first hear Dipper speak in his modified voice, they each attack him with blunt instruments ("What have you done with my brother?! Dipper, I'll save you from this body-switching warlock!," yells Mabel). Instead of improving Dipper's life, the new voice ends up being a curse.
Though I found Dipper's romantic pursuit of his older co-worker Wendy to be a bit of a tiresome arc earlier in Gravity Falls' first season (and it appears to be resurfacing, judging from the promo for the next episode, which has Wendy moonlighting as a lifeguard), I wish "Voice Over" devoted a few seconds to some sort of callback to that arc because much of it involved Dipper trying to make himself manlier to impress Wendy. The segment doesn't include Wendy's reaction to deep-voiced Dipper, which I would have wanted to see (she'd probably attack him with a blunt instrument also), and that odd omission makes "Voice Over" the weakest and most rushed of the three segments, although it's filled with several amusing gags, like deep-voiced Dipper's bizarre, Toby Danger-esque cry of "Aiyee!" and Mabel's game of "Spin the Pig."
|(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)|
The other two segments are slightly better constructed. Despite its cumbersome title, Soos' story is far from cumbersome and is a satisfying little character piece about the town's least ambitious citizen, whose one ambition in life is to attain the highest score on the Mystery Shack's western-themed pinball machine. Soos finally accomplishes it, but by cheating and tilting the machine, so the game's talking cowboy skeleton (John DiMaggio) retaliates by zapping Soos, Dipper and Mabel into the machine and making them play for their lives. This isn't the first time Gravity Falls has miniaturized Soos, Dipper and Mabel (the show channeled Land of the Giants in "Little Dipper"), but the show excels at giant set pieces where everyday objects become extraordinary threats to Soos and the twins, and the scenes inside the machine are no exception.
In "Trooth Ache," Mabel's choice for her story, the twins have had enough of their great-uncle's propensity for fibbing, after he nearly lands in trouble when he lies to get Sheriff Blubs (Kevin Michael Richardson) off his back while teaching his "seeing-eye bear" how to drive (great character animation for the bear, by the way, and very reminiscent of the animation during The Simpsons' classic gag of a disastrous daytime talk show hosted by Gentle Ben, the bear from the '60s TV series of the same name). So Mabel turns to Dipper's journal for help and learns about the aforementioned set of truth-telling teeth, which is buried beneath a tree stump. The magic teeth ends up making this now-brutally honest Stan even more irritating than the old Stan, and Mabel realizes that the old Stan had a valid point about bending the truth for the greater good when she has to concoct a lie about Stan being a crime fiction author to save him from being arrested.
|(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)|
"Trooth Ache" concludes with a surprising twist, which is foreshadowed earlier in the segment by the sight of Stan dozing off to a copy of a book called The Plot Twist: Mabel's story actually happened, and the magic teeth is one of the items Mabel threw away into the pit during the cold open, right before the four of them fell into it. An even weirder phenomenon than the pit itself is the Disney Channel's baffling decision to stretch out the season and air first-run episodes of this entertaining cartoon every two weeks, a great way to alienate much of the audience. Where did those magic choppers go, Mabel? I know a few network execs who could use those teeth in order to explain the truth behind that strange decision.
Other memorable quotes:
* Skeleton Cowboy Guy: "Get ready to meet yer maker, kids! My maker is Ballway Games in Redmond, Washington." Redmond is where Microsoft is based.
* "Mr. Pines, I thought old folks were useless, but you taught me and my gloating friends a lesson." As a screenwriter, Stan is as skilled with dialogue as the scribe who came up with that line in Batman Forever where the whiny security guard shrieks, "Oh no, it's boiling acid!"
* Stan defends his self-aggrandizing story: "What? That story was great. I even threw in a talking robot for the kids."
* "STAN IS SICK AND NEEDS A BEAR.--Dr. Medicine"
* "Stan, what do you do in secret every day during your lunch break?" "Usually, I spend the hour aggressively scratching myself in places I shouldn't mention."
* "14-5-24-20 21-16: '6-15-15-20-2-15-20 20-23-15: 7-18-21-14-11-12-5'19 7-18-5-22-5-14-7-5'" = "Next up: 'Footbot Two: Grunkle's Grevenge'"
Jon Hamm brings his pipes to Bob's Burgers and voices a talking state-of-the-art toilet that Gene considers his best friend, as part of an E.T. parody/homage (the episode is entitled "O.T.: The Outside Toilet"). In addition to sanitation, the nameless toilet can rattle off trivia, play any pop song and tell jokes (it's basically Siri, except it can sprinkle cool water on your butt). It's certainly the week's strangest and most amusing guest shot, animated or live-action.
Any viewer who isn't familiar with Hamm's frequent presence on comedy podcasts or his annual SNL guest-hosting stints will either be surprised by the Mad Men star's knack for absurdist comedy or won't be able to recognize his voice. That's how effective Hamm is as the toilet (an equally effective Neil Flynn turns up in the Peter Coyote antagonist role). The episode doesn't list Hamm in the end credits, so it acknowledges his presence by tossing in an in-joke in which Louise reacts to the unexpected sight of the usually drably dressed Bob in a suit and cracks, "Wow, Don Draper's kind of fat this season" (it's also a wink at Kristen Schaal's past--she had a bit part as a Sterling Cooper switchboard operator in the Mad Men pilot).
Bob's Burgers handles Gene's growing awareness of what it's like to care about something outside of himself in its usual way of entertainingly intertwining sweetness with absurdity, especially in one of the episode's funniest lines, when Bob says, "Look, Gene, it's not easy to take care of things. I mean, one time when you were a baby and I was watching you, you ate a fern, and you could have died, but you didn't." As for the episode's B-story, in which Bob gains newfound confidence by wearing a suit at all times, it may not as be quotable as the A-story, but it's made enjoyable by the return of non-sober Bob (an occasionally glimpsed side of Bob that's always welcome, like how on Parks and Rec, drunk or hopped-up-on-flu-medicine Leslie is my favorite side of Leslie and isn't an overused comedic device) and bits of overlapping dialogue that make you wonder how much of them were improvised. The episode even leaves in a moment where H. Jon Benjamin breaks character and chuckles. It's not surprising that Benjamin would have such a blast in the recording booth because he's working on the best non-cable adult cartoon right now.
Other memorable quotes:
* Gene: "I'm gonna bet my sisters $1,000 that there isn't a talking toilet in the woods. That's what I call easy money." Toilet: "Playing artist Eddie Money."
* Linda bristles over the female customers who flirt with sharp-dressed Bob: "We were all single once, but you don't got to be a slut about it, you know?"
* Tina: "Say, 'I love you, Tina. I'm not a toilet, I'm a... boy.'" Toilet: "No." Tina: "Oh."
* Linda: "$14,000? For 14 grand, I'd let that toilet poop on me!"
* Ollie in his underwear: "I can make my knees smile."
* Andy: "Wow, does it wipe for you too?" Ollie: "What's wipe?"
* Gene: "There's a coffee shop! They'll have outlets." Tina: "For people writing screenplays."
If you're curious about how closely Tina's portrayer, stand-up comic Dan Mintz, resembles his animated alter ego, he turned up on Letterman a few weeks ago.
Regular Show writers/storyboarders Madeline Queripel and Andres Salaff were responsible for one of the show's most unengaging shorts, this season's Fourth of July-related "Firework Run," a borderline racist episode that felt like a right-winger's worst nightmare about the Mexican gangster villains from Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy, even though Salaff himself is Latino (at the end of "Firework Run," the main heavy was revealed to have been a robot, perhaps a "Kim Jong Il is really an alien cockroach, so that's why we made his Engrish accent so cartoonishly thick"-style attempt to make the episode come off as less racist.) Queripel and Salaff also happen to be behind one of the show's best shorts, "That's My Television," an imaginative and wildly funny installment where Mordecai and Rigby come to the rescue of one of their favorite childhood TV stars, a talking TV set named RGB2 (Sam Marin), who's grown tired of showbiz and wants to flee to a much quieter life in a destination known as "Pine Mountain."
RGB2 starred as himself on the crappy '80s sitcom That's My Television, and a nameless TV network has brought back into production the still-popular show, which brings to mind every corny '80s housekeeper sitcom you've seen, whether it's Gimme a Break, Mr. Belvedere or TBS' ultra-cheesy Down to Earth (RGB2's signature catchphrase is "I hope you saved room for dessert!"). But RGB2--who needs to ingest cans of "'80s Air" a la Perri-Air from Spaceballs in order to survive--isn't enjoying a single minute of the revival, especially because the network is run by an intimidating exec who looks like Cartoon Network founder/owner Ted Turner (but doesn't sound like him at all and is voiced here by Jeff Bennett) and sends armed thugs in suits to threaten his stars if they don't do what he says.
At RGB2's Comic-Con-style meet-and-greet with his fans, Mordecai and Rigby win a drawing to receive That's My Television DVDs signed on the spot by RGB2 himself, and the star secretly pleads with the duo to help him escape to Pine Mountain. Mordecai and Rigby agree to help out their sitcom idol--it's not surprising that these slacker park workers identify with a domestic worker who frequently gets into comedic misunderstandings with the head of the household ("RGB2, room for dessert doesn't actually mean a whole room full of dessert!")--and their kind gesture sends Faux-Ted and his network thugs chasing after them in the most entertaining animated car chase I've seen in a while. Either Queripel or Salaff is enamored with both Casino Royale's badass airport tarmac stunt in which the jet wash of an incoming plane sends a police car flying through the air and the Guinness World Record-breaking Aston Martin cannon roll stunt from the same film because during the chase sequence, a couple of the network minions' Humvees are seen tumbling through the air in similar fashion.
RGB2 is clearly a riff on ALF, R2D2 and the dwarf actors who played them: Michu Meszaros sweated his balls off inside ALF's costume whenever a scene on ALF didn't call for the ALF puppet to be used, while R2 was operated by Kenny Baker, whose autograph adorns the liner notes of my CD copy of the expanded 1977 Star Wars soundtrack. The parallels to Meszaros and Baker are made plainly clear in the episode's nutty, disturbing and oddly affecting twist ending, when Mordecai and Rigby discover that RGB2 isn't a sentient TV set and has actually been a naked old actor inside the TV the whole time, which explains the need for '80s Air to help the poor guy breathe inside that damn TV. The dying man's destination turns out not to be a mountain but a billboard in the middle of nowhere for Pine Mountain Gas (presumably the gas station he either left behind to pursue stardom or was discovered at when the network was on the lookout for someone to operate RGB2).
Just like how this naked guy stayed hidden inside what was basically a mobile prison for over three decades, hidden within the '80s gags, the hilariously over-the-top car chase, the gunplay and the jabs at both focus group-driven TV and network exec jargon are serious questions about fandom, the pressures the public puts on TV stars and viewers' relationships with those stars and the TV industry--hence the double meaning of the title "That's My Television," which refers to both RGB2's show and people's attachment to the idiot box. The episode asks us to decide which kind of TV fan do we want to be by presenting two types of fans. Do we want to become so attached to TV that we degenerate into the mean and deranged middle-aged fangirl from RGB2's meet-and-greet who doesn't care for the well-being of a star like RGB2 and demands that he continue to entertain her even if the entertainer isn't happy or right in his mind or is endangering his own life by playing this character? Or do we want to be more like Mordecai and Rigby, who aren't as out-of-control in their fandom, are more understanding about RGB2's misery and are treating him more like a human being--even though for almost the entire episode, they think he's just a talking TV set?
"That's My Television" also questions whether it's worth it for performers like RGB2's portrayer to sacrifice a normal life--and their health--for fame and syndication money. Fortunately, the episode raises these questions without a single bit of speechifying and without trotting out Mordecai and Rigby after the episode to address the audience and deliver a moral like Filmation used to do with its characters. That's how terribly written most cartoons used to be back in the day. To borrow the words of one of the network thugs who get attacked by Mordecai, Rigby and RGB2 with weaponized cans of '80s Air, "Aw, sick! It smells like the '80s!"
Other memorable quotes:
* RGB2 defends himself with a rocket launcher: "It was a gift from the Russian Prime Minister! He loves the show!"
* "Bravo, gentlemen, bravo! Overall, that was a pretty nice PG getaway. Way to reach out to the 18-to-35 demographic. Oh, and nice third-act climax, by the way. The helicopter explosion really tied it all in with a cherry on top."
* "We just have a couple of notes for you. You see, our research groups have shown that nobody wants to see the good guys win anymore."
* The network exec threatens Mordecai, Rigby and RGB2 with his new, heavily armed and Poochie-like action star, who emerges on a skateboard: "Our focus group studied everything that boys ages nine to 14 find the most brutal and destructive!"
* "I'm not dead! I was just resting."
Titmouse, the lovable studio behind Metalocalypse, the Tumblr and Deviantart favorite Motorcity, the animated version of Black Dynamite and the upcoming new season of The Venture Bros., has an annual tradition in which animators in both the studio's West Coast and East Coast buildings produce shorts for an animation festival known as 5 Second Day. This week, Titmouse has added 5 Second Day as a one-minute-long anthology show on its Rug Burn YouTube channel, which Titmouse founded with another studio, Six Point Harness. All that's missing from this anthology show is a Rod Serling-style host. It ought to be Bullhorn from Black Dynamite.
For the first week of 5 Second Day, Rug Burn is posting webisodes each weekday, and then it will be a weekly series starting next Monday. I hope one of these sick and twisted shorts does unspeakable things to the members of the Parents Television Council.
The funniest of these shorts so far contains no dialogue. Unless you count "Whee!" as an actual word.