Friday, April 1, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Archer, "The Figgis Agency"

Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. Stream "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," my one-hour mix of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, right now.

Two seasons ago, Archer's season-long experiment as "Archer Vice" was a divisive one for fans of the animated spy spoof. The viewers who disliked the kinds of storytelling that resulted from Archer creator Adam Reed's decision to change the characters' jobs from spies to drug dealers found the fifth season to be aimless, while I enjoyed Reed's willingness to experiment that season and found the subsequent season, in which the perpetually immature Archer, new mom Lana, Malory and Ray returned to spying and worked as independent contractors for the CIA, to be the more aimless season.

But as Archer has gotten older, the show's animators have developed a knack for crafting satisfying action sequences that have gotten more impressive in scale and scope with each year. That's mostly why my favorite episode from Archer's sixth season is "The Kanes." Lana's visit to her parents' house in Berkeley presented a great balance of large-scale action (the episode's homage to the classic Bullitt car chase was second to the avalanche in "The Archer Sanction" as an impressive sixth-season set piece) and the smaller-scale kind of character-based comedy that's pulled off well by bottle episodes like "Vision Quest."

A lot of the rest of Archer's sixth season suffered from a lack of stakes. Sure, the addition of a baby to the relationship between Archer and Lana brought a bit of welcome depth to the character of Archer, but Reed seemed to be sleepwalking through the same kinds of espionage storylines he appeared to be getting bored with shortly before the "Archer Vice" revamp. Archer's new season seeks to rectify the lack of stakes by changing the show's backdrop again to Hollywood and putting the disgraced (and after the disastrous events in "Drastic Voyage," unemployed) spies to work as private investigators. The P.I. storylines will hopefully restore some stakes to the show and allow for the animators to continue to outdo themselves in the action department, and if "The Figgis Agency," Archer's seventh-season premiere, is any indication, Archer's new detective agency may just turn out to be a better creative shot in the arm for the show than the cocaine-slinging thing.

Technically, it's Cyril's detective agency, and Archer, Lana and Ray are his unlicensed gumshoes, applying their spying skills to investigative work. So far, Archer isn't exactly Michael Westen yet. In "The Figgis Agency," he gets badly bitten by a couple of attack dogs in a scene that made me wince and is straight out of The Boys from Brazil, the same movie that inspired Krieger's possible origins as a Hitler clone. He also falls down the same canyon twice and fails to notice that Cyril's client (Ona Grauer, a.k.a. Bionic Katya), a movie star who hired the titular agency to retrieve a disk that's in the hands of powerful L.A. sleazebag Alan Shapiro (Patton Oswalt, who seems to be channeling both the villainous Henry Gibson and Mark Rydell characters from The Long Goodbye), is actually an imposter. It's like if all the spy tips that pulled Michael out of countless jams as a P.I. during Burn Notice went wrong.

While Archer's adjustment to both P.I. work and L.A. isn't a smooth one ("California is assholes!," whines Archer about the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services' refusal to consider his credentials as a spy as sufficient enough for a P.I. license), the show exudes confidence in its new setting, whether comedically or stylistically. I love how each act on Archer now closes with Charlie's Angels-style graphics and the exact same musical sting that used to conclude each act on Charlie's Angels. And Venture Bros. score composer J.G. Thirlwell is a great addition to the Archer crew. He brings a nice cinematic sheen to the show's music, which previously consisted largely of library music cues from the '60s and '70s.

Reed's return to the slightly more ambitious kind of storytelling he briefly experimented with during the fifth season is especially exemplified by the premiere's cold open, which has J.K. Simmons and Keegan-Michael Key voicing a pair of homicide detectives for a scene that's a rarity for Archer. The scene was reportedly performed by Simmons and Key in the same booth--the cast members never record their lines together on Archer--and having them actually record their lines together is another good example of Reed's willingness to experiment this season. The Simmons and Key characters are investigating a corpse that appears to be Archer's, and he's floating face down in a pool just like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. It's, ugh, yet another in medias res cold open on TV, but unlike other in medias res cold opens, I actually give a shit about how Archer winds up in the pool six months after "The Figgis Agency."

And I'll continue to give a shit, as long as Archer continues to bring on the funny, like in the premiere's funniest scene, one of the show's many references to underappreciated or lesser-known movies. When the crazy Krieger presents Archer and Lana with an array of new gadgets for their break-in of Shapiro's house, he reveals himself to be a fan of one of my favorite Michael Mann flicks, Thief, and offers them a hilariously unnecessary thermal lance.

The thermal lance scene from Thief

It's classic Krieger: why settle for a visually boring safecracking kit when James Caan's thermal lance from Thief will make your heist look much cooler, even though the lance will most likely burn your face off? It's a moment that also seems to echo something Reed must have realized as he noticed the show's return to spy work last season was kind of a creative dead end: Archer is more entertaining when it doesn't play things safe.

Other memorable quotes:
* Fake Veronica Deane, objecting to Archer offering her booze: "It's 9:00 in the morning."
Archer: "I'm still on Eastern time."
Lana: "Archer..."
Archer: "It's lunchtime there."

* Cyril: "Hey, in case you've forgotten, the writing is literally on the wall, and I give the orders around here."
Archer: "Oh, I'm so sorry. Please, by all means."
Cyril: "Uh-huh. Um, well, our... Okay... Archer has your assignments, so listen up!"
Malory: "Truly inspiring, Cyril. It's like Patton and Churchill had a baby."

* Archer: "Okay, make sure they're secure 'cause they're our only way out of here."
Ray: "Aw, I was hoping T.C. was gonna come pick us up in the chopper."
Lana: "Ha!"
Archer: "Well, but he's gonna be busy flying around searching for your battered corpses, only to find out later that all the coyotes left was a pile of titanium gears and a shitty weave. [Hoists himself up to Shapiro's cliffside house.]"
Lana: "[Appalled gasp.] First of all... [Points to her hair.] This is not a weave!"
Ray: "[Chuckles.] Okay. [Follows Archer up to the house.]"
Lana: "Well, it ain't a shitty one."

* Lana, after Archer falls down the canyon: "Guess we oughta get crackin'."
Ray: "Rimshot."
Lana: "That would be a good porn name."
Ray: "Mine would be Lance Biggerstaff."
Lana: "I'm picturing a gay wizard."
Ray: "I always am."
Archer, after surviving his first of two falls down the canyon: "[Coughs.] Eat a dick, gravity."

* Lana, puzzled by an abstract painting: "No, I don't get this at all."
Ray: "Maybe 'cause it's upside down."
Lana: "Wait, really?"
Ray: "Uh, you're just kind of a hick."
Lana: "Said the man with a relative called Uncle Poppa."
Ray: "That's 'cause he's my mother's... Yeah, no, never mind."

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