Friday, April 18, 2014

State of My March III: Archer, Portlandia, Broad City

I reviewed my Spring watching this year and called the series State of My March despite the fact that it's now April. Roll with it, folks

Archer- Any attempt to quantify just how much fun I’m having watching Archer would just be a gushing spew of hyperbole at this point. Suffice it to say, it’s the best  show on television right now.

Although the show has made waves among TV critics this season for changing the form of the show from the exploits of a spy agency to a drug smuggling operation, the truth was that things haven’t changed that much.  It’s still a ragtag group engaging in dangerous activity in exotic settings.  The only thing that’s changed is the moral alignment of the group and, come on guys, it’s not as if Captain America started devoting his efforts to Ponzi schemes: These guys were never paragons of good to begin with.

What makes the show so great is the same as what defines most TV comedies as great in the Golden Age of TV (in the old days, comedy was more punchline based): Well-developed comic characters and great interplay between those characters. Not to mention the running gags which have taken on more of a thru-line this season in the form of Pam’s crack addiction and the dwindling stockpile of crack (spoiler: those two factors are interrelated).

Everything from the minutiae to the large developments in the plot are satisfying here. Among the larger developments that are making me especially happy is seeing Cyrill finally develop some backbone and stick it to Archer. There are few characters I'd want to become a Central American dictator more than Cyrill and he does not disappoint. There’s also an overt declaration of friendship from Archer to Pam that’s the kind of character growth that this show greatly needs in small doses.  
What’s also worth noting is that there’s a more realistic scale of death in this season. In the past, Archer was like an 80’s action hero in the way he would be impervious to bullets and effortlessly kill nameless goons. In Archer’s first two missions of this season, the death toll was zero and the ISIS gang barely escaped with their lives losing considerable amounts of money along the way. If anyone's keeping score, the only major villain deaths to occur this season happened at the hands of a tiger and alligators rather than the ISIS gang.

Speaking of villain deaths, I’ve always lamented the fact that the rogues gallery of Archer consisted of just Katja and Barry. In this light, it’s been a highly pleasant surprise that some of the villains previously thought dead have survived (handwaved relatively easily) and back on the show including the gay hitmen in Miami and George Takei's Yakuza character. 

Broad City-Abby and Ilana narrowly win my vote for two most depraved characters on television and that’s saying something with "Legit", "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia", "South Park", and "The League" still on the air. These ladies make Sara Silverman look like a Victorian era lady-in-waiting. And it’s to their credit that the show doesn’t feel like it’s being gross just for the sake of being gross. My take on the show's grossness is that the duo is playing around with gender stereotypes . In a recent episode where the pair is checking out guys on a basketball court and being told that the players are made uncomfortable by their ogling, we're being challenged to reimagine sleazy male behavior if it were exhibited by women. 

The show has a distinct voice culled from a visibly apparent improv background that I suspect is long-form based on the fact that the laughs-per-minute is relatively low and it doesn’t seem to match any sort of sitcomey perspective. The season finale, involving the duo lavishly dining out in an expensive seafood restaurant despite allergies to sea food, was my favorite of the season so far. It's winning premise was marginally enough to overcome the odd comic style and general grossness, but it's usually a close call whether an episode will be worthwhile. 

If I was a 1st grade teacher (in my school district before 2nd grade, you'd get need improvement, improving, or check mark rather than the standard letter grade), I would grade this show "needs improvement" and send it back to the drawing board but since I don't have the power to change the creative decisions made by this show, I'll likely tune out.

Portlandia- His latest turn as Seth Meyers' band leader is confirmation Fred Armisen is positively weird when unleashed to do his own thing and what's impressive is that his idiosyncratic brand of comedy doesn’t show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season.

One thing I’m now learning is that nearly every time we see Fred and Carrie on-screen, they are playing recurring characters. I’m familiar with feminist book store owners Toni and Candice (whom I love) and the gender switch of Lance and Nina (whom I loathe) but beyond those two pairs, I can rarely tell one from the other. Peter and Nance strike me as the baseline Potlandia characters. Self-conscious, politically correct, highly particular in their tastes, and many people seem like a variation on those two (my last blog post was an effort to beak down what exactly the ideal Portlandia character was). The Lance half of Lance/Nina and Skype seem to be the exceptions on this rule. In this sense, it's disappointing that they haven't thinned out Lance and Skype's screen time. I still haven't gotten the joke to Lance and Nina other than the initial revelation of the gender switch.

I’m not sure if I’m in the minority in the respect of not knowing who's who but it’s not lessening my enjoyment. It's jut worth noting that the show’s “characters” aren’t particularly succeeding at being distinct from one another.

Still, a lot is working this season. Toni and Candice are being unleashed this season in mindblowingly awesome ways. As a basketball fan and a Toni/Candice fan, the Trailblazers episode was like a Christmas-comes-early present for me. The show is great at stuff that's only slightly comical in tone and "Celery" was a wonderful mixture of styles to create something vaguely comic (which sort of hammers the funniness in its own way) but wonderfully unique. The show is also sticking with guest stars that blend in whether Kumail Nanjani or Steve Buscemi. Is Aubrey Plaza gonna return? I'm hoping so.

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