Wednesday, January 25, 2012

FX's Archer: Adult Comedy, Shaken and Stirred

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 25, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Everyone who watches television has shows they feel guilty about enjoying. I will admit (now, hesitantly) to having watched Charmed and Smallville, with their more and more implausible storylines and often painfully awkward acting, to their respectively bitter ends, with a lot of ambivalence and often very little pleasure. Sometimes (like Cougar Town) guilty pleasures quickly make good for themselves, and that nascent guilt fades completely into unequivocal love. And sometimes a show which begins as a guilty pleasure never really changes at all, and you just have to confess that you’ve been an idiot all along. For me, right now, Archer – FX’s raunchy animated spy comedy – is that show. I watched Archer for an entire season before telling anyone how much I genuinely loved it, convinced (I now believe) that somehow my enjoyment of a very adult-oriented cartoon – full of dark humour and unabashed raunchiness – revealed something discomforting about my own sensibilities. It could take years of expensive psychoanalysis before I know what was really going on, but now, with the recent premiere of the show’s third season – and with FX Canada hopefully soon making the show available to my friends and colleagues north of the border – it’s time for me to weigh in publically on what may be the funniest half hour currently airing on television.

Jessica Walter, in the Archer studio
With some of television’s best voice talent – H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), and Aisha Tyler (The Talk) – and created by Adam Reed, an animation veteran previously most famous for his Adult Swim collaborations with animator Matt Thompson on the Cartoon Network, Archer is one of the richest shows on television in concept, vision, and execution. While Reed’s past work on Adult Swim (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) was very funny (and very strange) in its own ways, Archer represents an enormous leap in both writing and style. The action takes place at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) – a cash-strapped boutique spy agency run by Malory Archer (Walters). The spy at the centre of the agency is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (Benjamin) – codenamed Duchess (after Malory’s perhaps too-beloved and dearly departed dog) – an oversexed, emotionally stunted, but supremely self-possessed secret agent with mommy-issues and a near obsessive fixation on black turtlenecks. Archer is known, or at least calls himself, "the world's most dangerous spy,” which seems to be less a description of his spy skills than a nod to the fact that foes and friends alike come out of the other side of his missions a little worse for wear. He has a bad habit of inadvertently crippling, maiming, and often killing his allies. His much more skilled partner is Lana Kane (Tyler), a fearless and beautiful female agent who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend.

Set in a deliberately indeterminate and impossible era, Archer seems contemporary as far as pop culture is concerned, but still somehow exists in the middle of the Cold War. The Russians and the KGB are the baddies, and the Middle East is nowhere in sight, but storylines involving affirmative action, energy conservation, and sexual harassment complaints seem to place it in our own time. Cars and clothing reference the 60s and 70s, but everyone carries a cell-phone with picture and video capabilities. In the end, it all becomes just another part of the sheer fun of it all. And there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

BBC's The Hour: A Period Drama Whose Time has Come

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 19, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.  

Ben Whishaw stars in The Hour on BBC

In the years before the US dominated the international scene, and decades before Jack Bauer started putting severed heads in bowling bags, a ripping spy story could be told without suitcase nukes and hacksaws. Giving us a glimpse into the early days of BBC television, at its heart BBC’s The Hour (broadcast by the BBC in the UK this past summer, by BBC America in the US this fall, and now available on Netflix in Canada) is just such an old-fashioned spy drama – complete with government operatives in identical trench coats, tapped telephones, and messages hidden in crossword puzzles.

Period dramas – and British period dramas especially – used to have a very particular reputation on this side of the ocean. In the years before premium cable, discerning television viewers could reliably turn to PBS and its stable of British dramas: Upstairs, Downstairs; The Jewel in the Crown; Brideshead Revisited; any of a number of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. (And even as recently as this past fall, PBS has a well-justified hit with its broadcast of ITV’s Downton Abbey.) But however entertaining and distracting, one thing period dramas rarely have been is topical. If anything The Hour – despite the action taking place well over 50 years ago – may well suffer from too much topicality. Against the backdrop of a waning superpower trying to shore up its influence in a volatile Middle East with an unpopular and arguably illegal war, domestic journalists accused of unpatriotic activity for questioning a sitting government, a culture of suspicion and surveillance of average citizens, a lesser show than The Hour might almost buckle beneath the weight of its relevance. But it never does. With one short six-episode season under its belt, and a second season on its way in 2012, The Hour is a charming and eminently watchable drama told with understated production design, unassuming sexual tension, minimal but effective violence, and an ensemble of compelling characters.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The End of Bored to Death and How to Make It in America: Bidding Farewell to HBO’s Brooklyn Duology

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 4, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page. 

Bryan Greenberg and Victor Rasuk in HBO's How to Make It in America

A new year is upon us and HBO viewers certainly have a lot to look forward to in 2012: the official launch of Luck (starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte) at the end of January; the US premiere of the new Ricky Gervais BBC/HBO comedy, Life’s Too Short, in February; and a brand new season of Games of Thrones in April. But it turns out that HBO’s full schedule comes at the cost of two of my favourite, if less often celebrated, comedies: at the end of December HBO announced that Bored to Death and How to Make It in America would not be returning in 2012. Despite airing on HBO, both series have lived pretty much under the radar since their respective premieres, and their sleeper status unfortunately did not save them from the chopping block.

Ever since the shows first premiered a couple of years ago – Bored to Death in September 2009, with How to Make It in America taking over its timeslot in February of the next year – I’ve always thought of them as a pair: both shows were Brooklyn-centred comedies, and both, more significantly, came with Jewish male actors playing explicitly Jewish main characters. Even in this post-Seinfeld century, it is still rare to find shows with explicitly Jewish lead characters, and here suddenly were two! (No, Howard Wolowitz doesn’t count!) To be fair, Jason Schwartzman’s character on Bored to Death is perhaps a more familiar New York Jewish type (in the Woody Allen vein), but Bryan Greenberg’s Ben Epstein on How to Make It in America just may have been the single hippest Jewish male character in TV history. Despite its cancellation, I hope that this promises more cool, attractive and relatively non-neurotic Jewish characters in years to come.

HBO doesn’t like to cancel shows – to its credit this is the same network that gave David Simon five full seasons of The Wire and has supported Simon’s Treme into a confirmed third, and likely fourth and final season, despite their respective struggles in the ratings – but when HBO does cancel shows, it is often heartbreaking. (Part of me will never quite forgive HBO for cutting Deadwood short after only three seasons.) With only three seasons of Bored to Death and two seasons of How to Make It in America, HBO has cut down two great shows, both still in their prime.