You can literally blink and miss things in this pilot*. Watch it twice. Or three times. First just let the absurdity of the situation wash over you, then go back and soak up all the sight gags and the often casually tossed-off hilarious dialogue. Then absorb the animation; it’s amazing, with remarkable depth of field and subtlety of facial expressions. In the scene where Archer is eating breakfast, pause it and just look at the detail of the food on the table; it’s gorgeous.

The first moments of the pilot give you the idea you’re watching something really dark. Our hero, Sterling Archer/code name Duchess (H. Jon Benjamin), is about to be tortured for information by an old guy with a vaguely Russian accent and a golf cart battery. But the female face that appears on the far side of the observation window looks far more intimidating.

Thus we have our set-up. Archer is a super spy who works for his mom (Jessica Walter). As evidenced by their first scene together, they’re a solidly matched in toughness, narcissism, and vitriol.

Acher’s uniqueness is its successful mash up of spy action with workplace comedy. It’s like if the chick from Alias went to work at Dunder Mifflin. At ISIS, we get pithy axioms like, “When your co-workers put food in the refrigerator, that’s a bond of trust.” They worry about expense accounts and break room etiquette.

Natch, there’s intra-office schtuping. Archer used to date machine gun-toting uber-bombshell Lana (Aisha Tyler). They broke up over–you guessed it–his mommy issues. This woman scorned is now with Cyril (Chris Parnell), who has no earthly business dating the likes of her. He is so painfully dull that his scene with Archer is literally the only boring moment of the episode.

Archer is sleeping with the secretary, Cheryl or Carol. He can’t get her name right. Remember that–the joke lasts beyond this episode.

Archer pretends he thinks there’s a mole in the office, as a ploy to gain access to the ISIS mainframe. When he is forced to break in, he reveals how painfully inadequate the company’s security is. It turns out there is a mole in the office and he is only caught by complete accident.

This thing is just packed with oddball lines ranging from the unexplained “that thing with the mayonnaise” to the twice-used “Johnny Bench called.” (Look it up. I had to.)

The pilot gives a taste of what every episode will be about; It’s not that the agents are complete bumbling idiots. That would be too easy. They’re totally cool and skilled, it’s just that their extreme self-interest blinds them to half the stuff going on around them. And they hate each other, but it’s as a team that they somehow win the day.

And, whether Archer loves his mother or hates her, he does so too strongly to be healthy. At any rate, they’re eerily alike from their piercing blue eyes, revealed in the pilot’s first moments, to their peculiar vehemence about ants, revealed in the last.

*This is actually episode 1.1, “Mole Hunt.” There is an unaired pilot available on DVD through Amazon.

Ghost Whisperer

I’ve watched various episodes of Ghost Whisperer over time, in no particular order. I’m always slightly confused because there are different characters on it every time I happen to catch it. Sometimes Camryn Manheim is on it, sometimes Jamie Kennedy, sometimes Jay Mohr and, in the episode I caught today, Aisha Tyler. So I had to get to the bottom of this and see the original cast in action. A lot of shows switch actors and characters over time, in response to ratings or whatever, but we must assume that the pilot is the closest thing to the creator’s real vision.

To introduce Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) the writers present her to us as a little girl. At a funeral for an old man, she has a predictable interaction with the deceased’s ghost, sharing a secret message with his widow. If you came into this viewing with no idea what the show is about, that takes care of it quickly and cleanly.

We then find the adult Melinda at her wedding reception, perhaps suggesting some parallel between this day and the one at the long ago funeral. She has a heart-to-heart with her new brother-in-law that reveals a few details about her husband Jim (David Conrad). He is a paramedic who recently lost a patient.

The newlyweds move into a new house, the house becoming the source of things creepy that will form the plot of the episode. Melinda immediately starts seeing weird stuff, but since that ghost in the cold open was such a sweetie it’s not quite clear why these new ones are scary.

The show’s “rules” are spelled out through a coffee house conversation Melinda has with her best friend Andrea (Aisha Tyler).  She utters an adage that seems to carry great weight: “Places aren’t haunted. People are haunted.”  Yet, the new house certainly seems haunted, and Melinda claims that ghosts don’t usually make house calls.

The pilot plot revolves around the ghost of an M.I.A. Vietnam soldier (Jensen Ackles) who is looking for his wife. He—or someone—yells at her in a dream, something that apparently happens to her regularly. She tracks down the soldier’s son (Balthazar Getty). Although Melinda has been assisting sprits for most of her life, she’s really awkward and embarrassed when it comes time to talk to the living relatives.

By this point, I’m wondering why the writers bothered with the cold open of Melinda as a child. If they were telling us that the talking to ghosts thing is old hat for her, then why does it seems so fresh and scary in her adulthood? Why did they choose her wedding day as the point of attack for this story?

The other unexplained circumstance is that Melinda has recently promised her husband she’ll cut back on the ghost counseling business. Yet her husband seems okay with her vocation, at least until he has his own crisis of faith about being a paramedic. Finally, a Shamylan-style twist keeps this pilot from completely dying on the vine.

Eventully, of course, she reunities father and son through a tearful exchange one-sided exchange. She paraphrases what the ghost says—something I’ve noticed she does in other episodes as well—going to far as to correct his grammar. But I guess you’d be smug, too, if you had supernatural powers.

When all is done and the dead have gone into the light, this pilot doesn’t leave me feeling that I’ve gotten to know these characters. It has been more about how life, death, and afterlife work, and we’ve had that spelled out at least a thousand times since Carol Anne got sucked into the TV. The next episode could just as well be about a different ghost whisperer, solving another ghost’s quest for closure. So, as a pilot I wouldn’t say this episode carries its weight. And with all the subsequent changes one feels like there must have been a lot of “this show would be pretty good if only…” Although it ran for 5 seasons, the network finally threw in the towel last year. (A rumor that ABC is going to pick it up was apparently unfounded.) Jennifer Love Hewitt says an emotional good-bye here.