Archer

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.

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Chuck

Following a couple weeks of lackluster season finales, I’m contemplating shows that start out great and then go off the rails somewhere. Sometime it happens in a moment, like when a couple finally gets together and dissolves all of the show’s sexual tension, or sometimes it happens over time as the characters just run out of funny and interesting things to do. Sometimes you even know it’s going to happen before it happens, the way we know that Barney Stinson is going to get married. In a church.

Don’t get me wrong. Shows–and characters–have to evolve. But sometimes you look back on a pilot wistfully, longing for the way things used to be. Such is the case with Chuck.

Chuck really hit its stride in Season 2, with a finale so good that we were willing to eat at Subway just to resolve the cliffhanger. But you can see the seeds of that greatness in the pilot. It has it all.

We meet Chuck Bartowski as he and best friend Morgan Grimes are playing spy–attempting to sneak out a bedroom window to escape a birthday party Chuck’s sister Ellie is throwing for him. One look at these guys hanging half out a window and we know they’re total dorks. Somewhere around Season 3, Chuck (Zachary Levi) got hot, and that’s just weird. Even Morgan (Joshua Gomez) got better looking. It’s their awkwardness that makes them so loveable.

Chuck’s unease with women is illustrated nicely as he attempts to chat up women at the party, lamenting the loss of a girl who dumped him back in college. She dumped him for a guy named Bryce Larkin (Matt Bomer), who we meet in short, interspersed scenes. Despite Chuck’s assertion that “I think he’s an accountant now,” Bryce is covered in blood and running across rooftops doing somthing very un-accountant-like.  

Since you probably know the story, I’ll zip though it. Bryce emails Chuck a shitload of images encrypted with CIA secrets and they become seared into Chuck’s brain. A hot girl named Sarah comes into the store where Chuck works and asks him on a date. She’s really a super-spy trying to get the secrets back, assuming they’re sitting on a hard drive. When she and her NSA counterpart, Colonel John Casey (Adam Baldwin *drool*), realize that the secrets are in Chuck’s head, they use him to help disarm a bomb and save the day.

Here are the cool things to note. In saving said day, Chuck uses a combination of the intersect (the data in his head) and his own skills (knowledge of DOS, a particular model of laptop, and the existence of a certain computer virus). That’s what makes Chuck awesome. If the intersect ended up in someone else, this story could not have existed. (It gets even better when he flies a helicopter in Ep. 2.) Also, we’re never sure who are the “good” guys and who are the “bad” guys. Bryce is killed–apparently–by the CIA. Was he a good guy? Can Chuck trust the CIA? And what’s the relationships between the CIA and the NSA in this case? The question of who Chuck can trust lasts throughout the season, as we wonder at times whether Sarah or Casey is really on his side.

This pilot is also brilliant at giving us just what we need to know about each character, no matter how minor. We get a good sense of loving big sister Ellie and her boyfriend Awesome. The scenes at Buy More are hysterical, despite being slowed to a snail’s pace at one point while Chuck helps a dad film his daughter doing ballet. But we get a taste for Anna, Lester, Jeff, and for a moment at the end–Big Mike.

The pilot showed us that this show had heart, suspense, and tons of humor (e.g. Chuck singing “Vick-vi-vicki Vale” as Sarah enters. “It’s from Batman,” he says. She replies “Cuz that makes it better.”)

You know what it doesn’t have? Jeffster. As funny as that was once, maybe even twice, Jeffster got completely out of control. And one long-lost parent who’s really an underground spy, I can take. But not two. And, for all her talk about spies not falling in love with spies, that’s kinda all Sarah does. Sometimes shows run their course in a season or two and this one has done it. So let’s appreciate the early days.

Alias

The pilots I’ve written about so far are ones that I was analyzing in hindsight, having seen nearly all subsequent episodes. You find more meaning in things when you already know where they’re headed. So I decided to watch and write about a pilot for a show I had never seen. I picked Alias, because it was listed by TV Guide in 2008 as one of the best pilots of the past 10 years.

We open with Jennifer Garner being tortured and sporting reddish-orange hair reminiscent of The Fifth Element. Seconds later, we find her in a contrastingly normal environment, a college classroom—a flashback? As she is leaving class with her boyfriend, there is brief mention of her part-time job at a bank, before the boyfriend surprises her with a sappy marriage proposal.

Somewhat predictably, it turns out the “bank” is a front for an international spy operation, an elite branch of the CIA. Garner’s character, Sydney, leads a double life. She’s a newly engaged grad student and a hardass spy. We get that she’s super smart, she’s tough, she looks hot in formal wear. At home, under cover of the sound of the shower, she comes clean—no pun intended—to her fiancé. Which is bad. Really bad. Which lends a problem to the whole premise: if she’s so smart, why did she break this “unbreakable” rule by revealing her true occupation?

The fiancé is killed, Sydney doesn’t want to go back to work, work isn’t down with extended grief leave. As it turns out, she’s not really working for who she thinks she’s been working for. Oh, and her father is involved. We keep getting flashes to these torture scenes, which include Garner getting a tooth mercilessly yanked out.

When Sydney finally dyes her hair red, we get the connection between past and present. (I love how women’s hair color/length is used as a marker of time. This has been used in Veronica Mars, How I Met Your Mother, Defying Gravity, and outstandingly in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Kate Winslet’s hair is practically a character itself.)

So the viewer is caught up to the present, Garner kicks some ass, flies home, dyes her hair back, and goes to work for the CIA—the real CIA—reporting to them on the company she was originally told was the CIA. So now we have a show about a double agent, hardened by the loss of love.

I must say I’m glad this show didn’t go with the overused premise of Hero Hiding True Identity from Loved Ones (Chuck, Smallville, the short-lived Bionic Woman). Although I’m sure that issue will come up. But overall the pilot was a real downer. There was one light moment with the proposal and a weak attempt at humor with Sydney’s best friend saying something like, “You won’t believe the day I’ve had.” But unless you’re really into spy shows (or Jennifer Garner), I’m not sure what about this pilot is so exciting. Maybe I just answered my own question.