Archer 5.01 Review: “White Elephant”

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Of all the solid comedies on television to make an innovative jump in structure, Archer wasn’t very high on the predictions list. Adam Reed’s farcical spy series has always been one of the best-constructed productions on TV with an editing team that deserves every award ever made. But, at its core, it has also always been that same spy series. Archer gets ISIS in trouble — rinse and repeat. Immediately, though, season five announces itself as a huge departure from standard Archer fare, and it couldn’t be any more exciting.

The opening of “White Elephant” is a dialog-free, not-quite-dream sequence set to ballet music. If it’s not formally experimental, it’s certainly formally experimental for Archer and plays out like the stunning and shocking prologue to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. There’s recognizable Archer humor in it, like Cyril being given Sterling’s coffee mug instead of a rose from the bouquet, but the whole situation — Sterling bothering to give his mother a birthday present to begin with, letting alone remembering the date — is ridiculous.

And after the opening credits (which now includes Lucky Yates, who plays Krieger! Hooray!), we see Malory take a sip from her drink before having a normal reaction to a huge explosion while Sterling executes one of my personal favorite running gags on the show — saying “mmmop” to test temporary hearing loss. After the gun fight in ISIS HQ ceases (R.I.P. Brett; at least he died doing what he loved — getting shot), there’s a very self-aware conversation with the FBI, where every cast member gets hauled in for conducting illegal operations for an unrecognized counter-terrorism firm. When shows poke fun at what they represent or what they do, as is often the case in something like Community, it can sometimes come off too campy. This is a welcome criticism of what these characters have been doing, however, and it should satisfy the disturbed minds of all TV viewers who have ever had problems with the law not being enforced when people are so blatantly breaking it and getting away consequence-free.

That’s not to say that the characters in Archer haven’t experienced some troubling consequences. Why do you think Sterling drinks so much? This stuff usually gets pushed aside, though, and when we do finally get heavy moments like any scene that takes Lana’s pregnancy seriously, they almost feel out-of-place.

In any case, the events of “White Elephant” eventually lead to the ISIS team being shut down but with the insane prospect of distributing some of their confiscated narcotics to make some cash on the side or instead of going back to previous mundane jobs (it surprises no one that Cyril was an accountant before ISIS; it surprises everyone that he was also a defense attorney, especially Lana, who doesn’t remember the very long conversations she had with him about that). The rest of what “happens” in the premiere is actually a series of clips that outlines what we’re going to see for the rest of the season. What that thing is is a very different version of Archer that eschews the espionage for a more action-adventure style that we’ve seen in only a few episodes of the series. Having only seen this first episode, it’s impossible to say if those clips are all things that absolutely will happen in future installments (Ron Cadillac gets shot; not cool), but even if they aren’t, they paint a picture of what’s to come and why it’s worth getting excited about Archer again.

The series of clips (and the interrogations of the ISIS employees) also emphasizes Archer‘s greatest strength, which is the aforementioned editing. Every good show can hang their hat on something, and if Archer doesn’t hang it on its straight-up comedy, it has to be the editing. Seriously. The flow of these two montages is astounding. They manage to tell two stories without any hiccups and while also remaining terribly funny and entertaining. This might be something that’s easy to take for granted, but anyone who really enjoys watching trailers for films will immediately see how much care is put into these moments in Archer to make them coherent and effective.

It’s going to be a wild season for the Archer crew that will, at some point, include a lion, because why not? Stay tuned for some intense, international shenanigans.

[Photo via FX]

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