Apart from both shows being in their fifth season, I’ve never seen much in common between the elegant CBS legal drama The Good Wife and Archer, the cheerfully bawdy spy parody returning tonight on FX.
Just as Good Wife has earned kudos from both critics and fans this season for subversively blowing up its own central premise and heading off in a new and exciting creative direction, however, Archer is reinventing itself just as audaciously, and to hilarious effect.
Tonight’s premiere opens with a surreal, wordless prologue in the ISIS offices, as Sterling Archer arrives bearing flowers, a tribute to his mother, Malory, on her second fake 50th birthday (don’t ask, it’s a thing). Serene classical music plays on the soundtrack while staff members cavort balletically and gracefully as Archer makes his way to his mother’s side, hands her the flowers, and …
KABOOM! We’re into an insane firefight with the FBI that culminates in ISIS operations being shut down for reasons that I’ll let you discover for yourself (although as Archer would sum it up: “Classic Mother!”).
Suffice it to say, by the first commercial break, the former agents, whose personal assets have been seized by the feds, are living together in stately Tunt Manor, the family home of secretary Cheryl/possibly Carol Tunt, a vast mausoleum Archer dubs “Casa de Addams Family.” They’re all shell-shocked, but after discussing their options, they do what any of us would do in these circumstances.
They form their own cocaine cartel.
Thus, this season of Archer – or Archer Vice, as the opening credits have it starting with episode two – takes off in a wild new direction as these fractious characters fans have come to love find themselves in a vastly different context. Archer’s ex-girlfriend, Lana Kane (voice of Aisha Tyler), is now pregnant via artificial insemination, which ratchets up tension with both Archer (the sublime H. Jon Benjamin) and Lana’s other ex, Cyril Figgis (former Saturday Night Live regular Chris Parnell), who is now in charge of laundering the cartel’s money – or the money they anticipate making if they can keep former human resources director Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) from eating the cocaine like powdered sugar. While Lana, Archer and Pam are in Miami on their first assignments, Malory (Jessica Walter, Arrested Development) coordinates things from the New York mansion, where Cheryl/Carol (Judy Greer) is toying with changing her name to Cherlene as she embarks on her long-delayed dream of becoming a country music superstar.
And things only get zanier after that.
Since Archer is, in some respects, starting over, this may be an ideal time for new viewers to jump on the bandwagon, although hardcore fans will be rewarded by a delightful abundance of callbacks to earlier ISIS cases, situations and characters. Newbies still should find plenty of things to laugh about, but the longer you stick with Archer, the funnier it becomes. As silly as it gets, the show also is a very smart blend of pop-culture and literary reference points (Archer’s sorely mistreated English butler, Woodhouse, is a tip of the hat to British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, for example). This show has jokes so densely packed into each episode that some of the funniest – like Archer’s offhand reference to “Kentucky Jelly” – may not even register until a few seconds after you hear them. In short, for my money this is the most consistently uproarious half-hour on television right now.
I wish I could say the same for Chozen, the new animated series making its debut tonight right after Archer. No such luck, though. SNL regular Bobby Moynihan provides the voice of the show’s title character, a gay white rapper trying to readjust to society and re-establish his career after being framed by a childhood friend-turned-rival (Cliff “Method Man” Smith) and serving a 10-year prison sentence.
On paper, Chozen looked fairly promising, given its central premise that invites the show to skewer white artists who ill-advisedly try to appropriate a black cultural identity for career purposes. Archer creator Adam Reed is among the show’s executive producers, as is Danny McBride (HBO’s Eastbound & Down, along with several hit feature films), and the voice cast, in addition to Moynihan, includes such comedy power players as Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers) and The Mindy Project series regular and writer Ike Barinholtz.
Sadly, Chozen turns out to be pretty much a one-joke affair, and it’s a crude dirty joke at that, repeated tediously for shock value. Every now and then, a gag will pop – as when an endearingly nerdy character frets that if he doesn’t lose his virginity soon, ‘’I’ll be the laughing stock of my whole Quidditch team” – but such moments are few and far between.
Maybe it’s the presence of the hard-working Moynihan, who does all he can with his very thin material, but Chozen reminded me of one of those hapless SNL sketches that clearly doesn’t really work yet somehow keeps getting trotted out over and over again. Given the caliber of some of the people on the creative team, I guess there’s a chance Chozen will pull itself together over time, but after sitting through the five episodes FX provided for preview, I’m just not feelin’ it.