HIMYM

“Archer Vice” Season Review and How We React to Disappointment

archer-628

Alex Russell

Some weeks ago, I called myself an idiot for missing the point about Archer. I talked about how showrunner Adam Reed succeeded in keeping Archer fresh by making the show about the characters and the stakes rather than the setting. I suggested that those truths made the show’s shift to Archer “Vice” — this season’s change in setting from a spy agency to a series of international cocaine deals — a change that didn’t matter. It wouldn’t mean a thing, I said.

Archer “Vice” (henceforth just Archer) turned out to be 13 weird episodes that showcased just how far a show can fall. Archer is a great show that found some purchase with viewers after establishing itself. All it apparently took was this season’s reboot to destroy that following: Archer‘s ratings dropped by nearly half from last season.

The change of setting truly doesn’t matter. Archer is a show a show about spies as much as Parks and Recreation is a show about local government. The spy stuff was there just as framework for jokes. The real problem wasn’t a location switch. The real problem was that they just don’t care anymore.

In the 12th episode characters question out loud why they are making certain decisions. When a character unlocks a jail cell the prisoner asks her where she got the key. She says she has no idea and the situation is dropped. Another character — one of the relatively important “bad guys” in the season — is killed (by a tiger, for just about no reason) because the show runs out of stuff for him to do. There’s no explanation given for some of the stupid decisions, and most of the best parts of Archer have revolved around people finding reasons for seemingly senseless acts.

An important point here: No one on Archer is ever “random.” They make mistakes because they’re stupid, or selfish, or shortsighted. They succeed because they make the right decision for the wrong reason. These things don’t just happen, because that wouldn’t be funny or interesting. The good part of Archer has always been the why, and this season was far less interested with why.

As for the finale itself, I won’t give away the ending because it’s still worth your time. It’s good at what Archer is good at: depth, character development, and a hard reset. Without giving it away, I can still mention that the jokes are terribleArcher has always been about mixing “high” and “low” at the same time. People set up more complex situational jokes with slap contests and puns. A lot of this season has been lazier one-off stuff, and that is never more obvious than a half-hearted sex joke in the finale that you can even hear Pam’s voice actress not care about as she delivers it. The “stupid jokes” don’t feel like they’re done on purpose anymore. What’s worse, and I would have said this was impossible, is that this season of Archer just wasn’t very damn funny.

I didn’t watch How I Met Your Mother, but it provided an interesting commentary on television and disappointment this year. People waited and waited to see how the story would wrap up, and they seem to have been, for the most part, disappointed. People often couched their anger with the ending in a kind of “I deserved better” sentiment. The argument seemed to be that they felt “owed” a better ending for the time they invested. We feel like television is part of our life experience now. We meet people and we get to know them. Even on a joke machine like Archer, we meet people and we want to be interested in their lives.

Adam Reed doesn’t owe me better episodes of Archer, but he might want to consider making some next season anyway. I rather like this show, and another season like Archer “Vice” will probably be the end of the series.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image:  GQ

Advertisements

The Last Five Minutes of How I Met Your Mother, False Symmetry, and the Teleology of Popular Fiction

himym

Austin Duck

Whether or not you watched the end of How I Met Your Mother, chances are, at this point, you know how it ended. You know that, after nine seasons of Ted’s search for the woman of his dreams, they’re together for less than an entire episode, that the writers decided it best to kill her off and to position Ted and Robin together as a kind of OTP (one-true-pairing for those who aren’t fan-fiction aficionados) fated across dozens of years to end up together. Predictably, the Internet has had two reactions: those who have shipped (another ff term for you all) Ted and Robin all along are delighted, surprised maybe, but ultimately very pleased by the seeming symmetry of HIMYM (with Ted and Robin coming together in the first episode and then, against all odds, again at the last).

And then, there are the others, the ones who are outraged by the narrative violations that have occurred to bring Ted and Robin together, and the major characters who, developed over nine years, are reduced and cut out, subordinated to one-bit characters with forced “revelations.”  These fine folks have taken to the Internet, decrying WORST EPISODE EVER and HOW COULD THEY DO THAT TO BARNEY and HOW ARE TED’S KIDS OVER THE DEATH OF THEIR MOTHER IN SIX YEARS, OKAY ENOUGH TO SAY ‘GO AHEAD DAD, FUCK AUNT ROBIN, WE DON’T CARE’ and, while I don’t normally feel one way or another about tv shows (I mean, I watch them obsessively, but I tend not to care enough to take to the keyboard), I want to weigh in here, not so much about my feelings but about the structural incongruities that seem to have everyone convinced that this finale didn’t quite do what it needed to.

Before getting to the meat of the problem—the problem of teleology—I want to consider the bizarre symmetry attempted in the final episode, in the few remaining minutes after 25 years have been traversed in a few telling vignettes. The last scene, Ted standing outside Robin’s apartment, blue-French-horn-in-hand, while she perches on her window ledge, surrounded by dogs, is taken shot-for-shot (and, for the most part, line by line) from the first episode during Ted’s first “Big Robin Gesture.” (BRG) Between this and the fact that, season after season, the show is actually populated by a series of BRG’s—stealing the horn, inviting Robin to his wedding with Stella despite her wishes, refusing to marry Victoria at the expense of his friendship with Robin, the locket, etc.—one could almost make the argument for coherence, for a consistent, over-arching theme that, while obscured by the minutiae of week-to-week, season-to-season, was always there, hiding in plain sight, brought forward by the symmetrical ending as the point of the show, the issue at hand, the inevitable, meaningful, always already there. Almost.

Unfortunately, this narrative violates the promise that initiates the very reason for the show, the story to the kids… the explanation of how Ted meets the mother of his children. While I understand that, narratively, things happen, characters change, have more chemistry than the writers expected, etc. (I’ll address this in a minute), the show’s framework—the search for Ted’s baby-mama (as the show would have it)—puts pressure on narrative, directs and controls it, in the same way that a sentence front-loaded with subordinate clauses, continuously delaying its main point will create, nay demand, a kind of resolution. Let me demonstrate:

Despite Ted’s feelings for Robin always coming back, and despite the fact that Ted and Robin seemed both to fundamentally want the same things, and that Barney and Robin, as cute as they were, didn’t seem, exactly, to mesh (likely because of the way Barney was rendered as pathological, sick by the end), and even with Marshall and Lilly’s blessing and the support of Ted’s children, the apparatus of the show, promising a resolution of “How I Met Your Mother,” was subordinated, cast aside as not-that-important compared to something that, by all accounts, didn’t really need to happen.

Imagine someone telling you a story for nine years, only to reveal in the last few seconds that it wasn’t important, that there was another story that should have been told, that the hook you’ve been on (and on and on and on) has been sleight of hand.

It could happen, I guess, it could work (God knows Anne Carson could make it work), but what starts as a narrative gag had better lead to something larger, more satisfying, more inevitable. And does this? Do the symmetry and the BRGs create an inevitability large enough to make the audience forget they’ve had a big one pulled over on them, that all the wishing for Ted’s happiness, the giddiness at each glimpse of the yellow umbrella, every vision of a lady playing a bass guitar, has existed exclusively so that the writers can give you something you already had and that, ultimately, you were already okay with losing?

Because that’s, really, the problem with the “inevitability” ending: We were all okay with Ted and Robin going their separate ways. We’d been promised someone even better than Robin, and, in a show that crosses nine years in real-time (and 25 years total), we been promised change, growth, that Ted at 27 (the one who fell for Robin) didn’t know what he wanted, that the course of their friendship and their mutual considerations for one another altered them, that they were able to be happy for each other, to consider one another, without being together. We were promised (episode to episode) that Ted and Robin’s friendship would become adult, that Ted would realize his wants couldn’t change hers, the she didn’t want what he was selling, and, until the last five minutes of the finale, that’s what we got. We saw nine years of growth, promise, real tenderness, thrown away—Barney and Robin, so suited for each other in their ways, are torn apart because Robin won’t stop traveling for work (though she was willing to give up her work for a relationship with Don), Barney, the complicated, deeply sick, good-natured friend and lover, reduced to horn-dog caricature so the audience can stomach the split with Robin, the woman of Ted’s dreams, the woman we’ve all searched for for nine years, killed within 30 minutes.

And, as if anticipating our resistance, we, the audience, are characterized as two kids who’ve been listening to this story for years’ we’re denied the ability to grieve or refuse Ted’s moving forward, are told (through our own voices) that mom’s been dead for six years, and Aunt Robin’s great, that the ending, the fulfillment of change, is this that we recognize as a regression, a circle. Sure, if we had six years to “know the mother”—in any capacity other than flash-forward montages—, had known Ted’s grief at her passing, known Ted and Robin’s interactions as an adult, perhaps this could have worked. But as it stands, it just doesn’t.

Instead, the final minutes become just another iteration of popular fiction’s tendency toward teleology, toward forcing an ending because “the writer wants it” rather than “because the narrative demands it.” To cite the most popular instance of teleological fiction, just think about Twilight: It’s clear, even to those only have a passing familiarity with the books, that Bella, the protagonist, has much more chemistry with Jacob (the werewolf) than she does with Edward (the glitter-vamp). The text, and the characters within it, were asserting their own relationships, their own order (as, really, the fundamentals of writing are learning how to listen as a text, a series of character, write themselves), and the author, Stephanie Meyer, ignored it. She wanted an ending that the text didn’t want, and she got it, awkwardness and all. The same thing has happening in HIMYM.

I can’t speak to the writers’ values, why they wanted what they did, or why they’ve made the choices they have. However, for whatever reason, they’ve written (produced, and aired) something not nearly so conscious of the narrative itself as of the hopes and dreams of whoever was writing it which, realistically, no one cares about.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Today