[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On the pleasures and limits of parody, and a show that transcends both.
As someone whose list of childhood pop culture favorites includes both Weird Al Yankovic and the Zucker Brothers/Jim Abrahams films (especially Top Secret!  and Hot Shots! ) in very prominent spots, I’ve always had a soft spot for the difficult comedic art of parody. When they work, parodies certainly utilize the pleasure of familiarity, of riffing off of stories and images that we already know and enjoy seeing twisted into a comic new one; but they also and just as importantly have to offer their own distinct humor and pleasures, laughs and stories that don’t simply rely on the parodic elements to succeed but engage audiences in other ways as well. To my mind, on the other hand, failed parodies like many Leslie Nielsen films from late in his career—such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It  and Mafia! (1998)—offer only note-for-note parodies of their respective genres, with little if anything that’s original or compelling about their own jokes and stories. Such limited parodies might work for a Saturday Night Live sketch or some other short-form humor, but stretched into a full-length movie the thrill of parody loses its appeal relatively quickly and in these failed parodies the audience is left with little else to keep them engaged.
One of the most successful parodies I’ve encountered in recent years is the FX animated TV show Archer (2010- ), the 8th season of which premieres on the FXX network in less than a week (in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that I’ve been gradually catching up on the show on Netflix and have only watched into the 3rd season at this point, so as usual I welcome comments from folks with more Archer-watching under their belts [and anyone else]). The show’s original premise seems to have been as a more or less direct parody of the James Bond films, only with our superspy protagonist being a much less classy, much more proudly oafish American. Similarly, the main setting for the show’s espionage world (at least in its original few seasons; I know the premise has been “rebooted” a couple of times in recent years) was the same kind of Cold War environment in which Bond originally and long operated, with the Soviet Union and the KGB the most consistent adversaries for Archer and his (now unfortunately named) ISIS colleagues; yet Archer from the outset purposefully bent that setting and timing in a variety of ways, from a character with World War I service to 21st century pop culture references aplenty (among many other anachronisms). Given the difficulty of sustaining a parody over seasons of at least ten (and usually thirteen) episodes, this balance of on-point parodic elements and twists on the genre and world makes sense and helps keep the show feeling fresh.
Yet like all the best parodies, as I argued above, Archer works as well as it does because it features a number of features that are entirely its own, and distinguish it from both the genre its parodying and the parodic elements it includes. An excellent case in point are two of its central female characters: Malory Archer (voiced by Jessica Walter), superspy Sterling Archer’s Mom as well as his boss at ISIS; and Lana Kane (voiced by Aisha Tyler), a superspy in her own right and also Archer’s on-again/off-again love interest and rival. Both have aspects of familiar James Bond characters—his tough boss M, famously played by Judi Dench in recent years; and his many fellow agent love interests—but within the first few episodes (thanks to both great writing and wonderful performances) each had already taken shape as a distinct and interesting character in her own right, and by the end of Season 1 they were two of my favorite characters on television. Similarly, the show has gradually developed a deep well of recurring catch-phrases and in-jokes, pleasures that depend not on a genre or parody but precisely on rewarding those viewers who have been coming back to the show for its own sake. Despite that childhood of Weird Al songs and Zucker Brothers films, I don’t believe I’ve ever watched multiple seasons of a parodic TV show—but Archer represents the best of that genre, and a wonderful comic pleasure all its own.
Last TV fooling tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?
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