what's real, anyway?
It Was All A Dream – Archer’s Dreamland
Archer is a consistently funny show. Known for its crude humor, self-referential jokes, and colorful characters, the show has managed to stay alive and relevant – to thrive, in fact – thanks to consistently high-quality writing (shout-out to writers!) and a courage, rare on television these days, to take major, meaningful chances.
The first big chance the show took occurred in season five, when it pivoted away from its original premise toward something funkier: Archer Vice, a spoof of (you guessed it) Miami Vice, the massively popular and heavily stylized crime-procedural series set in south Florida. Archer’s pivot was divisive for fans, but ultimately proved to be a good move – it signaled the show’s willingness to explore, and after an adjustment period, most fans rolled with it (the evidence? The show’s just been renewed for two more seasons, which means that half of its run takes place outside the original spy-agency premise).
Now, after a move to LA and a reboot as a private-eye firm, Archer has again pivoted, from Vice to Dreamland. This new premise borrows heavily from noir, and plays out entirely in Archer’s mind while he’s asleep in a coma.
At first, I was turned off by this idea. I found the premise lazy and unoriginal. It smelled more like fanfiction than satire. The first episode, which did some heavy lifting in terms of trying to establish the new premise, never quite got there: it felt forced; the writing clichéd. This feeling ran into the second episode, too, and I started worrying that Archer had lost its touch. But then it all clicked into place during the third episode. Because the characters still were consistently themselves, personality-wise, I forgot about the coma meta-frame. This despite the fact that, in Archer’s mind, Pam is now gender-ambiguous and possibly a crooked cop, Cyril is a weak-willed divorcee and Pam’s partner, and Cheryl is an heiress to a publishing fortune with a knack for getting kidnapped. The personalities still transfer into these new roles, which demonstrates perfectly the strength of the show – it’s the characters, their personalities and relationships, that give Archer its shine. The premise can change but, as long as the characters remain themselves, the show will still feel like Archer.
The plotline itself also twists and turns in interesting ways throughout the season’s eight episodes, which keeps it from being too clichéd. I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s a great sudden reveal right at the end of the seventh episode, which would seem to have implications for the real-world Archer-and-friends, once he wakes up from his coma.
When Things Start Getting Real – Brain Candy Podcast
Debate it all you want – there is nothing more revolutionary, or significant, for reality television than The Real World. As someone who’s watched almost every season (guilty pleasure), I was curious about, and then soon became hooked on, the Brain Candy podcast, hosted by two MTV reality TV alums, Sarah Rice (from Real World: Brooklyn) and Susie Meister (from Road Rules: Down Under). While the podcast tries to stay away from their reality television history and focus on current news and culture, the women knew that, eventually, they’d have to talk about it on the show.
And talk about it they did: what was intended to be a one-time episode turned into a five-part series, with the pair covering pretty much everything: the casting process, the way producers treated them, the show’s trajectory, from the early seasons to its present iteration. It’s no secret that the women aren’t particularly fond of most of their experiences with reality TV (despite Sarah returning for a dozen MTV Challenge shows and Susie marrying and raising a son with a producer – which complicates, a little bit, their bitterness). Though tinged with regret, the conversation seems to give an honest account about what it was like behind the scenes; for example, castmates would incur fines if they left the premises without authorization (which means the show itself was a kind of soft prison).
One of the most gripping moments during the podcast comes when Sarah decides to contact her estranged father, and do it live – this was someone she hadn’t spoken to once in her ten years since leaving The Real World. (In her season, someone had leaked the RW phone number to Sarah’s dad, and he called. While retelling the story, Sarah decides to find out who leaked the number. We don’t get an answer until a later episode of the podcast.)
The five-part series on Brain Candy is a smart discussion by charming alums now decades removed, talking intelligently about their small role in television’s longest-running reality show.
above image: "DREAMLAND MARGATE," everyman films / flickr.