Some of the most fun in watching Archer is in picking out the old sitcom chestnut plots the show plucks out and dusts off, then runs through its particular brand of horrifying humor and spy satire. Just by taking some of these old plots and throwing them into the ISIS offices setting, the show gains a certain amount of laughs, and the snappy writing and well-observed characters add even more to the process. But “Stage Two” may end up having more goodness in this department than any other episode of the show before. It begins as one stock plot, transitions into another, transitions into yet another, then finishes up in another place entirely. And that’s all mixed in with a huge variety of other standard sitcom elements. The show is simultaneously satirizing and celebrating, and it makes for one of the funniest episodes of the series yet, a great blend of traditional sitcom elements with the show’s own style of weirdness.
Let’s outline these elements one by one, shall we?
Stock sitcom plot #1—The much hated boss has a terrifying health condition, making the boss meaner than ever, until the revelation of the boss’ condition. Actually, Archer condensed this storyline into what felt like about three minutes of screentime. Malory is being mean to everyone, bitching out Cheryl/Carol, tossing Cyril’s punchcards all over the floor, and ruining Pam’s marzipan mini-farm. But when Lana goes to her office to ask her what’s up, she breaks down crying. She has breast cancer, see? And she’s incredibly, incredibly sad about the fact that she might die. Lana isn’t sure what to do about this, but eventually, the rest of the cast finds out, except for Archer, which leads to…
Stock sitcom plot #2—Someone needs everybody to keep a secret from someone else, even though they don’t want to. Archer absolutely, positively must not find out about Malory’s cancer, she says. She doesn’t want him to worry. But when he walks in and hears the group talking about a secret he can’t know about, he’s necessarily concerned and tries to find out what’s going on. He asks Pam, and, refreshingly, the show just has her blurt it out, reducing this storyline, which would have dominated the episode on some other show, to something like a minute of screentime. Anyway, Archer goes to the doctor with his mother, only to find that…
Stock sitcom plot #3—The character who thinks they’re having a health scare actually isn’t. Indeed, it’s Archer who has breast cancer, thanks, most likely, to alcoholism and significant exposure to radiation (including screwing open a nuclear missile, waving around a plutonium rod, and screwing a nurse behind an X-ray machine). The doctor shows Archer the creepy mass in his chest, and he immediately collapses into fear and doubt, even as the doctor is asking out his mother. Archer, of course, is self-absorbed, but his death puts some amount of fear into him, which leads to…
Stock sitcom plot #4—An asshole has a health scare and changes his outlook. This is the plot that takes up the bulk of the episode. Right away, when Archer goes back to work, Lana points out that he seems to have become a different person, someone with a more positive outlook. He’s going to beat this thing through positivity, even if he has to beat up Brett to do so. He starts passing out those little pink ribbons. He tries to make time with the wee baby Seamus. He goes on vacation. He tells everyone how he really feels about them and tries to be sincere. He’s going to help Cyril beat the crime record he’s racked up in Vegas. He even sleeps with Lana again.
Now, granted, throughout all of this, Archer is being a dick, in the way that only he can be. He gets the wee baby Seamus a tattoo (that reads Archer, of course). The vacation he takes is stolen from Woodhouse and was to be the old man’s first time seeing his little brother Dicky in ages. When he tells everyone how he feels about them, it’s not always with the most feeling, and that crime record Cyril racked up is actually a record that Archer racked up while visiting Vegas and giving Cyril’s name. And he only sleeps with Lana—even though he says he loves her—because he plays the cancer card and she can’t say no to a man with cancer. Sure, he takes stabs at doing the right thing, but Archer wouldn’t know what the right thing was if it hit him in the face, largely because he has no idea what self-sacrifice could possibly mean. To clear up Cyril’s crime record, he doesn’t want to confess; he wants to give Cyril a new identity, one of his old ones (Chet Manley, if you must know). But after all of this build-up…
Stock sitcom plot #5—The health scare wasn’t a health scare, and everything goes back to normal! This plot could have been the most enervating part of the episode. Archer throws a party to celebrate his lack of cancer after his surgery, and while he’s saying all the right things at the party, you can tell his heart isn’t in it. But then he gets a phone call. The cancer isn’t gone. And he’s right back to a weeping bastion of niceness and altruism. Until he gets another phone call, and the cancer is gone again. And then another…
This section cycles so rapidly between plot #4 and plot #5 that it becomes a little dizzying (the episode ends on Archer still having cancer, but if the show were to say next week that he didn’t or just ignore this episode all together, it wouldn’t be a big deal, because the doctor is so clearly an idiot just trying to get closer to Malory). At first, I didn’t like the constant reversals, but the show kept with them long enough—and with the gag where Archer can’t get out what he has to say to Lana because the phone keeps interrupting him—that they cycled back around to funny. It’s like a whole scene based on that rake gag in the Cape Fear homage episode of The Simpsons, a whole scene where the joke is that something stops being funny, then, through aggressive repetition, becomes funny all over again. It’s a tough thing to do right, but by the end of this episode, Archer had nailed it.
And this is to say nothing of all of the OTHER stock plots the show broke out in the midst of everything else, including the characters gaining an awareness of a condition they didn’t know about before (including Cheryl/Carol’s hilarious, “What’s cancer?”), the characters all having to endure an interminable stay in a hospital waiting room, two characters with a will-they/won’t-they relationship hooking up but just for a night, and a story that begins a major “arc” where a character has a disease they will inevitably defeat because there would be no show without them. It was, at once, a parody of Very Special Episodes and a weird, very Archer spin on the format itself. I’m not sure if it will work nearly as well for people who aren’t big fans of TV mocking and celebrating its own conventions, but for me, it was nearly perfect.
- The week in Krieger: Apparently, he makes a fair amount of human-farm-animal hybrids. Can it be long before we learn of “Duckley”?
- I couldn’t pick out who did the voice of the doctor in the closing credits, but that was just a pitch-perfect performance of a clueless guy who kept digging himself in deeper.
- I enjoyed Pam’s fervent excitement over the possibility of having both her and Lana check each other for breast cancer.
- I feel like an entire episode could be based around just hanging out with Cheryl/Carol on the weekend and seeing what she does. Judy Greer is killing it this season.
- Another sitcom cliché made good: The montage of photos meant to signify two characters’ vacation together. I loved the way that Archer and Dicky Woodhouse so quickly bonded on their trip together, which concluded with Dicky stranded somewhere in Mexico.
- "Friday night was cornhole league…"
- "Saturday, I watched a building burn down."
- "I hope so! I mean, it's probably not the BEST birthday present for a diabetic…"
- "It's just like when the farm flooded in real life, only tiny and sweet."
- "So… is that why you're bein' such a bitch?"
- "Do you not know what disease means?!"
- "Thanks. I'll let you know if I need a hybrid pig-boy."
- "That'll do, Pigley. That'll do."
- "What's the big non-me telling secret?" "There is no one." "At a spy agency?!"
- "Damn her piggy little eyes." "Aw, Pigley."
- "Good God, you'd think he was half fainting goat." "Aw, Goatley."
- "I didn't have breakfast."
- "Looking for this? Or perhaps the lead container I probably should have left it in?"
- "So wait. There's good cholesterol?"
- "Rita! And you said you'd call me!" "Really? To both answers?"
- "Not that, dick. Your whole outlook."
- "I'm trying to stay POSITIVE! Both MENTALLY and SPIRITUALLY!"
- "He certainly doesn't have cancer of the fists."
- "Where are you taking him?" "I dunno. What's he into?"
- "It's like we've got each other's backs."
- "You can't tattoo a frickin' baby!"
- "Costs more than that, I bet. To buy acid, Trenette."
- "Yeah, Mexico's pretty big. And so is your heart, Woodhouse."
- "Fuck your dolphin, Pam!"
- "C'mon, I have cancer." "Of the tits!"
- "Can somebody water my plants?" "Yes! No."
- "It was kind of weird opening up like this, huh?" "Yeah, give me another belt."
- "So I really don't think I should be alone tonight." "Nope." Lana…" "NOPE!" "Did I mention I have cancer?" *sigh* "Awesome." *belch*
- "Bear claws, rawr!"
- "Fun! Oh you mean literally."
- "You were four hours late. We grabbed a bear claw." "Growl."
- "Don't apologize to me. Apologize to the Brazilian rosewood."
- "I did your cancer surgery, like, two hours ago?"
- "What's cancer?"
- "Of course I'm sure! I'm a doctor!"
- "I don't wanna be Chet Manley!"
- "Not a new person." "SHUT UP. I SAW HIM FIRST!"
- "Are you here?" "Eh. What? Too soon?"