Heading into the two-part season finale—which I won’t get to share the first part of with you—“The Papal Chase” was exactly what I needed. It had great laughs, a strong mission plot that included a lot of the show’s characters (including poor, underused Woodhouse), and a nice reminder of the storyline that’s been building all season about how ISIS has gotten a certain reputation for incompetence. It also made good on sending Pam out into the field, offered us a terribly unsexy version of Cyril trying to be sexy, and had an extended runner with Krieger playing around with robot hands. (He first uses them to simulate someone masturbating, then gets caught up in doing jazz hands, which sounds like what would happen if roughly 95 percent of humanity were given a pair of disconnected robot hands.) It’s a good, solid lead-in to whatever happens when everybody at ISIS goes under the sea. (And just a warning that my review of the season finale may just be the lyrics to the SeaLab theme song over and over.)
The central idea of the episode stems from that old sitcom chestnut about one of the regular characters so resembling a guest character that the two decide to switch identities, Prince And The Pauper style, usually because it’s advantageous to the guest character. Then, the regular character gets to taste life from another perspective for a while, briefly be seduced by it, and ultimately decide that he could never leave behind his old life. This sort of storyline seemed to pop up on every other TGIF show back in the day, and it was a staple of some of the ‘60s gimmick sitcoms, too. In other words, Archer is playing in waters where Cousin Balki once dared swim, and now that I say that, I’m not sure if Perfect Strangers actually ever did this plot, but it seems like it should have.
What makes this work—and what makes this a uniquely Archer take on the whole thing—is that the person being switched is way down on the show’s character bench. Woodhouse, who seems to have seen his drug habits only intensify in his time offscreen this season, hasn’t had a lot to do in a while, which is really too bad because he can be one of the series’ most fun characters, and his season two flashback episode remains a series highlight. The other thing that keeps this from feeling like Perfect Strangers is just how much the script—written by Adam Reed from a story by Eric Sims—intensifies the basic scenario. Woodhouse isn’t just swapping with some well-to-do butler or even some billionaire. He’s swapping with the fucking Pope, and we can anticipate that there will be all sorts of crazy moments where he rides around in the Popemobile, or where Reed makes jokes about Pope Lando and the Pornocracy (which are both things).
That doesn’t really happen, though! As soon as Pam and Archer are attempting to make the switch, Pam drops a giant mirror on the Pope. (She was toting it around to see if he was still alive, because his old-man sleep looked suspiciously like death.) Lana comes in, there’s some squabbling, Woodhouse accidentally sticks Pam with one of his needles, and then the fake Swiss Guard bursts in. Archer has to cram both old men, Pam, and Lana into a Smart Car, which he drives in another car chase that manages to be at once funny and weirdly exciting. The series seems to be approaching a point where these chases should come up with diminishing returns—or at least make the show feel like it was produced by Stephen J. Cannell—but we’re not quite there yet, because there’s always a new little twist on the formula. This week, it involves Archer standing atop the other car, then shoving a flare in their gas tank. (He’d left all of the other weapons in the hotel room, because he figured they would just be facing off with men boasting halberds. Cue minute-long discussion of medieval weaponry advances.)
Seeing Woodhouse in this episode made me realize that as much as I’ve enjoyed his presence, to the consternation of many of you, Ron Cadillac has definitely cut down on our time spent with Archer’s manservant. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, since comedies should always be refreshing themselves with new characters and the like. The problem here is that Ron and Woodhouse occupy the same basic niche in the show’s ecosystem, and that means that time spent with one generally leaves less time for the other. That even Malory seems a little perturbed by Ron at this point makes me think he won’t be long for this show, which is too bad but probably necessary. The great sitcom circle of life rolls on.
“The Papal Chase” doesn’t just succeed because of Woodhouse, car chases, or medieval weaponry humor, nor does it simply succeed because Reed pulls out of a “next in line for the papacy” gag and into an accurate explanation of how new Popes are chosen. (At just about any other time, most people would have forgiven a flub of that bit of knowledge; in a time when the episode aired so soon after the selection of a new real-life Pope, it would have been catastrophic. The show would have had to have been canceled.) No, it succeeds because it crams in a lot of Pam, and Pam is the rare breakout character who seems to be able to withstand getting more and more to do. I’m not sure why this is—I’d reckon it has something to do with Pam’s generally positive attitude toward, well, everything—but putting Pam in a nun’s habit and having her constantly swear in said habit was funny enough. Sending her along on the mission and having her learn perfect Italian was even better. (Archer spent all his time learning Romansh, or, rather, sleeping with the Romansh language tape on his headphones.)
If there’s a weakness in this episode, it’s that, once again, the ISIS offices aren’t incorporated all that well. The opening sequence, with all of the characters at said office, reminded me just how funny these people are when they’re all bouncing off of each other and made me sad at how little this season has used Cheryl or Malory and at how recent weeks have even sent a character like Cyril increasingly off to the side. This is to say nothing of Ray and Krieger, both of whom seemed like they might be far more important to the season than they ultimately have been. Season four of Archer has been as solid as the show ever has been on the episode-by-episode level, but where the third season seemed to cohere into more than that, the fourth has tried much more to tell a cohesive story and has sputtered a bit for that. Admittedly, when the episodes work, that doesn’t matter as much, and “The Papal Chase” is a good reminder that not every episode needs to incorporate every character (but I’d still like a little more Malory, please).
- I am traveling next week, and while I have a screener and could conceivably do a review, I figured you’d all like to hear from somebody else. Sonia Saraiya will be dropping in.
- A moment for all you Archer/Lana shippers out there: Archer lets out a mighty cry of horror when Lana is shot during the car chase. Pam flips him off.
- One other thing this episode could have used: The team should have just stuck Kazak in there somewhere. I would be fine if that dog was the newest ISIS field agent.
- Despite not having all that much to do this season, Judy Greer is nailing every little joke Cheryl gets, including her anguish at having said “Jesus!” and “Shit!” while the Vatican is on hold.
- Archer rarely goes for more low-key visual gags that play off of character expressiveness, because its animation style can be too stiff to make them play, but Krieger’s “jazz hands” gag was a good example of the show trying something visual and subtle and pulling it off with panache.
- Archer originally plans to bring both Woodhouse and the Pope back home, see who makes the better servant, then send the other back to the Catholic Church. Seems like a sound plan to me.
- For some reason, the exploding car burning off only Archer's clothes made me laugh. Apparently, I like naked guys. Feel free to use that in one of those comments that pulls quotes sans context and makes them seem like reviews that would be used in advertisements.