May. 26th, 2017

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Archer: Dreamland--series creator Adam Reed's full-fledged dive into post-WWII noir--ended on Wednesday with an episode so half-assed and gruesome that you almost wonder why Reed bothered continuing the series in the first place.

Let me back up a step and say that I've been a fan of Archer from the beginning (as a crackerjack spy spoof), through the detour into Miami Vice territory (s5) and the P.I. phase (S7). I've always been willing to overlook Reed's weaknesses as a long-term plotter because his ensemble and the gags are just so good. But the last two seasons just seemed to go limp at the end, and I'm starting to think Reed might need some medication for that short attention span.

I get that expecting tight continuity from Archer has always been a fool's game. Nailing down the exact time period in the first four seasons is like a Simpsons fan trying to locate Springfield on the map. Reed has always treated his wonderful cast of loonies not as specific characters, but as a repertory company. They're personalities you can plunk down any time, anywhere (like, let's say, 1947 Los Angeles) and they'd be... themselves:

Archer would always be the world's toughest momma's boy, Mallory would be the master manipulator, Lana would be the impotent voice of reason, Pam would be the tenderhearted bull in a china shop, Cyril would be the cuckolded loser, and Cheryl would be freakin' nuts. They're like Bugs Bunny and his friends, who were written like contract players for the studio, equally at home palling around with Robin Hood, battling Martians, or performing grand opera. Nobody cared about continuity if the laughs kept coming.

But Archer isn't a ten-minute Bugs Bunny cartoon. Reed keeps booting up these intricate, season-long plotlines, filled with hilarious running gags and prime character interaction, then just seems to lose interest along the way.

If the plot is just a hook to hang the gags, then really, don't bother with it at all. Concentrate on giving every member of your ensemble funny stuff and the fans will love it. (Aisha Tyler had one good bit in the whole season. What a waste.)

Soooo....what's next? Archer as Buck Rodgers? Superhero Archer? Reed can go anywhere from here. But part of me hopes that, before the series ends in 2019, we'll check back on the gang as they were in s1-7, and give them a proper goodbye.

**********

Samurai Jack's (very) long-awaited final season was a glorious visual treat, but it suffered from the opposite problem from the one above: a rigid, overdetermined plot line.

"Gotta get back... back to the past" was the intro for every episode, and in the grand finale, Jack got back to the past and slice 'n' diced the living crap out of Aku. The end. Granted, SJ's legions of fans would have rioted if Jack didn't return home and get the win, but it all seemed anticlimactic.

Overall, I had some problems with the general tone of Season 5. Genndy Tartakovsky had plenty of leeway under the Adult Swim banner to explore more adult subjects, and boy howdy, we got plenty of grimdark: Jack shedding innocent blood, Jack in despair, Jack on the verge of suicide. It was... Okay, I guess, but I didn't see the need for it. When SJ was a kid's show back in 2001-2004, we didn't need the garment-rending anguish to know Jack was suffering. We saw his pain in innumerable small ways, hidden under his mask of warrior stoicism. It allowed the more comedic material to blend in smoothly; in Season 5, characters like Scaramouche -- a robot dandy with a line of patter like Sammy Davis Jr. -- jarred against the more serious tone.

But I'm probably in the minority here. The SJ fanatics online loved the more adult material (although, strangely, quite a few weren't into the love story), so maybe I'm too stuck in nostalgia to adjust.

One thing all of us agree on, though, is that Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the best directors working today. Not just "animation directors"--"directors," period. Just to scratch the surface: the way he manipulates time during action sequences by using slow motion, split screen, and multiple angles; the way he establishes mood by long tracking shots with minimal sound; his use of black and white to bring dramatic contrast to a small splash of color; and--best of all--his willingness to let the camera be still.

My favorite sequence of Season 5 was the intercut between Ashi, decimating an army of zombie warriors, and Jack, deep in meditation, meticulously working his way through the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The contrast between the two was almost hilarious, and I loved that both were equally important to the narrative.

Despite my misgivings about the last episode, the final scene was beautiful: Jack, sitting under a gently swaying tree, saddened by the loss of his beloved Ashi, welcomes a ladybug -- Ashi's spirit animal -- onto his finger. His great love and all of his friends from the future are now only memories -- but with Aku gone, time and nature have been set right. It is enough.

************

Next: Steven Universe ventures deep into enemy territory, and the unexpected return of Rick and Morty.

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