Archer: “Fugue and Riffs”

What is Archer like for those who don’t get the references?

Save for pop-culture virtuosos and the show’s writersw, it’s likely that everybody misses a particularly obscure name-drop now and then. That’s natural. And Archer, by and large, doesn’t live or die based on who’s heard of Michael Gray on The Shazam!/ISIS Hour, although there’s few feelings that can match the pride of being in on the joke. In reality, not having the slightest idea what Archer or anyone else is talking about is the real fun, prompting some other character (in this case, Lana) to get confused or irritated by the needless pop-culture trivia, which in turn provokes more and more needless pop-culture trivia. There’s no way anyone could be expected to pick up on every single rarity plucked from Adam Reed’s (the show’s creator and head writer) childhood. Plus, with the pace at which the gags tend to fly on Archer, any unfamiliarity is sure to be washed over in seconds with another (and hopefully more successful) laugh. Not understanding a single six-second exchange rarely ruins a half-hour episode of television.

Not understanding the opening to “Fugue and Riffs,” however, could be considerably more damaging than missing two or three lines of dialogue. One can not follow a joke but still follow the story; it’s much trickier when the core of the story is based around an opening sequences that requires the viewer have a basic knowledge of Bob’s Burgers (and to a lesser extent, A History of Violence) in order to follow along. It’s safe to say that Archer‘s core audience is one that’s particularly pop-culture savvy, and that those who don’t know that H. Jon Benjamin voices both the Archer of Archer and the Bob of Bob’s Burgers could figure out the gist of what’s going on. Yet the pop-culture prerequisites for following along are considerably higher than the norm for Archer, and with all that risk comes a much more satisfying reward.

This whole Bob’s Burgers/Archer crossover is potentially one of the most clever things this show’s ever done. Not just for the sheer audacity of claiming that Bob’s Burgers is nothing more than an amnesia-induced double life for a different H. Jon Benjamin character, but for the seamlessness with which it blends the family squabbling/burger puns and secret agent wisecracks of both shows by transforming the Bob’s Burgers sendup into A History of Violence (where, for those who don’t know, a salt-of-the-earth diner owner gruesomely dispatches two thugs who try to rob his restaurant). “Fugue and Riffs” also takes things a step further by coiling the entire plot of the episode around that opening scene but leaving the physical Bob’s Burgers location behind, so that the crossover extends beyond being one gag and encompasses the entire episode while those who don’t get it can still follow along once the regular Archer cast takes over.

The one issue with this premiere is that the opening is such a joy to watch that the rest of the episode can’t help but pale in comparison. “Fugue and Riffs” zips right along with the right mix of raunchy sex, violence and clever wordplay, but when most of that zip tends to skim along the surface, the one piece of real depth outshines everything else (although the inclusion of Barry at the end does have the potential for a nice, meaty recurring story arc). It harkens back to season two’s “Placebo Effect,” where the episode’s climax was lifted shot-for-shot from an episode of Magnum, P.I.- the kind of reference that’s still functional if you don’t get the joke, but becomes absolutely genius if you do. And as wonderful as Archer is, it might be even better with gags that provide a real reward those who’re on the ball.

But who knows? Maybe I just haven’t been getting the references after all.

2 responses to “Archer: “Fugue and Riffs”

  1. I can’t speak to the Archer references but when I was teaching English in Spain, I showed Arrested Development to my advanced class and they laughed a lot. This despite never having seen “Happy Days” or any of the other shows it referenced. I guess it’s like cartoons or The Muppet Show; there are different levels of funny for different audiences.

    • That is a really fantastic example. And Arrested Development is one of the most multi-layered shows out there- I’m not surprised non-native speakers could pick up on the humor.

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