Like so many others who grew up in the nineties, The Simpsons was my first frame of reference for countless aspects of society. For some, the success of The Simpsons is no different than that of any other megaton sitcom, from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld and everything in between. In those cases, it’s enough to say “yes, The Simpsons was popular,” and then move on with your life. It’s a completely different story for those (like myself) for whom the following situation is far too familiar:
You comes into contact with a foreign idea. Despite having no previous knowledge of this idea, you’re overcome with a vague feeling of deja-vu, certain that you’ve encountered it again and again in some distant yet familiar setting. The contradiction between having some intimate connection with this idea and not knowing where that connection came from threatens to rend your brain in two, until finally it clicks.
“Of course,” you say to yourself. “That was on The Simpsons.”
I’ll forever know the definition of “satiety” from when Homer bought those weight loss tapes (and mistakenly ends up with a vocabulary builder instead) back in season three. Despite having only the vaguest idea who Lyndon LaRouche, Johnny Unitas or Paul Anka are, I’m sure when I’m on my deathbed I’ll be able to spout how Homer, after seeing aliens swap bodies with the 1996 candidates for President, yells “Lyndon LaRouche was right!” or how according to Grampa Simpson, Johnny Unitas had a haircut you could set your watch to, or every single word of the song Paul Anka sings to ward monstrous corporate mascots away from Springfield. I’ve even had a professor who referred to con artists as “monorail salesmen,” eventually stating that yes, he adopted that phrase after seeing a particularly memorable Simpsons episode.
Thus the concept of adding a new character to a television show to liven things up will forever harken back to when The Simpsons did it, adding a new character to Bart and Lisa’s favorite cartoon The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Their take on the idea was pure cynicism- the new character, “Poochie,” was nothing but an amalgam of buzzwords, catchphrases molded around the easiest possible character addition (since the show already has a cat and a mouse, just add a dog and you’re set). Any time a different show makes a permanent addition to the cast, I can’t help but view it with a distrusting eye.
So while Ron Cadillac may be gelling wonderfully with the rest of Archer so far, I’ve had to fight back against the Simpsons fan inside who forewarns that his character will end up considerably worse for wear. There are some small foreboding signs so far, like voice actor (and real-life husband to Malory’s Jessica Walter) Ron Liebman) being billed as a “special guest star and Malory seemingly growing tired of him after a paltry three episodes, but hopefully Adam Reed and everyone else behind the scenes at Archer appreciate Ron and the freshness he brings to the cast. The push and pull between Ron and Archer has a lot in common with the rapport Malory and her child share, but without the discomfort of a frayed mother-son relationship and with the benefits of some light macho one-upmanship and Ron’s bumbling old man charm. With “Midnight Ron,” we even see the beginnings of another potential recurring gag/inside joke in the confused old man yell Ron emits whenever Archer goes for some obscure name-drop in the heat of battle.
Smartly, “Midnight Ron” showcases the titular character as much as possible. There’s no B-story this week (despite the rest of the ISIS staff showing up in abrupt, forgettable little vignettes that seemingly exist just so there’s something to cut away to), so the dynamic between Archer and his stepfather holds the full focus of the half-hour. At times, however, the simple road-trip story eases back towards predictability when it should be veering off into something much more bizarre. Archer and Ron quip their way through some exposition that’s funny without being particularly memorable, but when the first shootout begins (which also sets the stage for the painfully obvious twist that Ron is not who he claims to be), the episode threatens to be another example of clever jokes punctuating a cookie-cutter romp between Archer and some nameless thugs once again. Yet “Midnight Ron” cleverly undermines that expectation and ends the shootout in a matter of seconds, driving its heroes towards the true villains: murderous, cross-dressing truckers.
It’s been a mere two episodes since Archer‘s last fling with juvenile gay jokes, yet this season continues to pull material from that same well again and again. There’s nothing here that feels quite as cheap as in “The Wind Cries Mary,” but often it seems like the episode is content to giggle at the image of truckers in lingerie and do little else. The whole setup is first revealed as Ron speaks of the integrity of the American working man, specifically the trucker who picked Archer and himself up off the side of the road. As the camera creeps towards the trucker while ominous music swells, it’s clear something’s not right with this working-class hero, but the reveal of his women’s underwear comes before the reveal that he’s kidnapping Archer and Ron. The focus is all on the fact that a burly man with a beard is wearing a bra and panties, which ultimately comes off as a cheap laugh. The crucial detail of the twist- the kidnapping- ends up feeling like an afterthought shoehorned in after a cross-dressing joke.
And while describing the final chase sequence as The Road Warrior “as directed by John Waters” is, admittedly, unbelievably clever, the true gem of weird in “Midnight Ron” is the gypsy fortune-teller gag, which seems vastly understated compared to the cross-dressers. The back-and-forth edits between Archer hearing cryptic warnings from Cheryl and experiencing them in real life is not only hysterical, but plays to the incredible comedic timing Archer can create from editing different scenes together through shared dialogue. And while there’s something very funny about Archer’s tacit acceptance of the gypsy’s magic, the the whole gag is over and done with so fast that it feels like an afterthought when it should have been the highlight of the episode. It’s as though the cross-dressing and the fortune-telling were switched by mistake: the former being weaker material stretched out for far too long, and the latter being stronger material that’s never used to its full potential.
But ultimately, despite a few hiccups, “Midnight Ron” is a winner. Not so much for the gags (which are, as always, a laugh riot) or the story (which holds a few glimmers of genius), but rather for Ron, whose presence is by far the highlight of the half-hour. And that’s kind of a big deal, because this is his first episode at the center of the story, and its success (with audiences, critics and the creators’ own satisfaction) determines what Ron’s role is to be in the series. One can only hope there will be plenty more of Ron to come.