Archer Recap: Revenge of the Voicemail

H. Jon Benjamin as Sterling Archer. Photo: FX
Episode Title
The Handoff
Editor’s Rating

"You can reinvent yourself. You can be anyone you want. So why would you keep being you?"

This diss that Mallory drops on Cyril, aside from being the most hurtful thing one person could say to another, echoes the trouble with this episode as a whole. Last week's "The Figgis Agency" crackled with possibility, laying the groundwork for a whole new planet of storytelling opportunities and fresh situations for our gang of newly minted private eyes. With a bold horizon in front of them, the seedy backstreets of L.A. teeming with unsavory jobs just waiting to be bungled, Archer and Co. could not have picked a less opportune time to trot out one of the show's more typical episodes in recent memory. At a juncture where Archer has the freedom to be just about anything, it chooses to be something we've seen before.

Everyone appears to have regressed since last episode, falling into too-familiar character beats on a too-familiar mission. After unknowingly delivering the sensitive disc to an imposter, the gang must now negotiate its safe return to lawyer Alan Shapiro, the same putz from whom they stole it. (Shapiro is perfectly voiced with nasal nervousness by guest star Patton Oswalt.) With the exception of a few wrinkles — Archer getting stuck in the trunk makes for some solid comedy, not to mention a beautiful preponderance of trunk-puns — this assignment follows the same old schematic. A sketchy job goes haywire due to a double-crossing so clearly telegraphed that it barely qualifies as a twist. There's no distinctive element to "The Handoff" that would place Lana or Archer in a fresh situation, no new chances to explore their evolving dynamic.

Instead, Archer's back to drooling over whichever woman might be in his immediate vicinity, and he does so right in front of Lana with little shame. Archer making a go at being a decent family man was a novel angle, and made the character considerably richer. He's backpedaled to square one in "The Handoff," not even showing a glimmer of internal conflict about his philandering ways. Archer's unending fight to resist his natural instincts to get drunk and chase skirt has been the emotional spine of the show, and when creator Adam Reed yanks the possibility of redemption away, he usually does so more delicately. Cyril, too, goes through an overly recognizable routine. His feeble attempts to assert authority at the Figgis Agency land the same way his pathetic pride over being comptroller did back in season one. Back then, Cyril had a single modicum of power, and watching him impotently wield it again feels like a re-statement.

There's still a reasonable argument to be made for this episode's worth, and it has everything to do with Archer's increasingly elaborate voicemail hoaxes. Six seasons' worth of pranks have now finally caught up with Archer, as his mother and coworkers patiently spin in their chairs, listening as he gruesomely fights off seven or eight angry bikers. Like a micro-sized riff on Mr. Show's legendary "The Audition" sketch, the scene generates ingenious humor from the uneasiness of disbelief. Archer has created a boy-who-cried-wolf situation for himself; even after several minutes of highly realistic sound effects, everyone isn't convinced of the veracity of his message. Pam's assumption that Archer brought in live crickets to complete the illusion isn't even that much of a stretch, considering the insane lengths he's gone to mess with Mallory in the past. The clever decision to play out the entire sequence secondhand doesn't just put a fresh spin on action scenes — it also represents the logical culmination of this gag, leaving it without anywhere else to go.

"The Handoff" isn't unfunny. It's just that most of the laughs are concentrated around Lana, Archer, and Alan in the limo. Archer's insistence upon using the proper "chauffeuse," the not-quite-accurately-racialized Driving Miss Daisy jokes, Archer impolitely suffocating in the trunk — these gags are the most effective comic moments of the episode, yet they don't reach the delirious highs set by former installments. Archer is like sex or pizza in that way: Even when it's not great, it's still pretty good. But even so, it's a little disappointing when the crust is flaccid.

And so, Cyril sums up the Figgis Agency's maiden voyage by deeming it "a mixed bag." Archer is pretty damn self-aware, but there's no way it's self-aware enough to admit when it delivers middling goods, right? Knowingly or no, Cyril's provided a canny ruling on "The Handoff," an episode with no glaring flaws, just a lack of anything outstanding. Workplace comedies run up against humdrum episodes sooner or later, but they're usually squirreled away in the back half of a season's middle weeks. To position a so-so installment at such a crucial point, when the path stretches outward with inviting possibility, is a misstep, but not a damning one. There's fun to be had, new track to be laid, and plenty of noir tropes to lampoon. Los Angeles is an awful big city, Archer. Get out there and explore a little.

Assorted Thoughts and Questions:

  • Trunk-related puns made in this episode include Trunky Brewster, Trunkan Hines, Trunkmaster Flex, Trunkminster Fuller, and Archie Trunker's Place. Feel free to comment with your own — my personal suggestions are Trunk Moreland and The Shape of Trunk to Come.
  • Oswalt's Shapiro describing the mess that his poisoned dog caused as a Family Circus comic strip but with "blood and watery dog shit" is … evocative.
  • Anyone else wishing we got more from the dogs wearing diapers? Diapers = gross, infant humans = gross, but somehow, dogs wearing diapers = cutest thing on this green Earth.
  • I love that in context, the "Why are you naked?"/"It's after Labor Day!" exchange makes perfect sense.
  • Pam has moved past "Phrasing!" and on to a decidedly more graphic catchphrase: "On my tits WHAAAAT." Almost makes you pine for the tact and subtlety of "That's what she said."
  • Ray gets two excellent moments this episode: When he gets energized by the presence of Veronica Deane and reveals that his idea of machismo is fighting a bear for a parking space, and then when he rocks a fetish get-up straight out of Cruising just in case he needs to go undercover. Deep undercover.