In Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Orson Welles delivers an immortal monologue about the productivity of turmoil, contrasting the great thinkers to emerge from war-torn Italy with the greatest product of tranquil Switzerland, the cuckoo clock. Welles’s character implies that it’s a frivolous, trivial trinket in comparison to the likes of Michelangelo and da Vinci, but the cuckoo clock is a wonder all its own. Through the wonder of miniature machinery, humankind successfully created a tiny bird that chirps every hour, on the hour. Who’s to say that’s not a miracle?
“Bel Panto: Part Two” is what I call a cuckoo-clock episode, a small marvel of plot maneuvering that manages to manipulate several moving parts in tandem before knotting them all in a cathartic climax. (Pretty much the signature of Arrested Development, rest its soul.) The back half of this two-parter whips up a magnificent, soufflé-light farce with all the trimmings, including mistaken identities, running in and out of rooms, intentional deception, and this being Archer, we also learn the word “coulrophilia.” This half-hour is the sort that takes a road map to write but feels perfectly natural to follow, a dazzlingly complex story that unfolds with beguiling simplicity. Archer pulls off a stunt like this once or twice a season and usually pulls it off flawlessly. “Bel Panto: Part Two” is no different, making it a worthy successor to such high-water marks as “Sea Tunt” and “Space Race.”
This week’s episode exemplifies the boundless comic potential of containing this stellar ensemble in a single space, where they must face a common circumstance. Creator Adam Reed’s rat-a-tat dialogue and the easy rapport between cast members make the simple act of being somewhere new entertaining all on its own; the context of their conversation usually grows irrelevant as turns of phrase spiral inward and the dialogue dissects itself. As the core players react to the hostage plight they’ve fallen into in their individual ways — Cheryl acts a slave to her never-ending list of fetishes, Pam beats her way to a solution, Ray mostly complains — their combustible chemistry results in a rollicking farce, light on character work but so blisteringly funny that it hardly matters.
The episode begins with a handy and effective visual flourish: A 360-degree pan that reveals the hostages and the pigsty of a ballroom they’ve all been trapped in, with pizza boxes strewn about the floor indicating how much time has passed since last week’s installment. While succinctly conveying where the situation stands, that shot also manages to work in a sneaky meta-joke when the music, presumed by the audience to be non-diegetic, is exposed as the string quartet, still trapped and still playing. It’s rare to find a TV comedy this visually proficient; most sitcoms are content to point the camera at whoever’s talking and hit record, but Archer holds itself to the standards of a formally accomplished action film. The stakes are simple, but sorting them out proves a complex undertaking. In this hostages-versus-clowns showdown, an inability to communicate makes the Figgis Agency its own worst enemy.
Archer has already dispatched the pink clown by the beginning of “Part Two,” and it doesn’t take much for Pam and Lana to pull a Wizard of Oz–style Winkie swap on the yellow and green clowns, respectively. The confrontation between the three of them is inevitable, the only place for the plot to go, and yet watching the gears mesh together with such smooth precision is a supremely satisfying experience. Once the trio does finally make contact, the ensuing fight is as well-choreographed as anything that’s made by Hollywood — the freedom of animation allows Archer’s artists to sketch out elaborate combat that would take days and days to nail with live-action filming. Once they’ve gotten a little therapeutic beating out of their systems, the stage has been set for one of Archer’s most elegant sequences to date.
Like so many episodes of Archer, the plot resolves itself with the team’s efforts having been all for naught, as external forces swoop in and fix everything. But this conclusion is anything but anticlimactic; the slow-motion hail of beanbag bullets (how is that a children’s toy?!) feels less like a cartoon sitcom and more like a feat of high art, worthy of comparison to ballet or opera or oil painting. “Part Two” goes right for the Dark Knight reference with the off-brand Jokers disguising their own hostages as their captors, then deploys a vision of comedy and beauty in equal measure as the tiny beanbags smack our heroes right in their jeering faces. All in all, not Cheryl’s best birthday, but not her worst.
The greatest virtue of this episode isn’t the multi-tiered plot it juggles like … well, like a clown. It’s in how easy Reed makes it look and the fun that’s had as the bigger picture reveals itself. The chirping bird would not be half as impressive if the consumer could see the mechanism that makes it go, but in Archer’s cuckoo clock, the craftsmanship is hidden in plain sight.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- Keegan-Michael Key and J.K. Simmons are welcome guests as the cops on the scene, all water and vinegar respectively. Their good cop–bad cop routine could have been tired, but strong writing and an unfailingly spritely delivery from Key make their characters another highlight in a bright episode. (Cold brew is easier on Mr. Tum-Tums!)
- Pam Poovey might secretly be the richest sitcom character with unusual psychological depth, able to naturally vacillate from adolescent horniness to genuine empathy to high spirits to stone-cold toughness over the course of a single episode. Amber Nash’s deadly serious read of “Heard you were getting your ass beat?” to the poor bastard about to receive the ass-kicking of his life sent chills up my spine. Pam’s taunt of “Eat my asshole!” also sent chills up my spine, but of a different sort.
- Ever the pragmatist, Archer identifies the desk drawer as the most discreet place to take a number-two in the secret chamber that Veronica uses as a safehouse. Being able to identify the optimal space to defecate in any given area is a seriously undervalued skill.
- It wouldn’t be a full-blown caper without Lana ending up in her skivvies. Does she own any underwear other than the standard “Fiacci knockoffs,” as previously identified by Ray?
- At this point, it’s more of a surprise when a plot doesn’t end with the client having orchestrated the criminal activity Archer and Co. investigate.