4.11- "The Papal Race"
I am always interested in the way that television shows deal with subject matter that could potentially be considered offensive, and writing an episode where Archer travels to the Vatican seemed like a direct invitation for controversy. Interestingly, though, the episode was not prompted by the abrupt resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February, as it had already been written and produced.
The episode maintained a delicate balance between gentle commentary about the modern Catholic church and a more hands-off approach. Archer has never been afraid to utilize overt sexual conduct, violence, or good old fashioned cursing, so I don't think anyone who watches the show regularly really is offended by anything. I expected the show to provide a real, fresh, cutting point of view.
Knowing what's funny – and, perhaps more importantly, what isn't – is the key. It's the difference between good satire and, for example, most recent episodes of South Park that comment on current events in a way that doesn't really contribute to general discourse on the subject. Good satire is valuable because it's smart in a way that is also accessible. You laugh at the jokes but you also laugh at the deeper truths bonded to the subject matter. It's easy to dress Archer up like Guido Sarducci or take cheap shots at the Catholic church for the whole decade-long pedophilia crisis but harder to critique it for its lack of multi-cultural inclusiveness (although Lana forgot one prominent black nun).
Additional comments that stood out to me were both made by the Pope: he thinks Archer is gay and promises to pardon Archer for it if he protects him from assassins, and later admits that "Luther had some valid complaints." I don't know that I'm the best person to judge how offensive these comments are, but my analysis of this episode leads me to conclude that, while the episode was j=ust as funny as always, it shied away from really contributing something to the conversation. Certainly it would have been impossible to predict the real-world events that just happened to coincide with this episode, but I feel like the next step that Archer needs to take is to really comment on world political issues.
The show has always fit within the modern era. ISIS represents a farcical version of how we perceive government agencies to operate – subtly corrupt, overtly inefficient, and pretty much useless. Each character represents something different. For example, Lana is an idealist with little to no utility to actually act; an environmentalist, she met Malory while protesting the sale of fur. Archer is a product of his upbringing and is endlessly manipulated into carrying out the agenda of his superior (which also happens to be his mother). Ray has a complex identity as a backwoods farmer, disgraced former minister, college male cheerleader, and Olympic bronze medalist (loser), and is struggling to find a place where he belongs and is accepted.
The pieces have always fit together in a way that is conducive to comedy. There's humor in a group of misfits failing (yet somehow always surviving). There are jokes to be found in making light of the way that each character is a stereotype, a version of a character we've seen over and over again in different media. At times, this prevents the writers from being able to explore these characters in depth, which is why the storylines often seem superficial. It's hard to really explore Archer's identity as a broken man, a stereotype of masculinity, because it's already been done, and the backbone of the show is its take on that character.
I’ve written about Archer's identity and his relationship with Lana because I want to see these characters as real people, and because I think the future of the show is reliant on this. For it to continue to evolve and maintain its position as one of the best shows on television, it has to take a step forward in this way. The characters on The Simpsons began as stereotypes, and much of the humor came from this – they were examples of stock characters from other sitcoms, so the show was effectively a satire of sitcoms in general. Characters like the barfly Barney and Bart's best friend Milhouse were direct parodies of characters from The Flints
tones, Cheers, and The Wonder Years.
But there's nothing wrong with giving comic characters some heart. An outlandish plot gets laughs, but a storyline that is not just irreverently funny but also intricate and well-written makes a show transcendent. I was pleased with the way that "The Papal Chase," as all Archer episodes do, balanced detailed plot and story characteristics with well-timed, intelligent humor. But I wanted it to do more in terms of perspective on the social issues it was dealing with. If you have something to say, it shouldn't matter if it's offensive or not.
Ben Wachtel likes baseball, the Boston Celtics, pancakes, tacos, and swam collegiately at Purdue University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benwachtel24.