Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Legion, season 1 (2017); Archer, seasons 1 through 7 (2010-2016)

Legion, season 1 (2017)

Show runner: Noah Hawley

Take note, MCU and DCEU overlords - the bar just got raised. A lot.

The superhero movie and TV show industry has shown no signs of slowing down, still expanding a good 12 years after Batman Begins exploded and nine years after Iron Man officially kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I am still greatly entertained by many of these movies and shows, even the ones which I feel have obvious shortcomings. Being well-versed in many of these offerings, I had come to expect only so much from them.

Then came Legion. This eight-episode series on the FX network blew me away. Yes, it's a "superhero" TV show, but it is so unlike any of the others that I am almost shocked that it got the green light to be produced. The show takes as its subject David Haller, a lesser-known character who first appeared in the New Mutants comic books, a series that sprung off of the far better-known X-Men comic books. The series takes place presumably in the 1970s, based on the general aesthetic, and we begin with David in a psychiatric institution. Seeing much of life from his perspective, we find David to be a troubled man who hears voices, often sees surreal shifts in reality, and is clearly unstable. He falls in a love with a beautiful fellow patient who refuses to be touched by any other person. As the 8-episode series unfolds, we learn that David is, in fact, a wildly powerful mutant with powers that are difficult to describe or define. David also appears to be the object of extreme interest a fear from a secretive agency and some sort of resistance group. However, he is also afflicted with a very real schizophrenia and possibly paranoid delusions. This makes great fun of determining just what is reality and what is in David's addled brain. It also gives us the novel offering of a superhero show featuring a disturbed and extremely complex protagonist.

The "demon with the yellow eyes" becomes a recurring,
mysterious, and horrifying presence through the series. Its
identity and nature are just two of several layered and
nuanced plot elements in this excellent show.
On top of the great tale and storytelling of the show, Legion uses fantastic visuals. The costumes and sets are carefully selected and curated, and the cinematography is as expert as you'll find on any TV show, network or otherwise. This is in greatest evidence when considering that the show spans a variety of visual tones, from the peaceful and verdant setting of a forested secret base to the claustrophobia of the stifling Clockworks mental institution to the dark and horrific scenes playing out in David's mind ,and sometimes manifesting itself upon others' reality.

As if the story and visuals weren't enough, the acting is incredible. Leading man Dan Stevens is pitch-perfect as the unbalanced David Haller. The role requires Stevens to be convincing as a sweet, meek victim just as much as a menacing force of wicked, unstoppable power, as well as several other equally disparate personas. He pulls them all off amazingly well. The supporting cast is just as strong, with all bringing their strong, odd, and/or enigmatic characters to full life. By this point, any fan of the fantastic superhero genre of movies and shows is very familiar with the typical archetypes and story lines, but Legion lays waste to much of it, and the cast is as large a part of it as anything else.

This show was so impressive to me that I'm now tracking down all other shows that Noah Hawley has written, which has led me to Fargo. I'm several episodes into the first season currently, and it has not disappointed me one bit. My only hope now is that the heads of the larger-scale superhero movies and TV shows take away a few lesson from Legion - namely, that you can tell a challenging, original story about superheroes with every bit of skill, creativity, and sophistication as the finest shows and movies in any genre.

Archer, seasons 1 through 7 (2010-2016)

I was definitely late to the party on this show. Despite Netlflix's algorithms always predicting a near-5 star rating for me on this series, I just never fired it up and gave it a shot. When the mood finally hit me about a year ago, though, it only took one episode to reel me in. Since then, I've steadily worked my way through all seven previous complete seasons (the eighth kicked off several weeks ago).

Basically, Archer is a cartoon parody of machismo-driven spy and action shows and movies from the last 50-odd years. An insanely hilarious one, at that. From the very first scenes of the very first episode, the rapid-fire, jaw-droppingly inappropriate gags come fast and furious. It takes less than 60 seconds to establish that the title character, Sterling Archer, is a narcissistic, self-obsessed slave to his countless vices while also being a maddeningly effective spy. The agency he works for - initially named ISIS but eventually altered for obvious reasons - is headed by his own mother and staffed by an odd crew who each have deep and hilariously disturbing personality defects of their own. Whether it's the HR rep who spends her free time brawling in illegal fight clubs and racing in underground drift gangs or the stuffy accountant who has a titanic sexual addiction, by the middle of the second season, each one develops into a well-formed and uproariously depraved personality.

This show nails so many elements of great shows that it's somewhat astounding, given the pure comedic nature of the entire series. The most obvious strength is the comedy writing. The gags, dialogue, and voice acting are top-notch. The endless insults hurled around and between the mainstay characters never gets old. It's as if the writers are channeling the very best "roasting" comics in history and putting it right into their characters' very fiber. Even the timing, pauses and slow-burn visual gags almost always hit the mark, employing styles which at times are reminiscent of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Liberally peppered throughout the show are also many references to action, spy, and adventure TV shows and movies from the past. Some are as obvious as literally (not figuratively) having Burt Reynolds voice himself for an episode of the show in which his mere presence offers Archer a chance to revel in his hero's magnificence while babbling about lesser Reynold's films like Gator or Stick. Other references are extremely subtle visual or dialogue gags, some so subtle that I have no doubt that I've missed dozens of them over the course of the series.

Scenes such as this are commonplace among the crew of
Archer. Yes, their entire job is to keep America safe from
enemy spies and other ne'er-do-wells. Between their
countless indulgences and endless insults towards one another,
they occasionally manage to get it right once in a while. 
But the one element that probably keeps me coming back to the show so very frequently is the element that any dedicated fan of fantasy fiction adores: continuity. By the middle of the very first season, the show is clearly working with a loose arc in mind, with characters and events from past episodes recurring and impacting future shows. This continues through and across seasons and the entire series, so that by the fourth and fifth seasons, there are plenty of in-jokes that reference things from many episodes or even seasons prior. These are often horrible, degrading things, but can even be innocuous oddities like Sterling's quirky policing of people's grammar. This all creates a cohesion to Archer's world that makes it as much its own realm as Tolkien's Middle Earth. If Tolkien had been an obsessed junkie of James Bond and Burt Reynolds movies. And he had been an alcoholic, comedic genius.

Another feature of note is how a few seasons have adopted certain themes. Season five, known as "Archer Vice," sees the Isis crew get involved in the cocaine trade, offering the show plenty of opportunity to adopt and parody elements of the iconic 1980s show Miami Vice. The seventh season did something similar with L.A. detective crime shows, after Archer and the gang becoming a private detective agency. The currently-airing season is taking on noir tales of literature and movies from the 1940s and '50s. This is yet another way that the writers show their love and appreciation of some of the most notable genres in the history of American storytelling.

Captain Murphy, a character who appeared in the two-part
finale of season 4, titled "Sea Tunt." Voiced by Jon Hamm,
Murphy provided me with more than a few laugh-out-loud
moments through his megalomania.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the voice acting, which is brilliant. The eight mainstay voice actors fully inhabit their characters, depraved and fantastic as they may be. As with all of the very best cartoon shows, these voice actors' timing, rhythms, and reads become as much a part of the show as anything. Throughout the show's many seasons, there have also been many notable celebrities who have lent their voices to the insanity. Some have been single episode one-offs, such as Anthony Bourdain or Burt Reynolds, while others like Jon Hamm or David Cross will voice a character for several episodes. Christian Slater even plays a character who recurs over several seasons. While a few of them such as Bourdain are not as memorable as others, they're all fully immersed in the bungling, depraved world of Sterling Archer and his surrounding cast.

While Archer is certainly not high art by any means, it is a brilliant show for what it is. Spoofing spy and action movies has been done before, but not with this much gonzo zeal for flouting good taste and showing a real knowledge and passion for the genres being lampooned. Now that I'm all caught up on the first 7 seasons (not a tremendous commitment, relatively, given that each season is only 10 to 13 twenty-minute episodes), I've already dived into the currently-airing eighth season, which uses a device taken from the classic British miniseries The Singing Detective. Great start, to be sure.