Act II of “The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay” begins with a continuation of the episode’s “B” story, as Hank and Dean seek adventure while stuck in a hotel room in New York City. Their father, Dr. Venture, has forbidden them to leave. Dr. Venture was a boy adventurer when he was their age (younger even), but the grown Rusty aggressively denies the boys their own adventures. This is his trip, to exorcize his demons, the boys don’t enter into his plans. One guesses he’d rather not have the boys on the trip at all. One guesses, in fact, that he’d rather not have the boys, period.
So the boys play astronaut with a paper cup in the bidet, then, when that gets boring, they move on to playing submarine in the bathtub with the case that Rusty’s invention came in.
My analysis of The Venture Bros fell behind with Season 4. As Season 5 gears up, I’m going to rectify that, but I’m also going to go back and look at Season 1, starting with the pilot, “The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay.”
A pilot episode is a tricky thing. The intent is to introduce the viewer to the world of the show, but too many pilots err too far on the side of introduction. The narrative of a pilot script often pauses too many times to introduce a character or an element, slowing things down and feeling, essentially, too much like a movie and not enough like a TV show. The desired effect of a pilot is have it feel like a mid-season episode: that’s when television works best, when the world has already been established and characters can groove on each other instead of introducing themselves.
Archer’s arc for “Skytanic” is:
(1) He has no interest in defending a rigid airship against a bomb threat, but goes on a mission to do so, in order to have sex with Lana.
(2) Once aboard the ship, he goes about his job of “finding the bomber” half-heartedly and incompetently, while still trying to have sex with Lana.
(3) His twin motives of “find the bomber” and “sex with Lana” conflict in the person of Singh, and force him to drive Lana into the arms of Cyril, his romantic rival.
(4) Finally, once it is revealed that there never was a real bomb threat, Archer discovers a very real bomb.
Up in the sky aboard a rigid airship, Lana has reached a crisis point with her boyfriend Cyril. Dressed as a bellhop and bearing a basket of fruit, Cyril has stumbled upon Lana in her underwear with a naked Archer. Lana, fed up with Cyril’s mistrust, breaks up with him, and Cyril flees, sobbing. Archer, whose first priority is to have sex with Lana, tells her to “go after him.” Not to patch up their relationship, of course, but because “we’re almost out of fruit.”
Mind you, this is all in the service of foiling a bomb plot. That’s one of the key things to remember with farce — the higher the stakes are, the more serious the “mission,” the more base the cast’s motivations should be. In Fawlty Towers it’s “the hotel inspectors are coming,” in Arrested Development it’s “we’re going to trial,” in Curb Your Enthusiasm it’s “There’s an important party and you need to be on your best behavior.” With the Marx Bros it’s A Night at the Opera, with Bugs Bunny it’s “The Rabbit of Seville,” with the Three Stooges it’s the “important society gala,” with Caddyshack it’s the big golf tournament, with Animal House it’s the homecoming parade.
And one of the things that makes Archer that much more startling is that it’s, of all things, “a James Bond parody,” a genre unto itself, something that’s been done to death, in every possible medium, from Get Smart to Austin Powers, from radio to newspaper comics. How Archer manages to be not just fresh, but startlingly so, is a miracle unto itself, and a testament to the vision of the show’s creators, who have turned a liability into an asset — they use the “Bond parody” style as a familiar way into their extremely bent worldview.
So, our team of self-involved, superficial super-spies are now on the Excelsior. But there is one key player we haven’t met yet — Cyril, Lana’s current boyfriend. Cyril, anxious and insecure on the best of days, can’t stand the idea that Lana is going to be spending the voyage in a cramped stateroom with his rival Archer, so he sneaks aboard the airship and disguises himself as a bellhop in order to spy on them. The perfect ingredient to raise the level of farce — a character with a secret, involved in a deception, and best of all in disguise. Add to that the enclosed space of the airship, the ballooning of free-floating sexual tension and the escalation of the bomb plot (which may or may not be real) and you have a farce narrative that would work under far less well-written circumstances. (It’s essentially the plot of The Hindenburg. ”Skytanic” manages to cover the same ground with 100 minutes to spare and a lot more laughs.)
We are living in a second golden age of television. Some of the best writing in any field is being done right now there, from the finely-calibrated social analysis of Mad Men to the demented dark fantasies of The Venture Bros. Somewhere in between those two shows lies Archer, perhaps the most consistently well-mounted farce ever presented. Comedy is hard, and farce is the hardest form of comedy, and the scripts for Archer manage to deliver quality, satisfying, twenty-minute farces on a weekly basis. Those twenty minutes fly by like a cool breeze but actually are hard won crystalline comedy. Today, let’s look at my favorite episode from Season 1, “Skytanic.”