This "Archer" Hits the Bullseye
On paper, Archer is the kind of thing to put you in black, black mood: Another Adam Reed animated series, this one parodying the superspy genre with the same passive-aggressive, absurdist approach he brought to Sealab 2021, nailed into place by the perpetually underperforming Jon Benjamin in the title role. Get Smart by way of The Venture Brothers, in other words. You can practically audio-visualize the premise’s tired realization, and the cynical critic can already start writing the headlines before he even watches the previews: “Missing It By That Much.” “Shaken, Not Stirred.” “The Spy Who Raped Me Up the Ass.” (The last is exactly the kind of grimace-making joke you dread coming out of a character’s mouth.)
And then the damn thing goes and ruins all the spoilsport fun by actually being funny. Laugh-out-loud funny, even, and not sporadically laugh-out-loud-funny, either. It took me two-and-a-half hours to watch the first five episodes, because I kept rewinding it so I could laugh again at some bit of business or other. I don’t remember the last time I did that with a new show.
The series, yes, has a grimly familiar premise, chronicling the misadventures of Sterling Archer, a James Bond type super-spy who is a jerk, a liar, and a sociopath with mommy issues. The recurring cast of characters includes his mother, who runs the spy agency, and his ex-girlfriend, the sexy, part-black black-ops agent Lana Kane; there’s also the agency comptroller, its receptionist, and its human resources director. Again, yes, it’s that kind of show, one where most of the stories revolve around the bureaucracy. So, in “Mole Hunt” Archer is in trouble over his expense reports. Most of the plot of “Training Day” involves setting up a new health plan. “Killing Utne” takes place at a dinner party where the principals have to woo a potential client. Of the first five episodes, only “Skorpio” really busts out and parodies old-fashioned spy stuff, and even it keeps cutting back to the office, where the staff is doing some desultory file work.
But Archer works—and works brilliantly—by combining tight story-writing with an improvisational rhythm. Jon Benjamin, of course, is an old hand at the loose, improv style from his work on Dr. Katz and Home Movies, and while he still has those rhythms going, he and everyone else also sounds refreshingly focused and disciplined. The result is the best of both worlds: a lot of surprising, character-driven comedy that locks together into genuinely interesting plot lines. So episodes do not simply wander from gag to gag, but are actually structured so as to build to climactic moments; “Killing Utne,” for instance, builds real suspense by showing competing teams of assassins closing in on their target, and ends with a couple of bodies being torched in a bathroom. Jokes that in other series would be throwaway riffs—as with Crenshaw’s wandering accent in “Mole Hunt”—actually foreshadow plot twists. It is also dense with intelligent dialogue. Where many shows of this kind turn their characters into ciphers—cardboard cutouts who mouth the writers’ quips, and who surreptitiously comment on their own lack of reality—Archer‘s actors and writers make the characters themselves sound smart and engaging, and thus very real, even when they’re doing stupid things. There are a few haven’t-we-seen-this-lots-of-times-before tropes, such as the Family Guy-style “flashbacks,” but mostly the series works as a fairly straight-forward drama that has been soaked in absurdity and then set on fire.
A lot of the credit for the series immediate success has to go to the cast. Benjamin is at the center of most of the show’s scenes, and does very well as the title character, but he is also ably supported by Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, and Judy Greer, and is actually overshadowed in many scenes by Jessica Walter as his mother, the brittle, M-like Malory Archer. But the entire cast is fresh and energetic sounding, and are able to put a wicked spin on even the less inspired lines.
The animation looks inexpensive, but not nearly as cheap as the usual Adult Swim shows. It is not nearly as fluid or dynamic as The Venture Brothers, but there is more movement, and more subtle movement, than on a Sealab or Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The design work is quite handsome, and in some cases (as with Lana’s swaying hips) is nicely and subtly married to the animation.
There isn’t a lot that’s new about Archer, and there is nothing about it that will seem ground-breaking or avant-garde. But what it does, it does about as well as I’ve ever seen it done before. One of these days the contemporary taste for “hip,” “edgy” and “ironic” comedy will pass, and shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld and the Adult Swim lineup will come to seem as quaint and dated as I Love Lucy and The Flintstones. But when that day comes, Archer could be one of the few that ranks as a genuine classic.
Archer begins airing regularly on FX on Thursday, January 14.