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"Archer": And the Bulls-Eyes Keep Coming

by on January 18, 2012

What with one thing and another, I haven’t been able to watch FX’s Archer since its very, very funny premiere, so I approached the Season Three premiere with a volatile emotional mix of anticipation and fear. Anticipation, because I’ve been keen to watch more of the breathlessly insane spy spoof; fear, because most shows (especially those with satirical, off-color humor) tend to quickly become stale and repetitive. Imagine my relief, then, when the four preview episodes offered up by FX for the new season turned out to be almost as funny and surprising as the first episodes I’d ever seen; and a marathon session with the intervening seasons (to catch myself up to speed) showed no discernable drop from what has come before.

Archer (for those who haven’t been following the FX animated series) is about Sterling Archer, the world’s best and most dangerous secret agent. Archer, a top field agent for ISIS, can get out of almost any sticky situation–which is fortunate, because he is even better at getting himself into them. That’s because he is not only the best spy in the world, he may also be the stupidest and most selfish person in the world. He will lie, cheat, kill, murder, and fornicate with virtually almost no forethought and with even less afterthought, and will do so in the smuggest and most jerksome manner. It doesn’t help that he also has weird mommy issues.

Archer, man and show, are very nearly at their best in the first new episode of the year, “The Man From Jupiter.” His opening line is classic Archer: When the girl he’s invited back to his place says she needs to wait for her friend, he snorts: “Yeah, obviously we’re going to wait for her. She’s the hot one.” That earns him a slap and a laugh from a bar patron who turns out to be Burt Reynolds. Reynolds (playing himself) is there to meet his own date, who in turn proves to be Archer’s mother. That’s the set up for further classic Archer situations, including a kidnapping, a Cuban hit squad, a genuinely pulse-pounding chase, and people getting embarrassingly drunk. The really great thing in the episode, though, is Burt Reynolds, whose raspy, rumbling voice all by itself has mega-star quality, and whose warm readings of some very funny but also very touching lines gives the absurd dialogue some real emotional heft. The story also treats him with enormous affection and dignity, making him out to be twice the hero that Archer himself is.

After that, ISIS comptroller Cyril Figgis comes into his own (relatively speaking) in “El Contador” when he is elevated to field agent and has to go along with Archer and Lana Kane to retrieve a drug lord with a very large price on his head. It’s not a huge spoiler to say that Cyril surprises everyone (himself included) with a grifter’s skill at talking himself plausibly out of hard places and into high ones. It’s an interesting discovery, and I hope it is one the show will pursue and develop. Archer is better than a lot of satirical series because some of its characters (like Archer himself) are actually pretty good at their jobs. It would be nice if Cyril’s talent as a plausible liar and bluffer got some comical play instead of being a one-off joke.

Being very, very rich is not a talent, exactly, but last season we learned that the incompetent ISIS secretary, Cheryl Tunt, is heir to a huge fortune. “The Limited” shows what Archer can do with that kind of revelation when the ISIS team has to transport a Nova Scotian terrorist by train across the border to Ottawa–and Cheryl (who owns the railroad) has half-a-dozen of her private cars attached to it. There aren’t as many “Canadian” jokes as you might expect, but that’s something of blessing, since the ones that come are pretty moldy. The script actually has more fun with some riffs on how the Canadian bad guy perceives the American good guys.

Finally, “Lo Scandalo” shows that the show hasn’t lost its ability to go comically dark and disturbing. The plot has the Italian prime minister being assassinated inside Malory Archer’s apartment under some, shall we say, very scandalous circumstances, and the ISIS team has to dispose of the body while figuring out whether to believe Malory’s anguished but unbelievable protestations of innocence. It also adds a further piece to the puzzle of Sterling’s parentage.

My colleague Ed Liu has wondered what makes the show so good. I think the explanation is pretty simple–which doesn’t make its achievements any less impressive. Archer‘s secret–which it shares with the early Simpsons and with Futurama–is that it tells well-constructed stories about people with recognizable foibles and problems, however exaggerated they are. Idiotic colleagues, incompetent competitors, impossible parents: these are at the core of the show, and they’re familiar landmarks in most people’s lives. If we’re lucky enough not to have mothers as horrible as Malory, co-workers as disgusting as Pam, or rivals as sociopathic as Archer, we can still find their counterparts in our own worlds, and recognize the unchained egos and rampaging ids that most of us keep well restrained. That sense of rueful recognition explains how we can so readily identify with and forgive these characters even when they are at their worst, and it also explains how the show can easily and convincingly slip into more serious modes without losing its satirical essence.

Archer shows no sign of slowing down. You can catch new episodes starting this Thursday, January 19, on FX.

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