"Archer" Season 1: Super-Secret Super-Funny Super-Spy
I knew a guy in graduate school who seemed to be in a perpetual alcoholic haze. It would have been easy to dismiss him as just a self-destructive screw-up except that he would blow the curve on a regular basis despite his often inebriated or stoned state. After a while, I began to wonder if he was drinking more out of boredom than because of an addictive or self-destructive personality. Maybe he thought that if hard engineering problems were dull to do, they would more interesting when done in a such a baked state that you’re not sure which side of the keyboard to type on.
I couldn’t quite decide whether my theory was on the mark or not, and the fact I feel the same way about the title character of FX’s Archer is one of many reasons why I enjoy the show as much as I do. Rewatching the 10 episodes of season 1 on DVD reacquainted me with many of the other reasons I like it: a stylish aesthetic sensibility, interesting (if completely messed up) characters, a finely tuned sense of the absurd, and a wickedly transgressive sense of humor that is pee-in-your-pants funny. The only thing about the series I don’t like is how it almost completely defeats my efforts to articulate why I like it so much.
The dashingly handsome Sterling Archer is a rude, crass, chauvinistic, racist, womanizing, falling-down drunk with serious mommy issues. He also happens to be the top spy for the intelligence agency ISIS. This is at least partially because his overbearing and thoroughly awful mother Malory runs ISIS, and partially because most of his co-workers and opponents are even less competent than he is. His only real competition is Lana Kane, a curvaceous hottie who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend. Rounding out the cast is Cyril Figgis, ISIS’s nebbish comptroller who is also Lana’s rebound boyfriend; Pam, the heavyset, gossipy, H.R. coordinator and deeply frustrated sexually omnivore; Cheryl (or Carol or Cristal—her constant name changes are a running joke all season), Malory’s beautiful but dim secretary with a penchant for auto-erotic asphyxiation; Dr. Krieger, ISIS’s demented “Q”; and Archer’s much put-upon manservant Woodhouse. Add plots that mix espionage with the mundane aspects of the workplace and the outrageous comedic sensibilities of Adam Reed (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo), shake-don’t-stir, and you get a hilariously dysfunctional gang of idiots who manage to keep the world safe for democracy only accidentally. When it premiered, my colleague Maxie Zeus termed it “Get Smart by way of The Venture Brothers,” and this summation is pretty on-the-mark, except that Archer doesn’t seem to be taking its own backstory quite as seriously as The Venture Bros will occasionally.
There’s no question that Archer draws a lot of its humor out of shock tactics, and at least part of the reason why it’s so funny is the lengths it is willing and able to go to be appalling. However, if that’s all there was to the show then it wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny as it is. There is real substance to the show and its characters, which make it far more than just shock for shock’s sake. Like The Venture Bros., Archer is both parody and homage to its source material, showing clear affection for the spy genre and its conventions even as it sprays laughing gas all over them. Some of those laughs come from mashing-up workplace comedy with “intelligence” work, with hilariously insane results like a hunky black-Jewish diversity hire, a dinner party to impress an important client that’s crashed by hired assassins, or a workplace salary dispute that ends up stranding Archer and Lana on a mission with non-functioning equipment and no resources for an emergency evacuation. Archer also happily sends up what should be relatively straightforward spy thriller plots. Seducing a target for blackmail fodder yields highly un-PC laughs when the very straight Archer is sent after a gay spy (hilariously deadpanned by Ron Perlman), and a mission to shut down an arms dealer leads to an extremely uncomfortable three-way before opening a gigantic and hilariously funny can of firefight. I am also greatly impressed at the way the season finale, “Dial M for Mother,” manages to be funny and suspenseful in equal measure at the same time. It’s an incredible trick, and one that makes us genuinely concerned about the fate of two cast regulars even as we’re laughing our asses off.
It also helps that the show has an absolutely marvelous cast from top to bottom. H. Jon Benjamin was born to play Archer, tossing off his outrageous one-liners and non-sequiturs with perfect comedic timing. He is paired perfectly with Aisha Tyler’s assertive Lana, who may be the only functional adult in the entire cast despite her many hang-ups. She’s also riotously funny in her own right, more than capable of drawing a belly laugh just by saying, “Yup!” with the right amount of sarcasm and sass. Jessica Walter takes what could have been the entirely thankless role of Malory and runs with it, turning in a very funny performance as the world’s most dysfunctional mother. Chris Parnell’s Cyril has to be the straight man to this motley bunch of nutballs, but this just means he gets to draw his laughs when the show finds ways to put him in incredibly compromising situations and then get caught by the other cast members. Judy Greer gets to alternate between dim bulb malapropisms and truly outrageous lines as Cheryl/Carol, while Amber Nash and Lucky Yates go off-the-wall with their line reads as Pam and Dr. Krieger, respectively.
If Archer‘s comedic sensibilities mash-up South Park and The Venture Brothers to produce something quirky and distinctly individual, the same can be said about its animation style. Archer looks something like paper-cuts of stereotypical comic book characters moving around in three-dimensional rendered backgrounds. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and quite wonderfully. Despite their patent unreality, I find Archer and his companions infinitely more believable than the realistic motion-capture CGI characters in movies like Beowulf. The show definitely gets more comfortable with the animation and its limitations as time goes on, avoiding the kind of character and camera movements that it can’t do well, and making the most of what it can.
Archer season 1 comes on 2 DVDs in a single-width snapper case. The show looks terrific with a healthy number of chapter stops in each episode, and while I think the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack doesn’t really use the surround or sub-woofer channels as much as I’d like, the series certainly sounds fine as well. I am a bit puzzled over the occasional bleeped word or blurred image, mostly because the censorship policy seems so arbitrary and inconsistent. I can understand why some of those elements were censored for broadcast, and could even understand if the DVD was just presenting the shows as they were aired. The head-scratcher is that a four-letter word will be bleeped, only to be spoken loud and clear in a later episode (or sometimes even later in the same episode). I recall that the episodes I was able to catch did the same thing, though, so I don’t think you’re getting any less than what was aired last year.
The DVD also includes a nice selection of bonus features, even if Fox gets a bit too self-promotional with the two pilot episodes for different sitcoms on FX that really don’t seem to have the same comedic sensibilities as Archer. Disc 1 contains something billed as “The Original Unaired Archer pilot,” and while I don’t want to give away the surprise, I will say that if you’re not laughing much by the time the opening credits roll, you can skip the rest of it without missing anything. Disc 2 contains the bulk of the Archer-related bonuses, with an unaired promotional video clip, several deleted scenes, and a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes grouped under “The Making of Archer.” These featurettes are great, providing a good amount of information on the creation of the show without getting too dry or technical, and my only complaint is that there isn’t one on the voice actors as well.
After nearly 2,000 words, I still feel like I’ve touched on a lot of the things that make Archer so hilariously funny without managing to really articulate why it’s so much funnier than a lot of its competition. It’s definitely a lot more than the sum of its parts, although I still don’t feel like I’ve really covered all those parts, or even adequately described the ones I have. Or maybe it’s just that whenever I watch or think about the show, I end up laughing hard enough to starve the oxygen from my brain. Archer is a show that may start out reminding you of other shows, but it quickly establishes its own identity despite those surface similarities. In hindsight, Archer was the funniest new show released last year, and definitely in contention for the best new animated show of 2010 across all genres. Don’t keep it a secret.