Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Twelve episodes into the second season.
One of the things animation does best is to minimize the shock of action that, if performed by flesh-and-blood characters, would be completely horrifying. You see that even in kids’ cartoons. The violence of classic Tom and Jerry shorts, for example, is dismaying if you think about it too hard—but you generally don’t. The animation softens even the harshest of blows.
Not by any stretch of the imagination is Archer appropriate for children, but even it benefits from its medium. The animation gives cover for it to indulge in crazy, sick-puppy humor—not so much dark as anarchic—without becoming unpalatable. Perhaps that sounds unflattering, but I don’t mean it that way. Shock humor for its own sake is tiresome, but Archer is far too clever and enthusiastically loopy to fall into that trap. It might not be a warm, but with its bravura voice acting and perversely endearing eccentricities, it finds humor in the most delightfully inappropriate places.
Essentially a cross between a spy satire and a workplace comedy, Archer is set at ISIS, the International Secret Intelligence Service, some sort of independent, though Western-leaning, espionage agency. (The politics and historical timeline of the series are unapologetically muddled, so it’s not worth worrying too much about the logic of that.) The agency’s star field agent is Sterling Archer (voiced by the incomparable H. Jon Benjamin), a classic James Bond type to the nth degree: narcissistic, hedonistic, witty but none too bright, and altogether oblivious to the larger implications of his destructive actions. Forced to deal with the fallout of those actions is the head of the agency, his mother, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter)—who probably deserves the headaches because, as we see in frequent flashbacks, she was once a reckless black ops agent herself and was, is, and always will be a hilariously dreadful parent. Rounding out the ensemble are the perpetually exasperated Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), the other top ISIS agent, who briefly dated Sterling before she wised up; insecure, resentful Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), the agency comptroller; Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), Malory’s incompetent, kinky secretary; Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), HR director and office gossip; mad scientist Doctor Krieger (Lucky Yates) and his holographic anime girlfriend; Ray Gilette (Adam Reed), an intelligence analyst bemused by the ineptitude around him; and the long-suffering Woodhouse (George Coe), once Archer’s nanny and now his butler, who’s been putting up with Sterling and Malory longer than anyone else.
To a one, these characters are stock types, but Archer is brilliant at pushing them to absurd lengths and giving them outré idiosyncrasies that keep the show from feeling rote. Cheryl, for example, might have started the series as merely a dim secretary so lovelorn and eager for Archer’s attentions that she’d happily answer (and even legally change her name to) whatever he absent-mindedly called her. Now she’s a dim secretary with a masochistic fetish for asphyxiation and a sadistic interest in tormenting Cyril, and she’s only working as a secretary because she’d bored with being an extraordinarily wealthy heiress because even a pet ocelot gets dull after a while—a back story that provides all sorts of humor, particularly when Archer becomes absolutely giddy at the prospect of playing with an ocelot.
Archer also gets a lot of mileage out of mashing together spy agency clichés and workplace clichés, reveling in the absurdity of cutting between Archer and Lana (and, increasingly, Ray) on their missions—thick accents and bullets flying everywhere—and the ISIS home office, where the worker bees are dealing with computer viruses and snooping in coworkers’ personnel files and bitching about (and eventually revolting over) their new health insurance package. Thanks to Malory’s mismanagement (one gets the impression that both she and her son are far too free with their expense accounts, and she frequently has to fend off attempts to blackmail her over her long-running, sex-tape-laden affair with a KGB agent), ISIS is always on the verge of bankruptcy or a hostile takeover, which means that someone is always desperate over something, which is invariably funny.
As the desperation ramps up, the rhythm of the show speeds up to match it, invariably with impeccable comic timing. From what I understand, all the voice actors record their lines separately (industry standard), but you’d never know it: they play off one another beautifully. Benjamin is something of a star in the voice acting world (really!), shaping even seemingly benign lines into comedic gems. After Arrested Development, Walter has become somewhat typecast in the role of the icy Machiavellian mother, but it’s only because she’s just so damn good at it. She and Benjamin can take the little beats that flirt with sentiment, the buried affection between mother and son, and allow just a hint of warmth before tipping right back into utterly cracked dysfunction. They’re amazing—as is, really, everyone in the cast. I’ve never thought much of Tyler, but here she can send me into giggles just with her strangely emphatic, drawled “Nope,” and Greer (another Development alum!) plays Cheryl’s twisted egoism with hilarious, sing-songy nonchalance.
And, of course, they’re provided with great material by Adam Reed, the show’s creator, who also carries the bulk of the writing. Reed has a great ear for farcical dialogue, a flair for absurdity, and a willingness to indulge in marvelously obscure references if they make for a good joke—all elements I adore. (With regard to that last bit, I’ve actually learned bits of trivia from Archer—or, more precisely, from some post-show Googling to decode the full implications of a particularly left-field punch line.) Most episodes are tightly constructed, escalating exponentially to a final calamitous climax.
In first season, episodes tended to end at that headlong crash into an impossible situation—no more parachutes left for an escape, nowhere to hide the body—without bothering to explain how our protagonists are supposed to finesse their way out of it. Second season has been more interested in continuity, with cliff-hangers that actually resolve in the following episodes. For example, one multiepisode arc tracks Sterling Archer’s battle with breast cancer (which men can develop—Archer will pummel you if you imply otherwise), mercilessly skewering the patronizing, sentimental clichés of storytelling about illness and even creating a few oddly poignant moments before plunging back into, oh, an extended, goofily black-humored allusion to The Boys from Brazil. (Why not?)
I suspect these longer, often darker plots reflect greater ambition on Reed’s part. The stakes are higher when the characters actually have to live with the fiascos that came before, and the fallout has been interesting and entertaining. I admit, though, that part of me misses the pure anarchy of first season. There was something sort of old-fashioned and freeing about repeatedly blowing everything up and then, to a large extent, hitting the reset button with each new episode. I’m totally contradicting myself here—I’m usually a sucker for obsessive continuity—but with Archer, I first fell in love with the giddy, carefree chaos, so I have mixed feelings about the imposition of order, however well crafted.
But then again, I’m probably overthinking this. Archer is in absolutely no danger of turning into an Oedipally charged heir to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which is quite good, of course, but which nonetheless could never be accused of being humorous or fast-paced). Any show that introduces a character named Benoit purely so that its hero can repeatedly append the word balls and giggle like a ten-year-old boy while the other characters sigh in exasperation is not a show that’s losing its dirty-minded silly streak. And that’s exactly how I like it.