Danger Zone: FX’s Archer


By Adam Nayman

Pam: Speaking of, you see the bulge on that towel boy? Man, if I was you, I’d be in this spa 25/8.

Cheryl: Yeah, but then I wouldn’t get to hang out with everybody at work.

Pam: You hate everybody at work.

Cheryl: I know. It’s the only thing that gets me out of bed every morning.

—“Fugue and Rifts,” Archer, Season 4


Hate is all you need on Archer. Having steadily grown in popularity and acclaim since its premiere in January 2010, the animated spy spoof recently completed its fourth season on FX (the episodes will air in Canada this fall on Teletoon at Night). In other words, it’s reached the point where other brittle workplace sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation started to go soft. Archer, though, has held its ground—though in this case, that ground is scorched earth. Even as George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television” have long since passed into the prime-time lexicon (remember, It’s Not TV, It’s HBO), to quote Mr. Show, Archer keeps pushing the envelope until you want to yell, “Leave that poor envelope alone!”

Not even the newly resurrected Arrested Development—an obvious influence on Archer creator Adam Reed and his writing staff, as well as a veritable lending library of vocal talent for the series—ever achieved Archer’s grade of crystalline meanness. While AD creator Mitch Hurwitz tried his best to stylize his actors into antagonistic caricatures, the battling Bluths have nothing on the disgruntled employees of the New York-based private-security firm ISIS, whose mandate is to protect America (or at least its corporate interests) from foreign villains, but who spend most of their spare time (and ammunition) sniping at each other. A dashing moron with a James Bond complex and a Burt Reynolds fixation, the show’s eponymous “hero” Sterling Archer (inimitably voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, in a honeyed baritone that can bend to express everything from shrieking mania to soused indifference) drifts blithely between foreign locales, firefights, and leggy fuck-buddies in a perpetual state of gracelessness, his utter self-absorption making him the spitting image of his employer-mother Mallory (Jessica Walter), a high-functioning alcoholic severely lacking in tact or scruples who runs ISIS with an iron fist.

The emotionally retarded Archer finds his foil in the statuesque Lana (Aisha Tyler), a star ISIS field agent who also happens to be Archer’s embittered ex-girlfriend. Lana’s on-again/off-again rebound Cyril (Chris Parnell) is a meek accountant who abandons himself helplessly/happily to a severe sex addiction; Cyril’s other on-again/off-again partner, ISIS secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer), is a glue-huffing pyromaniac with a sadomasochistic strangulation fetish. (She’s also a billionaire who owns a railroad and an ocelot named Babou.) The firm’s HR manager, Pam (Amber Nash), is a “sturdy bisexual” who dabbles in pit-fighting and can fit three pool balls in her mouth. Dapper, occasionally crippled intelligence analyst Ray Gillette (voiced by Reed), meanwhile, is rewarded for his relative competence and general decency by being the butt (phrasing!) of endless gay jokes.

In other words it isn’t, you know, for kids. Archer surely isn’t the first cartoon to couch grown-up material in Saturday-morning aesthetics (insert obligatory Simpsons reference here), but there is perhaps something revelatory about its arrangement of elements familiar from the whole spectrum of post-Groening animated ventures. The roll call: retro-fitted Hanna Barbera-era aesthetics, borrowed from both actual ’60s-era items like Johnny Quest and The Herculoids as well as self-cannibalizing Adult Swim tributes like Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and Space Ghost Coast to Coast; detail-rich genre pastiche, as per Reed’s submerged sci-fi opus Sealab 2021 and superhero riff Frisky Dingo; judicious indulgence in phantasmagoric surreality, à la Adult Swim flagship Aqua Teen Hunger Force; cast members culled from the American alt-comedy scene (Benjamin, Tyler, Parnell), not to mention a number of AD affiliates (Walter, Greer, Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross); and a taboo-busting swagger often indistinguishable from rank juvenilia (cf. South Park, the collected works of Seth MacFarlane).

In a sense Archer is a virtual compendium of the last decade plus of contemporary comedy/cartoon (arrested) development, which has led some to speculate that it might represent the genre’s Great Leap Forward. In a recent essay for Harpers, Charles Bock argues that Archer is the “first significant step forward for animated comedy since South Park.” The effect of this statement is not only to build up Archer, but also to bury the bulk of Adult Swim programming: dirt is even laid over the mouldering but undead corpse of the once-great Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which Bock conspicuously declines to officially name-check. (He mentions it in passing, in terms both accurate and desultory, as an “original program…about a milkshake, a burger patty and a serving of fries who fight crime but mostly just sit around their dilapidated shared house in semi-urban New Jersey.”)

Bock’s authoritatively researched article has four main points: 1) that the recent surfeit of critically acclaimed cartoons came about as a combination of talented people surreptitiously honing their absurdist craft in the shadows of witching-hour programming slots (Bart to Homer: “Dad, who’s watching television at three in the morning?”) and lowered expectations around the format; 2) that this renaissance is part of a larger pop-cultural phenomenon where the line dividing the fringe from the mainstream has become increasingly blurred; 3) that the great majority of these shows, their intermittent moments of inspiration aside, are too narrowly focused to deserve deep exegesis; 4) and, finally, that Archer, by virtue of its “specificity and discipline,” manifests an answer to “both the ephemera and the pabulum” floating around on premium cable.

Writing as an unabashed Archer fan who has cycled through the first three seasons at least three times each (and resorted to nefarious means to watch the fourth from my cozy perch in Toronto), it would be nice to nod assent to Bock’s thesis and proceed to simply quoting the show’s best lines—e.g., anything uttered by ISIS’ resident gadget master/gene-splicer/grave-robber Mr. Doctor Algernop Krieger (Lucky Yates), a genetic clone of Adolf Hitler whose fetishes include bestiality, necrophilia, and Rush, and who will have you know that he’s not a serial killer. (“Why did you emphasize the word ‘serial’?”) But I ‘m not totally convinced by Bock’s suggestion that Archer has transcended its forebears in any significant way. Improved upon, definitely: as Archer has gone on, it’s created the sort of painstakingly layered mythology usually reserved for science-fiction serials. This is another place that one notices the influence of Arrested Development, whose pretzel-logic plotlines managed the neat trick of weekly self-containment while locking into place within a larger structure. At the same time, however, a lot of Archer’s comedy relies on the arrested development of its characters, whose appeal is bound up in their predictability—even when, as with Cheryl and Krieger, their default setting is Non-Sequitur.

On Archer, “Plots matter,” insists Bock, but that’s not quite true. In fact, the episode-to-episode formula is familiar enough that viewer foreknowledge becomes part of the pleasure. (e.g., Season 4’s undersea two-parter was a beat-for-beat redux of Season 3’s “Space Race” finale.) This is not to say that the show’s commitment to continuity is a total waste. The third-season resurrection of Sterling’s late wife Katya—murdered On Her Majesty’s Secret Service-style on their wedding day, before a dumpster-diving Krieger hot-wired her into a cyborg—indulged the show’s fondness for absurdist science-fiction (see also: Ray’s post-paralysis robot legs) while teasing out the possibility of some actual character development for her husband. Ultimately, however, it proved wiser to keep Sterling single—not only to appease the Sterling-Lana ’shippers in the audience, but because in any sitcom built upon the reliably wacky behaviour of a relatively stable cast of characters, significant change and progress are rarely tenable.

Looking for some ballast to shore up his argument that Archer isn’t as “disposable” as the likes of Metalocalypse or The Boondocks, Bock cites Season 2’s “Placebo Effect”—in which a cancer-stricken Sterling tracks down and assassinates a ring of drug traffickers peddling phony cancer medication—as an example of the show’s capacity to be truly, format-bustingly startling.  “That it’s so shocking is a testament to the character and the writing and the oddly multifaceted nature of what is in fact a sitcom cartoon,” writes Bock of Sterling’s climactic, cold-blooded capping of a drug kingpin, a dead-eyed Dirty Harry homage punctuated by a vintage ’70s-style freeze frame. But as Archer’s morally weightless universe simply can’t support genuine gravitas, the episode’s black-comic coda instantly reverts to the series’ sadistic status quo: the freeze frame gives way to a rewind, as a hooting Archer gleefully rehashes his extra-legal lethality via camcorder footage for a captive audience of his ISIS colleagues, unwittingly lured to his snuff-flick screening by promises of bagels and lox and mimosas.

For Bock, this ending is a return to sanity, to the “native idiocy” that ostensibly makes the character, and the series as a whole, so appealing to a certain kind of viewer—which is to say, the sort of viewer who recognizes the idiocy as an elaborate pose. Bock is absolutely right when he says that Archer is the only show on television that “takes for granted a multi-decade, multimedium-spanning, simultaneously high and low cultural literacy among its viewers.” Unlike the impoverished, instant-recognition parody of a Family Guy, Archer’s allusions to movies, musicians and television shows tend to be fleeting and celebratory (as in the use of a Gator-era Burt Reynolds as Archer’s spirit guide), while Sterling and the ISIS gang’s propensity to namedrop historically significant yet generally obscure figures in the heat of argument—“Who am I?” snipes Sterling at one rival, “Guglielmo Marconi? The inventor of the radio?”—underlines the braininess at play.

In short, Archer is the work of very smart people who have calibrated their characters’ various stupidities (moral, emotional, vocational) such that we never lose sight of the smartness propping them up. Archer’s characters are, to a man (and woman) avaricious, vain, lazy, prideful, lascivious, vengeful green-eyed monsters—and so any relationship to actual persons, living or dead, is both entirely coincidental and simply inevitable. Such is the basic M.O. of satire: zeroing in on human vices and holding them up to scrutiny. Northrop Frye believed that satire was militant irony, irony designed to bring about change. Yet Archer, for all its scoring of corporate greed and one-percenter entitlement, mostly keeps its hands to itself, foregoing Simpsons-style social consciousness in favour of a savage onanism. Fittingly for a show that has always raised (lowered?) the bar on masturbation gags—from Sterling suggesting that Lana pleasure herself to pass the time while the two sit caged in a South American drug lord’s lair, to strangulophile Cheryl’s steamy encounter with Krieger’s homemade Chokebot—Archer gets off on its own nastiness, relentlessly blurring the line between enjoyably mean-spirited comedy and sociopathic misanthropy.

The question is whether the hostility that wafts through every episode of Archer is just something in the air, or if it comes from somewhere within. Reed has talked about how he created Sterling Archer after being unable to approach a beautiful woman while on a tropical vacation, trying to imagine an alter ego who’d have no problem closing the deal. This is revealing insofar as it explains one of the basic comic tensions of Archer: even as its body-beautiful characters (Cyril and Pam excepted) are always aggressively eroticized (the image of Lana running around a space station with a gigantic gun and white pasties affixed to her nipples is surely the stuff of a thousand late-night screengrabs), they are often sexually pent-up and frustrated—even as they still manage to have a lot of sex. Yet for every good lay (“She was, like, the Pele of anal,” crows Sterling after one conquest), a dozen bad ones wait in the wings: Sterling passes out after discovering cyborg-Katya’s detachable robotic vagina in the sink (“It was like a transistor radio and a veal cutlet had a baby”); satyriasist Cyril weeps while boning a gloating Cheryl; and Lana grimly steels herself to pleasure a pining Pam (“I’ll just close my eyes and pretend it’s Alex Rocco”)

There is in Reed and co.’s simultaneous abjection and fetishization of their impossibly glamorous characters something comparable to that mixture of condescension and desire that defines Mad Men, Archer’s premium-cable doppelganger. (There are entire Tumblrs dedicated to Archer/Mad Men match-ups, superimposing dialogue text from one show over images ripped from the other.) Yet where Mad Men’s critique of Madison Avenue mores seeks to expose the disparity between the smiling face America presents to the world and the ruinous doubts lying just beneath—the Polaroid of Dorian Gray—Archer’s spoof of the vintage Cold War-era superspy has no such real-world resonance, its satirical target being at least half-spoofery to begin with. (Mad Men, it might be noted, adds little more to the “revelations” of, e.g., The Hucksters [1947], than to retrofit them for the age of irony, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Despite its censor-baiting crassness, at its core Archer is no more than a foul-mouthed update of Get Smart, and ultimately no less innocuous. While it freely indulges in winking, post-P.C. racism (the “Heart of Archness” three-parter, with its obscene Filipino pirate villains, was probably the apotheosis-nadir of this tendency), Archer plays it very safe in terms of its foreign-born villains. The series’ gorgeously anachronistic mise en scène, with its luxurious old-fashioned office interiors and impossibly mismatched espionage technology, is in step with its pointedly retrograde geopolitics: in this universe where the Cold War is still in deep freeze, the KGB is the primary foe, terrorism is the province of Nova Scotian separatist renegades the New Scotland Front, and 9/11 is one of the few things off-limits for lampooning.

It’s not Reed’s responsibility to be topical, which dates comedy faster than almost anything else (which is why it’s hard to rewatch much of South Park and Saturday Night Live). Besides, a cartoon version of Homeland would be redundant, not least of all because Homeland is essentially a cartoon itself (or a Muppet Show: Clare Danes’ googly-eyed visage is starting to resemble something dreamed up in the Jim Henson Creature Shop). Archer and Homeland do share a major theme, however: that the people charged with maintaining life-and-death matters of national security are often unstable and unreliable. It’s arguable that Archer gets better results by treating this truism as weightless farce instead of sober tragedy, but even if choosing to be about nothing is preferable to the lazy hot-button jabbing of South Park (which has grown increasingly reactionary with age), it still leaves one with the impression that a group of talented entertainers are simply endlessly renovating the same cozy little niche.

Eventually, the law of diminishing returns catches up with even the most enduring television shows—remember that The Simpsons has been bad for almost twice as long as it was great. As Archer is not obliged to take any real risks going forward, it’s only a matter of time before its impressive consistency becomes (or starts to be widely perceived as) redundant; and its cartoon-theatre-of-cruelty sensibility, initially so bracing, may soon start to seem redundant as well. To paraphrase incessant Archer reference Kenny Loggins, it would seem that this ostensibly maverick series is entering a danger(ous) zone.