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Adult animation grows up with Archer

Discussed in this essay:

Archer. FX. Thursdays 10:00 p.m. EST.

The Simpson family is hightailing it away from a murderously intentioned Sideshow Bob. Having attached himself to the underside of their car, Bob endures speed bumps, scalding coffee, and an unexpected detour (“Hey kids,” says Homer, “want to drive through that cactus patch?”). The Simpsons make it to the idyllic haven of Terror Lake and walk off to their new houseboat home; now a bruised Bob crawls out from beneath the vehicle, pulls himself upright, takes a step, and — a pole pops up and smacks him between the eyes: he’s stepped on a rake. Bob, as much in long-suffering pique as in pain, emits a low grumble. He turns around and is promptly smacked in the face by another rake. A wide shot from above reveals Sideshow Bob surrounded by thirteen scattered rakes. He steps on another, takes the hit, grumbling: “Mmrreurrrgrh.” Three paces straight ahead and Bob steps on another, “Mmrreurrrgrh.” A bit of Seventies porno editing: the first rake smack plays again, as if it’s a new rake, for the sequence’s fifth smack, the whole loop getting under way in repeat. A solid thirty seconds after Bob emerges from under that car, we cut at last to Marge and Homer inside the houseboat. Audible is the distant impact of the ninth rake.

“The reason there are so many,” explains producer Al Jean on the DVD commentary track for Season 5,

was . . . the show was short. I was editing . . . and I said, “How can it still be twenty freaking seconds short?” So I said, you know, “Add a couple more rakes hitting him.” That was a little longer, but it wasn’t long enough. So Sam [Simon, one of the show runners] had said, “You know, when something’s funny, and then you do it so much it’s not funny, if you keep doing it, it might get really funny.” So we just said, “Let’s just go for broke and put in as many as we possibly can.”

There were, to be sure, precedents: the beans-around-the-campfire scene in Blazing Saddles, or Monty Python’s Lancelot endlessly charging toward Swamp Castle. Still, when the Rake Scene appeared on October 7, 1993, televised comedies weren’t doing humor where the degree of repetition, the overlong extension of the joke, was the joke. That scene, though cobbled together as filler, instantly became one of the most memorable moments of what is now the longest-running sitcom on television. Moreover, it tapped into a current: something was afoot on Bob’s giant floppy clown feet. That same something has lately completed a strange journey, now shod in the fine black cordovan loafers of a superspy named Sterling Malory Archer.

The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” episode — the one with the Rake Scene — aired during a spectacular five-year run (Seasons 2 through 6) in which the show, while transforming Fox into a real network, was consistently as funny and refreshing and innovative as anything in the history of broadcast television (one staff writer compared his first time in the writers’ room to visiting one of the stations of the cross). The debut season was straightforward, a brightly colored specimen of the conservative, middle-class nuclear sitcom family of the Eighties, but gone a bit off the rails (George H. W. Bush promised to “make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”). But after that first season’s success (it broke into the Nielsen top twenty during its thirteen-episode run), as characters became established, the writing staff began to make more ambitious assumptions about their audience’s pop literacy, employing layered references to classic cinema and genre films and Broadway musicals and other television shows, as well as jaundiced cameos by celebrity guest stars announced with a wide-eyed “That’s a good question, Bono,” or “Hey, kids, it’s Sideshow Luke Perry!” By Season 4, not only had Homer the clueless paterfamilias replaced Bart and his don’t-have-a-cow-man petulance as the show’s fulcrum but The Simpsons had permanently colonized the territory of the absurd and freewheeling, the family dynamic having revealed itself as a vehicle for exploring, parodying, subverting, and affectionately thumbing a nose at the show’s true subject: pop culture itself.

The same year “Cape Feare” aired, David Foster Wallace published an essay in which he commented on how irony — formerly a weapon of the avant-garde — had been co-opted by corporate America: Isuzu winking at itself with a lying salesman named Joe Isuzu, so we’d remember the name. “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching,” Wallace argued. “Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

Wallace sensed that undercurrent wherein smart young adults who’d grown up on popular culture, and who now considered it their canon, were not simply aware of and charmed by and fluent in its forms but also exhausted by those forms, distrustful of them. Which didn’t mean slackers were going to stop consuming, commenting on, or making references to pop; and they assuredly weren’t discovering the golden hues of the sincerity for which Wallace eloquently pined, or eschewing any kind of ironic anything. The Onion’s deadpan generic AP-style headlines (“Death Star to Open Day Care Center”; “Scissors Defeats Rock”) were finding an audience in cities and college towns (though the paper was not yet successful enough to pay its writing staff salaries); Seinfeld had devoted a chunk of its fourth season to a plotline in which Jerry and George develop an NBC pilot for a show about nothing. And in 1996, pop’s ironizing self-consciousness cranked into high gear with Scream — a movie whose masked killer consciously employs tropes of teen slasher films in order to slash teens.

In New York City, meanwhile, on Monday nights at the Lower East Side’s Luna Lounge, cast members of Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and MTV’s short-lived but seminal sketch-comedy show The State — and such emerging comedians as Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron, and Sarah Silverman — were performing stand-up and skits for audiences in semi-organized evenings that the New York Times called a reaction to “the tyranny of the punch line,” a kind of collective striving for honesty and originality in a profession glutted with mediocre cable-TV stand-up and ossified by jokes about airplane peanuts. There was one rule at the Luna Lounge: no previously performed material allowed. Nobody got paid. Sets were freer (obviously); their lack of form could lead to rambling and, often, to a kind of searching: Maron was described by Times reporter Neil Strauss as performing “ideas as much as jokes,” Silverman as attempting “to salvage a difficult night by delivering her neurotic monologue with her pants around her ankles.” One recent arrival was the now ubiquitous Zach Galifianakis, who’d performed for the first time at the Lounge just two weeks earlier; the young comedian was quoted as hoping to see a fusion between alternative and mainstream comedy.

“Anticomedy” was a term that got tossed around.

In anticomedy both comedian and audience implicitly acknowledge the traditional, tyrannical set-it-up/knock-it-down mechanics of a joke. Only now the joke’s punch line sabotages its setup, and this subversion ends up getting the laugh. The joke, again, is on the joke itself. Anticomedy often involves dramatic leaps of logic and can venture into unsettling territory. Forerunners include Andy Kaufman’s almost-performance-art pieces; David Letterman’s early, monkey-cam-loving, bowling-ball-off-a-building-tossing late-night years; the affectless stonerific one-liners of Steven Wright. You can consider This Is Spinal Tap as anticomedy.


What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
Finding half a worm.


What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
The Holocaust.

In 1994, Cheers was still the dominant model for sitcoms. Friends — pretty people declaiming safe, snappy lines — was the kind of show guaranteed to get a push. But mainstream entertainment was at the same time playing with an ever more expansive and elastic self-reflexivity, thanks not only to The Simpsons but also to The Larry Sanders Show and, of course, that film in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson banter about what you call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris. More animated comedies were being green-lighted, many of them also revolving around pop culture: MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head offered cynical metacommentary on an MTV-spawned generation of morons, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist juxtaposed a middle-aged shrink’s sessions treating comedians with his relationship with his adult son. Animated movies traditionally had been made with enough grown-up laughs to save parents from aneurysmal boredom; these new shows appealed squarely to that all-important demographic of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds and its disproportionate spending clout, to knowing undergrads and exhausted grad students, to untold numbers of fully grown men and women (but mostly men) stuck in perpetual or arrested states of development.

South Park, which debuted in 1997, took aim — as had The Simpsons — at the idiocy of a popular culture that its creators were (and are) nevertheless obviously in love with. But The Simpsons was essentially good-natured; the wonderfully specific dynamics of late-Nineties suburban childhood and the looser rules of basic cable, on the other hand, empowered South Park to go for broke, as when fourth grader Eric Cartman tricks an older boy, Scott Tenorman, into eating chili made from Scott’s freshly killed parents (“Oh, let me taste your tears, Scott! . . . The tears of unfathomable sadness! Mmm, yummy!”). While South Park’s main characters remain, like The Simpsons’, essentially static, the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have adjusted, as The Simpsons did, by introducing and fleshing out supporting characters. With age, South Park also has unavoidably begun to give off the odor of a known quantity — though Parker and Stone still come through with the occasional thoroughly brilliant episode (e.g., Season 10’s “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” a pitch-perfect satire about online role-playing adventures, as well as a father trying to connect with his preteen son). Moreover, the show has managed to maintain its lewd, if whimsical, integrity; during Episode 1 of Season 7, a version of the Rake Scene revisits the series’ inaugural show, in which aliens implant Cartman with an anal probe: the bare-tushed Cartman lies prostrate on an examination table, with the other boys, the elementary school’s chef, and a scientist standing nearby. Cartman urges his friend Kyle to activate the probe with his finger; every time Kyle gets close, Cartman farts on him. For nearly ninety seconds this goes on, and those assembled provide a running commentary, including explicit acknowledgment of the scene’s mechanics (chef: “It stopped being funny forty seconds ago. . . . Okay, now it’s funny again”). The routine is base, childish, and repetitive — but also disciplined, shrewd, and aware.

Around the time of South Park’s debut, the suits at Cartoon Network were trying to find a use for their back stock of aging Hanna–Barbera reels. How they settled on reanimating the Sixties Saturday-morning cartoon Space Ghost, your guess is better than mine. (Mine: Their execs figured anyone watching Cartoon Network in the wee hours had to be baked.) Space Ghost’s body and actions got culled from the original animation cels, placed against new computer-generated backdrops, and voiced with new dialogue. Our cartoon hero became a delusional, narcissistically standoffish talk show host, his sidekicks and staff conscripted from among former nemeses. He asked clueless questions — via space video phone — to celebrity guests whom stoned young men might get excited about (Bob Denver, a.k.a. Gilligan) or with whom a Turner affiliate could finagle an interview (Susan Powter). Built around those interviews were loosely plotted animated segments jammed with non sequiturs, inside jokes, tangential thoughts, squabbling. Space Ghost, Coast to Coast ran on and off for ten years, and its best moments were truly original.

space ghost: Satan? Did I meet him? At the open house?
moltar:Yeah, he was that guy who was trying to get you to kill that girl.
zorak:Yeah, with the necktie, and the crown made of femurs.
space ghost: I don’t remember him.

The budget for that episode reportedly ran out before animation was completed, so the writers decided to use old Yogi Bear footage for Satan, putting that crown of femurs around Yogi’s head and providing him with a deep, menacing voice. Lore has it that Joe Barbera saw the episode while in hospital and sent a note that was anything but amused.

Such was the formula that built a programming block, and then a network within a network (after 11:00 p.m. Cartoon Network became Adult Swim, a distinct entity for ratings purposes and composed entirely of animation for adults). Short episodes (eleven-plus minutes of comedy, three or so of commercials) were made on the cheap — for as little as $50,000 per episode, as compared with the reported $1 million ceiling for The Simpsons — all of them in some way recycling or playing with forgotten cartoon footage. Sealab 2021 provided a continuation of the life of the underwater lab at the center of 1972’s Sealab 2020, only now the habitat’s captain was in love with his Happy Cake oven, a plucky blonde crew member constantly flashed her breasts, and every episode seemed to end with Sealab being blown up. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law gave a forgotten superhero (Birdman) a first name (in seeming tribute to a key figure in underground comix, Harvey Kurtzman) and put the masked, winged lawyer in court, where he prosecuted cases whose events had transpired inside the Saturday-morning-cartoon universe (a relative unknown named Stephen Colbert served as a voice-over regular). As the late-night lineup filled out around Space Ghost, the surreal potential of cartoons began to show a natural chemistry with alternative humor. And since no one had to worry about a viewer feeling sorry for drawings, the cartoons could say and do just about anything to one another. When heavyweights from the nascent alternative-comedy scene — Louis C.K., the late Mitch Hedberg — did voice-overs, their highly refined vocal control and interest in generic and formal subversion provided a cachet of hip legitimacy that’s only grown with time’s passing.

In retrospect, the only way a happening this postmodern, this self-aware, could incubate on American television was in a context where the expectations were low, the risk inconsequential. Were ratings at 2:00 a.m. on Cartoon Network going to go down? It would be funny to report that, yes, the ratings went down, but instead, in another subverted expectation, an original program — about a milk shake, 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 — gained a following. Then came the game changer: a broad, shtick-happy knockoff of The Simpsons that had been canceled after three seasons on Fox. Reruns of Family Guy on Adult Swim became the channel’s biggest draw and pushed DVD box-set sales of the show’s original seasons into the millions; Family Guy has since been revived by Fox, for which it is now both mainstay and syndication cash cow.

Ten years after Family Guy’s coup, two decades after the Rake Scene, animation’s pop-culture satires are not just successful but institutional, and the lines between what’s mainstream and what’s fringe — always fuzzy to begin with — have been further smudged, sometimes to the point of disappearing. Side by side with the aggressively juvenile appeal of Family Guy, Adult Swim now loads up on narrowly targeted animated comedies (Metalocalypse, The Boondocks), and has even branched into live-action shows (Childrens Hospital, Eagleheart), all working with a design-heavy mind-set and a viewership assumed to possess both new-media savvy and Internet-quick attention spans. In quantifiable ways, this formula works: in 2010, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature labeling Adult Swim “cable’s go-to spot for smart, off-kilter late-night comedy,” and business magazines such as Forbes and Fast Company have run slobbery profiles about the “rise of a late night network” and how Adult Swim “stays edgy and creative.” Indeed, for the past eight years, from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. six nights a week, Adult Swim consistently has been on top of basic-cable programming, as far as eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds are concerned — meaning more young men watch it, and for longer stretches, than watch SportsCenter.

But there’s a trade-off: like so much that is amusing in pop culture, like so many of the shows from which it is descended, Adult Swim programming, despite “edgy” and “creative” media labels, is so damned disposable. Metalocalypse is awesome so long as you are versed in the culture of black metal; The Boondocks is amazing if you love hip-hop culture (and have had your sense of humor surgically excised). Then there’s Family Guy, which often waters down the tropes of better, groundbreaking shows, then thrusts them on viewers with a manic tap dance and open arms — sometimes literally, as in one deeply unfunny vaudeville about AIDS. The show also has a curious affection for variations on the Rake Scene, which will subject viewers to two and a half interminable minutes of Osama bin Laden hamming it up in outtakes from one of his cave videos, or titular dad Peter Griffin in an equally interminable wordless fistfight with a giant chicken. Well before reaching the white-light part where they can start being funny again, these jokes are beaten into the ground, with a rake, long outlasting the viewer’s taste for tedium. (Naturally, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is the host of this year’s Oscars.)

The more one watches Adult Swim, the more one wonders: Is there an answer to both the ephemera and the pabulum?

Sterling Malory Archer. Code name: Duchess. Rakishly handsome in perfectly tailored suits, the lead of FX’s animated sitcom Archer is the greatest secret agent in the world, an assessment he cannot help but share when he’s drunk (often) or trying to get laid (always). When Archer walks through the offices of the private ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) agency, every other employee flips him the bird. This might be because (also when drunk and trying to get laid) Archer’s been known to call fellow ISIS agents in the field, blowing their cover and getting them killed; he’s been known to beat Pam the human-resources director with her therapy dolphin until she pees herself. His domineering mother, Malory, owns and runs ISIS and won’t tell Archer, or maybe doesn’t remember, who his father is. Archer’s working partner and ex-girlfriend, a statuesque queen of a drawing named Lana Kane, is happy to shoot Archer in the foot during any number of their innumerable arguments (because how else is he going to learn not to call her a “quadroon”?), and for a time rebounds from him by going out with ISIS’s mild-mannered comptroller, Cyril, right as he plunges deeply into “sexual addiction.” There’s Cheryl, a secretary who loves being choked and daydreams about burning the place to the ground (and also about being saved from a burning building by a burly fireman who then chokes her to death). And oh, yes, Krieger, ISIS’s staff scientist, may have been cloned from Hitler’s sperm. None of the relationships on the show are reductive, none of the characters imperturbably static. Witness Archer reaching into his briefs, pulling out a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol (model name: Chekhov), and explaining to Cyril the fundamentals of secret agenting:

cyril: But when would you use an underwear gun?
archer: Hopefully never. But say you’re in a Caribbean bungalow and you’re kinda high. An exotic woman on the bed. Now, is she just the high-priced whore you asked for? Or is she an assassin?
cyril: I don’t know. I —
archer: Oh, here’s room service. Who ordered champagne?
cyril: How should I know?
archer: Exactly. You’re baked. You can’t remember. But since when does it take three huge surly Jamaican guys to deliver one bottle of champagne
cyril: Oh, because they’re assassins, too?
archer: Or, maybe one guy’s a new waiter. The second’s one’s training him. And the third’s from maintenance, finally off his lazy ass to fix the AC.
cyril: Oh. Yeah, I guess that could happen.
archer: Point is, you come out of the john waving this around, nobody’s going to bug you for a tip.

Still from Archer. © FX

Still from Archer. © FX

In a time when intelligent people routinely third-degree one another in hopes of finding a new show worth watching, Archer remains relatively obscure. Now in its fourth season, it is the first significant step forward for animated comedy since South Park, and its pedigree can be seen in its resonantly talented cast, which includes Arrested Development alumnae Jessica Walter and Judy Greer (Malory and Cheryl, respectively) and Chris Parnell of 30 Rock and SNL (as Cyril). Jeffrey Tambor and David Cross, also of Arrested Development, have had guest spots; so has Burt Reynolds. Archer’s voice may garner particular approval among animation and comedy geeks: H. Jon Benjamin was onstage at those alternative Mondays all those years ago at the Luna Lounge and has done regular voice work in a number of animated comedies, including the role of Dr. Katz’s son, Ben. As Archer, Benjamin is both playful puppy and spoiled frat brother; he brings hunky confidence, deep knowing, disdain, sarcasm, and outrage to the part, sprinkling them with boyish insecurity and tapping into something else, too — perhaps an unglamorous decade spent mostly doing voice-overs and sketch comedy. Adam Reed (the show’s creator and principal writer) and Matt Thompson (Reed’s creative partner) have similarly unpaved career paths: they started at Cartoon Network in the 1990s, first writing and performing fifteen-second promos with hand puppets, then scripting episodes of Space Ghost, then developing, writing, and producing Sealab 2021. Although they were instrumental in setting the early tone for Adult Swim, after another show, Frisky Dingo, tanked, they saw that Adult Swim’s culture was getting obviously younger; they were not. Reed decamped to Spain to get his bearings. At a café in Salamanca, he noticed a beautiful woman, and wondered how to approach her. A spy would have had a perfect line.

Adult Swim’s anticomedy imprint is all over Archer, and although the appropriated secret-agent concept is in lockstep with the essentially postmodern nature of the show’s forebears, there is a divergence. The spy genre gives the design staff a toy chest stuffed with muscle cars, well-cut fashions (tapered trousers and silver tie bars, Chanel skirt suits and curve-hugging go-go sweaterdresses), superlative midcentury office décor (Steuben barware and Saarinen conference rooms), and exotic locations (Monaco during a grand prix, private train cars on the New York–Quebec run). Hand drawings are turned into three-dimensional backdrop animation, and the results are often gorgeous, with palettes far richer and sets more expansive than anything we’re accustomed to seeing in television cartoons. The visual tone of the show, like its deadpan, involuted gags, is adult in the sense of “grown-up,” as opposed to simply “not for kiddies.” Smartly employed juxtapositions then tilt this world just so: ISIS agents have cell phones and the Internet, but the office’s computers are Eighties-looking clunkers, with square green letters flashing against coal-black screens; the company mainframe uses reel-to-reel magnetic tape, and it’s the KGB that poses a constant threat to world peace.

Adding that much more to this mélange are the recognizable outlines of an astute workplace parody: the office staff creates and fills idle time with games of fuck/marry/kill, arguments about changes in health-care coverage, and discussions on how to beat the mandatory drug test. Archer is the only show I can think of that takes for granted a multidecade-, multimedium-spanning, simultaneously high and low cultural literacy among its viewers, to the extent that when Archer calls karate the “Dane Cook of martial arts,” there’s no attempt to explain how little respect Dane Cook’s act — massively popular with prepubescent boys — gets among professional comedians. Archer’s manservant (casual-sex prospect: “Isn’t it pronounced vah-lay?” archer: “Only if he’s parking your car”) is named Woodhouse. And if Woodhouse occasionally gets his clothes thrown off the balcony of Archer’s Manhattan penthouse — “Because how hard is it to poach a goddamn egg properly?” — he also stars in what I could swear is a reworking of Gore Vidal’s story of true love lost during wartime, now transformed into a reminiscence of love between Woodhouse and his squad leader, cut short in the trenches of the Western Front:

woodhouse: Lieutenant Scripes abhorred the way Reggie — er, Captain Thistleton — carried on with the men.
archer: [Amusing himself] Yeah, didn’t Oscar Wilde get hard labor for that?
woodhouse: What are you talking about?
archer: I’m — wait, what’re you talking about?

So long as you follow the plot, a caught reference — say, hitting pause, then searching to discover that Pam’s back tattoo is the third stanza of Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” or that Cheryl’s pet ocelot, Babou, is named after an ocelot once owned by Salvador Dalí — is only a delicious bonus.

“The most important thing in the process,” Adam Reed told one interviewer last year, “is getting the audio cut to sound perfect. . . . If the audio cut isn’t working, then no amount of visuals is going to help that. So my goal is to have it so you can enjoy Archer just in the tape deck in the car.” A widely taught creative-writing exercise asks students to read their work out loud. To pass an ear test a sentence must be tightly written: false notes grate; the simplest noun has to fight to justify its presence. Since jokes and routines already depend on timing, word choice, and word placement, linguistic precision must be that much more exact, and Archer nails its every line, harking back to the quick, tight pace of golden-age radio and screwball comedies. During his more than decade at Adult Swim, Reed wrote several episodes of Sealab 2021 taut enough to serve as models for aspiring screen- and comedy writers; more often, though, he was happy to bang a joke pretty damn hard with his own rake, and his oeuvre betrayed a writer too in love with confounding expectations, too eager to abandon his heroes and follow some secondary (more likely tertiary) character, one he knew viewers actively disliked — as if he were taunting the audience, as if the joke were really on you. Archer certainly employs a number of now de rigueur alt-comedy tropes: a fondness for delayed payoffs, punch lines that serve as trapdoors or springboards to other jokes, recurring in-jokes that reward dedicated viewers. But Reed has finally — or at least mostly — embraced a basic and unavoidable truth: No matter how funny you are as a writer, if you continually abandon characters and digress from a plot, you thin a story until it is vapor, leaving only the combustible cleverness and a match for your story’s self-immolation.

Fortunately, Archer has both specificity and discipline. Plots matter. Subplots show up during natural breathing points. Jokes have room to wander — but only so far. And even as supporting cast members constantly threaten to steal episodes, they never do. It has been a particular pleasure to watch the supporting cast gradually and gently develop into fully hilarious characters, with the many excellent women here — unlike in so many of Archer’s animated predecessors — delivering actual punch lines, not just setups.

cheryl: And bring me some stuff to do — it’s crazy stupid boring inhere.
archer: Well, now you know how Babou feels.
cheryl: Crepuscular?


lana: No words. My words have failed me.
malory: Then shut up. [Pauses for a drink.] So what do you think?
lana: Oh, sorry, I thought you said shut up.
malory: And yet you talk.

Even as the show’s universe fills in further, as time passes with a degree of continuity and each episode yet stands alone (so that first-time viewers can join in without a remedial Netflix marathon), even amid the wonderfully insane recursions of cultural and literary references, the insults followed by dirty banter followed by dangerous edge-play sex followed by more insults — the heart of the show remains Archer arguing with Malory, Archer arguing with Lana, Archer putting Cyril down.

archer: Oh my God! You killed a hooker!
cyril: Call girl.
archer: No, Cyril—
cyril: She was a call girl.
archer: — when they’re dead, they’re just hookers. God, I said the cap slips off the poison pen for no reason, didn’t I? . . . Woodhouse!
woodhouse: Fetching a rug, sir.
archer: Now he’s fetching a rug. HAPPY, CYRIL?
cyril: NO. NO, I’M NOT HAPPY.
archer: Well, guess what? Me neither. I mean, big picture, I wouldn’t say I’m a happy person.

In the course of the first three seasons, Archer has had a mind-control chip implanted into his brain, come up positive on a paternity test for an infant who’s not his, and been responsible for the murder of the man he thought was his father. To save his life, his fiancée, at their wedding, hurled herself off the same penthouse balcony as Woodhouse’s clothes; Archer has seen her resurrected as a cyborg, then been abandoned by her for his archenemy (also newly a cyborg). He’s met his hero, Burt Reynolds, only to learn Reynolds is sleeping with his mother. Archer has been a pirate king and traveled to outer space. How far can Reed push this show before it either spins out of control or feels completely done?

The biggest reason for optimism, and a key to the show’s artistic success, was on display in back-to-back episodes in Season 2, when Archer is diagnosed with cancer (amid colleagues’ gasps and supportive remarks, Cheryl asks, “What’s cancer?”). While in treatment, he befriends an elderly lady with the same diagnosis, and she explains to him the wonders of the Regis show. Then a pharmacy turns out to have replaced their chemotherapy medicine with Zima and sugar pills (in order to sell the real stuff on the black market), which results in his friend’s death. A head-scarfed, emaciated, vomiting, medical-marijuana-smoking, IV-toting Archer goes on a self-declared “rampage,” tracking the mobsters responsible and capturing his revenge on videotape (to which rough cut he gives the working title “Terms of En-rampagement”). During the episode’s climactic confrontation, Archer asks the crime syndicate’s boss, an old, unarmed man on a respirator, whether he watched Regis that morning. “Yeah,” is the response. “Why?” The camera then captures Archer’s stone face, his blank, bloodshot eyes. He raises the gun, fires. The subsequent moment of frozen silence is bleak and nihilistic, conveying the price of revenge, the cost to Archer’s soul. 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. And then: the static bands of a paused VCR on-screen. A rewind. The kill shot replayed, replayed again, Archer screaming out admiration for his own work, the rest of the gang at ISIS complaining that he’s been playing that video every Friday for the past twelve weeks — the Rake Scene humanizing him, showing he’s back, happily for us, to his native idiocy.

is the author of the novel Beautiful Children, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His article “For Love or Money” appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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