Reviews — From the March 2013 issue

Rake’s Progress

Adult animation grows up with Archer

( 4 of 4 )

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.

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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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