Many people remain skeptical about Archer, FXXXXX’s spy-farce trek into absurdity. I must admit, I used to be one of those skeptics. James Bond plus a whole lot of ineptitude and vulgarity? I was far from convinced. Suddenly, it’s the fifth season, and I can’t wait for new episodes to return. So what happened? Why do I now crave creator Adam Reed’s insult-laced shenanigans on a weekly basis?
Because it works. Reed’s premise manages to stretch the bounds of television propriety while living within the constraints of an animated program. Reed (who also voices Ray on the show) deftly bounces between hilarious abuse of animated explosions, gunfights, and action stunts to classic comedic tomfoolery, employing awkward silences and running jokes as effectively as any live-action comedy. Furthermore, the level of detail he and his team put into layered sight gags and background jokes is on-par with such rarified comedies as Arrested Development – even after 20 viewings, there is always some wrinkle to be found tucked away in a given episode.
One must also credit the cast of the show. Actors can only do so much on an animated show, and this cast does it all. Tasked with speaking and acting in ways no live-action star ever could, H. Jon Benjamin thrives as the title character, lending Archer a delightful incongruity between his wits and skill as a spy (the show gets even funnier when you see the faces behind the names). As Archer’s mother and boss, Jessica Walter essentially reprises her role as Lucille Bluth, though able to be even more cruel and acerbic hidden behind her animated guise. Chris Parnell also lends a voice, yet he seems to be playing his most normal character ever amidst a band of cursing crazies (and that’s saying something). Judy Greer’s sex-crazed heiress, Cheryl, spews out unfiltered filth on the regular, once again showing Greer’s willingness to leave her dignity at the door for the sake of the project.
But why is all of this so effective? I admit the show can still be very juvenile, teetering towards offensiveness on a regular basis, but there’s something more to it, an ability to ground superfluous characters and moments in true comedy, to mesh typical spy hijinks with mundane trivialities and bring laughter regardless. There’s a beautiful layering of humor in the show. Yes, it can be racist, brutish, sexist and on and on, but that’s the point. Go back and watch old spy movies. Go watch James Bond. Some of the lines and scenes are hysterically inappropriate. And Archer pulls no punches. Everyone gets made fun of. Every action movie, cop show, spy flick (or whatever Reed & Co. are paying smirking homage to) gets skewered. The whole show has a feeling of being ‘to-smart-for-its-own-good,’ just like the title character. The references, from literary to historical to grammatical, are all so beyond your typical trivia mind, there should be a companion piece just to explain them.
Reed and crew clearly love making this show and the stuff they’re making fun of, as you can see in this shot-for-shot remake of “Danger Zone.” The show seems keenly aware of the fragile balance of comedy while also settling into its niche, one based in brash hyperbole with room left over for subtle gags and nuanced humor. The show may be willing to take risks and make changes, but I understand if someone still doesn’t take to it. If you find yourself easily offended, Archer will be a struggle. Also, with the show’s relentless use of a wide range of references and allusions, you may want to brush up on your pop (and even not so pop) culture before watching.
At the end of the day, Archer is a cartoon, aware of its limitations but willing to stretch the bounds of plot, characters, and political correctness. The show works because it puts effort into its gags and one-liners and ridiculous action sequences. Archer does not try to change the animation game, just the way the game is played.