This review contains spoilers.
This is the last animated series on my list of things to write about at the moment, and one that I think has not been written about enough. Unlike Adventure Time, Archer is most definitely an adults only cartoon, and one that doesn’t try to address any of life’s big questions. This series is different to anything else on television; at its core each episode of Archer is a dose of intelligent, racy, surprising, and much needed escapism.
Archer, another offering from FX (the channel responsible for Sons of Anarchy and Louie), began in 2009 and has just finished its fifth season. The series revolves around ISIS – an international spy agency with its headquarters in New York. ISIS is possibly the most ethically questionable spy agency in the history of television: across its first four seasons the organisation has been involved with the yakuza, piracy, white slavery, sexual assault, bum fights, and kidnapping the pope. The beginning of season five sees ISIS busted by the FBI for treason: apparently all of the agency’s espionage operations had thus far been carried out sans permission from the government. Malory Archer (the tough, spirit-guzzling owner of ISIS who once had an affair with the head of the KGB, voiced to sharp-tongued perfection by Jessica Walter of Arrested Development fame) is forced to forfeit her agency or face a lifetime in prison. This is a move that takes the series in a very different (and very entertaining) direction. The real focus of the show (and of his own universe), is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin of Bob’s Burgers): a handsome, spoiled, narcissistic agent who is also very good in a fire-fight. All of Archer’s main characters are hilarious: Cheryl Tunt (voiced by Judy Greer, also from Arrested Development) is ISIS’s secretary, heiress to a family fortune, and the not-so-proud owner of a pet ocelot; Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) is the human resources director with an extremely addictive personality; Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) is ISIS’s top female agent who simultaneously loves and hates her male counterpart, Sterling Archer; Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) is the agency’s cowardly accountant; Ray Gillette (voiced by creator Adam Reed) is the team’s intelligence guru; and Dr Krieger (Lucky Yates) is the resident (mad) scientist, and is married to a Japanese anime-style hologram. Archer has also been host to its fair share of guest talent, including Jon Hamm, David Cross, Fred Armisen, Kristen Schaal, and Bryan Cranston. The big names are never the focus of an episode (as Gwilym Mumford points out in this article in The Guardian); their talent is always utilised to support the show, rather than to draw larger audiences.
I really enjoy Archer for a number of reasons, but the biggest one has to be the witty and fast-paced dialogue. Adam Reed has created a fantastic parody of the secret agent world; his goal, he notes here, was to set up “a backdrop of global espionage … and focus on the bickering.” This works extremely well: one of my favourite moments from season five is when Sterling and Lana are screaming at each other during a shoot-out about the name of a character from The Muppets. The writing is intelligent, funny, strewn with references to pop-culture, and very politically incorrect. When someone suggests forming a cartel to offload “literally … a tonne of cocaine”, Malory wonders “How hard can it be? If Mexicans can do it …”; Cheryl refers to the Yakuza as “Chinese daylight vampires”; and in perhaps the most stinging barb of the show’s love/hate relationship, a pregnant Lana responds to Sterling’s marriage proposal with: “I would rather lose the baby.”
After reading the above quotes this next statement may be somewhat hard to believe – I genuinely like all of the characters in this show. It has taken me a while to figure out why: they are all (to varying degrees) selfish, irresponsible, and insensitive. I think their likeability is generated in a number of ways: first, Archer is clearly meant as a joke; second, the characters are largely presented as products of their environment (Cheryl and Sterling, especially, were brought up surrounded by wealth but starved for affection); third, they are all very good at their jobs; and fourth – and perhaps most importantly – there is a childish sense of humour and fun about them. It is difficult not to smile at Sterling’s uncontrollable giggling over his use of the juvenile insult “Shut your dick trap”; in the same way it is hard to stay angry with kids when they are distracted by some trivial amusement. The strength of the voice acting in Archer also contributes in no small way to how an audience responds to the characters; Reed admits that H. Jon Benjamin’s skilful delivery renders Sterling much more sympathetic than he otherwise would be. It is also heartening to see a show with such a large cast of strong female characters.
Finally, Archer is aesthetically impressive. The animation is much more detailed and realistic than other cartoons (each character is based on a human model: you can see the ‘real’ cast here), and it is stylish in a way that is reminiscent of Mad Men. The show’s time period is deliberately unclear (a way of avoiding modern political issues that might result in Archer being viewed more seriously than it wants to be), but there is a 1960s influence – particularly in terms of clothing – that gives the series a touch of class.
Stylishly drawn, cleverly written, superbly voiced, and very quotable. In the end, Archer is simply great – and smart – fun. Settle down with your sense of humour, and enjoy.
Archer is created by Adam Reed (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) and produced by Matt Thompson, Bryan Fordney, Neal Holman, Eric Sims, and Casey Willis. A sixth season is due to air in 2015.