Wednesday, January 25, 2012

FX's Archer: Adult Comedy, Shaken and Stirred


Everyone who watches television has shows they feel guilty about enjoying. I will admit (now, hesitantly) to having watched Charmed and Smallville, with their more and more implausible storylines and often painfully awkward acting, to their respectively bitter ends, with a lot of ambivalence and often very little pleasure. Sometimes (like Cougar Town) guilty pleasures quickly make good for themselves, and that nascent guilt fades completely into unequivocal love. And sometimes a show which begins as a guilty pleasure never really changes at all, and you just have to confess that you’ve been an idiot all along. For me, right now, Archer – FX’s raunchy animated spy comedy – is that show. I watched Archer for an entire season before telling anyone how much I genuinely loved it, convinced (I now believe) that somehow my enjoyment of a very adult-oriented cartoon – full of dark humour and unabashed raunchiness – revealed something discomforting about my own sensibilities. It could take years of expensive psychoanalysis before I know what was really going on, but now, with the recent premiere of the show’s third season – and with FX Canada hopefully soon making the show available to my friends and colleagues north of the border – it’s time for me to weigh in publically on what may be the funniest half hour currently airing on television.

Jessica Walter, in the Archer studio
With some of television’s best voice talent – H. Jon Benjamin (Bob’s Burgers), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), and Aisha Tyler (The Talk) – and created by Adam Reed, an animation veteran previously most famous for his Adult Swim collaborations with animator Matt Thompson on the Cartoon Network, Archer is one of the richest shows on television in concept, vision, and execution. While Reed’s past work on Adult Swim (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) was very funny (and very strange) in its own ways, Archer represents an enormous leap in both writing and style. The action takes place at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) – a cash-strapped boutique spy agency run by Malory Archer (Walters). The spy at the centre of the agency is Malory’s son, Sterling Archer (Benjamin) – codenamed Duchess (after Malory’s perhaps too-beloved and dearly departed dog) – an oversexed, emotionally stunted, but supremely self-possessed secret agent with mommy-issues and a near obsessive fixation on black turtlenecks. Archer is known, or at least calls himself, "the world's most dangerous spy,” which seems to be less a description of his spy skills than a nod to the fact that foes and friends alike come out of the other side of his missions a little worse for wear. He has a bad habit of inadvertently crippling, maiming, and often killing his allies. His much more skilled partner is Lana Kane (Tyler), a fearless and beautiful female agent who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend.

Set in a deliberately indeterminate and impossible era, Archer seems contemporary as far as pop culture is concerned, but still somehow exists in the middle of the Cold War. The Russians and the KGB are the baddies, and the Middle East is nowhere in sight, but storylines involving affirmative action, energy conservation, and sexual harassment complaints seem to place it in our own time. Cars and clothing reference the 60s and 70s, but everyone carries a cell-phone with picture and video capabilities. In the end, it all becomes just another part of the sheer fun of it all. And there’s a lot of fun to be had.

The rest of the spy team include Cyril (Chris Parnell, Saturday Night Live), a fastidious comptroller who handles the agency’s ever-shrinking funds; Cheryl (Judy Greer, Arrested Development), Malory’s near useless secretary with secret familial wealth and a taste for erotic asphyxiation; Pam (comedian Amber Nash), a desperately and often voraciously omnisexual HR director. Each of these regular characters (and many of the recurring ones as well) have been given backstories; and the show has a commitment to plot and character continuity that would rival any live-action series. But for all the office comedy elements – and some of the shows funniest, most on-point moments are often interpersonal or bureaucratic the show is still at heart a spy thriller. There are lengthy scenes of real action that can compete with any live-action show: ticking bombs aboard luxury Zeppelins, motorcycles racing through the French countryside, snowmobiles whipping dangerously through the Alps, and nail-biting scenes with our heroes hanging by a thin rope from escaping helicopters, and all of which are both thrilling to behold and side-splittingly funny.

H. Jon Benjamin as Sterling Archer and Aisha Tyler as Lana Kane

In addition to the depth of the characters and the hilarious (and sometime horrifying) adventures that they engage in, Archer is simply a visually stunning show. The animation process, which combines 3-D modeling for the environments and sets with almost photorealistic animation of the human figures, is as beautiful as the show is profane. The contrast between the sometimes crude sexuality and cringe-inducing violence and the gorgeous visuals mirrors the shows ability to alternate effortlessly between high and low comedy. Characters are just as likely to toss out a reference to Bartleby, the Scrivener as they are to a song from the Top Gun soundtrack. (Cross your fingers for a Kenny Loggins cameo in a future episode!)

Despite the Cold War-era spy action and James Bond invocations, Archer’s most significant forbearer lies outside of both animation and spy stories: Arrested Development. While the presence of Arrested Development actors Walter and Greer (and a recurring guest role for Jeffrey Tambor as the head of a competing and much more successful spy agency, an on-again off-again love interest for Malory, and possibly Archer’s biological father) might make the association plain enough, the real influence lies in Archer's writing and the nature of its comedy. Not since Arrested Development have I seen such practiced and hilarious application of repetition and continuity in a comedy. Phrases and situations play out across multiple episodes, and each time the jokes grow funnier and funnier. And with the brilliant guest appearance of Burt Reynolds in last week’s third season premiere, the show is clearly primed to stay on track.

You can watch Archer on Thursday nights on FX. Previous seasons are available on Netflix and DVD. And take my word on it: the guilt subsides quickly.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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