Saturday, April 23, 2016

Able Archer: How Comedies Mature (or, at least, Age Gracefully)

The seventh season of FX's Archer premiered on March 31st.

I’ve spent approximately 30 hours of my life watching a goofy cartoon about a super-spy’s ridiculous adventures. That might seem like a waste, were it not for the fact that, as it progresses through its seventh season, the FX comedy Archer remains one of the funniest things on TV. In its most recent seasons, that’s been a function of its willingness to significantly tweak – I won’t say reinvent, because it remains fundamentally the same show – its basic formula to stay fresh. It’s a reminder of how even shows that are light, trifling entertainment (and it’s no disparagement to Archer to call it that) can find ways to develop and even, in their way, grow.

As Mark Clamen’s 2012 review of the show for this site indicates, Archer isn’t exactly highbrow. It’s frequently violent and crude (albeit loaded with surprisingly intelligent references, a trademark of creator Adam Reed’s work). While it functions as a satire of the James Bond franchise and all of the hyper-masculine trappings that go with it, it’s still often gleefully immature and politically incorrect. It’s also a great showcase for the voice-acting talents of a number of underappreciated actors, including H. Jon Benjamin in the title role of secret agent Sterling Archer, Aisha Tyler as his long-suffering girlfriend Lana, and Jessica Walter as his mother (she’s essentially reprising her role from Arrested Development here, but she does it so well that it doesn’t matter). Perhaps the best example of how Reed understands how to utilize his talent is his use of Judy Greer, who’s so well-known for playing second bananas that she’s gamely made fun of herself for it. In Archer, she gets a chance to shed that bland persona, playing the deeply demented Cheryl (or Carol, or any of a variety of other names), a role that provides some of the strangest, and occasionally most disturbing, jokes on the show.

Archer has flirted off and on with developing some depth: an earlier season saw Archer battle cancer, and most recently Reed seems to have settled on keeping Archer and Lana together while they raise their new daughter. However, in the last two seasons, the show has blown up its premise – literally, as the spy agency where the characters worked was destroyed at the beginning of Season 5. Part of that was due to the fact that the agency was called “ISIS,” a name that understandably became unpalatable when real-world events gave that acronym especially grim connotations. Still, the change would have been necessary no matter what, since a show like Archer can only go for so long before growing stale. It seems to have acknowledged as much by becoming especially self-conscious about some of its running gags and catchphrases, such as the characters’ tending to yell “Phrasing!” whenever they hear a particularly juicy double entendre.

Season 5, in which the former members of ISIS attempted to refashion themselves as drug dealers after stumbling into an enormous stash of cocaine, saw Archer evolve into “Archer Vice,” which, as the name suggests, functioned as a season-long satire of shows like Miami Vice. That season didn’t always connect with me as well as previous ones, but Reed has effectively rebooted the show yet again for this season, the seventh in the show’s run. This time out, Archer and his companions have relocated to Los Angeles and established themselves as private investigators. The show’s targets this time out are pretty obvious: the season opens with a corpse floating in a pool, an homage to Sunset Boulevard. The show remains mostly the same – Archer even comments at one point that being a P.I. seems to involve most of the same skills that he developed as a spy – but it’s flirting even more heavily with serialization, something that shows with its feather-light tone normally avoid.

Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on HBO's Veep.
In its feints towards becoming (slightly) more substantive, Archer also parallels the recent evolution of the HBO comedy Veep, which returns for a fifth season tomorrow night. Like Mark, I initially had a hard time warming to this show, which follows the travails of Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus), an ambitious politician who’s forced into the most useless political role in the country when her campaign for president falters. Creator Armando Iannucci initially laid on the cynicism a bit too thickly; Selina and her staff could never get anything done, and the show’s focus on the meaninglessness of political discourse could be depressingly off-putting, even though it often rang true.

However, Veep has developed into a much more engaging show, and has found depths that Archer will probably never plumb. There’s still no suggestions that Selina will ever be a transformative politician, but she has racked up some wins, most notably when the president steps down to deal with a family emergency, which finally leaves her in charge. The scene in Season 3 which Selina and her personal aide Gary (Tony Hale) discover that she’s going to become president is a small masterpiece: Dreyfus and Hale give it an emotional resonance that makes it unexpectedly moving as well as funny.

Given their popularity, comedies like Archer and Veep could probably have runs of indefinite length, as long as their casts are willing to keep coming back. However, their slow development into somewhat more complex shows indicate that there are certain lengths to which comedies must go if they’re to remain worthwhile viewing.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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