Meet Agent Archer: codename Duchess

Have you ever spent some time in the company of Agent Archer? Liam suggests it might be a good idea, and here's why...

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Writer and director, Adam Reed, could definitely be described as a witty man. After all, his most famous cartoons on Adult Swim, Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, were praised for their rapid-fire dialogue and biting satire.

Yes, Adam Reed is a witty man, and yet, when a beautiful woman sat down nearby at a café in Salamanca, Spain, he was stumped over what to say to her. The woman soon left, taking Reed’s romantic prospects with her and, like most would, he retreated into fantasy, creating the man who would always have the ideal line for any situation. No matter how racy or offensive, this man would always have the perfect verbal bullet aimed to kill the conversation.

Over time, this man became fleshed out. He’d have to be the stereotypical spy, a martini-swilling assassin, with a penchant for fast cars and loose women. He would be smooth, fast-talking and above all, more petulant than a hyperactive nine-year-old.

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His biggest problem, of course, would be the women in his life, ranging from a scorned ex-girlfriend and a lustful secretary, to his domineering mother. This would be Sterling Archer, the top agent at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), tackling international espionage, sexual harassment and a less than masculine codename.

With an absurd premise and all manner of outrageous and unrestrained characters, the series plays to all of Reed’s strengths: humour bordering on racist, sexist and gross, insane situations, clever cutaways and callbacks, and a source of endless parody with the spy genre. Now, with the support of the FX Network, Reed has the freedom to weave more complex plots and carry ongoing storylines within a broader timeframe.

The series premiered in America in late 2009 and quickly garnered critical attention. David Hinckley at the New York Daily News called it “a cascade of twisted comedy that invites everyone to come in and gasp.”

The voice of Archer, himself, H. Jon Benjamin, best known in the UK for E4’s underrated Bob’s Burgers, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for his voiceover performance. Never one to pass up on a winning ticket, FX quickly commissioned a second series, now showing in the UK on 5*.

The first series largely follows Archer’s repeated attempts to interfere in the love life of Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), his ex-girlfriend and the top female agent at ISIS, who now dates the office dweeb, Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell). Archer tries everything to break them up, ranging from hijacking important missions to convincing Cyril he’s killed a call girl.

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Despite the distractions of Lana, countless prostitutes and horny secretary, Cheryl (Judy Greer), Archer remains the world’s most dangerous secret agent, largely due to being given the best missions by Malory (Jessica Walters), Archer’s abusive and oversexed mother, who’s also his boss.

The acidic Malory puts up with all manner of trouble from the KGB, rival agency, ODIN, and ISIS’ own incompetence. Not surprising, when you find out the company’s support staff consists of a collection of trademark Reed creations, a cast of politically incorrect lunatics with a variety of neurosis and fetishes, from oedipal anxieties to asphyxiaphilia. Staff includes a scientist who specializes in sex robots, a chunky bisexual girl from a dairy farm, and the overly sassy Agent Gillette, whose biggest contribution to the company was helping Archer break into Malory’s dildo drawer.

Essentially James Bond meets Mad Men by way of Arrested Development (both Walter and Greer are AD alumni), Archer deals more with office politics than the global variety. Episodes are driven by everything from diversity hires to dinner parties, the kind of generic plots that, in any other workplace comedy, would cause your standard wacky hijinks. 

However, the juxtaposing of elements of secret agent glamour and workplace drudgery complement each other nicely. Episodes to take on a global scale, but remain grounded with issues accessible to the audience. For example, a dangerous museum heist goes wrong when ISIS’ support staff goes on strike and a company takeover is foiled by a Soviet mind control chip and some LSD.

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What’s enjoyable about Archer is that, despite the fact they often go to extremes, all of the characters are nicely rounded. Archer’s antics are admittedly obnoxious, but just so entertaining to watch, and evened out by his obliviousness. As much as it’s an excuse, he really is a product of is environment, and that’s what keeps him endearing. Usually, it’s a cliché in comedy to make the boastful buffoon all talk and no action, but Reed is smart enough not to go the Johnny English route, instead presenting Archer as a semi-competent spy, albeit one who succeeds largely in spite of himself.

Lana Kane is a smart satire of the sexy action girl, showing the fine line between sassy and empowered woman and out and out psychopath. A lot of obvious jokes are made of Lana’s loose sexual morals and Flintstone fists, but a far more satisfying gag is watching her stumble around, exposing her sensitive side. There’s a soft girl trapped inside this hard woman and Lana will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way.

At first, Cyril can seem the typical nerdy good guy, but he’s later developed to include an array of trust issues, and bizarrely, sex addiction. Meaning he can engage with the insanity of Archer as a participant, rather than just a surrogate for the audience.

H. Jon. Benjamin’s quick-fire delivery as Archer brings brass and arrogance with his sly tones, a million miles away from his mellow, down-to-earth performance on Bob’s Burgers. As Lana, Aisha Tyler brings a confident and snappy foil to Archer’s insanity, while, at the same time, she’s willing to let loose in moments of rage. Judy Greer keeps Cheryl, or Carol, or Crystal (she frequently changes it) delightfully ditzy without becoming annoying , and her choking fixation keeps her from being one-dimensional, even if it veers towards disturbing.

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Even the most minor characters are well voiced. Archer’s put-upon valet, Woodhouse, delivers some wonderful lines in his exasperated deadpan, and recurring prostitute, Trinette, is a razor sharp, New Jersey spitfire.

As much as it pains me to admit this, Jessica Walters is the weak spot as Malory, essentially playing a clone of Lucille Bluth. Given how entertaining Arrested Development was, this obviously isn’t too much of a problem, but it’s sad to see a talented actress trapped in a one-note role. Malory is actually best used, not as her own character, but as a reflection of just how messed up Archer is. By far, the first episode’s funniest moment is a Mexican standoff between Archer and a rogue agent holding Mllory at gunpoint. As the enemy sadistically describes how he intends to kill Archer’s mother in the most debasing manner, the tension is broken when Lana (held close to Archer) screams: “Jesus Christ! He’s got an erection!”

I can never claim to be an expert in graphic design, but I still have to give the animation team its due on this one. Archer is, by some distance, the most visually ambitious of Reed’s work, even when you discount the fact that his early cartoons were just redubbings of archive footage.

Lovingly drawn, the series is a vivid collage of bullet wounds, car chases and explosions, not an easy feat on a 2D format. The artists clearly draw their influences from 1960s spy comics and Fox’s Mad Men, keeping the visuals as close to reality as possible, without making the violence too brutal.

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An obvious amount of care has gone into the character design, to keep the sense of eclecticism between a group of admittedly like-minded people.  And the retro imagery makes Archer feel like it’s not simply set in its own ill-defined time period, but a world of its own.

Given the network’s ability to take a chance on a risky venture, it seems Archer will have the time to find its audience. In March, it was announced that a third series had been commissioned, and if Archer can sustain its quality and edgy humour, it could easily avoid cancellation, which was the sad fate of Reed’s previous work.

The day might even come when it’s revered as a high point of adult animation, a term that lacks artistic recognition, given that it’s currently limited to Family Guy and Hentai porn.

Archer has already secured its rightful place on our TV screens, but the only way to keep it there is to start watching this sharp, caustic and unbelievably offensive show.

Archer currently airs Tuesdays at 10pm on 5*.

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