The world of adult-orientated animation has long been a staple of late night television. There’s always been a tendency for these shows to push the boundaries of what a comedy series can get away with in terms of taste and decency. Some succeed more than others, and some become a phenomenon so big that their creator is asked to host the academy awards.
One of these cartoons you wouldn’t let the kids watch was recently renewed for a fifth season. Archer tells of the exploits of Sterling Archer, top super spy for MI5-type organisation ISIS, a position he only really holds through sheer luck and the fact that his mother is the head of the department. In the UK, the first three seasons of Archer are now available on Netflix after being tucked away on Channel 5 off-shoot 5* on a mid-week night. 5* isn’t exactly known for being the home of razor sharp comedy but in Archer they found a winner and, thanks to Netflix, the show may finally be finding the UK audience it deserves.
As previously mentioned, Archer is the number one agent at ISIS, a secret spy organisation housed above a laundrette. The washing machines open to reveal the secret elevator, an elevator that the cleaning staff found could be a death trap when they threatened to unionise. The fact that a company like ISIS has a cleaning staff is an example of the quirkiness that runs throughout Archer. You don’t ever see M dealing with the help in the latest James Bond film.
Sterling Archer is a man with issues, mainly of the mother variety. Mallory Archer shipped him off to boarding school at a tender age and in one episode tells the charming story of how she forgot to tell the school she’d moved during one term so Archer arrived home at the wrong address and had to be picked up from the police station. The show derives a good deal of humour from Archer and Mallory’s relationship – when ISIS is infiltrated by a suave rogue agent, Archer’s primary concern as he makes his getaway is whether or not he slept with his mother, over who he really is and whom he works for.
The result of these severe abandonment issues is that Archer is hilariously self-centred and egotistical. He lives in a penthouse apartment (paid for by ISIS) with his live-in man servant, the trusty Woodhouse. Woodhouse has only one set of clothes after Archer threw the rest off the balcony when he failed to poach an egg correctly. When he’s not saving the world on secret missions, Archer entertains air hostesses with a table tennis bat. There’s no table tennis table. Somehow Sterling Archer has procured a reputation as the most deadly agent at ISIS with the codename of Duchess, named after his mother’s dog. Archer is something of a legend in his own mind. He genuinely thinks he’s hilarious, much to the frustration of all those who have to work with him.
The person who harbours the greatest frustration with Sterling Archer is perhaps special agent Lana Kane. The freakishly big-handed Kane is actually a much better ISIS operative than Archer, often getting him out of scrapes on missions where she has to spend a considerable amount of time in her underwear. Despite this, she will always be the number two agent at ISIS because of who Archer’s mother is. This has led to Lana having a certain amount of damaged self esteem which has led to her dating Sterling in the past, a fact that constantly haunts her as Archer is in full belief that she is still into him. He frustratingly never accepts that she turns up on missions undercover to help him but rather that she is there because of her attraction to him. He helpfully informs her that she needs to “Call Kenny Loggins, cos you’re in the danger zone!”
If you thought that Sterling Archer had an ego though, just wait until you meet his mother! Mallory Archer uses her position as ISIS’ CEO to her advantage time and again. You know how we all sometimes abuse our work privileges, maybe stealing an A4 pad or a red stapler? Mallory phones in a bomb scare on the maiden voyage of a transatlantic blimp just so ISIS can be hired to take care of it and she can outdo her neighbour Trudie Beekman by getting on board. Clearly leaving a dead body in Beekman’s apartment as she does in another episode wasn’t enough. Mallory’s flagrant abuse of the ISIS budget is one of Archer’s best running jokes.
Lurking in the background of most episodes of Archer are the characters that Mallory affectionately refers to as “the drones” – ISIS’ admin and lab staff. Leading them is accountant and, at the beginning of season one, Lana Kane’s boyfriend Cyril Figgis. Cyril, at heart, desperately wants to be a nice guy but is crippled by self doubt stemming from anxiety over his relationship with Lana, who is, quite frankly, out of his league. He doesn’t trust her and is often victim to Archer’s wind ups about what he and Lana may be getting up to. Consequently, Cyril usually takes very bad advice from those around him, who are usually even more emotionally damaged, and ends up making matters worse.
One of those dishing out the advice to Cyril is ISIS’ head of human resources, Pam Poovey. When there’s bad news to be broken, Pam doesn’t sugarcoat it. In terms of a HR representative, the show has got her pretty much spot-on. Pam makes a great double act with Cheryl Tunt, Mallory’s secretary and sadomasochism fan. Many episodes see her wondering loudly about her fondness for being choked. Next to Sterling, Pam and Cheryl are Archer’s most sexually charged characters. The episode where they engage the office in a game of ‘Bang, Marry, Kill’ using photos from the ISIS intranet is hysterical and the first time both characters really came into their own. Unfortunately for Pam, she is most employees’ choice for kill – “It’s a bad photo Pam!”
Finally, we have Doctor Krieger, head of ISIS’ scientific research department. He is only a doctor in name though, as in Doctor is his actual first name. And his scientific research is predominantly confined to working on his holographic, manga-style girlfriend. Krieger isn’t as predominant of some of Archer’s other supporting cast but when he’s on screen he manages to deliver some of the show’s most risqué lines.
Archer does run its comedy pretty close to the bone, but it manages to never fully tip into out and out crudeness. The inclusion of characters like Pam and Cheryl allows the show to include a lot of workplace-related humour as the show mines some great laughs from the co-workers’ increasingly dysfunctional relationships. When most spy organisations are portrayed on television, they are presented as highly efficient, well oiled machines. Archer shows ISIS as pretty much like any other office where the staff dodge and skive and take advantage of the position they’re in. It’s like if MI5 was run by Dunder Miflin.
In terms of its style, Archer is a weird mix of elements from across several decades. The outfits the characters wear look distinctly of a sixties style while the furniture and computers hail from the seventies and eighties. At the same time though, the characters use mobile phones and up-to-date technology. It sounds like the show could fall apart at any moment but yet it strangely works.
Archer is the brain child of Adam Reed who had previously contributed shows to the Adult Swim collection, home of another new Den of Geek favourite, Venture Bros. It is said that Reed based the physical appearances of the character on his own friends, though it has been noted that Lana Kane does resemble the actress Aisha Tyler who provides her voice, while Sterling Archer himself has been compared to Don Draper of Mad Men.
Archer is lucky that it has found itself such a talented voice cast as it’s the line delivery that really sells a lot of the jokes. H. Jon Benjamin who lends his tones to the title role isn’t a name that’s all that well known in the UK having worked mainly in US comedy but his half-sarcastic, half-know it all style is one of the show’s chief strengths.
Jessica Walters is more recognisable thanks to her role in the sitcom Arrested Development and is a great fit for Mallory Archer. Another Arrested Development star, Judy Greer, who has also been seen in the film Jawbreaker amongst others, voices Cheryl while Amber Nash’s southern drawl fits Pam Poovey.
It’s difficult when writing about comedy shows to strike the right balance of describing the essence of a programme without just giving all the best jokes away, especially as comedy is the most personal of genres. What one person finds funny can differ greatly from the next. With that in mind, Archer isn’t a show that will be appreciated by everyone. If you can park your offended bone at the door though, it is a programme that is a lot of fun.
At its core Archer is a novel concept that marries security espionage with office politics and human self-loathing and uses it for great comic effect. It’s hugely quotable, though few around you may get the references and think you’re merely singing lines from the Top Gun soundtrack. It is perhaps because of its mixed styles that Archer has yet to enjoy the success of some its adult animated contempories such as Family Guy, but given the cleverness in its writing and excellent set of characters, it certainly deserves to.
If you’ve seen it then I’m no doubt preaching to the converted. If you haven’t then seek it out. But be warned, you’ll soon find yourself “in the DAAINNNGER ZONE!”
Archer’s season 4 finale airs on FX on Thursday the 11th of April.
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