Set in the 40s, 60s, 80s, 90s, 21st century all at once, you would agree when I say that the only thing more anachronistic than the setting of the TV series Archer would be Lady Macbeth telling Macbeth to act like a flower but the serpent underneath over FaceTime. Also, to any dim-witted, comic-book ignorant (like me) who may think Archer is related to the superhero and TV show Arrow (why wouldn’t you, it is perfect word association), it isn’t. It is a wildly inappropriate show for those whom the animated movie franchises (barring Sausage Party, of course—the target audience for that movie were, like its maker, those who partake in the all too regular consumption of earthy herbs) would ordinarily target. Sans forgetful fishes, mammoths and sloths, talking cars or toys, Archer is a semi-antithesis of our contemporary 007 template. I say semi because some of the characteristics have been retained—the looks, the staggering alcohol tolerance and consumption, and the presence of a maternal figure with whom there is an undeniable Oedipal obsession. On the other hand, however, I seriously doubt whether Bond would openly boast about his occupation to pick up women, whisper into the ears of an enemy or a colleague the chorus of a Kenny Loggins song or use a rather catchy substitute for “That’s what she said”, but we’ll get to that later.
“I hate surprises. I mean, except surprise fellatio. That I like.”
Naturally, like any (read: just plain, ol’ weird me) 18-year old coming of age in a post-English HL mindset, I eschewed almost all things animated, looking to immerse myself in some intellectually challenging and mind-engaging (maybe a little snooty) works. So when Archer was recommended to me, and I found out that it was animated, I turned my nose up at it. However, a looming fall break and a newly gotten Netflix membership beckoned and I began to watch the show. Right in the first few moments where the show opens to Archer and his latest conquest, lying in a state of post-coital pillow-talk, I realized that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t going to be my run-of-the-mill animated work. It is one thing to document the mishaps of an up and coming, wannabe spy agency but a whole other ballgame if one is to show it through animation, which risks undercutting and trivializing the double entendres, the rather disturbing imagery (this Pam isn’t as classy as the one in The Office) and the drinking, my god is there a lot drinking.
Yes, the action can come off as a bit much, it is especially annoying to see flying bullets never hit Archer, and the quirks of the characters can be deemed a little childish given how real people aren’t acting them out (except Pam’s addiction to cocaine, Cheryl/Carol/Cristal’s weird sexual fetishes, Archer’s overbearing sexual drive and Dr. Krieger’s rather strange creations and ideas. Okay, so maybe they can’t be dismissed as childish). But that, I think, is where the vocal modulation of the actors is key. H. Jon Benjamin voices Archer and the way he modulates his voice to suit the character is apparent to anyone who admires his calm and soothing baritone in Master of None. Yelling “What the shit, Lana?” with his anger and annoyance and whispering “Danger Zone” in a sinisterly annoying voice with equal adeptness, Benjamin brings to life the most capable yet somehow incapable secret agent since Johnny English. Of course, this modulation and the animation leaves little to no room for subtlety but then again, among the car chases, explicit scenes and jokes, coke addiction, chopping Prime Minsters into 8 different parts and all the “shooting co-workers business”, the show isn’t really going for subtlety. What it does go for is unbridled, unceasing, inappropriate, sexist, racist, sexual, scatological, sarcastic, subversive, and occasionally childish comedy. The show has all of that, and then some.
“You shot a black astronaut. That’s like shooting a unicorn.”
Despite its name, and the time the show on Archer and his haps/mishaps, he isn’t the sole focus of the show. The show spends as much time freaking out the viewers with Cheryl’s creepy sexual desires as much as it does Archer’s romance with a cyborg. But through all this, the lover’s/sexual partners/friends/coworkers/co-agent, the show maintains a frightening ability to churn out an almost purebred sense of comedy and laughter. The show’s comedy doesn’t derive from an Alan Shore-like centric figure with a Denny Crane foil that induces laughter, it works similarly to The Big Bang Theory where the jokes come from an intrinsic chemistry between the characters. Lana’s character of flitting between wanting Archer to dating someone else to being with him to hating it to having his kid only works (not because of Archer to do his bit for the kid, you perverts) but because of a consistent chemistry between her and Cyril that was born of desperation and vengeance and Malory Archer’s desire to not have her son being with someone who, um, let’s say isn’t Caucasian. The consistent chemistry between them, Pam and Cheryl’s desire for Archer and Lana, at some level, and how volatile their relationship tends to be is a key piston to keep this comedy going. Like I said, it is the interaction between the characters that provides the spark which keeps the show thriving. Throw an overly sexually charged semi-James Bond, a racist M dating her Russian counterpart called Nikolai Jakov (remember, ‘v’ is pronounced somewhat like ‘f’ in Russian), a black spy/femme fatale who is with/not with Archer but has his baby, a homosexual agent to fulfill the diversity quota, an overweight HR official with a confused sexuality, a deranged assistant who inherits billions, an accountant who needs to undergo a penile ensmallment surgery and a “doctor” who is related to Hitler and consistently invents newer and weirder things. The male and female oppositional cyborgs are just on the side. Now, I’ve done a few of these ridiculous litanies, but this one takes the cake.
“I’m afraid if I stop drinking all at once, the cumulative hangover will literally kill me.”
I could praise the show for hours on end, god knows I have, vehemently too to convince people to watch it but there are still some aspects that don’t quite sit well with me. Beyond all the sex and senility, while giving screen time to the other characters, it doesn’t give you round supporting characters, like any Zak Snyder movie. While Ray is given enough screen time, precious little about him us known to the viewers. Aptly, there is only an in-depth insight into what makes Archer and why he is the way he is. His three fears are detailed—alligators, crocodiles and brain aneurysms, his man-crush on Burt Reynolds is talked about and his obsession with his mother is used to explain his drinking problem and his attraction to overbearing women who influence his life. Others remain mere foils for Archer to be bounced off and to bounce his jokes off. Through 7 seasons, so far, little is known about Pam, all we know about Cheryl is her rich background and Cyril remains a mystery beyond his mathematical skills and his endowment. Clearly, then, there isn’t much to these characters except that they have a certain je ne sais quoi quality to them that makes them such perfect foils for Archer to play off, either for his beloved “Phrasing” or to aid him in his search for the perfect comeback (Phrasing).
“You wanna play me hard–“, “Phrasing”, “Well, then you better nut up–“, “Phrasing”, “Because I’ve swallowed just as much as I can take from you.” “Phrasing”.
Quite honestly, Archer isn’t a show that sweeps you off your feet from the first episode. The first few sexual innuendos and the explicit scenes make you wonder if this is just FX’s attempt at branching out to hentai and the like. But this is another quality of the show that endears itself to you. Archer grows on you, slowly but surely, until you spend dinners with friends who’ve watched the show, saying nothing but phrasing at every opportunity. You grow to, somehow, find the vocal indication of Pam and Cheryl feeling turned on (“Sploosh”) funny, the weird/creative/creepy/evil genius of Krieger annoyingly comic, Archer’s treatment of Woodhouse goes from being sad to just plain entertaining and Lana’s “Yup” seems to be endearing. Of course, the place holder characters tend to feel a little empty when you want to begin to know what drives them to be so crazy but their contribution to the overall comic package of the show is so whole that their flatness becomes but a footnote. Somehow, an animated spy show, very adult in content, set over who knows how many decades, works incredibly well and presents this wonderful jukebox that keeps churning out one delightful episode after another. I ever so rarely implore people reading a review to watch the show, I frankly couldn’t care less, but with this one, I really hope you do, especially if you have a break from school and a Netflix membership waiting to be exploited. I have tried to encapsulate all that Archer is in this review but this doesn’t do it much justice. This, really, is just the tip, if you watch the show, there is a lot more to come. Phrasing.