There is something infectious about the epicurean interests of Archer, and not just the protagonist alone. On one hand South Park, has probably eventually, outdone itself in the courageous and the outrageous, so much so that its latest season ran out of people to offend, spoofs good enough to commit to the joke book, and obnoxiousness that endeared to the viewer the wonder and weirdness of Eric Cartman. It played out like a tiring sequence of gimmicks held together by a band-aid rather than a cogent thread of the slightest bit of narrative, or comic graft. What are then the spaces left to go where no modern comedy has gone before? Roll that into a tighter knot and just what can be done with animated comedies: a series about a super-spy (yeah, that again) that Johnny English, Get Smart, Austin Powers etc etc haven’t already?
Brilliant one-liners in comedy are always susceptible to being wheeled into superannuated clichés or catch-phrases, or unrecoverable memories, because as soon as the joke ends, so does the memory of having heard one. It’s no surprise, then, that in a world of minimal attention spans and surface indulgences, the idea of comedy exists as one of very little conversational merit – as in the conversations hold the jocular, and not the other way round. The reason shows like Friends and Seinfeld, still upstage most modern comedies is the self-baring vulnerabilities of the man or woman amid the throes of a societal existence not flanked by a device, but by dialogue. Dialogue was indeed the champion then, and it is after great painstaking waits that you will hear a good one in a comedy series these days. But then writing comedy is probably hard, because it tries to evoke in us a feeling we spend our own good time trying to – happiness, joy whatever you may want to call it. The sad on the other hand, is easier to achieve, with its nose at most times tugging, at our default states, of awaiting provocation of some kind or the other.
One of the brilliant qualities of Archer is its ability to mock itself. This is far removed from decent, hand-to-heart stories of the usual comic tropes that rarely ever take themselves lightly. Archer is based around a detective agency run by Malory Archer, the lead spy and face of which is her son Sterling Archer. So mother-son issues galore. But that isn’t new. The two are supplanted by a host of interesting characters that are the pantomime equivalents of sticky notes a comedy writer might have glued to his refrigerator while thinking of characters without the one-dimensional stereotyping. Lana Kane with whom Archer has an on-off romantic relationship, is the other top spy of the agency, and perhaps also the only one completely sane. There are then two women employees in Cheryl and Pam, the token tech-guy in Dr Krieger, a know-all accountant in Cyril, a third blonde spy to call upon in Ray and even a butler who occasionally turns up in the service of Sterling.
That is a pretty basic setup, except that it isn’t. Malory, even at her age is horny, hostile and at all times insecure about the money she doesn’t make. Also she has a secret ongoing affair with the head of the KGB, who could also be Sterling’s father. Cheryl, secretary to Malor,y is a whack-job who loves random brutality and has a thing for BDSM. Pam is the loudest and perhaps the most likeable of all characters owing to her ability to deride herself for her obesity and sexual inadequacies. Cyril is the pushover of the group, a righteous yet vulnerable man, and Lana is perhaps his soul double, in only that she is rather more forceful and self-aware. Then there is Sterling, who refreshingly, prides himself on the many things being a spy entails you to – even something as simple as being considered the best one. He is racist, sexist, homophobic and most significantly, shortsighted by his alcoholism and libido. And he doesn’t mince his words. And oh yes, Dr Krieger is a descendant of Hitler and Ray is well, gay. Compound these characters with the stereotypes (if you like) and the uninhibited existences they would wish to have, and the show probably exists in that space of moral abandon. More than anything these characters are funded by undisputable wit, in terms of the writing for the show. There are lines and moments for the ages.
In a typical rant at his old butler (Woodhouse) Sterling says (as he throws all of Woodhouse's shoes off the balcony), "Because I told you to buy lemon curd, Woodhouse. Now what am I going to spread on my toast? Your tears?"
In another scene, Archer goes to pickup his newborn son in an attempt to be a good father and ends up responding to the question "Where are you going to take him?" with "I don’t know, what’s he into?".
It is absolutely no holds barred here. There is no central narrative thread, just a coming and going of odd missions, near-preposterous situations, inside and outside the agency and tantrums aplenty to throw around. There is no love lost amongst the characters, no retainers for relationships of any kind, absolutely no restraint from aspersion, and the utter loss of dignity of any kind. This group of spies and sidekicks needs nothing short of a mission to sensitise them to anything – even their jobs – and is pretty much impossible thereon in. Amusingly, that is something many guest characters try, and eventually fail to do within the show. If you haven’t watched it already, you absolutely must because for all the good, the bad and the ugly out there, Archer pretty much banks it all on the latter two in a way, and manages to hit the right notes that most comedies seldom do, as a group of the most politically and morally incorrect people, try to run a spy agency in the United States, called ISIS – that’s right.
Archer has recently wrapped up its seventh season (six of which are available on Netflix) and will return next year with the eighth on FX.