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Entertainment / February 5, 2010

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You probably know about it already, but in case not, there’s a really bracing animated half-hour series on the F/X Network called Archer. It’s a spoof of the James Bond-type spy genre, which doesn’t sound too good, but never underestimate what Adam Reed of Sealab 2021 can do with moldy genre spoofs.

Like so many of the great Adult Swim cartoons (Sealab, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Harvey Birdman Attorney-at-law, etc.), the starting point is genre conventions. (They’re usually drawn from superhero comics and cartoons, sometimes taking the old lesser-known ‘70s Hanna-Barbera animated shows and reworking the original footage.) Then they combine clashing cosmic superpowers and/or absurd adventure heroics with some mundane reality usually involving office/workplace politics, and in smashing together the grandiose with the petty they unleash all sorts of surreal madness.

The effect can be like some sort of engrossing hallucination you’re having that happens to be killingly funny in spots.

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The show’s also sometimes pretty filthy, if you weren’t raised with the possibility of cartoon characters having anal sex right there on the teevee. F/X solemnly warns viewers about the sex, nudity, violence, and bad language at every commercial break.

Archer is only a few weeks old but is already strangely soothing and familiar. I find myself letting older episodes run while I do mundane household chores. Maybe it’s the color scheme, both rich and subdued, designed by somebody with what they call a “good eye.” The look is early ‘60s comics that Roy Lichtenstein liked to paint, those now-campy serious-looking ones with square-jawed men in suits talking earnestly to big-breasted women in slick offices and apartments. There’s a Catch Me If You Can/Mad Men + early Bond film style opening credit design that’s a thing of beauty, and then an arresting animation style featuring characters whose flat, heavily outlined, frontal qualities combine dreamily with their stiff-jointed floating movement; they glide through rooms like cardboard-cutout figures on moving sidewalks.

(Question: will we ever be done revisiting the high modernist look of the early-mid‘60s? Short answer: no. It’s the last time America found a good look for itself.)

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All this sublime visual design combines hilariously with the profane goings-on at Sterling Archer’s workplace, International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), which is run by his conniving, power-hungry, sexually aggressive mother Malory. (Voiced by Jessica Walter doing a variation on her great Arrested Development maternal monster character.) Mother and son have a Freudian-field-day relationship complicating their interactions as company boss and top agent.

Archer (H. Jon Benjamin, who has this innately ridiculous voice in everything he’s done since Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist) looks the part of well-tailored hyper-masculine super-spy, and has been trained in all the necessary skills of fancy combat, fast driving, and sexual conquest. But he takes everything to sloppy excess, living on Scotch and Gummibears, routinely vomiting at the thought of his mother’s sex life, exhausting his expense account on hookers, and forgetfully shooting his office co-worker Brett on an almost daily basis. (This is always followed by Brett’s exasperated off-screen voice yelling, “GOD damnit, Archer!”)

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He’s also hung up on his ex-girlfriend and even more lethal company spy, Lana (Aisha Tylor, who sounds like a young Katey Sagal/Peg Bundy), a gorgeous Foxy Brown-type who’s currently dating the nerdy but well-endowed company comptroller Cyril (Chris Parnell of 30 Rock). There’s also a shockingly crazy young secretary (Judy Greer) who constantly changes her name based on whatever random thing influenced her last, and Archer’s elderly, long-suffering English butler Woodhouse (George Coe), who served in the Great War.

When the combined talent gets on a roll, the result is a symphony of staccato dialogue delivery and artful pauses, interruptions, and blasphemous exclamations. Along with the “good eye” that’s running this show, there’s also a really good ear.

That said, the show’s uneven, of course, with some episodes like “Diversity Hire” working transcendently well, and others like “Killing Utne” that kind of limp along. I wasn’t crazy about last night’s offering, “Honeypot”, in which Archer enthusiastically accepts a “Honeypot” assignment from his mother, thinking it involves seducing and neutralizing a gorgeous female blackmailer. Except this time the blackmailer turns out to be a middle-aged Cuban gay man who will, nevertheless, have to be seduced and neutralized by Archer. All the stereotypical gay humor seemed to make the writers nervous or something.

But in general this is a jamboree of excellence, and how often does that happen?

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19 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Myf  |  February 5th, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    I’m sorrey Eileen but that show is as bad as the Frisky Dingo show that preceded it. Stale jokes and lameness everywhere. The good cartoons are Squidbillies and Xavier Renegade Angel. Everything else is stoopid!

  • 2. Judas Chongo  |  February 5th, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    It’s a good ass show

  • 3. Doom  |  February 5th, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    @1: Shut your whore mouth.

  • 4. 16 Shells from a 30.06  |  February 5th, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I laughed.

    That’ll do…

  • 5. Bob  |  February 5th, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Sealab 2021 = best show ever, at least before Harry Goz died. The “Bizarro” episode in particular is hilarious and perfect in every way. Never thought much of Space Ghost, though.

  • 6. captain america  |  February 5th, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    the trailers on hulu seem pretty funny.

  • 7. JoJoJo  |  February 5th, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Archer is just more lameass LOL random humor interceded with awkward pauses that bougie peckerwoods can’t get enough of. Eventually the dead silence will engulf it as it did coast to Coast. Spaceghost spends 80% of episode staring into nothingness while the Z-list actor contemplates suicide.

  • 8. jimmy james  |  February 6th, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Well, I hope this puts to rest that stupid Jones = Dolan rumor so many people want to believe. Because Dolan would never in a million years like Archer.

    I haven’t watched this one yet, but Reed’s show Frisky Dingo had some great moments before it ran out of steam. Awesome-X and Killface tooling around in the sewers was fantastic.

  • 9. Hannu  |  February 6th, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Have to admit, it’s really not that good.

  • 10. Brian  |  February 6th, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    The art direction is great but the scripts drag big time. I like Harvey Birdman better.

  • 11. Ghost of eXiles Past  |  February 7th, 2010 at 8:27 am

    A new low…

  • 12. German Joey  |  February 8th, 2010 at 8:28 am

    @3 Please speak with respect when talking to your elders…

  • 13. aleke  |  February 8th, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    @3 stop being so disrespectful.

  • 14. Susie Q.  |  February 9th, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Dolan was okay a a film reviewer, but Jones is a John Dolan with balls!

  • 15. beanplate  |  February 9th, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Archer is hilarious, and I hate god-damn everything.

    Sealab is ok, but good writing can only go so far .. what Archer has is a hilarious cast. It’s too bad h jon benjamin doesn’t fit into any kind of visual stereotype, because it would be even better as live action– without all the viewer baggage of Adult Swim half-remembered fantasies.

  • 16. Grimgrin  |  February 11th, 2010 at 2:20 am

    Archer won me over with this bit of dialogue.

    “I just thought if anything would happen it’d be the gun…”

    “No! No Cyrill! Do not say the checkov gun! That is a facile argument!”

    “Also woefully esoteric sir”.

    The episode featured a literal and a metaphorical Chevkov’s gun, broke the fourth wall to talk about it and did it all in three fast lines of dialogue that didn’t break the pace of the story.

    That for me is what sets it apart from something like Frisky Dingo, or other Adult Swim style shows.

  • 17. michael  |  February 14th, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation, Ms. Jones! I’ve had a chance to see a couple of episodes now.

    In addition to Sealab 2021 (a work of genius), the dialogue, plot-line and in particular the intro are quite reminiscent of that brilliant show The Venture Brothers.

    I can’t listen to H. Jon Benjamin’s voice without thinking of the soccer coach from another excellent and more child friendly series called Home Movies.

  • 18. danindc  |  February 15th, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    archer is soooooo unfunny

  • 19. Jason  |  March 5th, 2010 at 7:40 am

    Whoa there nelly – I love all of these cartoons, but Archer/Dingo/Sealab are in a class by themselves if only for the dialogue. Xavier and Squidbillies are great, but talk about rehashing the same joke over and over – we get it, they’re rednecks. We get it, he’s a tripped-out Native American stereotype. Just learn to love ‘em all.


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