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.
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.)
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!”)
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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