Archer’s unchanging characters and the best world on television


It’s a safe bet that if you love comedy and you aren’t a time traveler from thirty years ago who still derides animation as television for children, you already watch Archer. It’s in the running (along Bob’s Burgers) for the best voice acting cast in an animated show still on the air and it absolutely has the best showrunner an animated comedy could ask for in Adam Reed. There are once-in-a-generation talents making a show with a premise so simple it shouldn’t work at all, but it does. It straddles a very thin line between tropes that make a show easy to love and difficult to make. It’s not all about Jon Benjamin, or at least not as much as it can seem like sometimes.

Archer‘s a safe bet for a network to make for a ton of reasons. Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) has a simple formula for an instant hook for both genders as a sexpot and an insanely capable female in a world of idiots. Malory Archer (Jessica Walter) is impossible to watch without drawing the comparison to the role most viewers will know her voice actor from when she was a little more tactful than her new character, but not much, as Lucille Bluth on everyone’s favorite (now that it’s dead) television show Arrested Development.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: Sterling Archer (Jon Benjamin) himself is just James Bond. There’s no other way to say it, it’s intentionally set up to help make the world feel familiar from day one: the drinking, the spy agency, the outfits, even the original relationship with Cheryl/Carol Tunt (Judy Greer) as a Moneypenny nod. Archer the character is supposed to be considered as awesome as James Bond in a world where (usually, except for a few odd references) James Bond isn’t already the staple for cool.

But Archer also is a very risky show to present to America. It may be in familiar territory with James Bond as a premise and inspiration, but their specific approach to parody is tough to get right. Most spy parody has always presented James Bond as a bumbling idiot, from the classic Maxwell Smart of Get Smart to today’s primary example of Austin Powers. Sterling Archer is the central character in a spy parody that is driven by people being hyper-capable. Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) essentially has superhuman strength. Cheryl/Carol is the richest person we’ve met in their world (rich enough to have her own train line and ocelot). Lana and Archer are capable enough to bring down entire governments essentially by themselves.

To keep a spy parody funny without going the route of “this guy is so dumb, how is he a spy?” the writers behind Archer keep the comedy from becoming broad, if you’ll pardon a word choice that Sterling Archer might not. If everyone knows what they’re doing, then they need to be failures somewhere else. “Everyone does a good job” isn’t funny. “Capable people are failures in other ways” absolutely is. Austin Powers is an idiot in a smart job. Sterling Archer is a genius (in many ways) in a smart job. It has to be funny, so it has drawn the humor from the world itself.

It’s a calling card of an Adam Reed show. Before Archer he worked to flesh out the comedy in Sealab 2021, a show that used the animation from a much older classic cartoon based on a community of scientists in an airtight undersea laboratory. The comedy was different in that the crew on Sealab 2021 were total idiots, but the world was the same in that it was about how people in an impossibly high stakes society can’t even figure out how to date or talk to each other. People with multiple advanced degrees locked themselves in closets; it was absurd. His follow-up Frisky Dingo features the biggest figures in the world being reduced to trying to make a meal for their offspring and living in cardboard boxes. He’s clearly obsessed with finding the ridiculous in the biggest, loftiest places imaginable. So lofty in most cases that the entire world would have to be different for the larger-than-life characters to exist. They are bigger than our world allows for, and he escalates the stakes so high that these figures exploring mundane problems is almost impossible to imagine.

Archer is unique among these characters in that he’s aware of his failings, but he’s even more of a superhuman for believing they don’t matter. Everything Archer can’t do he essentially isn’t interested in doing. He asserts how awesome he is time and time again. If one of Adam Reed’s favorite jokes is amazing people being bad at small tasks, Archer subverts this by not giving a damn if anyone likes him enough to pick him up from a payphone. He knows he needn’t change; he can shape the world from his broken state.

That’s where this season finds our intrepid hero: so damn excited to be broken. Every episode this season has been about something Archer is terrified of: his own fear of not starting a family, his lack of close friends, his literal fear of cyborgs, his fear of losing his singular connection with his mother, and his fear of losing his former love. He essentially walks out of every situation feeling that his fears are reasonable and that they don’t hold back the most confident, capable man in the known world. It’s a way of rounding out a “perfect” character without forcing him to change or evolve. Archer can stay Archer and be living in a world that is out to get him, because he doesn’t give a damn if it comes or doesn’t.

These failings and fears stay consistent, because the show plays fast-and-loose with continuity as they set up things that should derail the show. Archer sleeps with Pam, Archer learns momentary compassion for Woodhouse, and Archer learns to deal with the KGB and his mother. Even with all of that (and the half-dozen central characters jumping into bed with each other in what’s become a pretty amazing relationship web by now) the show has stuck to one piece of continuity above all else: glacial development. Characters have no willingness to learn or change. It’s the “everything is back to normal” trope that plagues television, except exactly not. Nothing is ever back to normal: every move in the universe stays with everyone, but no one develops at all.

It keeps the plot interesting and the world full when no one changes. It also allows for amazing freedom with jokes. The show is praised consistently for making jokes that require some Googling to make sense of them (“Johnny Bench called” sticks in my mind, look it up) but it is far easier to do so when the characters don’t need explaining. Pam is Pam, all the time, so any joke Pam would ever say can go anywhere. The universe expands and builds on itself with no fear that Pam will learn anything and change how she responds to someone else. It’s one of the same things that makes their network-mate It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia beautifully funny. Both joke machines roll on as their worlds get more and more realized.

With both shows, this makes the comedy feel more “real” without having to humanize their characters. The agency on Archer feels full and the characters have developed relationships with each other that they can mine for jokes during bigger plots, but no one is in any danger of becoming reasonable or compassionate. That’s how they can keep turning out new episodes without jumping any kind of shark, ever: there’s no shark to jump if no one ever moves.

Archer is on tonight, and the episode description for “One Bitten” says he gets bitten by a snake in a “special place.” I’m far more excited for “Coyote Lovely” in a few weeks, which promises to offer up a chance for Jon Benjamin to over pronounce the word “coyote” over and over. It’s definitely what you should show up for, but it’s not all you’ll get.

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