In a time when Seth MacFarlane’s shows are getting a tad repetitive, South Park is starting to run out of steam and The Simpsons is still inexplicably on the air, you’d be forgiven for thinking there a few places left where to get your fix of animated comedy. But then again, not many have been lucky enough to catch Archer, FX’s brilliant sitcom that has been flying so low under the radar since it first broadcast in 2009, to finally view it feels like joining a secret cult – and a bloody hilarious one, for that matter.
Sterling Archer – does for espionage what Enron did for the stock exchange.
The series focuses on the exploits of ISIS secret agent Sterling Archer (codename: “Duchess”), a suave yet ridiculously self-absorbed moron with an ego the size of the Communist Bloc. In between botched missions and sexually harassing a plethora of female co-workers, Archer deals on a daily basis with the quandaries of his overbearing and manipulative mother Malory Archer… who also happens to be his boss.
As far as premises go, Archer isn’t the most original of concepts – the comedic spin on espionage has been done to death, from Get Smart to Austin Powers – and admittedly it does take a while in the first season to fully embrace the characters and the show’s distinctive brand of comedy. But with the groundwork established and the cast properly settled in, there is much to love and appreciate in season 2.
For starters the smooth animation is simply beautiful to look at, which might not sound like the most important quality for a comedy series, but it does help establish a distinctive visual style. In fact, watching an episode of Archer often feels like seeing a Roy Lichtenstein painting come to life, a comparison made all the more pertinent by the show’s anachronistic time setting. This is a world where the Soviet Union is still standing, yet 16-bit minicomputers inexplicably coexist with GPS systems and slick mobile phones. Meanwhile, Archer’s flannel suits and side parted hairstyle lend him an uncanny resemblance to a certain ad-man from another critically acclaimed show set in the 60s.
What also works in Archer’s favour is that, despite the frequent incendiary humour also found in other animated TV shows, at its heart it’s really a show about the family feuds and dysfunctional mother/son relationships we were more accustomed to in Arrested Development. Sure, there is a subtle, twisted oedipal complex going on between Sterling and Malory, but it’s never dwelled upon and is instead played out to great comedic effect throughout the series. “The thought of me dead gives you an erection?!” cries Malory in one episode. Cue ill-timed reply: “No! Just half of one! The other half would have really missed you…”
The final of Archer’s key strengths is that it’s clearly a show in love with colourful dialogue. For a series where the comedy derives less from the set-up and more from the interaction between its core characters, the gags and lines come fast and furious like a barrage of bullets. The high rate of quality one-liners makes it nigh impossible to pick out the best ones, but among them we find Archer branding Germany “the Alabama of Europe” (when it comes to age of consent) and, in another bizarre incident where he attempts to evade captivity, inviting his kidnappers to “share the milk of human kindness”. Take a moment to think that one over, if you need to.
But perhaps what really makes Archer one of the best comedies currently on the tube is that it celebrates that timeless notion of the super spy as the ultimate embodiment of flawless masculinity, before mercilessly dissecting it for our entertainment. So the next time you’re thinking about catching the latest episode of South Park or Family Guy, give this a try instead. You won’t regret it.