At one point in the FX cartoon Archer, Lana, a co-worker of the titular character, snaps at him: “I’m sick of you getting the best assignments just because your mother’s the boss. Do you know what that’s like?”
His reply: “Besides awesome?”
The funniest show on TV, Archer is about the dysfunctional private spy agency ISIS, run by the mother of the protagonist. Her son, Sterling, is an impeccably dressed spy with expert-level fire-arms ability, a drinking habit and a sociopath’s disregard for the feelings of anyone around him: think if James Bond looked like Don Draper and acted like George W. Bush.
In the pilot, he has to break into the ISIS mainframe to alter his business account: he had been running up a massive bill jet-setting around the world with a series of high-class prostitutes.
In a series of anecdotes told in Family Guy fashion, we find out that he dumped his personal butler’s entire wardrobe out the window for improperly poaching his egg, impregnated his maid and paid for her abortion three different times and brazenly cheated on Lana when they were together.
ISIS, a satire of the omnipotent agencies typically found in spy movies, barely functions at all. The other main characters—Cyril, the nebbish accountant, Pam, the gossiping HR executive and Carol, the slutty secretary—are too busy wrapped in their own petty personal dramas to do much actual work.
Archer, oblivious and impossibly vain, succeeds mostly in spite of himself. He has the casual arrogance of someone who has been given everything his entire life; no matter how often he side-tracks a mission by hitting on hostesses, needling Lana and fretting about his wardrobe, he figures it will work out eventually.
A graduate of an elite prep school, Archer is a stereotypical member of the WASP elite.
A hundred years ago, a kind of “nobless oblige” mentality existed amongst similar scions of American families who graduated from schools like Exeter and then Harvard. FDR, born in 1882, attended Groton, whose headmaster preached that Christians had the duty to help the less fortunate and enter public service.
But as the Ivy league slowly changed from aristocratic to meritocratic institutions, with test scores replacing family connections as the key to admittance, a different kind of elite was created. They didn’t feel like they owed the common people anything; after all, since they had “earned” their place on top of society, they deserved the fruits of their labor. Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, which preached that most of society was free-loading off the cognitive elite and would fall apart without them, appealed to their vanity; instead of going into public service, they flocked towards Wall Street.
Sterling Archer is a pitch-perfect satire of this mentality: a man who could save the world but chooses not to. When his co-workers strike for a living wage, he is completely unmoved, refusing to give up any of his bonus to “the drones”. He takes particular delight in provoking confrontations with the hapless Cyril, a classic beta male who Lana takes up with to spite Archer after their break-up.
Imagine if the average American told a Goldman Sachs trader: “I’m sick of bailing out the financial markets to the tune of trillions of dollars while the economy falters. Do you know what’s that like?”
They’d probably shrug and respond with something along the lines of, “Besides awesome?”
// Notes from the Road
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