Still More Strangeness and Subtlety in FX's 'Archer'
Archer may be a simple man, but his is a life of many complications, and he is in turn a complication for most of those who know him.
The fifth season of Archer opens with a startling revelation. None of the missions (or the wildly illegal acts concomitant to them) ISIS conducted in Seasons One through Four has been sanctioned by the government. This means that Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and the gang are now fugitives from the law. Apprised of this news via a violent run-in with the FBI, they're lucky to walk away from with their freedom. They react not by straightening up and flying right, but by properly breaking bad. Malory (Jessica Walter) -- once ISIS’ reluctant matriarch, now its ringleader -- unveils a vault guarding a ton of powder cocaine, fruits of a previous covert exercise. The first four episodes of Season Five, which begins 13 January, concern themselves with ISIS’ efforts to move the stuff on the black market so they can stay afloat. The reason they cite most often for moving in this direction? They need to keep their health coverage.
This isn’t the only resonant note Archer strikes with Breaking Bad, its more sober, over-discussed cousin on AMC. Archer’s Season Four story arc featured undocumented immigrants in the American Southwest, tailing Vince Gilligan’s series right down to having Archer and Lana (Aisha Tyler) fake breaking down in the middle of the road to force a vehicle over, “Dead Freight” style. But this bit about the health insurance is particularly noteworthy, being one of the points where Archer ventures into social commentary. To the extent Malory, Archer, and the pregnant Lana are, like the White family, driven to extremity simply by the need to access medical care, they make Archer more than a clever but ultimately lightweight cartoon. They make it a sign of our time.
This is ironic, since it isn’t quite clear what time Archer thinks it’s in. Keeping with its Cold War theme, the series' mise-en-scène is peppered with Reagan-era floppy disk computers, CRT televisions, and reel-to-reel tape recorders, even though everyone also has GPS and state-of-the-art cell phones. Other cues are similarly contradictory. The characters, though idiosyncratic, are also blandly good-looking in that way so easily achieved in animation. The scenarios are pretty standard fare, so long as you account for the show’s sci-fi pedigree. There’s no shortage of killer cyborgs and space pirates in the Archerverse, but they're nothing new if you’ve seen Terminator or Moonraker.
Most problematically, Archer paints its villains in broad ethnic stereotypes more typical in movies predating the civil rights movement. Thus much of its humor involves North Korean baddies mixing up their Rs and Ls, busty sex-crazed Scandinavian blondes, rural white separatists harboring anti-government conspiracy theories. These types are generally inoculated from criticism for insensitivity by familiar preemptive methods, as when characters police one another’s retrograde social enlightenment: “How hard can [selling cocaine] be,” Malory muses aloud, and Lana, sensing what’s coming, manages to say, “Don’t,” before Malory finishes her thought with “...if Mexicans can do it.” The show also shares with fellow risqué animated sitcoms like South Park and American Dad a sense of being perpetually on the far side of the line demarcating good taste. What it does not share with these lesser predecessors is a sense of being written by adolescents for whom bad taste is still a virtue in itself. Don’t let the off-color gags and T&A humor fool you: Archer’s made by and for adults.
Take Sterling Archer’s complex relationship with Malory. Where much of South Park’s alleged humor revolves around the straightforward way its spoiled children take advantage of their doting, and mostly unseen, parents, Archer and Malory’s interactions are fraught, laden with Oedipal innuendo, memories of unforgiven slights, and the needy fears that accompany codependence. Archer’s on-again, off-again romance with fellow agent Lana is likewise a tricky read. She begins Season Five expecting and Archer, in a rare moment of heartfelt candor, professes a desire to leave behind his womanizing ways and settle down with her and the baby. Okay, sure, when she rebuffs him, he pretends he was joking all along, but his denials are not entirely convincing. Elsewhere she weighs the pros and cons of acceding to Archer’s advances while suction-climbing the glass exterior of a high-rise, this apparently an opportune time for contemplation. “Why do you let him push your buttons? Why not push his buttons?” A moment’s reflection yields the answer: “Because he has no buttons. He’s buttonless.” Archer may be a simple man, but his is a life of many complications, and he is in turn a complication for most of those who know him.
Archer is nuanced in many other ways that make it closer kin to Breaking Bad than South Park. Its writers like subtle demonstrations of virtuosity, for instance. Part of Archer’s quick pace is attributable to its penchant for sound-bridge transitions, wherein the opening line of a scene superficially refers to the line previous. (A coke-addicted Pam [Amber Nash] is caught gorging on white powder. “That’s flour,” Lana scolds her. “I know,” she affirms, and there’s a cut to a completely different scene in which a furious Cheryl yells, “Don’t you think I know that?”, referring to the fact that her singing voice is abysmal.) Whether this advances the plot in any meaningful way is debatable, but it's a nice reward for attentive viewers.
The show offers other such rewards as it develops a theme of prognostication. In an earlier episode, ISIS’ wealthy benefactor Cheryl (Judy Greer) visited a fortune-teller, and since then, she's referred back to her fortune when events seemed to verify its authenticity. On learning of Malory’s plan to sell the cocaine, Archer lapses into a peculiar, and seemingly involuntary, foreshadowing fugue presented as an extended trailer for an imaginary show dubbed “Archer Vice." In the sequence, Cheryl has become a famous country singer, and Archer and the team have only a day to drive a tour bus to Texas; Archer invades Laos, an RPG-wielding Pam praises the notion of perpetrating a coup, and Lana stumbles on a CIA-orchestrated drug deal. Coming at the end of the Season Five premiere, Archer’s conquering-hero daydream seems too frenetic, strange, and detailed to be anything but a figment of his imagination. But then scenes from it do turn up with regularity in subsequent episodes. Archer’s vision would therefore seem to be legitimate, something between a promotional flashforward and a true moment of mystical clairvoyance.
These details elevate Archer above its brethren on Fox and Adult Swim. These slighter comedies mostly content themselves with poster-board characters, hollow pop-cult references, and needlessly bawdy jokes. Archer's affection for character and craft makes it more likely to be remembered as one of the great TV shows of our time, and not just another dirty cartoon.