'Archer', Season Seven, and the Fantasies of Success
Apolitical Archer eases into its seventh season with the same dedication to parody and fantasy that's always characterized the series.
ArcherAirtime: Thursdays, 10pm
Cast: H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walters
What's perhaps most interesting about the recent release of the newest season of Adam Reed's FX parody-action-drama Archer isn't the challenges facing the protagonists, but the shear ease with which it's arrived in its seventh season. Like the sixth chapter in the series, the seventh represents another shift in the work of the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) -- founded in 2010 (well before the other group with the same name).
In the previous season, entitled Archer Vice, the organization was shut down by the FBI, which drove the gang of spies, scientists, secretaries, and administrators to an original business venture; namely, the sale of cocaine to Columbian cartels and anyone else who would buy it. In this season, by contrast, ISIS has taken on the role of a private detective agency, returning the characters to the right side of the law -- at least in theory.
What makes Archer unique from other spy programs -- parodic or not -- is that the show is unabashedly apolitical and absurdly atemporal. Unlike classic espionage novels and films, Archer doesn’t feature a spy protagonist from a representative national institution during a specific period of national conflict; it also doesn't feature villains with easily recognizable political affiliations. Instead, ISIS is a comically bureaucratic entity that shares no meaningful relationship with the US government.
The entire operation is first and foremost a business trying to make money, which is a common point of humor within the series, as the spies regularly worry about job security and budget cuts. Moreover, the show is anything but timely. Archer seamlessly and uncaringly moves between enemies, technology, and fashion, from the 19th century to the present. The lack of social, political, and historical references would ruin the novels of Ian Fleming or John le Carré, but Archer's dedication to fun -- not politics -- allows it to escape weighty issues, like global terrorism, and focus on the life, profession, and coworkers many viewers wish they had.
Archer is an animated parody of spy fiction and film, and can be enjoyed both as an iteration of the genre or as a spoof of it. The protagonist, Archer Sterling (H. Jon Benjamin), is a character who -- like all secret agents -- attracts viewers with masculine fantasies surrounding fast cars, hot women, exotic locations, and the belief that human agency can overcome any challenge. His overblown sense of fearlessness, aggression, and virility is not uncommon to spies like 007, but the show exaggerates these elements and makes Archer not only a caricature of a secret agent, but of male heterosexuality as a whole.
Humor's said to be a product of interactions between incompatible elements, and Archer's relationship with his mother is undoubtedly one of them. Archer's a comical embodiment of the alpha male, but he's frequently controlled by his mother, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), who’s the head of ISIS. Malory’s essentially the same character Walter played as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development: an aged, tyrannical matriarch who is sexually active, frequently derisive, and rarely sober. There's a certain level of Freudian humor in the love Archer shows his mother, but it's always shadowed with hatred and ire, such as when he compares her to a crocodile, because "both are cold-blooded, prehistoric monsters".
The show borrows much of its form from 007 films, as the relationship between Archer and Malory mirrors the maternal bond between James Bond and M. Similar things can be said about Archer's relationship with Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), who’s the Archer version of Money Penny, and Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates), the show’s iteration of Q.
Cheryl begins the show as a relatively unimportant secretary and sexual interest of the male characters, but she gradually takes on larger roles as a masochist, a multi-million-dollar heiress, and country music star. Dr. Krieger, who supplies the gadgets for Archer and ISIS, is the show’s source of absurd and uncomfortable humor, as he can be found regularly in a suspicious van that suggests he’s a pedophile, or speaking to his girlfriend, who's not actually a real person, but rather a hologram projection of a young Japanese girl from anime.
Archer’s colleague and sidekick is Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), who seems to be a traditional "Bond Girl" in her stature, dress, and curves, but her skills and talent as a secret agent set her apart. She’s a femme fatale with a talent for intimidating and producing violence, but she’s also the more predictable and responsible of the two spies, which means she must regularly save Archer from his own stupidity.
Central to any form of humor -- especially that of Archer -- is the play between antagonistic concepts like the serious and the trivial. The use of animation and caricature, for example, pits the drama of the spy genre with the traditionally comical, reactionary, and "low" form of a cartoon comedy. Furthermore, the series of ridiculous, overblown, and grotesque characters sharply contrasts with the reserved and professional secret agents of more traditional spy programs.
The show's dedication to fun and humor yields the most signature aspect of its humor. Archer, his mother, and the many other idiots of ISIS take part in an unrelenting game of archaic references to history and popular culture, which invite the audience to head to the Internet to see why the joke was funny. The real humor, however, isn't so much in the references themselves -- which span from dead presidents to rock bands -- but in the simple act of otherwise buffoonish characters making pretentious jokes about abstruse cultural references.
Animated series may resist cancellation better than programs with human actors because their characters never outgrow their initial roles, argue off screen, or ask for more money with success. However, without the star power of blood-and-bone actors, the show must keep its writing and animation on the cutting edge. In its seventh season, the central question of Archer isn't so much what is going to happen next or if ISIS will survive, but if the show can keep its edge. The show’s disavowal of space and time perhaps makes it less relevant to history, but it provides audiences with exactly what it promises: 30 or so minutes of self-identification with characters that have the jobs (we think) we want and the lives (we think) we wish we had.
Mark Pleiss is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. He received a PhD in Spanish Literature from the University of Colorado-Boulder, and writes about topics that include crime fiction, parody, and the politics of popular entertainment. He wrote feature stories for several newspapers in the Midwest before joining academia, and enjoys fusing his knowledge of theory with his love of popular culture.