When it comes to television animation, satirists and storytellers have set the bar incredibly high in recent years. What used to be a medium for kids has become an adult playground, with many of the best animated shows residing within the Fox family. On the broadcast side, there’s “The Simpsons,” now 20 years old and still satirically relevant, as well as the newer and more daring “The Family Guy,” which has turned creator Seth MacFarlane into a Hollywood darling (as well as a target of several camps constantly offended by his humor). But with the exception of Comedy Central’s hilarious and often mind-blowingly smart “South Park,” cable hasn’t delved as much into the animated comedy realm. So it’s fitting that Fox’s own FX network—which bravely focuses on original fiction shows despite the cost and associated risks—has created what can only be described as a clever show that may or may not find an audience willing to tolerate its darker side.
“Archer” (Thurs, 10pm), which premiered in Jan, is at times hilarious. At other times, it’s so sardonic that it borders on self-indulgent. This show doesn’t produce laughs every five seconds, but it mixes ridiculous situations and storylines with characters whose internal and external struggles are strangely relatable. That’s not easy when the setting is a super-secret spy agency run by the domineering Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), whose son Sterling (H. Jon Benjamin) bumbles through every mission but somehow ends up heroically saving the day—usually by coincidence. In the first episode, for example, Sterling gets caught using his expense account to pay for his vices, including alcohol, gambling and hookers, and then must use his spy skills to break into the agency’s computer room to change his records. While there, he’s confronted by a mole everyone has been after, manages to subdue him and then frames the guy for tinkering with his expense report. Most episodes go in this direction: Every mission is really just an excuse for Sterling to feed his own ego and make recklessly horrible decisions while trying to convince ex-girlfriend and fellow spy Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) that her current boyfriend—spy agency comptroller Cyrill Figgis (Chris Parnell)—isn’t right for her. She clearly still has feelings for Archer but also knows he’s a complete jackass. That doesn’t bother promiscuous secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer), who has a thing for him and keeps changing her name because he can’t remember it anyway.
Meanwhile, these characters continually plot against one another as they selfishly pursue their own goals—coming together only when their collective plights demand cooperation to save their own skins. In another episode, Malory Archer throws a dinner party to convince a high-level government official to hire the agency for spy work and plans a fake assassination attempt to allow her agents to save the day. The assassins turn out to be double-agents hired by Malory’s longtime love interest, who also happens to be the head of the KGB (Don’t ask… The show is apparently set during the Soviet era, but it’s unclear at times. So it’s best to just assume this is a bizarre-o alternative universe). When the official and a hooker Sterling hires to seduce him (again, don’t ask) both end up dead, the whole Archer gang works together to cover it up by making it look like a murder-suicide and burning the bodies. Then they all sit down and eat dinner together, laughing about the crazy evening. It’s that kind of show. Much of the humor involves someone getting shot, killed or otherwise injured. If that sort of thing offends you, best to steer clear of this one. Of course, it’s important to remember that these are, uh… cartoons.
In a way, Archer is a show about office politics. But instead of a Dunder-Mifflin-esque office environment, this is a spy agency in which death and destruction are just a part of the job. This isn’t really a satire of modern society along the lines of “South Park” or “The Simpsons.” It’s more a study of endlessly flawed characters who somehow get through life and situations by any means necessary. Whether it’s tensions between mother and son, boyfriend and girlfriend, boyfriend and ex-girlfriend… or just a dissection of common flaws like pride, arrogance, paranoia and self doubt… Archer takes the human condition and exaggerates it for comic effect—all while reminding us that, well… despite our own flaws, we’re not as bad as these people. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).