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Spies Without A Plan – Archer’s Vitality is Risky Business

Archer, now in its eighth season, feels somehow fresher than most others do at the same age; even fellow animations, detached as they are from the passage of time, are rarely able to remain vital for so long. Making that feat even more impressive is the series’ reliance on absurdist observational comedy, a style that should have (but hasn’t) lost resonance as the novelty of the show’s setting eroded. The FX comedy shares some acting pedigree with Arrested Development, and the two series employ a similar sense of humor. Inside jokes build and morph, recalled with verbal jabs that can be missed in a blink, and many of the jokes between characters are dry grammatical wordplays (whom vs. who) or puns – quotidian humor that is elevated by the preposterous events in Archer‘s spy narrative. One of the series’ favorite running jokes (imagine “Phrasing!” as a sort of gender non-conforming “That’s what she said”) is always worth a chuckle, but when it punctuates a firefight, the gag becomes transcendent. Archer creator Adam Reed, who alone pens the bulk of the series, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the its status as one of the funniest on television, but more than his comedic acumen, its Reed’s trust in his own inspirations, along with his willingness to execute those inspirations even when they necessitate wholesale changes, that makes the spy farce essential after all this time.

For four seasons Archer was a spy comedy with references from James Bond and Get Smart to The Office and Arrested Development – and then suddenly, without narrative pretense, it wasn’t. Season 5 jarringly re-imagined Sterling Archer and his team as drug dealers in an eighties parody. The season was a standalone effort, dubbed Archer: Vice by the network, ostensibly as a way to define the entire effort as an unrelated, standalone diversion. The only markers of Archer retained in Vice were the character dynamics established in Season’s 1-4, and the show’s distinct humor. Is Archer: Vice canon? It doesn’t really matter; the series acts like a snowball rolling downhill, growing and padding itself with jokes, references, and character tics as it keeps going. In seasons after Vice, the Archer spies appear completely removed from their anachronistic jag into Miami’s 1980’s drug scene, at least until they let slip a sly recall of those events, or rip off a joke that may (or may not?) be a direct reference to Vice‘s events. It’s not worth combing the series for continuity issues – not because Archer is too trivial to be worth the effort, but because working to decipher the canonical structure of the show misses the flexibility that makes it great. Reed has created a recognizable group of characters with a vibrant shared history that he can transport to any milieu, repackage within different molds, and still use to build and deliver the humor that is Archer‘s truly characteristic trait.

This doesn’t seem to be an intricate plan by Reed, but a reflection of both the creator’s trust in his creation, and the claustrophobia of his being the only joke-teller in the room. Reed writes (basically) the entire series himself, and has a finite well of creativity. One way to replenish that energy is by blowing up and rebuilding the show in a new image. In an interview with UproxxArcher executive producer Matt Thompson describes Reed’s rational in creating Vice:

“…that came about frankly because Adam [Reed] got bored. He is the sole writer of the show and he felt like he was spinning his wheels at some point … And so you have a show that is successful and/or becoming more successful and we decided to change everything because we were bored and because we just want to make the show that makes us interested and happy in the end.”

That doesn’t sound like a writer with a detailed plan; Archer is not Breaking Bad. Thompson’s quote frames Reed’s decision not as some inspired bold choice, but as a survival tactic, and in truth, the move was both. Regardless, it worked – Vice received universal acclaim (100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), and was the first season of Archer that FX would submit to the Emmy category for Comedy, instead of Animation. Vice, when it was released, was only the most extreme interruption of Archer‘s overall narrative, but not the series’ first. In a 2015 interview with Nerdist, Reed explained another method he employs to preserve freshness: “Every once in awhile we do these episodes that are sort of backstories of the characters, and I don’t know if it’s subconscious, but we use that to change things up a bit. It’s get us out of the ‘mission of the week’ temptation.”

“Bloody Ferlin” is one such Archer episode. The Season 3 installment features Archer and his agency helping fellow spy Ray Gillette save the Gillette family’s West Virginia farm from a corrupt Sheriff. The episode, which preceded Vice by a full season, is an early series highlight, notable for both the appearance of Jack McBrayer as Ray’s brother, and for the marked diversion from Archer‘s espionage framework. With “Bloody Ferlin,” the series was able to target Appalachian stereotypes and tropes, gleefully pitting the cosmopolitan spies against hick law enforcement, all before a backdrop evoking Deliverance. Diversions like this episode (and later Vice) aren’t restrictive or limiting; instead they are relief valves that allow Reed to stretch and breath outside the series’ usual structure.

After Vice, the series returned to it’s default spy setting, albeit with some aesthetic updates. The name of Archer‘s spy agency – ISIS – began to overlap unfortunately with real world events, so it was renamed. Sterling and Lana had a baby named A.J. at the end of season five, and he would have to be introduced to the narrative. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Reed was typically flippant about his decision to introduce A.J. Asked why he made the move, Reed responded, “I don’t know? I guess it’s not a natural progression. I worry that people will get bored of the show, so I figure, ‘Here comes cousin Oliver!’ But the baby’s not along on every mission.” You’ll notice a theme in Reed’s response, an honest reflection of his anxiety about audience attention spans. More than any contemporary, Archer has used its animation technology to consciously avoid lulling viewers. The series has narratively transformed more in seven seasons than The Simpsons, Family Guy, and even South Park have in their cumulative sixty-plus years.

Season 7 left the world of espionage behind altogether, moving the series to a Los Angeles private detective agency and allowing the Archer characters to focus on high-profile Hollywood investigative work. That season ends with Sterling Archer shot, floating in a pool. Season 8 (Archer: Dreamland) technically resumes there, but the season is focused entirely inside Sterling’s head, the dreamscape within the character’s coma. That dreamscape is a 1940’s detective noir, in the tradition of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy. Dreamland is the second iteration of the series to adopt a subtitle, after season five’s Vice, and it’s an audacious choice, even when compared to Vice. Asking the audience to follow the series down a coke-soaked 1980’s rabbit hole is notably different than asking the audience to indulge an entire season that is nothing more than a dream sequence.

Reed, as always, downplays the severity of the change by minimizing the grandeur of the idea’s inception. In an interview with Variety, Reed says that ideas like Dreamland “sort of, I don’t know, they pop into my head doing other things like when I’m mowing the lawn or something or driving in the car.” It’s a type of yada yada, almost as if the show’s creator imagines he can sneak these changes past a skeptical audience by brushing them off as some harmless curiosity, but Vice and Dreamland aren’t odd wrinkles in the greater Archer timeline – they are integral to both the text (Dreamland is as much a compelling psychoanalysis of Sterling Archer as it is a hysterical noir spoof) and the show’s success (Reed seems, in these interviews, to believe that jags like Vice and Dreamland may be key to the show’s long term survival). These seasons aren’t the challenging results of a “one for you, one for me” arrangement between Reed and FX, or Reed and the audience; on the contrary, the series’ formal and narrative audacity are essential to its continued quality. Reed’s creative achievement lies not in the ability to conjure ideas like Vice or Dreamland, but in the audacity to embrace those ideas instead of dismissing them as illogical (they are) or indulgent (ditto).

That audacity has provided Archer with an infinite range of possibilities – it could ostensibly appear in the future as a medieval swords-and-sandals sendup, a court room drama parody, a hospital soap opera spoof, and so on. Because the characters are so vividly developed and recognizable, and because humor provides Archer‘s true continuity, the series could jump across those genres without settling into a routine too reliant on satire. The bullying interplay between Archer and Cyril (his favorite victim), the mercurial romance between Lana and Archer, the gross dysfunction of the relationship between Archer and his mother – these dynamics would be familiar footholds in whatever setting Archer could imaginably choose. The series maintains it’s vitality, not through its appetite for genre parody, but because the true stewards of Archer – jokes and characters – are identifiable and consistent, regardless of genre. The series was never about spies; it was about applying bawdy observational office humor to a typically suave and international framework – it was about spies making dirty puns. With Archer, Reed has proven that as long as the jokes work, the spies are expendable.

Written By

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Patrick

    May 6, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    Okay, this article got me to finally start watching Archer, and now 4 seasons in, all I can say is thank you, sir. How the hell did I go so long without paying attention to this show?

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