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So We're Just Done with Phrasing? An 'Archer' Retrospective

By Nate Parker | TV | August 29, 2023 |

By Nate Parker | TV | August 29, 2023 |


After 14 seasons, more than 20 gunshot wounds, and a shitload of Scotch, the Agency formerly known as ISIS will finally close its doors. It’s time to say goodbye to one of the funniest workplace comedies ever to hit basic cable. But with only 8 new episodes remaining, it’s worth looking back on what got us here: witty dialogue, a killer cast, and creator\writer\director Adam Reed.

Reed, who previously created Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021, introduced us to suave super-spy Sterling Mallory Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) in 2009. Sterling, described at one point by his mother Mallory (Jessica Walter) as “a vain, selfish, lying, and quite possibly alcoholic man-whore,” is considered by some (himself) to be the world’s greatest secret agent. Backed up by fellow field agents Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) and Ray Gillette (Adam Reed himself), Archer stumbles from one crisis to the next, somehow managing to come out on top despite never making ISIS any money. The office, meanwhile, has its own share of unqualified employees. Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), adrenaline addict and head of HR. The pyromaniac administrative assistant and secret billionaire, Cheryl\Carol Tunt (Judy Greer). Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) is the ISIS comptroller and wannabe secret agent with a penis the size of an overripe eggplant. And Algernop Krieger (a perfectly cast Lucky Yates) hovers in the background making holographic girlfriends and weapons that break the Geneva Conventions, just as you’d expect from a potential genetic clone of Adolf Hitler.

Archer became an instant hit for FX. It fit well with the channel’s other raunchy workplace comedies like It’s Always Sunny… thanks to its inappropriate sense of humor and the way it embraces the concept of the worst people making the best characters. For 5 seasons it parodied the worlds of James Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the Cold War spy craze to great effect. There’s a wonderfully chaotic feel to all the outdated technology - classic green font on the terminals, IBM x386 style computers, and even a Videotex reference - that makes sense when they’re still fighting the KGB. Later seasons, particularly once Sterling is out of his coma, feature modern tech like thumb drives that place the gang squarely in the modern era, but the other ancient electronics make it obvious that ISIS is an organization permanently on the edge of bankruptcy. In the end, it didn’t matter what time period Archer was spoofing, because it was all about the script and voice performances. And that’s where Archer excelled.

If you put Denis Leary, James Lipton, and the classics section of your local library in a blender and hit frappé, what you’d pour over ice with a belt of Glengoolie Blue would be Archer dialogue. Foul language and imagery interwoven with Herman Melville, Rien Poortvliet, and Robert Newton Peck references, all set to parodies of classic film genres. Occasionally plots would borrow directly from films, like Fantastic Voyage and Alien. Story arcs and sometimes entire seasons would riff off film noir, 1970s sci-fi, or men’s adventure stories from the days of pulp fiction. And the cast seems to relish the opportunity to spit literary venom at one another. The show burns through dialogue at twice the rate of most comedies, and fans often have to watch each episode multiple times to get all the jokes. It’s a burden, but we manage.

Some viewers have issues with the later seasons, and it’s fair to say that Archer was stronger when each story only lasted a single episode. At most, a trilogy such as “Heart of Archness” was enough to wring every joke out of a situational comedy. But shows evolve, and as Adam Reed stepped away from writing duties things went in a new direction. I’m actually a big fan of the coma seasons, particularly “Danger Island.” This parody of a pre-WWII adventure tale in REAL magazine pitted Archer, in this iteration a one-eyed cargo plane pilot living in the South Pacific with his best friend/co-pilot Pam. They battle Komodo dragons, cannibal natives, and eventually a whole company of Nazi stormtroopers. It’s funny and weird and it works remarkably well. David Cross returns as Noah, who was enslaved by pirates during “Heart of Archness” and here is a doctoral candidate doing his thesis on the cannibals. Chris Parnell plays Cyril as a Nazi spy, Lana is an island princess, and Ray is an effeminate and ineffective French colonizer ostensibly in charge of the island nation’s security. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Fans aren’t the only ones who enjoy a good Archer one-off. A dizzying number of guest stars seem to enjoy their turn on the show as well. Anthony Bourdain and Burt Reynolds each played a version of themselves in several of Archer’s best episodes. Keegan-Michael Key, JK Simmons, Patton Oswalt, Christian Slater, Jon Hamm, Ron Perlman, and a dozen more make a variety of appearances over the years, and they’re all fantastic.

While later seasons are a bit rough, nothing tops Archer’s first 4 seasons. The first is great, but everyone really finds their footing at the beginning of S2, and the writing and performances click into place. Nowhere is this more obvious than Archer’s 2 best episodes, “Stage Two” and “Placebo Effect,” where Archer discovers he has breast cancer and goes on a murderous, chemo-fueled rampage against Irish mobsters stealing the life-saving drugs. It’s absurd and wildly entertaining as Archer experiences character growth that vanishes as swiftly as his tumors. In season 3’s “The Limited,” he experiences his lifelong dream to fight on top of a moving train, as he and Lana battle Canadian terrorists. It’s a great riff on what’s always been a truly terrible movie premise - who would ever climb on top of a moving train to have a fistfight? There’s no way it ends well for anyone. “Bloody Ferlin” sends Archer, Ray, and Cheryl to West Virginia coal country to fight for Ray’s pot farmer brother against crooked cops, led by Michael Rooker, and it’s a whiskey-tango delight. Season 4’s “Fugue and Riffs” is a Bob’s Burgers crossover, and “The Wind Cries Mary” brings Timothy Olyphant into the mix as Archer’s best (only, possibly gay) friend. Each story begins with a simple premise before spinning wildly out of control, as good adult animation should.

Archer’s been my go-to for background entertainment for more than a decade. The show’s dialogue is so descriptive that most of the time you don’t even need to look at the screen to know what’s happening, making it the perfect option when cooking, cleaning, or having an emotional breakdown. That’s mostly a joke, but at times of family or pet loss, Archer’s been there to distract me from the pain. There’s a weird, twisted wholesomeness to it that gives it more charm than a foul-mouthed spy, his overbearing mother, and their incompetent colleagues should provide. For all his faults, Archer genuinely loves Lana and their daughter. He cares about his friends, particularly Pam. And no one who loves ocelots and dogs with the purity Archer does could be entirely bad.

With 142 episodes under its belt, Archer will have secured its place in adult animation history. True, it doesn’t approach The Simpsons, with more than 750 episodes, or even Family Guy’s 400+. But the quality-to-crap ratio is much higher, even in the post-coma seasons. Season 14 promises a change of priorities with Lana now running the Agency, with the goal of making the world a better place and maybe even turning a profit. With any luck, we’ll fly right into the danger zone, and end with the kind of explosive climax that leaves the audience breathless and sweaty. Either way, thank you to Adam Reed, H. Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Aisha Tyler, Amber Nash, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, and Lucky Yates for one hell of a ride.