If the movies are anything to go by, being a secret agent must be the most glamorous job in the world. A wardrobe of tailored suits at one’s disposal; access to the most expensive cars and technology; travel to picturesque locations free of charge; and the ability to seduce women with the raise of an eyebrow. What isn’t shown is the happenings back at headquarters: romances between co-workers, bitterness with management, attempts at conflict resolution, and whatever that God-awful smell is coming from the kitchen.
Archer isn’t so much a show about a spies as it is the people who work for them. The animated spy-comedy focuses on the employees of the International Secret Intelligence Service, a firm which basically operates as a spy agency for hire, in New York City. The central protagonist is Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), an elite field agent, narcissist, womaniser and the only son of the organisation’s director, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter). Joining Sterling, or “Archer” as his colleagues refer to him, in the field is his ex-girlfriend Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) and the openly-gay Ray Gillette (Adam Reed, the show’s creator and writer).
The offices of ISIS (an unfortunate acronym, I know) are where the real hostilities play out. Here, accounts manager Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) is often at odds with Malory as to how the organisation is financed, while the head of human resources, Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) is left to deal with the sexual harassment cases made against Archer. Downstairs, resident scientist Doctor Krieger (Lucky Yates) is doing unauthorised experiments with Goodness-knows what in his laboratory; and outside Malory’s office, her personal secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer) is causing everybody concern with her sadomasochistic tendencies.
Having to describe the characters as such makes them appear to be unpleasant people, and it is hard to argue otherwise. While each character has their flaws, and holds a grudge against one or more of their colleagues, they are never despicable. Despite their selfish and, occasionally, mentally-unsound behaviour there is this sense that these characters do care about one-another, and enjoy each-other’s company – as evidenced by the amount of time they spend together outside of work hours. They are made likeable by their eccentricities, and ultimately brought to life by the voice-acting, with each cast member perfectly nailing the persona of their animated counterparts.
Although the focus is on these personalities, Archer doesn’t neglect the fact that it is a spy-comedy. A typical episode will feature two storylines: the main plot, which follows Archer and whoever may accompany him on an assignment, and the B-plot, which shifts attention back to the musings at ISIS headquarters. Oftentimes, the action sequences of the primary story are highly-entertaining, and not unlike those in the spy programmes of old, but the secondary story will feature the greater laughs.
On the subject of laughs, Archer may well be the funniest comedy programme ever put to air. Much of the humour is dialogue driven, like most American sitcoms, but the frequency and rapidness of the jokes set it apart from its comedy rivals. I’ll frequently find myself chortling at a line of dialogue, only to be laughing twice as hard at the follow-up line. This hilarity may come in the form of witty insults, obscure pop-culture references, perfectly-delivered sarcasm or simply by yelling “Phrasing!” at the slightest hint of a double-entendre.
A unique animation style and process also sets Archer apart from its contemporaries. From the second season onward, characters have been animated into computer-generated, three-dimensional environments, while the characters themselves have been designed to resemble highly-detailed, two-dimensional illustrations. Issues do plague the earlier seasons, such as stiff character movements and awkward facial expressions, but as the series has progressed, the animation has improved considerably.
Most remarkable of all is how freely and easily Archer has changed over the course of seven seasons. The fifth season saw the characters become cocaine dealers, and the series renamed Archer Vice; the most recent season saw the entourage establishing a private investigation firm in Los Angeles. Meanwhile the eighth season, which premieres next week, will see the setting move to 1947, with the episodes taking place in a comatosed Archer’s mind. Such changes keep the programme fresh, but never neglect what makes Archer truly entertaining, and that’s the personalities that inhabit it.
Archer has everything – it is hilarious, clever, well-written, well-animated, brilliantly voice-acted and overall endearing. Disguising itself as a parody of the spy genre, it explores how eccentric egos interact, and the strange outcomes that result from those interactions. Very few comedies are capable of working on as many levels as this one does, and for that reason I have no hesitation in recommending it to everyone.