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October 26, 2014

Time to Return to the Witty World of 'Archer' and Its Maladjusted Spies

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jan 26th 2011 3:30PM
It's a very good time for television comedy, and the best thing about the current era is that there's something for everyone. Whether your tastes tend toward the traditional, the silly or the strange, it's not hard to find a show that will reliably supply laughs.

In the current comedy constellation, the wonderful 'Archer' (10PM ET Thursday, FX) occupies its own little niche, one that didn't really exist until the show invented it.

Sure, there have been spy parodies before, but none this clever, surreal or obsessed with timing and wordplay.

'Archer's' willingness to be both smutty and smart means it fits right in with FX's burgeoning comedy brand, but the fact that 'Archer' is animated allows the show to go bigger with its characters and plots. There's bloodshed and international mayhem, sure, but it's easy to focus on the comedic aspect of any situation when the characters are not only shooting bad guys but also complaining about their expense accounts.

In any case, it's not as if 'Archer' ever loses contact with the mundane details of daily life -- far from it. Characters at Sterling Archer's spy agency ISIS are constantly complaining about how dirty and stained the office carpet is. It's not enough that they're constantly risking their lives on dangerous missions -- they have to deal with inconsiderate co-workers dropping bits of their lunch all over the place!

Nobody does that tone of exasperated injury better than H. Jon Benjamin, who voices Archer, the hard-drinking, square-jawed superspy with pathological mommy issues. Archer is a thoughtless cad most of the time, but sometimes he isn't guilty of the sick things his equally maladjusted co-workers accuse him of, and it's a joy to listen to Archer defend himself in Benjamin's distinctively deadpan voice ("Oh, come on, did you not just see that?" is a typical cry).

That's the genius behind the construction of the Archer character -- none of us will ever be superspies with rock-hard abs, but we've all felt, at one time or another, that nobody really appreciates our occasional efforts to not screw up. The silliness of most of the situations that Archer is put in ensures that the show's tone never becomes too whiny, and in this candy-colored, weird environment, the men and women of 'Archer' get away with doing very bad things that somehow end up being funny instead of disturbing (or maybe they're just disturbing in really funny ways).

Benjamin's Archer is the strong, central core of the show, but the twisted relationships and rivalries in the ISIS office make the place worth visiting. Every cast member wrings the maximum laughs from the show's sharp scripts, and in the case of Jessica Walter as Malory Archer, even one disgusted grunt can be hilarious. As Archer's craven, self-absorbed mother, Malory is a riff on the kind of cold maternal figure Walter has played many times in the past, most notably on 'Arrested Development,' but her razor-sharp, note-perfect delivery is always a pleasure to experience.

There isn't a weak link in the cast, which includes Aisha Tyler as the brash and intelligent Agent Lana Kane; Chris Parnell as Lana's ex; nervous comptroller Cyril Figgis; Judy Greer as brainless secretary Cheryl (or Carol); and Amber Nash as stolid, bumbling human resources staffer Pam. If I had to pick my favorite collection of office weirdos, the 'Archer' ensemble would be right up there with the staffers from 'Parks and Recreation'; both sets of employees extract solid laughs from droning meetings, hapless missions and budget cutbacks.

Though it never seems tonally confused, 'Archer' loves to have conversations among ISIS staffers veer from angry to goofy to weird, and all the actors negotiate those turns easily. And this season, it's fun to see how the show continues to write to each actor's strengths. The increasingly stressed Cyril has a way of saying "Hello?" in a tentative way when he's done something wrong, for instance, and the way Lana says "Ayup!" never fails to amuse me. You can practically hear the frustrated agent roll her eyes.

This is a show that loves obscure throwaway lines and surreal segues: When planning a mission at a swanky party, Archer pauses to wonder if the organizers will have a band or a deejay, and a wild chase scene in the season premiere also doubles as a therapy session for an oversexed teenager Archer is guarding. When the creepy ISIS scientist Krieger (Lucky Yates) is asked if the implantation of a mind-control device will kill its carrier, his reply is funny but the well-timed pause that precedes it is even more amusing.

'Archer,' you see, isn't really about spies and dirty carpets and mental problems and office politics, though those things supply many of the show's jokes. 'Archer' is really a tribute to the art of digression, and to the fact that we're all pretty incapable of focusing on one thing. If the comedy has a catchphrase, it's "Damn, I had something for this," which Archer says when he can't come up with a witty comeback for a co-worker or enemy.

Archer frequently does have a witty comeback, but even when he doesn't, the show realizes that, to some of us, the way a person says something (or nothing) can be just as funny as a brilliant retort.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Carl Brand

Have loved H. Jon Benjamin since Dr. Katz. So glad he has this incredible vehicle. Great article on a terrific show.

January 26 2011 at 3:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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