Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In a Pinch, "Archer"

We are now well into the second year of the latest "The Venture Brothers." hiatus. Fortunately, in that time, I've managed to find another hyperviolent animated action spoof to keep me occupied - FX's "Archer."

"Archer" is definitely one of the spawn of the Adult Swim late night animated programming block, and shares a creative team with the "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo." It doesn't indulge in nearly the amount of creative anarchy as those shows do, sticking to a much more traditional workplace comedy template. It's just that the workplace is the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS). And the main character, Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), is the world's most dangerous secret agent, with the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old. And he has some serious issues with his overbearing mother, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), who happens to be the head of ISIS. And his ex-girlfriend, Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), is also a deadly fellow ISIS who he has to work with frequently.

Back at ISIS headquarters, there's Cyril (Chris Parnell), the company's bookish, bespectacled comptroller who Lana is now dating, Human Resources Director and gossip facilitator Pam (Amber Nash), Ray (Adam Reed) the openly gay intelligence analyst, Doctor Krieger (Lucky Yates) the openly depraved Head of Research, and finally Malory's secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer), who isn't too bright, and has some alarming personal habits. Most of the employees of ISIS are incompetent and a few are downright nuts, but for the most part they behave like real human beings. We've all met the ditzy secretary and the gossip from HR, but maybe not a pair like Cheryl and Pam who quite so easily give in to their worst impulses at every available opportunity. And of course there's also their access to an armory full of machine guns and a global surveillance network.

There's a lot of gunplay, a lot of explosions, and a lot of car chases, as you might expect from a spy show. And thanks to the magic of animation, they can be a lot bigger, bloodier, and more visceral than what you see in live action, and still be played for laughs. However, "Archer" is not a big budget production, and most of the animation is very limited. Though very nicely designed, the characters are frequently in static poses, with stiff and clunky movements. The worst is when the show tries to integrate CGI elements, which stick out like a sore thumb and make "Archer" look like a much older program than it is. Still, the animation is good enough to regularly pull off big visual gags and some complicated set pieces, so it doesn't detract all that much.

Where "Archer" really shines is in creating memorable characters, and putting them together in extreme, ridiculous situations together. It's the "South Park" approach of pairing rudimentary visuals with outrageously inappropriate, cheerfully profane material. The typical plot either involves spy activities derailed by petty office politics and personal grievances, or an office sitcom dilemma taken to ridiculous extremes by the characters' childishness and the presence of heavy artillery. In both cases, madness and mayhem ensue, and some combination of sexual shenanigans, mindless violence, and namecalling are required to resolve the situation. Most episodes are rated TV-MA, and thoroughly deserve it. Yet the show is well grounded enough that it doesn't feel like it's trying to be shocking. It goes for the laughs first and foremost.

I've been catching up on "Archer" episodes online, and I've found that it's one of those shows that you can't watch too many episodes of in one sitting. So much of the fun comes from the heightened reality and the over-the-top behavior of the characters. I love the unbridled petulance of Archer, who throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way, shamelessly abuses his faithful valet Woodhouse (George Coe), and is as subtle with women as a brick, but can still pull off the whole super spy gig in his sleep. Malory is essentially Lucille from "Arrested Development" cranked up to eleven, with more steely-eyed authority, more booze and and a much more colorful sexual history. Watch too much of them in one sitting, and you'll feel your whole worldview start to warp.

"Archer" is currently on its third season on FX, with more on the way. It's nice to see another emphatically adult-oriented cartoon doing well, though I don't think it matches up to the sublime absurdity of some of the similar shows on Adult Swim. In embracing a more realistic style and the familiar genre of the spy spoof, it feels a little watered down from the more potent anarchy of something like "Frisky Dingo." But for what it is, it works, and I've been enjoying it.

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