Up until now, this list of the best in animation television has to offer has only included shows that have since been retired. They’ve also only consisted of shows generally created for children and aired on weekend mornings or week day afternoons. Archer changes that as the show recently finished up its sixth season, having already been renewed for a seventh, and airs late nights on cable television. The show is the brainchild Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, two guys who made a name for themselves mostly via Cartoon Network’s adult swim block. Their main break-out show was Sealab 2021, a show that utilized stock footage from the old Hannah Barbera cartoon Sealab 2020, a mostly drab and wooden show from the 70’s that few probably remember fondly. The animation was recycled and characters re-dubbed. What was once an environmentally conscious show with a sci-fi feel to it now was a show about a bunch of narcissistic, perverted, and some-what insane researchers stuck with each other miles under water. The show was funny and crude and one of the first ever programs to air on adult swim. If not for the untimely death of voice actor Harry Goz, the series likely would have lasted longer than it did.
Much like its predecessor Sealab 2021, Archer also feature minimalist animation and a cast of characters with few redeeming qualities. Unlike Sealab, the animation is created for the series and the characters are all new. While it has definitely been improved since season one, where characters wore mostly wooden facial expressions, the show’s approach to animation is as much about keeping down production costs as it is a stylistic choice. The show stars secret agent Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) who works for his mother’s firm ISIS (no, not that ISIS) as a field agent. Archer is an alcoholic, whore-mongering, sociopath who is emotionally abusive to nearly everyone around him. He’s the self-professed world’s greatest secret agent and is not at all secretive about that. He’s particularly mean-spirited, with the bulk of his abuse directed towards his man-servant Woodhouse who has dutifully served him since birth. And while he is indeed talented at what he does, his vices often mean that his missions are spectacular failures with Archer often getting side-tracked by sex, booze, or the occasional ocelot.
Archer’s co-workers at ISIS are also pretty flawed individuals. The other lead field agent is Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), who also happens to be Archer’s ex. Unlike Archer, Lana definitely cares about her job but her love/hate relationship with Archer often gets in the way. She has major commitment issues and when we first meet her she’s currently in a one-sided relationship with the staff accountant Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), whom she is most-likely dating just to piss off Archer. Cyril is everything Archer isn’t. He’s a professional and compassionate individual but his insecurities often get the best of him. He also may or may not be a sex addict. He’s so eager to please Lana that he’s often terrible at picking up on what she actually wants out of him. Because his tight-laced demeanor makes him such an easy target, Archer never passes up an opportunity to rip on him or embarrass him in some way. Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer) is the masochistic staff secretary. She actively seeks out both emotional and physical abuse (she has a fondness for strangulation) which leads her to Archer who can’t even bother to learn her name. She’s also extremely self-centered to the point where she really could not be bothered to care about anyone or anything that doesn’t directly involve her. Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) is the HR consultant for ISIS with an addictive personality. When we first meet her she seems like a sympathetic individual who is unjustly picked on by everyone else at work (mostly on account of her excessive weight) but is soon to be revealed to be just as shitty as everyone else. She has a massive appetite for not only food, but sex and drugs as well and she is not particularly discriminatory about where any of it comes from. She also offers no apologies for her behaviour and seems to be genuinely at peace with herself. Ray Gillette (Adam Reed) is another field agent who happens to be homosexual. He’s actually a pretty okay guy and a competent field agent, though he did pretend to be paralyzed to get out of work. Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) is the resident scientist of questionable morals. His lineage is also strongly hinted at throughout the series and is of dubious origins. His creations generally work, but his means are often unethical. Rounding out the main cast is Archer’s mother, Malory (Jessica Walter) who embodies many of the same vices of her son though she is more in control of herself. She is a former field agent herself and it’s unclear how she keeps ISIS afloat considering how poor their track record is.
The animation for the program is clearly not the star, as I pointed out earlier, it’s rather minimalist. The style for the show resembles something from the 1970’s, though modern technology is available and used by the cast. The writing is the show’s strength and the voice cast is an impressive one. Everyone seems to commit to their role 100%, no matter how ludicrous or filthy their characters become. The show’s mean-spirited approach to comedy isn’t for everyone, but it’s effortlessly funny just in its character interaction alone. The characters have also remained flexible, with many changing considerably since the first season. Most of the supporting cast felt like one-note archetypes at first, but have all gone not on to embody other traits and qualities. The only drawback is that virtually all of the characters have seemingly gone to the same place, with all becoming more and more like Archer each season. And while the show is a comedy, that doesn’t mean it’s not without plot. Many of the storylines carry over and are referenced again and again throughout the series and there’s hardly ever a throw-away character as most will pop up again. The relationships amongst the main cast also change and evolve, though they’re such bad people in general that it’s hard for the show to get the audience to root for any of the characters becoming a couple or even finding happiness. To go along with the impressive voice cast is a pretty dynamite score by Scott Sims, The opening theme is very jazzy and 60’s influenced and sounds like it could have easily fit into a number of James Bond soundtracks (or Cowboy Bebop).
As a comedy series, Archer gets a lot of things right, but it’s also nearly impossible to watch it and not acknowledge that it shares a lot in common with the adult swim series The Venture Bros. From its hybrid dated, yet modern, look to the constant element of failure by the characters, it almost feels like a sister show. Even the opening themes are fairly similar. Which isn’t that surprising considering Reed and Thompson both came from the same place and being compared to The Venture Bros. is not at all a bad thing. Archer separates itself by upping the ante on the filth and depravity of its cast. It’s one of the show’s strengths and the main source for comedy, though it also holds the show back from ever really being able to do an emotional episode. For those that enjoy the show, that’s probably just fine as I personally would hate to see Archer try to make me do anything but laugh.