Is 'Archer' the smartest (and filthiest) cartoon in prime time?
In a new episode, for instance, a female character crudely describes her state of sexual arousal while looking at photos of legendary tough guy Burt Reynolds. “The line goes by really fast, and it’s really funny, but the image it conjures in your head is just outrageous,” said H. Jon Benjamin, the comedian and actor who plays square-jawed super-spy Sterling Archer. “Obviously, we have a lot of freedom.”
At a time when TV networks are pushing boundaries like never before, and the U.S. Supreme Court has been debating broadcast standards, cable channels like FX are routinely, and merrily, producing content that’s just a few shades tamer than what airs on subscription services like HBO and Showtime.
In the case of “Archer,” which begins its third season tonight, the animation tends to temper some of the edgier material, like its characters’ racist, sexist, self-destructive bed-hopping tendencies. It may also help that the characters have a genuine, if oddly expressed, affection for one another and that the show embraces a sense of the absurd. (There will be two episodes in outer space, an homage to “Moonraker.”)
Set at a spy agency called International Secret Intelligence Service, or ISIS for short, the series follows a twisted group of coworkers who dabble in global intrigue when they’re not sleeping around. Often, the two overlap. Vague about its time period, “Archer’s” characters use cellphones and modern technology, while driving ’70s muscle cars, dressing like “Mad Men” characters and battling the Cold War.
“I always tell people the show is James Bond meets ‘The Office’ where everyone’s drunk and sexually unscrupulous,” said Aisha Tyler, who plays Archer’s ex-girlfriend, the voluptuous spy Lana. “But there’s a balance between bald-faced sex and erudite, thoughtful literary references. It’s uncompromisingly intelligent and uncompromisingly filthy.”
So lewd, in fact, that costar Jessica Walter, who plays Archer’s mother, Malory, the chief at ISIS, sometimes needs a translator.
“I don’t even understand some of the things I say,” Walter said after a recent Television Critics Assn. session. “Some of those terms? I have to ask what they mean. I’m so from another generation.”
FX President John Landgraf said “Archer,” created and executive produced by Adult Swim veteran Adam Reed, combines wit, heart and comedy in a decidedly not-for-kids series.
“We like to call Adam the Aaron Sorkin of dirty cartoons, and I’m very supportive of his voice and his vision,” Landgraf said. “This show is what we strive for — intelligent and sophisticated mixed with really silly fun.”
There’s oversight of the show through FX’s standards and practices division, and Reed said he gets notes from executives, along with creative input from Landgraf. But it has not resulted in substantive changes to the language or violence that are the show’s hallmarks. “Even some sexy animation we didn’t think they’d go for, they said OK,” Reed noted.
That’s not real skin, of course, but the hand-drawn kind, which often involves female characters who are impossibly stacked. Did we mention this series is particularly popular with young male audiences? It’s often a top-five show with men in all key advertiser-friendly demographics, and it drew 1.5 million viewers in its second season premiere, according to Nielsen.
Though it’s not depicting real people, “Archer” aims to dive even deeper into the characters during its third season. Malory Archer's hapless assistant, Cheryl (Judy Greer), continues to work even though she's a fabulously wealthy heiress. And Archer himself, a chiseled Don Draper type whose embarrassing code name is “Duchess,” has just come through back-to-back ordeals. He survived a breast cancer scare, which birthed many inappropriate puns, and saw his hot Russian spy fiancée killed at their wedding.
Buoying his spirits, his personal hero, Burt Reynolds, showed up to help him during an important mission to kick off the current season. Reynolds played himself, having heard from friends that Archer was a big Reynolds fan — there have been ongoing references to the iconic star in the series.
“It’s very sweet because Archer is so ‘gosh, oh golly gee’ around his so-called idol,” Reynolds said. “All I had to do was play it really straight, and I think it’s a lot of fun.”
“Archer” promises more globe-trotting adventures, which add a high-stakes veneer to what Reed describes as basically a workplace comedy. The trip to the International Space Station, with guest star Bryan Cranston, is the farthest point yet for the crew, which already handled a case on a blimp. Reed also hinted that “at least one character we’ve come to know” will die.
“Hopefully it’ll feel like they’re doing new and bigger things,” Reed said, “while still finding time to bicker at the office.”
— Terry Stanley
Photo: Malory Archer (voiced by Jessica Walter) and Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) in "Archer." Credit: FX.