Archer, the new spy parody from Adam Reed of Adult Swim's Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, debuted last night on FX. How does Reed's raunchy riff on the espionage genre stack up against his previous animated endeavors?
Archer follows the daily foibles of International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS) agent Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin from Home Movies), who subsists on the archetypal secret agent diet of liquor and fornication. Sadly, life isn't all drinking and diddling for Archer; it's mostly arguing with the desk-jockeys. The trivialization of the fantastic is a recurring theme of Reed's shows. Just as Sealab was about the search for everyday novelty when stuck in a high-tech hydrobase and Frisky Dingo used supervillains as a metaphor for bureaucratic inertia, Archer employs the sexy world of espionage as window dressing for bad-ass workplace drama.
This isn't exactly a new idea for a secret agent comedy. Indeed, the conceit of the paperwork-weary spy is central to The Venture Brothers mythos - Brock Samson is frequently at loggerheads with OSI regulations, whereas his foe The Monarch is shackled by The Guild of Calamitous Intent. Does Archer at least have the comic chops to back up its take on this trope? Uh, no and maybe.
A lot of the show's tired 007 gags (Archer's weaponized accessories, his license to be licentious, etc.) were handled more adroitly by... wait for it... Austin-fucking-Powers of all things (the first one's not terrible and you know it), and the barrage of potty-mouth non sequiturs come off as a sop to FX viewers who miss the 10 PM time slot's previous tenant, the always watchable It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Jokes about herpes and Indian people smelling like curry don't advance the plot or make the show edgy - they simply make you wonder if Archer was ghostwritten by that mookish kid in your Tuesday night improv class who wears the same Jerky Boys t-shirt week in, week out.
This isn't to say the show's a lost cause. Archer succeeds when it works within the spy genre instead of just lampooning it. ISIS chief and Emma Peel analogue Malory Archer (yes, his mom) is a hoot, and it helps that she's modeled on and voiced by the wonderfully caustic Jessica Walter (a.k.a. Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development and Morgan Le Fay from the über-obscure 1978 Dr. Strange TV movie). She's a fun foil to her ne'er-do-well son, and her inclusion subverts the "daughter-assumes-father's-tough-guy-mantle" trope most welcomely. Also, Archer's half-assed spy lessons to pencil-pusher Cyril Figgis (SNL alum Chris Parnell) gave the titular rake a showcase for his unctuous charms.
We know that Reed can do marvelously high concept/lowbrow comedy (I couldn't resist tacking on the "Adrienne Barbeaubot" clip from Sealab 2021 as a postscript), but until Archer stops using blue humor as a placeholder for plot, they show will have the comedic shelf life of the first time you heard a James Bond movie was called Octopussy.