Sterling Archer, codename “Dutchess.” Top agent for ISIS. Trained killer, immaculate dresser, ladies man…and peerless schmuck. Returning this week for its second season on F/X, Archer is not only the funniest animated series currently on the air (edging out the uneven last season of The Venture Brothers), but along with Community, perhaps the funniest series period.
Creator Adam Reed set out to fuse the sophisticated cool of classic James Bond with the anarchic disfunctional farce of Arrested Development and the results are thus: Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), a stunningly rude, narcissistic twit who bears a striking resemblance to 60’s era Sean Connery, uses his dangerous spy assignments as an excuse to get drunk, get high and get laid, all on the dime of his employer, the super secret agency known as ISIS. Ruled with a malevolent hand by Archer’s alcoholic mother, Mallory (Jessica Walter), ISIS is a low-rent CIA which usually finds itself in competition with rival spy agencies ODIN and the KGB. Because Archer himself has a world class mother complex, vomiting every time her sexuality is mentioned, the missions she send him on only serve to underline the considerable tension between them.
ISIS is also staffed by Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), a voluptuous field agent who also happens to be Archer’s ex, and who is usually offended and nauseated by his exploits…except for the rare times she still finds him hot. That’s when Archer taunts her, a la Kenny Loggins, as being in the “danjah zone!” Lana is currently dating Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), the uptight, buttoned-down ISIS comptroller who may be a clingy, whiny half-man, but is also unusually well-endowed, and not quite as ethical as he likes to think. After all, he’s twice had sad, choking sex with demented secretary Cheryl/Carol/Cristal (Judy Greer), who regularly throws herself at any guy in arm’s reach when not exchanging cruel taunts with depressed, overweight HR rep Pam (Amber Nash). And then there’s gadget man Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates), a full-on psychopath given to recording bum fights and building a pleasure ‘bot called “Fister Roboto.” Did I mention this is not Muppet Babies?
So the ISIS team is not exactly a likeable bunch. In fact, they’re all selfish, brutal, lying misanthropes who just happen to save the world ‘cause they’re too bored to do anything else. In my favorite episode, “Diversity Hire,” Mallory brings aboard African-American Jewish agent Conway Stern (“He’s a diversity double-whammy!”) solely to seduce him, not bothering to check that he has no references or even verifiable background, and is in fact a lethal enemy agent. Archer and Lana manage to stop Conway’s plot to steal a sub tracking device only because 1) Archer venomously resents any man his mother is attracted to, and 2) Lana is jealous there may be an agent even more competent than herself. Saving the day is always incidental to their own epic pettiness.
In addition to the lethally sharp writing, the artwork is nothing short of stunning. Whether its Archer’s tailored wardrobe and vintage muscle cars, Lana’s Tec-9 machine pistol, or Mallory’s South Beach condo, every detail is rendered with obsessive clarity that brings this world of spy vs. spy vs. coworker vs. family to vivid life. This gives the already brilliant and disturbing dialog something solid to bounce off, best demonstrated in last season’s biggest action setpiece, a no-holds barred shootout on an arms merchant’s mega yacht, which serves merely as background to Archer and Lana’s bickering. When both reach for the same grenade, their hands touch. The two agents look at each other…
Sterling: (Looking into Lana’s eyes) Oh my god they’re green, like emeralds. How did I never see that? Lana, your eyes are amazing.
Lana: (Sighs, leans in to kiss) Archer.
Sterling: I mean, not compared to your t*ts but —
Lana promptly shoots him in the foot.