Secret agent man: ‘Archer’ gets back to the basics in season 6

maxresdefaultBy JIM SABATASO | STAFF

[A version of this review appears in a recent edition of the Rutland Reader.]

Archer is one of those shows I don’t expect everyone to get. A workplace comedy set in a fictional spy agency full of narcissistic, damaged weirdoes may sound like a solid comedic premise with broad enough appeal, but that’s where it ends. Archer is loud, often inappropes, more often lewd, and significantly brainier than most comedies on TV.

Watching requires a mature sense of humor, an attention to detail, and an appreciation of both high and low culture. This is a joke-heavy show that rewards repeat viewing to catch all the callbacks and sight gags. The visual humor is excellent here, thanks in large part to talent of the show’s directors and animators (more on that later). The amount of humor conveyed via characters’ facial expressions is impressive for a cartoon.

The dialogue is equally dense, with cutting one-liners and brilliant riffs about anything from the history of antique weaponry (everyone knows halberds were made obsolete by the arquebus) to the virtuosity of Rush drummer Neil Peart. Episodes are like going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole with references to the X-Men, Elisha Otis, and Alan Turing mashed up in a single scene. (FYI, Alan Turing was not a member of the X-Men.)

That a single person writes this series is all the more impressive. With few exceptions, creator Adam Reed pens every script himself. Those not written by him at least cite him as co-writer. He also voices one of the supporting characters.

Archer’s peculiarity is a product of Reed’s time spent in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim universe where offbeat, odd, and inventive shows have thrived for almost 15 years. Reed’s first series, Sealab 2021, was a re-dubbed version of a long-forgotten Hanna-Barbera cartoon about an underwater research facility from the 1970s. Reed, who had acquired the master tapes via questionable means (he straight up stole them when he was working for Turner Broadcasting), sent a tape to Adult Swim head Mike Lazzo, who liked it enough to put it on the air as part of Adult Swim’s first slate of shows in 2001. The series became a cult hit; cries of “fignuts!” and “pod six was jerks” still echo across the Internet.

From there, Reed created Frisky Dingo, a heavily serialized sci-fi cartoon about a self-absorbed Iron Man-style superhero and an alien antagonist bent on global destruction. Despite the lofty delusions on both sides, neither faction was competent enough to destroy or save the planet. There are shades of Archer here, especially in billionaire playboy Xander Crews, who is a proto-Sterling Archer in all his crass man-whorish glory.

With all credit due Reed and his creative team, Archer succeeds in large part to its superb cast of voice actors, including Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell, and Judy Greer to name a few. After fives seasons, both Reed and the actors have developed great chemistry and a keen understanding of these characters and what makes them tick. That understanding comes through in the line readings and easy banter that makes this show works so well. The lively dialogue is all the more impressive considering the main cast rarely records their lines together, as is common on other animated series like The Simpsons or Bob’s Burgers.

Then, there is the animation. Archer is light years beyond the stiff movement and painted backgrounds of Sealab’s Hanna-Barbera house style. Frisky Dingo, has a similar visual style to Archer, but the latter is a vast improvement. The color palette is bold and dynamic; light and shadow is used effectively to give a realistic look. Movement is fluid, making action sequences pop. Credit also goes to the excellent direction and editing. Archer is a gorgeous show, with some of the most sophisticated animation on TV today.

So far season six appears to be a return to basics. The spy agency formerly known as ISIS (changed for obvious real-world reasons) is now a private contractor for the CIA. Other than that the show’s status quo has been reset.

After last’s season’s ambitious storyline, the season six premier feels much smaller in scope. That’s not a bad thing. The episode takes Sterling on a mission to Borneo where he encounters a Japanese soldier who’s been wandering the jungle since WWII. It’s another example of an Archer anachronism — the guy would be in his 90s — but this is a show that fudges history all the time: Sterling’s butler Woodhouse served in WWI; Mallory was a spy in WWII, where she was also pregnant for Sterling who is only in his 30s. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the episode is funny. It’s a tight, straightforward mission-driven plot that puts Sterling in the jungle, a setting that’s never not funny since that particular environment always seems to actively find ways to screw with him. It even manages to have a sweet (for this show) moment at the end between Sterling and the soldier that shows that despite all his dick-ish tendencies, Sterling is capable of empathy and compassion.

The B and C stories are less exciting. Pam and Cheryl, tasked with remodeling the office after its destruction last season, use it as an opportunity to torture Mallory. New mother Lana, meanwhile, spends time with Mallory discussing baby names and their favorite topic: Sterling.

While season five’s “Archer Vice” storyline was a lot of fun, giving minor characters like Pam, Cheryl/Carol, and Cyril a chance to shine, it’s good to be back to the status quo. The arc was somewhat uneven and less satisfying that those that came before it. The shear heft of the story being told meant that Reed had to sacrifice many of the show’s smaller moments. Archer works best when these characters sit around talk. Some of the series’ best episodes are ones that never leave the office. That sounds counterintuitive for a show ostensibly about spies doing spy things, but that’s the magic of Reed and this cast.

As Archer settles in to season six, the series continues to be a model of clever writing, technical prowess, and comic precision. Upending the series for a season presented new storytelling possibilities and opened up smaller characters. Such a creative rejuvenation will likely pay off in big ways as the series progresses.

Archer airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.