If you aren't watching Archer, you are missing out on television's best comedy. The animated spy spoof -- think Austin Powers, minus that franchise's fundamental stupidity and tendency to recycle its best jokes until they are painfully unfunny -- brings a lot to the table. The cast is excellent, with strong work from H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer and Jessica Walter, among others. The writing is smart and genuinely funny, delivering strong stories and a constant, rapid-fire barrage of jokes. It's also gorgeously animated, with a distinctive style that's a perfect match for the ludicrous spy shenanigans that drive the plots. None of that is what makes it great.
The thing is, every great show has a strong cast, good writing and a nice look. You don't get great without all that. You don't even get good without all that. To be really great, you need something uniquely your own that really sets you apart from the pack. Archer has plenty of options to choose from. You could single out its cleverly fucked-up pack of characters, like its titular idiot savant spy -- pretty good at secret agenting, terrible at everything else -- as well as a glue-sniffing masochistic heiress prone to fits of rage, or a mad scientist who just happens to be a Hitler clone, just to name a few. You could point to its willingness to go to some really dark places, like the childhood horrors that made Archer the terrible person he is today, or his poor, abused butler's heroin addiction. But for my money, what sets the show apart is its loopy, anachronistic setting.
Sometimes settings are interchangeable and sometimes they're so distinctive as to be as important as the main characters -- think the bar in Cheers, or the town of Springfield on The Simpsons. The world of Archer is firmly in the latter camp. If its cast of characters is bizarre, bordering on insane, the world they live in is their perfect habitat, mirroring that lunacy back at them a thousandfold, for the simple reason that it is impossible to answer the question,"When is Archer set?"
It is a world unstuck from time. Not only is the year never mentioned, the few times it comes up, the characters themselves don't even seem to know. The James Bondian style and ambiance of the whole series would suggest it's set in the late '60s or early '70s, but the lectures on sexual harassment in the workplace would have baffled the denizens of that era. They carry cell phones that look to be more or less modern, but the computers they use would have looked high-tech in about 1983. Much as in our world, the Twin Towers would appear to have been destroyed by terrorists, but despite this the USSR is still an ongoing concern. Pop culture references made by Archer strongly imply he's Gen-X or possibly Millennial, but flashbacks to his childhood imply he was born just after World War II.
It's delirious and surreal, almost hallucinatory, and it adds an ineffable element to the proceedings that sets it apart from anything comparable. It allows the writers (mainly show creator Adam Reed, with the occasional assist) to play with the entirety of spy fiction, from pre-Bond capers to Jack Bauer-esque terrorist plots, without restriction or limits, and makes for some really odd and funny juxtapositions. It's so weird, and so original, that it's almost enough reason in and of itself to watch the series.
Well, that and seeing what that Hitler clone and his holo-girlfriend are going to get up to next.
Archer airs Mondays at 10 p.m. in Denver on FX.
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