When I sat down to watch the first episode of the new season of Archer with a group of friends this past week, one of my friends said “I thought you didn’t like Archer”. And while I don’t outright hate the show I tend to stay silent while the rest of the room is laughing up a storm. The claim that I don’t like the show or maybe even hate it got me thinking, what is it about Archer that makes it difficult for me to warm up to and is that my fault or is something wrong with the show?
Archer, for those of you who haven’t watched, is an animated series set in the world of a sort of CIA type spy agency called ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service). The show revolves around an agent named Sterling Archer and the spy team that works around him which happens to be headed by his mother, Malory. The show is like Arrested Development if you switched out family for spies, and made everyone a jerk.
It’s not that I don’t like animated series’, so let’s get that out-of-the-way right off the bat. I have laughed and cried (and sobbed, thanks The Iron Giant) at animated shows and movies in equal measure to live action shows. Animation might have a more difficult job in that they do not have the luxury of a real person’s face to show emotion but if the story and characters are doing their jobs then this really shouldn’t matter. And it’s certainly not that I find the show offensive despite its constant off-color humor. I think if Archer exceeds at anything it is tight-roping that line between shock for shock’s sake and being legitimately funny.
In the first episode of the new season, we are ushered back into the world of ISIS in a rather odd way. Archer, with a bad case of amnesia, is working at Bob’s Burgers and, as any good television viewer knows, H. Jon Benjamin voices the titular character on both shows. Archer thinks he is Bob and has a wife named Linda and has kids named – well, that’s not important (which is unfortunate – Louise, Gene and Tina would have been welcome additions to the crossover). What was odd about this crossover and what actually made it less of a joy than it should have been, was that the world of Bob’s Burgers and the world of Archer could (and, clearly should) never, ever exist on the same plane. They are fundamentally at odds with each other. Bob’s Burgers is an irreverent, silly, loving look at the life of a family where the worst thing that happens in any given episode is a visit from the health inspector. Archer is a show where people get killed every other minute like it’s no big deal. Instead of being overjoyed that characters I adore were on a show that I sometimes like, I was dismayed. It made everything worse. I don’t want those worlds to collide. But why?
And that’s where the contrasts of the two shows helped illuminate for me what has been bugging me about Archer for some time now: it has no humanity. On Bob’s Burgers the characters are nasty and sometimes outright mean to each other but they are capable of love and compassion. On Archer, compassion is sorely lacking. Which, in some ways, makes sense. The employees of ISIS are hired to be cold, calculated and capable of killing on a moments notice. The two-dimensionality of the characters on Archer is so apparent, so important that it is difficult to be in any position to understand them. What the Bob’s Burgers opening makes you realize is that, despite being in many ways more realistic and less outlandish than Bob’s Burgers, the characters on Archer are less immediately compelling. And that brings me to another point.
Archer is essentially about one thing and one thing only: jokes. The plot and character are almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But that means that the jokes all have to be grand slams in order for the show to be worth watching and I’m not really sure they are. The problem with the jokes on Archer is they can’t really be character driven if the characters are so flimsy. Most of the time the jokes are the reason to put the characters in a situation rather than vice versa. Flimsy characters and character development result in flimsy jokes. Jokes can be funny without interesting characters to back them up, sure, but they are funnier with them.
The other issue that I have with Archer is that there really aren’t many stakes even though it is a show that should be full of them. Even when (in season 2) Archer finds out that he has breast cancer we never really feel that the possibility of his death exists. Bad things happen all around ISIS but because a.) Characters are loathsome and b.) The show runs on a combination of cartoon and real logic, things are not as important as they should be. Compare this to a moment from the latest episode of Bob’s Burgers: Bespectacled, hormone-charged Tina has been investigating the crime of the “Mad Pooper” who keeps pooping all over her school. Her investigation leads her to the school auditorium, where she finds the culprit high up on the catwalk. When Tina climbs up to the catwalk it gives way and she almost falls off. At this moment, I let out an audible gasp knowing full well that Tina is a cartoon character and it is impossible for her to be injured. But, I was involved and was, momentarily at least, worried.
On Archer, everyone is so flippant that whatever emotional turn the show might take, it always seems to respond with a simple, “so what?”. When the apparent love of Archer’s life is killed and he spirals into a depressed funk, it’s difficult to relate to him on any kind of realistic level. Archer doesn’t change, he isn’t altered by what goes on around him – he is a dick and (now 3 seasons in) seemingly always will be, no matter if his world is turned upside down. That’s not to say that I think the character should become a better person, or stop saying inappropriate and hilarious things because of the events that the show presents, but if he and really all of the ISIS agents had the ability to grow, I would be more interested. Because, isn’t that what serialized television is all about? Seeing characters grow and change over relatively long periods time is probably the largest advantage that television has over films. I want that from the shows I watch and Archer doesn’t give that to me.
What I find truly unfortunate is the creators are clearly smart enough to make a show that is both funny and full of interesting character bits because they manage to make the some of the less important characters more nuanced than the ones we see week in and week out. In the first episode of the new season, a character named Cadillac shows up at the tail-end and, we find out, is dating Malory. He is fascinating because he is a departure from the main group and everyone in ISIS loves him. He seems genuinely interesting. He has shades of humanity and a full life that we only hear about (and one that I’m hoping the show will, at some point delve into). Not everyone can always be good – but everyone on Archer is so consistently horrible and they seem incapable of change. And that’s a problem. When my favorite character on the show is essentially peripheral (and probably won’t be seen ever again), there is an issue connecting with the audience.
Which, isn’t true. Because Archer has a large, passionate fan base. People love the show for reasons that I can’t quite understand. I get it. It’s crude, it’s disturbing, it’s sometimes wildly funny but it’s not the show for me.