The second season of Archer debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern.
There’s nothing profound about Archer. There’s nothing about the show that’s pushing for anything deep or meaningful. Though there are compelling and interesting characters by the boatload, they don’t go on long, insightful journeys that give us a good look into their psyches. The “plots,” such as they are, are much more interested in spoofing old spy movie setups or in spoofing workplace sitcoms. And while the show boasts one of the best ensemble casts on television and some terrific repartee for those actors to toss back and forth, there’s no real weight to any of it. All Archer wants to be is funny. All it wants to do is make you laugh yourself sick several times an hour, whether it’s at that dialogue or at the ridiculous spy storylines or at the characters behaving like complete buffoons. And on that score, Archer almost always succeeds, to the point where it’s one of those shows where an episode one viewer doesn’t enjoy as much will almost always be some other viewer’s absolute favorite.
Tonight’s second season premiere, which features Archer traveling to Europe where he’s tasked to protect the very beautiful—and very underage—daughter of a potential backer for the spy agency he works for, ISIS, is very amusing in places, with great gags in nearly every scene. (My personal favorite comes within the first minute and involves confusion between the words furrier and ferrier, of all things.) And yet it’s not nearly to the level of the other six episodes FX sent out, episodes that play off of the tighter character bonds the writers were developing last season and off of the various story ideas and inside jokes the series delved into slightly last year. Everything here moves with more confidence. Everything here will work both for new viewers and for those who loved the show last year. And everything here is wonderfully funny.
For those who’ve never seen the show before, there’s really not a lot you need to know to dive in. There are a handful of continuing storylines, but none of them rise above the level of a continuing joke here and there. (As an example, the nature of who Archer’s father is turns up here and there, but it’s nothing that will bother new viewers. More likely than not, they won’t even notice, while longtime fans will appreciate the nod.) It’s tempting to describe Archer as having an “adult swim sensibility,” since the show’s creators, Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, got their start on that network. But though the show pushes hard into the sorts of absurdism and envelope-pushing comedy that are commonplace on adult swim, its characters are more than just endlessly resetting archetypes, as the characters can be on even the very best adult swim shows (Venture Bros. and a handful of others excepted, of course). You learn things about these characters, and watching them grow in insanity over the course of a full season is very rewarding indeed.
So what do you need to know to get caught up? Not a lot, really. Sterling Archer is the most prominent spy at ISIS, a spy organization run by his mother, Mallory. Other employees include ex-girlfriend Lana, her ex Cyril, human resources representative Pam, and delirious secretary Carol (who’s sometimes Cheryl… or vice versa). Other prominent ISIS employees, who don’t appear in every episode, include the debonair Gillette and the quite possibly unhinged Krieger, whose inventions rarely help Archer and the other agents in the field at all. Voicing all of these characters are a panoply of terrific voice actors, with H. Jon Benjamin, Emmy nominated for his work in the role, providing the voice of Sterling Archer himself. Benjamin usually plays normal guys and laid-back slackers, so the choice to have him voice the biggest asshole of a spy to ever walk the Earth seemed an odd one. But he’s come through in spades, and his work as Archer might be the strongest work he’s ever done. Benjamin’s so good, he occasionally finds jokes where you wouldn’t even expect there to be jokes, and it’s to his credit that he makes Archer and his character on Bob’s Burgers completely different people just by using his voice.
Also in the voice cast are the deliciously evil Jessica Walter as Mallory, a woman whose raising of Sterling led to almost all of his issues (a great running gag in the season’s fifth episode, which also delves into the back story of Archer’s man-servant Woodhouse, revolves around this). It would be easy to see Mallory as “the Jessica Walter role," and it sort of is. But Walter makes the role her own, finding the strange logic in every warped thing the woman says, creating a mother somehow even more rotten than her famous Arrested Development character. The other actors in the regular cast—Aisha Tyler as Lana, Chris Parnell as Cyril, Judy Greer as Cheryl/Carol, and Amber Nash as Pam—all have huge comic highlights in the first seven episodes of the season, but as always (and as it must), the story comes down to a mother-son relationship so messed up it would be easy to play it for tragedy if it weren’t so damn funny.
The thing I like best about season two so far is that it’s digging deeper and deeper into the characters’ backstories, showing us what makes Woodhouse who he is or what Archer’s afraid of or where the weird reticence of Cyril first began. We don’t really need to know all of this information to have fun with the episode-by-episode storylines, since the show’s not especially serialized, but it’s a great way to give us more investment in the characters all the same. The best thing about this show is that character traits remain consistent. It might have seemed like a one-off joke when Cheryl/Carol revealed she was turned on by being choked, but the show has brought it back in hilarious and unexpected ways many times over the 17 episodes I’ve seen. Nothing here is brought in just for one gag. Everything ties together, and that makes the humor that much more satisfying.
I could complain about some of the episodes. I could complain about tonight’s premiere, which seems to rely a little too heavily on dick jokes after a while. But, hey, if the dick jokes are as funny as these dick jokes are, we should all be so lucky. Sure, the spy plots occasionally skew toward the lazy, and sure, some of my favorite recurring players from last season haven’t really appeared just yet, but that sort of thing doesn’t matter when the laughs fly as quickly as they do here. It’s easy to overlook a lot of flaws when something is funny, and with Archer, especially in the first seven episodes of season two, there are lots of hilarious moments to be had. If you were on the fence about the show, there’s never been a better time to jump on board than right now.
- I’ll be taking you guys through season two of Archer, though I’ll warn the write-ups for some future episodes will probably just turn into long lists of what I thought was funny (the lowest form of TV criticism!). The grade, of course, is only for tonight’s premieres. If I were to grade the episodes I’ve seen so far, they’d probably average out to an A-.