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The Wry Successes of Archer – But Do They Come Too Late?

June 10, 2011

God bless FX. They’re really trying to get something going over there. And they’re trying hard. Past successes like the plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, cop procedural The Shield and the firehouse-based Rescue Me put the show on the map as a network interested in grabbing the brass ring of original programming, and they continue to bolster those wins with shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Justified, Sons of Anarchy and Louis. They seem to be doing something right, taking the HBO original programming model (which would later also be adapted by fellow pay-cable network Showtime) and picking some worthy horses. There have been some missteps, like the recently canceled Terriers or the smart-but-canned The Riches, but mostly they’re being really smart about things, and it seems to be working.

Meanwhile, on other dials, a trend would seem to be on the decline. What in the early and mid 2000’s was a new pioneer for original programming, the animation-for-adults category, has begun to see its slip downward. Cartoon Network’s Sunday night Adult Swim block once was the toast of the town when it burst onto the scene with incredibly clever toons like Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the trio all exhibiting balls-to-the-wall absurdity and sublime, self-referential madness. In other TV guide locales, Family Guy had arrived, then disappeared, then arrived back again due to popular demand, enjoying a success like it never had. King of the Hill was padding along well. The Simpsons was slipping in its old age, but still kicking (it’s never really been again what it was in the nineties). It was the new hot thing: animation, with alt-comic sensibilities, not meant for younger eyes. And if you recall that brief era, I think you’d agree it was quite beautiful.

Toward the end of the decade, Adult Swim had begun to slow down a bit on animation and supplement the programming block with more live-actiony, CGI programs like Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job  and lesser failures like Saul of the Mole Men, Fat Guy Stuck in Internet, and Xavier: Renegade Angel. Today’s Adult Swim block still features some of the same shows from the mid 2000’s, among them Robot Chicken, the trippy Superjail! and a revamped Aqua Teen, but one-camera filmed programs like Chris Elliot’s Eagleheart and Rob Corddry’s fantastic Children’s Hospital now prop them up. Over on Fox, Family Guy now seems to be a bit of a been-there-done-that, the Family-Guy-esque American Dad never really seemed to get its footing, and well-pedigreed new animated shows like Bob’s Burgers aren’t gaining a lot of momentum even with a second season pickup.

That brings us back to Archer, over at FX. For the unitiated, Archer is born from Adam Reed, one of the minds behind the aforementioned Sealab 2021 and the gone-too-soon serialized toon Frisky Dingo; it posits the premise of the secret agent culture as workplace comedy. It boasts an extremely talented cast: perennial voice-over favorite H. Jon Benjamin (Dr. Katz), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live) and Aisha Tyler (finally putting her talented comedienne duties to work in a good vehicle for her), among others. Each episode blends the droll sensibilities of The Office with the sent-up conventions of the spy thriller, and as such Archer is quite a solid comedy. Any given Archer ep sees the egotistical yet incompetent Sterling Archer (Benjamin) boozing and bedding his way through missions while blending into the ensemble of his workplace compatriots, each of whom seem to be constantly experiencing their own personal crises. 

Archer is a very funny show: it has a great style, it’s tightly written and it deserves its audience. The problem is that its audience, it would seem, exists five-to-ten years ago. While it was another smart move on FX’s part to bring a program like this to its screens, it feels like a throwback to a medium that has already somewhat run its course. Archer is precisely the type of animated show that would have soared in the heyday of Adult Swim, but now — even with its brilliant mindset and stellar jokes — it just feels like we’ve been there before. That’s not to say that Archer isn’t a wonderful show, because it is. It’s just hard not to watch Archer and get the odd feeling that one would have enjoyed this so much more if it had hit in the right era. It’s like seeing someone show up three hours late to the party, when everyone’s already starting to wind down and some folks have already gone home. 

Archer’s been picked up for a third season, which bodes well, but I get the feeling that it’s never going to grab the demographic it’s marketed toward, mostly because that demographic has likely overdosed on the medium during the past ten years. It’s the same reason why I can almost guarantee ABC’s recent Body of Proof, starring Dana Delany as a crotchety medical examiner, won’t stay on the air; we’ve already seen crotchety (House) and medical examiner (the CSIs), and ABC just must have taken too long to develop the show and missed its window. Now it’s old hat. The same feels true for Archer, unfortunately, in that while the show may stay on the air and draw enough of a crowd to keep it there, it’s probably never going to really reap the rewards due to it. If this piece sounds like a damning indictment for the future of Archer, it’s not meant to be, and I hope it’s not — it’s just that I’m afraid it got here too late. That’s really a shame, because it’s funny and smart and I’d encourage you whole-heartedly to watch it. Unfortunately, though, I’m afraid in the end the death knell for Archer will be not unlike the famous middle school axiom: you snooze, you lose.

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3 Comments
  1. Paul the Geek permalink
    June 10, 2011 6:38 pm

    Lana. Lana! LANA! LANAAAAAA!

    …danger zone.

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