‘Archer’: The new cartoon on FX is more office comedy than spy spoof

Television Critic

Viewers who have spent any time in the late-night Cartoon Network programming block known as Adult Swim will recognize the aesthetic, spiritual and comedic values in “Archer,” a ‘60s-ish spy spoof cartoon that premieres tonight on FX. It comes by these traits honestly, being the creation of Adam Reed, who, with executive producer Matthew Thompson, also created the CN/Adult Swim series “Sealab 2021,” which dementedly re-purposed an animated sci-fi series from the 1970s, and the randomly named “Frisky Dingo,” about how difficult it can be to destroy the world.

“Archer” is like Reed’s earlier shows, but louder. Perhaps it’s the new venue -- FX series, such as “Nip/Tuck” and “The League,” overwhelmingly feature men behaving badly, incapable of growing up, obsessed with sex yet afraid of women -- that has made his new series more expressly about sex. (There is a lot of violence too, as in “Frisky Dingo,” and, at least in one episode, vomiting, with Oedipal undertones).

The dialogue makes frequent use of sexist labels, and there are more than a few jokes about actual prostitutes. And as with other FX shows, you’re left to wonder to what degree this is distanced commentary on a certain kind of juvenile behavior and to what degree it is merely juvenile -- or whether such humor is the product of an extremely free mind or one that is extremely repressed.

Archer, voiced by , works for the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), his code name is Duchess and his mother (Jessica Walter), who always has a drink in her hand, is also his boss. He has a butler named Woodhouse (George Coe), which I take to be an alternate-spelling homage to the author of the Jeeves stories. (There are also references to Herman Melville, O. Henry, Texas sniper Charles Whitman and “I Dream of Jeannie.”)

His large-breasted, porn-friendly ex-girlfriend and fellow agent Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) -- like Lanacane, I suppose, “The Every Itch Fighter” -- is dating the strait-laced but well-endowed agency comptroller (Chris Parnell), which makes Archer jealous.


The spy stuff is all subservient to the emotional turmoil and the office politics -- it is an office comedy as much as an adventure comedy, and possibly the first cartoon, and the first secret agent story, with a human resources person (the very good Amber Nash) as a major character.

Like its Adult Swim antecedents -- including “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,” “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” “Robot Chicken” and “The Venture Brothers” -- “Archer” belongs to a post-heroic age, where all idols have feet of clay (and hands, arms, legs, heads, etc.), and heroes and villains alike are caught up in the same distracting small stuff as the rest of us. The fate of the world can take care of itself, what matters here is what’s for lunch or the porousness of your kitchen tile.

I like that style -- the slightly bitter mix of the superheroic and the banal, bordering on the boring. I’m also an unabashed fan of Benjamin, who was Ben in “Doctor Katz, Professional Therapist” and is currently seen in human form on “Important Things With Demetri Martin”; the dry wine of his voice is made for irony.

Indeed, the whole cast is excellent. And yet I didn’t laugh much, possibly because I know by now how these jokes work and never found myself surprised, or possibly because I find sex jokes tiresome.

“Archer” is also less splendidly strange than Reed’s earlier work. Perhaps on FX, with a fresh audience -- a sex-joke friendly audience -- this will all play as new. But I’ll be on another case.