TV Preview

FX's raunchy cartoon 'Archer' has retro style but few contemporaneous laughs

Secret agent man: Miscreant spy Sterling Archer must deal with having his critical mother as his boss.
Secret agent man: Miscreant spy Sterling Archer must deal with having his critical mother as his boss. (Fx)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Archer" is another raunchy adult cartoon from Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, the guys who brought us "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo."

Brought us what and hunh?

Listen, there's a lot on TV at night besides talk shows, and in one way or another it all serves to fill out programming niches you never knew existed. My guess (as a part-time fan of both "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo") is that "Archer" attempts to sate an appetite that by now should have been well-sated, even in apartments shared by young men without bedtimes.

"Archer," premiering Thursday night on FX, is about trash-talking, 007-derivative secret agents who are rendered in still more of that Space Age retro animation style that has permeated popular culture for many years now. You know -- horn-rims, highballs, rooms decked out in teak? When will we finally get over 1960s design?

Not here. The humor and feel of "Archer" actually come across as retro early 2000s, back when the bizarre humor of Reed and Thompson's "Sealab 2021" first arrived. Like "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" and "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law" before it, "Sealab" took footage of an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon and clipped it together into profane exercises in absurdity. Sometimes these shows were devastatingly funny, filled with awkward pauses and innuendo -- and often surreal, nihilistic conclusions in which characters and situations simply died or imploded from taking the gags too far.

"Archer," while relying on its own clip-art animation style (still heavily indebted to "Jonny Quest"-era Hanna-Barbera), looks like those other shows. It stars H. Jon Benjamin (yes, that's the voice of Ben Katz, from "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist," a 1990s progenitor of talky cartoons for grown-ups) as Sterling Archer, a miscreant spy with no ability to self-censor. Archer works for ISIS (the International Secret Intelligence Service), where his brutally sharp-tongued mother (Jessica Walter) runs the department.

His fellow spies and co-workers (comedian Aisha Tyler and "Saturday Night Live" alum Chris Parnell, among others) spend their days trading insults and undermining one another. It's a lot of jokes about fat people, women, minorities, gays -- all told in a postmodern way that is not as smart as it used to seem. Only in the fourth episode ("Diversity Hire"), do things pick up enough to elicit a few snorts of guilty laughter.

Be warned: "Archer" is also as obnoxious and cruel as it can possibly be and still call itself humor. Whatever Reed and Thompson had going with "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo" falls over with a rude thud here. I'd quote dialogue, but the snappier stuff all included naughty words for genitals.


(two episodes, one hour) debuts Thursday on FX at 10 p.m.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company