The spy genre has always left itself open to be spoofed, deliberately or not. With overly complex world ending plots, pseudoscience, impossible gadgets, male protagonists who exude toxic masculinity, and goatee stroking supervillains. Espionage adventures that have taken themselves too seriously have erred into self-parody.
Cinema and TV are no strangers to mocking, embracing, and celebrating the all-too-goofy cliches and inaccuracies of the fictional world of spies. Austin Powers, Johnny English, and Action Team followed inept secret agents unaware of their own shortcomings bumbling through missions.
Archer began in the same way. ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) top agent Sterling Archer (H Jon Benjamin) was James Bond with an even worse bedside manner: self-interested, arrogant, misogynistic, with innumerable parental issues. To his co-workers, each a recognisable archetype of the spy genre, he was insufferable. Fellow agents Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) and Ray Gillette (Reed) had to experience Archer’s ‘professionalism’ the most, with accountant Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), Head of HR Pam (Amber Nash), secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer) and Dr Krieger (Lucky Yates) all finding themselves caught up in disastrous assignments or hair-brained schemes. And complicating their lives was ISIS director Malory (Jessica Walter), Archer’s mother; cold, calculating, and emotionally distant, she made it easy to understand why Archer was so dysfunctional.
Setting it apart from every other tongue-in-cheek Bond rip-offs was the fact that Archer was just as much a workplace comedy as a spy spoof. When Archer went away on missions to track down arms dealers or tackle terrorists. The office staff raised concerns about pay, unionised, and tried to get a better health plan. All potential rebellions were snuffed out by Malory, whose only concern was saving money to keep ISIS afloat, and for personal luxuries.
For the most part, Archer’s early seasons were unconnected single-episode stories. Usually the down on its luck ISIS would take any missions it could to secure funding, and they inevitably go wrong thanks to Archer or an expectedly duplicitous client. Still, loose connections were formed by recurring jokes, characters or plot lines, most notably: the identity of Archer’s father, Archer’s voicemail, rival-agent-turned-cyborg Barry (Dave Willis), Krieger’s experiments, Malory’s menagerie of secrets, and the complex inter-tangled relationships of the ISIS staff.
Then came Archer Vice. The show’s fifth season was a game changer. After a raid carried out by the FBI revealed ISIS was never sanctioned by the US government, the agency is shutdown. Leaving its former staff to turn to crime to try and get rid of a ton of cocaine. Taking Archer, Malory, Cyril, Lana, Krieger, and the rest of the team away from the world they were made to inhabit could have been a risk. But by keeping the same style of humour from previous seasons, and placing its characters in fish-out-of-water scenarios; Archer Vice allowed them and the show to develop.
In later seasons, Archer became an entirely different show again, taking on an anthology format. Set in a 1940s noir Los Angeles Archer Dreamland, sees Archer working as a PI to solve the murder of his partner Woodhouse (George Coe). Whilst Archer:Danger Island is an Indianna Jones-style adventure taking place in the 1930s, with Archer and Pam as co-pilots being hired for plane tours until they crash on a mysterious Pacific island. For both seasons, even though, the characters take on different roles they retain the same personalities they’ve always had.
Archer’s humour and characters remained recognisable, whilst the show was unafraid to experiment with its storytelling. As seasons it progressed it chose to delve into the dynamics of its characters and their relationships, and riff-off other genres instead being just another spy spoof. Archer did what other shows and films like it failed to: twisted, turned, and zigzagged to avoid death by a laser to the crotch.