Television

Jack Bauer Needs To Use the Bathroom

The macho men of 24, Archer, and Human Target.

Still from 24. Click image to expand.
Kiefer Sutherland in 24

In Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, James Bond is less the winking charmer of the pre-Daniel Craig movies than a sadomasochist with a drinking problem, and the animated spy spoof Archer (FX, Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) presents a witty travesty of that grim figure. Hero Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) is not so picky as to make shaken-not-stirred commands to barkeeps. You get the sense he’d be happy with anything in a glass or near one. It’s a snap to imagine him staining his dinner jacket with Jell-O shots.

Not a ladies’ man but a sex addict, Archer spends more time whoring than scoring, paying so much money to hookers that, needing to address a troubling expense report, he must break into the mainframe at his own headquarters (password: “guest”). Archer also endures the fallout from a passionate, tempestuous, herpes-transmitting romance with Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), his slinkiest coworker at ISIS—the International Secret Intelligence Service. Isis being the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, we must suppose that the show, as literate as it is rude, is pointing us toward Archer’s Oedipal issues. His mother is also his boss, and because she shares a voice with Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter), we expect her to be mildly to moderately demented with pushiness and egotism. Archer is certainly acting out when he whaps his lovers’ rears with ping-pong paddles—and also when he knocks up Mom’s housekeeper for the third time. “It’s the Pope’s fault she won’t let me wear a condom!”

Though drawn in a swanky ligne claire kind of style, though teeming with pocket squares and pearls, Archer is all about deglamourizing spycraft. An office comedy, it features characters less concerned with espionage than with flex accounts, diversity hires, and copy-room undermining. A master of deception in the extreme, Archer is a liar and cheat who emerges as a seductively sardonic snake, which works as an ironic commentary on spy fiction at large. Maybe. Archer’s ideas about irony are quite firm. Snapping at a coworker who suggested that he had misused the word, he snapped, “This is like O. Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby and named it ‘this exact situation.’ “

Meanwhile, the protagonist of Human Target (Fox, debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. ET), adapted from the comic book of the same name, walks along the existential knife’s edge at an earnest stride. Christopher Chance is a high-end bodyguard who operates as a chameleon, allowing malefactors to approach his ostensibly unprotected clients so that he can sneak up on the baddies with karate chops and generic quips. The pilot begins with a tense voice-over that, though spoken by a good ol’ bomb-wielding disgruntled employee, states Chance’s predicament: “You have no idea what it’s like, always blending in. You forget who you are. Eventually, you forget who you ever were.” Interesting ontological distinction, that: Is it possible to forget who you are before forgetting who you were? What does it mean to forget who you were in the first place? And does the show really even pretend to care?

To take the third part first: No. That voice-over is like a paper umbrella dressing up Human Target’s well-drink cocktail of competent hackwork. The show is respectably handsome but totally unmemorable, much like star Mark Valley. You forget who he is, which is possibly why he was cast—so as not to distract the audience from what really matters here. The plotlines are entertainingly stupid, the fight scenes efficiently choreographed, the blowing-stuff-up pretty good—especially in the pilot, which depicts the explosion of a large building in Seattle, lamentably not Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital. Guest star Tricia Helfer, playing the much-despised designer of a bullet train, looks as babelicious as a fanboy could hope, given the constraints of business attire.

Though Human Target will air regularly on Wednesdays, it debuts before the season premiere of yet another secret-agent show, 24. When we last saw Kiefer Sutherland’s growling Jack Bauer—well, I last saw Sutherland a few weeks ago at the end of the bar at Fanelli’s, and he was squeezing my arm too hard while begging for directions to the men’s room, which was about five feet in front of him, he was tremendously grateful to learn. Sutherland’s growling Jack Bauer is also now in Manhattan, where there’s very much blowing-stuff-up to be thwarted in and around U.N. Headquarters.

As a rule, it is petty and parochial to carp about the liberties that filmmakers take with street plans, but I’ve never let that stop me before. According to the grammar of the opening shots of this coming episode, Park Avenue and Broadway are the same street and the part of this Parkway running through Times Square might plausibly feature a block-long crackhouse across from an empty lot. Steadfastly ridiculous—and quite often delightfully so in this well-paced episode—24 has never shied away from messing with the shock absorbers on our suspension of disbelief, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I-heart-New Yorkers paying attention to 24’s vision of the city will become, like Sutherland, extremely disoriented.