One of the great joys of watching Archer each week is seeing how the show plays with its animation. Adam Reed’s animation team at Floyd County Productions creates some of the coolest, most stylized sets and action sequences on television—from elaborate high-speed car chases at the Monaco Grand Prix to more basic shots of the ISIS offices. The show has even inspired a whole Tumblr devoted to turning its greatest moments into funny-in-their-own-right animated GIFs.
Some of Archer’s best sight gags, however, don’t come from the wacky, exotic scenery. Rather, the show’s funniest and most revelatory animated sequences are often very simple close-up shots of a character’s facial expressions at moments of greatest fear, exasperation, intoxication, or—in the case of this week’s amazing final shot—trauma.
The clip above, for me, was the most surprising laugh-out-loud moment in a show that is one of the most consistently unpredictable and funny on TV. This shot comes a moment after Archer has watched his best (only) friend Lucas Troy get crushed to death by a tree and issue a deathbed confession of having raped Archer while he was passed out drunk. We don’t hear Troy, voiced fantastically by Justified star Timothy Olyphant, provide the final details of the assault. All we hear is a forest-clearing cry of “NOOOOOOOOO!” from Archer and a cut to him and his fellow ISIS agents driving home. I don’t want to go into the show’s treatment of sexuality and homophobia as a source of humor today—we’ll have more on this tomorrow—I just want to look at what makes the final shot such a powerful and surprising visual.
The episode’s punch line is not the Lucas Troy confession, or even Archer’s final line asking for the radio to be turned on at the most awkward, yet somehow appropriate, moment. It is Cyril’s look of existential dread and Lana’s look of sadness and horror while Archer sits in the backseat clutching a liquor bottle and coming almost immediately to terms with the fact that his best (only) friend raped him. This scene works so well, because the cut from the confession to the back of the car is so sudden and unexpected, as are Lana’s and Cyril’s perfectly captured expressions of empathy, grief, and shock on their friend Archer’s behalf. The look on Lana’s face is especially powerful—this is a woman who is normally phased by nothing.
The show’s animators use hundreds of photos of real-life human models to capture each character’s visual style. But these sort of facial performances are dictated by a combination of Adam Reed’s scripts and the animators’ creativity—never by the models. “Sometimes the script is very specific about visual jokes—other times the way the voice actor performs dictates how they will be animated,” Archer animation director Bryan Fordney told commenters on the TV site Warming Glow when asked specifically about this scene. “Other times one of our animators will just come up with something and put it in there.” Whether this sequence was an invention of the animators, Adam Reed’s writing, or likely some combination of both, it was the most inspired piece of animation in the show’s entire run.
Update, Jan. 29, 2013: Fordney confirmed that the description for the facial expressions in the final scene was in the script and that the animation department was heavily involved in crafting those expressions. “Lana’s face was even funnier on the first pass. We had to tone it down a bit,” he told me via email. “The animator of this scene, Frankie Mendoza, definitely had fun here—we don’t always have an opportunity for ‘subtle’ visual humor like this. Another great example of this is the The Graduate bus scene at the end of “Skin Game.”