TV Club

Archer Season 4: Adam Reed’s show as a remix of Sealab 2021 and The Simpsons.

Is everything in Archer a remix?

Pam Poovey (voiced by Amber Nash) enjoys a gyro like only she can. Cyril Figgis (voiced by Chris Parnell) enjoys it less.

Courtesy of FX Networks

In Slate’s Archer TV Club, Jeremy Stahl will IM each week with a different fan of the FX spy comedy. This week he chats with Slate video producer Chris Wade.

Jeremy Stahl: This season has just been getting better and better in the past few weeks and “The Honeymooners” was probably my favorite episode of the year—it definitely had the most awesome visual sequence, probably of the show’s entire run. Also, Pam was at her best from start to finish. That simulated sex with a gyro? Salmonellicious.

Wade: Archer’s action has always been great, but Archer diving off the building to save Lana had me actually on the edge of my seat. And it helped to serve one of the themes at the core of this episode and the entire series: Despite his immaturity, selfishness, lack of foresight, and sometimes downright idiocy, Archer is an insanely good secret agent.

Stahl: In addition to going back to old themes, the storyline also bore similarities to season one. Lana and Archer are pretending to be honeymooners as a cover for a mission to try to intercept a rogue American scientist who is selling nuclear material to the North Koreans. Lana becomes so infuriated with Archer sucking down Glengoolie Gold and getting mani-pedis on his mother’s tab, she seems to come to the decision to propose to Cyril out of revenge/spite toward Archer. But then a jealous, mistrustful Cyril blows it by spying on the fake honeymooners. That love/hate triangle dynamic dominated the first season’s plotlines, and it was fun to see it back.

Wade: It’s a classic Archer set up, but still doesn’t feel overdone or clichéd. You can partially attribute that to the series’ commitment to long-term character and world-building. Characters like Pam and Cheryl have had these incredibly rich, messed-up personas built up slowly over four seasons, so now every line they have is this layered callback to their disgusting personal interests and histories. Like Krieger’s whole thing with the irradiated pig. It wasn’t a super-subtle joke, but you know because of his backstory that when he points that Geiger counter at his junk, he’s been sexing that radioactive pig.

Stahl: You mentioned in the comments of last week’s chat that you thought the show reminded you of Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros.

Charles Bock wrote an excellent essay in this month’s Harper’s looking at Archer through the lens of the last 20 years of adult cartoon comedy. He draws a pretty much straight line from The Simpsons, to South Park, to Adult Swim, to Archer.

One of my favorite lines in this episode was originally in a classic Simpsons episode 18 years ago. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it speaks to another great thing about Archer: In every episode you can feel the influences that Bock describes. My question for you is how much of our love of this show has to do with its newness, and how much of it has to do with the familiarity of Adam Reed and Matt Thompson’s comedic aesthetic and their encyclopedic pop culture knowledge?

Wade: Reed and Thompson’s first show, the hilarious Sealab 2021, was one of Adult Swim’s first original series and it has been fascinating to watch Reed’s storytelling evolution. You can definitely see the seeds of Archer in every episode of Sealab 2021, the absurdity, the over-the-top lewdness, the incompetent authority figures and people handling high stakes work with lazy flippancy. But that show ended every episode by literally blowing the whole Sealab up, resetting the insanity back to zero.

Sure, they grew some running jokes, but the show was just too silly to sustain “plot” in any conventional sense. So it’s really rewarding to see that same style find the right balance of insanity and stability to grow a layered, story-rich world where characters still get routinely brutalized and/or exploded.

Your real question, though, is “is Archer genuinely ‘new,’ or is it just a really good pastiche of previous pop-culture sources that laid the groundwork for this kind of show?” And I’d have to say, despite my admiration and enjoyment of it, it’s more the latter than the former.

Stahl: The correct answer was “a little from column A, a little from column B.” I think that most good art relies heavily on synthesizing what came before. Some writers, artists, and filmmakers will have such a unique voice in the way they pull off this synthesis that their work becomes something original entirely, even while it borrows heavily from other sources.

Wade: Archer is an incredibly finely tuned piece of comedy and animation, but I see it as mostly a really well realized version of the same kind of genre parodying cartoon that plays fast and loose with its relationship to reality that Reed has been tinkering with since the Sealab 2021 days.

Stahl: Well said, C. Wade. And maybe there’s the answer. Reed and Thompson’s Archer is fresh and different, in the same sense that Reed and Thompson’s Sealab 2021 was fresh and different 10 years ago. Archer is just a better, more accessible version. OK, I think maybe we’ve gotten way too philosophical for a show that involved irradiated-pig bestiality. I’m going to stop watching cartoons now and go watch Frontline for once in my life.