Adam Reed walks us through Archer’s third season (Part 3 of 3)
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Archer creator Adam Reed recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the third season of his show. Following parts one and two, this concluding section covers episodes 10 through 13, beginning with “Crossing Over” and ending with “Space Race, Part II.”
“Crossing Over” (March 1, 2012)
Archer and Pam have a fling after getting drunk, and he realizes it was the best sex of his life. Meanwhile, Barry is back in town, and he’s carrying out a plot to assassinate Jakov and take over the KGB.
The A.V. Club: You mentioned you wanted to build Barry up as Archer’s big antagonist this season. Where did that desire come from?
Adam Reed: I felt the show needed that, to some extent, because there wasn’t really a bad guy, per se. ODIN was kind of the bully spy agency early on, but since we messed up Len Trexler’s brain pretty good [in season two’s “A Going Concern”] and then Barry was taken away from ODIN, they sort of withered on the vine. I think now, especially, I really like that character, and Dave Willis, who does the voice, is great. He lives here in Atlanta, and we worked at Adult Swim together for years.
So it’s fun to work with him, and I think it’s nice to have a guy that’s as handsome as Archer, and super-strong, so there’s almost no way Archer is ever going to beat him. And Barry is just batshit crazy and is fixated on Archer, so it sort of makes sense that he has this crazy personal axe to grind against Archer. That will always be there if you need something to drive a plot. Barry can be the puppet-master behind whatever.
AVC: You get asked about the anachronisms in the show a lot. One of my favorites is how the Soviet Union apparently still exists. How do you think the comedy is enhanced by having the Soviet Union still be around?
AR: I guess because you know in real life that it isn’t. [Laughs.] So there’s less danger in writing the script, like if ISIS was fighting the terrorists, there’s less danger of waking up and seeing, “Oh, great. This thing that we wrote a humorous half-hour about now happened in real life, and a bunch of people died.” You’re probably not going to wake up and find out that Russia has weaponized space.
AVC: Barry talks a lot about an amazing plan he has, but we never see it play out through the rest of the season. Did you have something in mind for that?
AR: Again, I should have this plan all mapped out, but I will just have to say that it is nefarious and broad in scope.
AVC: This episode ends with, apparently, Jakov’s death. Do you intend on making that permanent? We never see his corpse.
AR: Yes. We don’t see his corpse, and we have had a lot of villains where there’s no body, but I planned for this to be permanent. One thing that didn’t make it into the episode because it wasn’t playing visually was the videotape he made survived the explosion, and was just smoldering in the street. But it wasn’t working visually, so I think when we come back to what was on that tape in season four, we may have to do a little bit of a flashback.
AVC: The episode ends on a dramatic note with Jakov’s death and Archer realizing that potentially his father has died. You go to that dramatic well every so often. What prompts that?
AR: I think to keep caring about the characters and for them to matter on a level besides comedy, it’s important to treat them dramatically every once in a while and just balance that with ending on a funny note, even though there was a downer, but then bringing it back to comedy pretty soon.
AVC: The closing-credits music is so bold and brassy. Do you ever feel like you have trouble ending on anything other than a joke with that music?
AR: Yeah, it’s hard to. Like if he had just said, “Oh my God. My dad just died,” and you went into those blaring trumpets, it doesn’t match, really. I’m crazy about that song. It’s called “The Killers,” but what I like about it is that it does make you find a good out line [a line that leads into a commercial break or end of an episode—ed.]. I think people like to end on a joke. I know the network certainly prefers that we do. [Laughs.]
AVC: This episode has Pam and Archer’s affair. Had you been planning that for a while?
AR: No. Since the start of season three, that was scribbled in a notebook, that I wanted that to happen. I wanted it to happen earlier in the season and spend a little more time with it than we did, but it ended up sort of toward the back. Just the idea, jotting it down, really had me laughing way back early in the season.
AVC: It seems like it actually connected on some level. Was that something you expected?
AR: I think they definitely do, and I think Pam connects with everybody. I think a lot of that is, she’s different from a lot of the other characters. She’s not jaded and cynical. She’s got a childlike enthusiasm for everything. She’s a bit of a mess, but she’s probably the least messed-up of all the characters. She just doesn’t have much of a filter.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that the network doesn’t like it as much when you get away from realism. How do you get away with having cyborgs or things that are more blatantly science fiction?
AR: That’s a bit more of a sell. When I say, “Okay, now Barry’s a cyborg,” they say, “Eeeeee… really?” And I say, “Yeah. It’s cool. He’s not going to drink motor oil or anything. He’s got a cybernetic endoskeleton, and it’s totally plausible, and it’ll be good.” When we venture outside of realism, we have to give them a reason why. Even if it’s kind of a bullshit, made-up one, they can put it in a file and go, “No, no, we’ve covered that. It’s just a cybernetic endoskeleton. Totally cool.”
AVC: What about Barry makes him such a good antagonist?
AR: Well, he’s super-strong, and he’s bulletproof. But I think in a lot of ways, he sort of mirrors Archer, because he gets in his own way and he’s not, probably, as competent as he thinks he is, but he’s also a force to be reckoned with. They’re Betty and Veronica. They’re equals in a lot of ways, and they’re very similar. And one desperately wants to kill the other one.
AVC: You mentioned at the start that ODIN has sort of gone away. Odin and Isis are both mythological creatures. Was there something behind that?
AR: Just once we came up with ISIS, I wracked my brain to figure out another mythological god that an anagram could be made of their name. I tried for hours to come up to figure out something with Frigga.
AVC: What happened to ODIN? Why did that peter out as a storytelling device?
AR: Season two wandered a little bit and got away from the global-espionage point of things. I really liked ODIN, because I liked the small, scrappy company against the big company, like WKRP against WPIG. You root for the company that doesn’t have all the money or the team or whatever, and I really liked that aspect of it. Then, through every fault of my own, I forgot to pay attention to that.
“Skin Game” (March 8, 2012)
Krieger resurrects Archer’s dead fiancée Katya as a cyborg. When the two decide to get married all over again, Barry has other plans for the wedding.
AVC: You bring back Katya in this episode. What prompted that decision?
AR: I’m crazy about her. And Ona Grauer, who plays her, is just fantastic. She played a Russian madam on this cool Canadian show called Intelligence. It was good. She was really good in it, and it turns out, not Russian at all. But it was just another way to twist the knife in Archer, which I like to do as often as possible.
AVC: You bring back Katya, then send her off with Barry. What was behind that decision?
AR: Again, kind of like the spy car, to give Archer the thing he most wants in the world, but only for the briefest amount of time, and then to wrench it away from him again.
AVC: What about that routine do you find funny?
AR: It’s just so cruel. When we saw the wee baby Seamus was left in Malory’s care, in the Woodhouse World War I episode, where she’s teasing the baby with a stuffed animal, it’s sort of the same thing, and I guess she did it again with his bicycle. I think it’s a theme that has recurred in Archer’s life forever, so it probably just cuts him to the quick.
AVC: There are a lot of Rush references. Are you a big Rush fan?
AR: Huge Rush fan. But apparently I mispronounced Neil Peart’s name.
AVC: Why do you think Krieger is a Rush fan?
AR: [Laughs.] I think probably because I am. It just seems like the music he would be into. It’s power rock, but there’s also these mythical things about druids in there, and trees. It’s ancient, that music. They talk about really ancient themes, and I think that would really appeal to Krieger.
AVC: Could you ever do an episode that delves into Krieger’s backstory, or would that just be too terrifying for everyone?
AR: I think you absolutely could. I think that’s probably going to happen here. I’m writing that down, Todd.
The problem with that is, finding out Pam grew up on a dairy, that’s a thing, and then you can refer to that later. Pam growing up on a farm, that’s not this huge, mysterious thing. A lot of people do that. With Krieger, though, a lot of what works for him is that he is so shrouded in mystery that I don’t know that if you looked behind that curtain, if he would have the same power or appeal that he does, because you have no idea at all what his background was like.
AVC: Was there one of these background characters in the first season that you thought would be a little more popular, and just didn’t take off?
AR: No. They all grew, the ones that we know, much bigger than I thought they would be initially.
AVC: Which background character were you most surprised to see the audience become interested in?
AR: Well, surprised just by the way she was originally conceived—Pam. Not surprised that people like Amber Nash’s acting and voice work, but just the original, one-dimensional character that Pam originally was has become this really neat character, and she’s so fun to listen to. So that was a very happy thing that happened.
AVC: You did a lot of standalone episodes this season, then these last four episodes all have recurring elements. What appeals to you about standalone stories, and what appeals to you about more serialized stories?
AR: Well, I personally prefer serialized stuff, and Frisky Dingo was totally serialized. What I found with Frisky Dingo and now with Archer is that networks don’t like that at all. Especially with Frisky Dingo, if you missed one, it was like, “Well, I might as well stop watching this.” That’s a real concern for a network, and it’s a real thing that happens. People just go, “I don’t want to follow this. I want to watch it on my terms.” FX much prefers standalone episodes, and when I try to do a two-parter or a three-parter, it’s more of a sell, and I have to convince them of it ahead of time. “I think this is going to work because of this.”
AVC: Is there an episode or serialized storyline that was particularly hard to get on the air?
AR: I guess the two cancer episodes [season two’s “Stage Two” and “Placebo Effect”]. I had a longer talk with the network beforehand than I normally do. [Laughs.] Normally, they’ll call and ask what I’m working on, and I’ll say, “Cheryl gets kidnapped.” “Okay.” This time it was, “What are you working on?” “Um, Archer gets cancer.” “Okay, we need to have a longer conversation about that. What kind of cancer?” “Well, it’s breast cancer.” “Nooooo, it isn’t.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be good.” [Beat.] “Malory murders a guy.” “Noooooo.” Those were probably the hardest that I’ve had to sell.
AVC: Why do you think Katya was such a good match for Archer?
AR: I think because she was a total badass, and everybody knew, including the audience, from the very start, that it wasn’t going to work out. Archer was the only one who didn’t realize it wasn’t going to work out, and for me, that’s fun to watch. She was so perfect and so beautiful and so into him, and he was so into her that you just knew, “That’s not going to end well,” because we can’t have him be happy.
I think a lot of people were sort of annoyed or put off by the episode or two [in season two] where they were together. He wasn’t like himself. He was this nice guy, and he quit drinking, and was thinking about someone else, however briefly. People probably didn’t want him to stay with her and be happy and not be who he is.
AVC: You seem to go to that “Archer is happy and selfless” place every so often. How do you decide to do that, and when would it be too much of a good thing?
AR: I think it helps temper his assholishness if every once in awhile you get to see him really caring about somebody else, whether it’s Lana or Ruth, the old lady who also had cancer in the cancer episodes. Maybe subconsciously, it helps you give him a pass for all the other times when he’s a dick. So you know he’s capable, at least, of empathy and selfless behavior.
AVC: How do you know how far you can push Archer in being an asshole?
AR: I could probably write down things he would or wouldn’t do, and there are times he’s mean, but there are other things. Again with spec scripts, people will have him doing things that are just totally shitty. I guess he says a lot of snotty things to the women around him, but I think deep down, he’s not misogynistic; he’s just selfish. So I think he’s equally shitty to men or women. A lot of the times with the spec scripts, we’ll get him just being really misogynistic rather than obtuse around women.
AVC: What are some other mistakes you think people make when trying to write these characters?
AR: The main thing that happens in a lot of them is—this is going to sound so fake coming from me—but they’re just dirty. They really focus on the dirty jokes and really crude sexual humor. And I know there’s a lot of sexual humor in Archer, and some of it is quite crude, but there’s some tone that gets missed. We try to do it at least slightly smart and crude. Or temper a crude sexual joke with an obscure historical reference, you know?
AVC: Where do those historical and literary references come from?
AR: Well, I was an English major, so I’ve read a lot of that stuff. I wrote a pretty long, pretty boring paper on “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” so a lot of that stuff is just clogging up my brain. Because Archer is set in its weird time, it makes more sense to make a Melville reference that would work in Archer’s time, as opposed to a Bret Easton Ellis reference, which opens up the talk to, “When the hell does this show take place?”
AVC: Alternatively, where do the crude and dirty jokes come from?
AR: [Beat.] Uh, also from my being an English major. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. We’re pretty crude around here. Well, we used to be when it was just eight guys working in that little brick house. It was a very crude workplace. Now that there are 100 people here, and half of them are women, and we’ve had sensitivity training, we’re much less crude in the office than we were.
“Space Race, Parts I and II” (March 15 and 22, 2012)
The ISIS crew heads to a space station to stop a mutiny in progress. But it turns out the man who’s hired them to stop the mutiny is actually one of the mutineers and just wants to get Lana—the “perfect woman”—on board, so she can be the mother of his new Martian society. After ISIS saves the day, an old foe returns.
AVC: How long have you wanted to do an episode set in space?
AR: I would say since the beginning. On the list of where can they go and what can they do, outer space was always up there, probably originally written down as just Moonraker!!! with three exclamation points. Since forever. It took a while to get there, though.
AVC: What made it right to do at this time?
AR: It seemed like a good way to really cement Barry as the nemesis. Even though they didn’t have a big climactic battle, it sets him up. He went to the trouble to go to outer space to kill Archer, so you know he’s serious about this. It was also another way to have everybody all together on one big, big mission.
AVC: How long did you have to think to find ways to get everybody on board that space ship?
AR: It was pretty easy, actually, because Cyril had been made an agent, so he got to go to the training. Malory sort of insinuated herself into the thing, and then Lucy Ricardo stowaways on the other two. [Laughs.] Since we’d set up Archer sleeping with Pam, that added a tiny bit of credence to that being able to happen.
AVC: Do you think the Archer and Pam relationship will continue in subsequent seasons?
AR: Oh yes. Definitely. I think they’ll be on-again, off-again, and obviously Archer is probably… actually, I think both of them are probably not emotionally invested in it, so it’s not going to cost them too much emotionally to dip back into that whenever they want. [Laughs.] I think Pam is self-aware enough to know what the deal is, so she’s not going to be all mopey and stalker-y about it. [Laughs.]
AVC: You opened this season with a trio of big guest stars, then you closed it with Bryan Cranston. How did you end up getting Bryan Cranston for this role?
AR: We just called him and asked him. Well, his agent. Matt Thompson [executive producer] was doing a pilot for Fox and had talked to him about being the lead in that, and schedule-wise, it didn’t work out. So Matt had known him and talked to him, and it was one of those things where it’s, “Let’s call him and ask him, but let’s also have a bunch of other names ready, because he’s going to say no.” And then he said yes!
AVC: He’s such a funny guy, but he now has this reputation as this big dramatic actor, despite his sitcom successes in the past. How did you approach making that villainous character he played funnier?
AR: He read the scripts, obviously, and then we talked briefly, and I just said, “This guy, deep down, he’s unhinged, but we don’t know that, and he should come across as totally together,” and he’s like, “Got it.” Then he just nailed it.
I think we did two takes of each line, and each one was perfect. Those sessions were pretty quick. We would read a scene together, and he’d say, “What do you think?” And I’d say, “That was great. [Pause.] Do you want to do another one?” “Okay. We’ll do another one.” It was really a breeze, and I really think he nailed the balance between crazy guy, but you don’t realize he’s crazy until it’s too late, without tipping his hand.
AVC: What’s the editing process on this? It seems like the lines are all coming on top of each other, but you record them all separately.
AR: We do. Early on, I edited all the episodes. Season one, I did all the editing, but it became untenable, because it’s a lot of work. I’m a big fan of overlapping dialogue, a huge fan of Moonlighting, when it was on, and the basic rule we operate under is—and I find that this is often true in real life—is that nobody is ever listening to anyone else, they’re just waiting for the other person’s mouth to quit moving so they can talk. It just leads to people cutting each other off, and we’ve developed these little techniques over time where—and they’re not in the script really—but we’ll get some mumbles or “umms” or stutters from the characters not speaking, and then just drop them in under another character, and it comes across as pretty conversational. I think it seems like they’re in the same room together.
AVC: It really feels in a lot of these episodes like there’s an influence of radio-style comedy. Is that something you’ve paid attention to at all?
AR: Yeah, absolutely. Not to take away from the work of the illustrators and the animators and the background painters, because it’s all amazing. And it adds, especially, all these sight gags that aren’t in the script at all, and when you watch the episode, you see they’ve put in something, or facial expressions, or whatever. But for me, the most important thing in the process is getting the audio cut to sound perfect. Then it can only get better with the visuals. But if the audio cut isn’t working, then no amount of visuals is going to help that. So my goal is to have it so you can enjoy Archer just in the tape deck in the car.
AVC: Archer’s alcoholism became more pronounced this season, and yet in this episode, he’s both competent and, in the end, kind of nice. How do you decide when to make him good at his job?
AR: [Laughs.] Only as a last resort. People have commented on that as well, acknowledging the fact that Archer drinks way too much, as opposed to just having him always drinking. There are some actual consequences in this season. A little bit. Then he’s stuck up there in outer space with nothing to drink, and I don’t know. Maybe he’s not as nice when he’s drinking.
AVC: Is that something you consciously look at? His level of alcoholism? And his mother’s, as well?
AR: Not really. A lot of times, it’s just a prop to give them something to do with their hands, so it’s not just two people standing there talking. Somebody can be making a drink. It’s also funny to me that Malory is almost never, ever, ever drunk, but they’re constantly drinking. They just are superhuman in that regard.
AVC: You remove Lana from this episode by giving her space-sickness. Do you have to take her out of stories like this to raise believable danger?
AR: No, that was just a case of she’s always the confident one, always saying, “Here, I’m going to fix this, Archer. You’ve screwed it up. I’ll take care of it.” I just wanted to take her out of her element and make her totally unable to help or be effective.
AVC: This episode brings back the “Danger Zone” refrain. What made this the right time to return to it?
AR: [Laughs.] That’s weird, it’s one of those ad-libs or throwaways in one script that whether through cleverness or laziness, I’ve used as a callback or a refrain, and then it sort of got bigger than anybody ever wanted it to. Certainly bigger than Jon Benjamin wanted it to get. [Laughs.]
We try to studiously avoid a catchphrase, and then, “Hey. Here’s your catchphrase.” That was one of those mixed blessings that nobody really wanted to see happen, and then it did happen, and you have to acknowledge that it did happen, and try to find ways not to use it too much, and use it in ways that are unexpected, I guess. Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston seemed like an unexpected way to do that.
AVC: How do you come up with which jokes are going to be callbacks and which are going to recur?
AR: That’s a good question. I don’t know. A lot of times I’ll be stuck and just need a line to get out of a scene, and it’s like, “Well, let’s go into the card index of jokes we’ve used, and use one of those jokes.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Was there an episode this season you thought worked really well, and was there one you thought didn’t work as well as it might have?
AR: I liked “Lo Scandalo.” I thought that worked really well. I wasn’t as crazy about “The Limited,” but most people were. I think the audience liked it better than I did.
AVC: What didn’t work about it for you?
AR: I don’t know. To me, at least, a lot of the jokes didn’t land as hard as I would have wanted them to. Just the timing on it felt weird to me. I was surprised it was as well-received as it was.
AVC: What are you guys looking at for season four? What’s your goal for that season?
AR: I would like to keep building Barry up as the nemesis, and have that be a recurring thread throughout the season. Even as we go through these standalone missions, have that as a looming threat as one of the main things they’re concerned about, outside of their petty relationships with each other. I’ve got pretty big plans for Barry, who is stuck up on the space station, which is going to afford him with all the satellites he can control as a way to really be in Archer’s shit all the time.
AVC: Do you have any other goals for the season?
AR: I would like to have Lana not have to lay as much pipe, and do a little better as a writer by Mr. Figgis.