In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. In this installment: Archer, the first nine seasons of which are now streaming on Hulu.
When Archer returns for its 10th season on May 29, Adam Reed’s coterie of dysfunctional agents will find themselves in deep space after spending some time in Dreamland and on Danger Island. With this latest genre/time jump in mind, we’ve put together a dossier of episodes which prove that, no matter where they are (even an air ship), the ISIS employees’ relationships always reassert themselves, so even the most outlandish scenarios and career changes still feel perfectly at home.
Archer: 1999 premieres May 29 at 9 p.m. ET on FXX.
The first 15 minutes of “Skytanic” are classic Archer (to the point that the show’s copied them on more than one occasion, to persistently strong effect): Take the entire crew, force them into tight quarters, and let the tensions (and running jokes) build. In this case, the setting is a blimp—sorry, rigid air ship—and the conflicts are rooted in the already growing web of sexual dysfunction spread among the show’s entire cast. (All centered this time on a jealous Cyril, who’s easy pickings for an illicit “dry-humpy choker” with Cheryl.) But while the core concept is strong, it’s not until the last five minutes that “Skytanic” hits brilliance, with a set-piece bit of bomb-defusing that also serves as the triumphant full introduction of Ray Gillette. Voiced by creator Adam Reed, Ray’s self-assured competence is the perfect foil to Archer’s equally self-assured idiocy, and their Abbot-and-Costello conversation about proper radio procedure and the NATO phonetic alphabet—accentuated by the ticking timer, and Lana’s increasingly frustrated desire to shoot her idiot ex-boyfriend in the foot—is the first time the show bumps itself up from “funny” to something approaching genius. There’s a joke roughly every second here, as Lana, Archer, and Ray all unknowingly talk past one another, culminating in a perfect one-two dose of punchlines: Archer’s exasperated “M! As in! Mancy!” followed by Lana finally getting her wish.
Archer’s workplace comedy element got a workout in “El Secuestro,” which is just as notable for introducing Babou the ocelot as it is revealing Cheryl’s prestigious pedigree. There’s a case of mistaken identity and a couple of reversals, all of which manage to alter the ISIS dynamic without toppling it, which is important because that’s an ongoing concern for the show. When Malory Archer finally takes a liking to her glue-huffing secretary, it’s only because Cheryl (née Carol) is actually the heir to the Tunt train fortune. Sure, she has to split it with her brother Cecil, but Malory promises her that half a billion dollars will buy her the very best in ISIS protection. The juxtaposition of all the nickel-and-diming of the value of Pam’s life with her insouciant attitude toward being tortured is ludicrously funny, and this is all before the Red Dragon-like reveal. Judy Greer and Amber Nash are the standouts here, because the story puts Cheryl and Pam in the forefront, but Aisha Tyler’s “nope”s and Jessica Walter’s surprisingly velvet tones are also used to devastating effect. And let’s not forget H. Jon Benjamin’s delightful, ocelot-induced squealing, which reminds us just how easily Archer’s head can turn.
The malleability that enables Archer’s season-long genre dress-ups also works in 22-minute bursts. “Lo Scandalo” draws the ISIS staff into a locked-room mystery involving Malory, a dead Italian prime minister (contrary to Archer’s belief, the Italians “don’t use a king”) in a zentai suit, and a marital aid whose location no one wants to disclose. Adam Reed’s script keeps the action restricted to the Archers and Lana just long enough to make you miss the rest of the cast, who burst into the episode once Krieger is invited to help dispose of the body. That leads to an actual game of dress-up and a delightfully over-the-top mid-Atlantic accent from Judy Greer, multiple layers of cover-up for an international incident depicted on a hyper-local scale. It’s a slight caper compared to the episodes surrounding it—the two-part outer-space finale, the rail-traveling return of Babou—but by hanging an episode primarily on Archer’s fraught relationships and rat-a-tat dialogue, “Lo Scandalo” bottles the very essence of the show. And besides: The final twist proves to have tremendous bearing on the Archer mythology.
The best episodes of Archer act as de facto radio plays: They would be just as funny if you could only hear the audio. That isn’t a swipe at the series’ detailed, impressive animation, but rather a testament to the voice performances and the editing, the series’ two greatest assets. Take “Legs,” the one where Krieger gives the paralyzed Ray bionic legs, a great example of how minimal plot and a sharper focus on dialogue brings the best out of the series. The barebones: Krieger performs violent surgery, with the assistance of a shitfaced Pam who eventually loses a tallboy inside Ray’s body, while Archer desperately tries to stop him because of his childhood psychosexual robot trauma (he tried and failed to fuck a vacuum cleaner). Archer doesn’t get very far because he runs afoul of ISIS’ uptight armory supervisor Rodney (Andrew Donnelly) and various impenetrable doors, but whether or not Archer succeeds is even more irrelevant than usual. The real fun here comes from hearing the witty repartee and listening to H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Lucky Yates, et al. perform linguistic gymnastics, courtesy of Adam Reed’s writing. With the series’ trademark call-and-response cutting rhythm, casual references to WWII and Blade Runner, and Brett getting shot yet again by a magic bullet, this is a classic Archer episode that’s unfortunately too often overlooked.
One of Archer’s strongest comedic conceits is putting the entire regular cast into a confined unfamiliar space and letting them do their usual thing—namely, be self-absorbed and single-mindedly in pursuit of their own selfish goals—to delightful results. Season seven provides a double dose of this tactic, sending the newly West Coast-relocated Figgis Agency (a cosmetic name change following the events of the previous seasons, intended to keep the CIA off their backs) to a ritzy Hollywood party, where they’ve been hired to protect an expensive necklace. Naturally, a group of clown-mask-wearing goons arrive, take everyone hostage, and proceed to rip the place apart looking for the artifact. This drawing-room intrigue is mostly an opportunity for everyone to play to their strengths, from Archer’s flustered behavior around his Hollywood crush to Pam’s inevitable descent into all-out brawling. It’s a latter-season two-parter doing everything that makes Archer a joy to watch, and proves the animated powerhouse is still undergoing a sharp creative overhaul, year after year. When dynamite guest voices like Patton Oswalt, J.K. Simmons, and Keegan-Michael Key are still taking a back seat to the main cast, you know it’s a great installment (or two).