I’m not a big animated comedy fan. I appreciate The Simpsons more than I love it. I enjoy South Park but don’t remember to watch it that often. I keep meaning to watch more Bob’s Burgers and to rewatch Futurama. Generally, the comedies I gorge on are live-action. That’s just how my funny bone is wired.
But there’s one animated comedy that immediately hooked me and made me want to watch again and again: Archer. This James Bond spoof with Arrested Development DNA is easily one of my five favorite comedies ever, with the quickest damn writing in the west and the best voice actors in the multiverse. The existence of Archer is a good reason to live, because of its immensely witty writing, mega-talented cast, and surprising ability to deal with issues like cancer — possibly the most comedy-resistant topic of all.
Archer’s deep, talented cast is its biggest strength. As Archer, H. Jon Benjamin’s gruff deadpan — with occasional notes of boyish glee — makes every struggle, whether with his nemesis-borg Barry or tinnitus, funny. Thanks to the great Aisha Taylor, Lana is a perfect foil for Archer: she’s twice as competent but with nearly as many issues. Jessica Walter’s performance as Malory Archer deserves to be in the Evil Mom Hall of Fame. Chris Parnell, I reckon, should be a supporting actor on every show, as he brings monster-dicked, insecure Cyril Figgus to ridiculous life. Judy Green, Lucky Yates, and show creator Adam Reed round out the cast as ditzy pyromaniac Cheryl, mad scientist Krieger, and swishy cyborg Ray. Sadly, the cast is less great with the recent death of George Coe, who voiced Woodhouse, Archer’s loyal, heroin-loving butler.
The standout among standouts is Amber Nash, who along with the writers has created the kind of badass female character audiences didn’t even know they should be demanding: Pam Poovey. Pam wins fight clubs, drag races with the Yakuza, and keeps Human Resources humming while occasionally giving Archer the best sex of his life. If she lived alongside superheroes instead of spies, Pam would snap Wonder Woman’s neck and tap out Batman with an armbar. She is a force. “Holy shitsnacks!” indeed.
I bet Pam would make a great mom, teaching her children the basics of dairy farms, TPS reports, and bare-knuckles fighting. She would certainly be a better mom that Malory, whose psychotic version of motherhood was on full display in the pilot, as we learn her character (who, in some ways, is simply Lucille Bluth with a spy agency) loved her dog far more than her son, as creepily shown in a John-and-Yoko style portrait with the poodle Duchess (also Archer’s code name). Then there’s that pesky boner Archer gets when his mother is in mortal danger. Subsequent episodes fill in the blanks with a variety of deranged and depressing scenes of little Archer, who is often abandoned by his mother, dressed like Hitler for some reason, or shamed for putting his little Archer in a vacuum cleaner (which led to lifelong issues with cyborgs, but that’s another story). Anyone with a mother probably has some mommy issues, but Archer has a complete set, in mint condition, dating back to the Book of Revelations.
That damage fuels Archer’s James Bond-y shenanigans, which show little regard for human life or anything resembling common decency, especially in the shitty way he treats Woodhouse, his butler who basically raised him. But one trait that makes him somewhat redeemable is his love of animals. When Archer discovers that dimwitted secretary Cheryl is secretly rich, Archer is more interested in her pet ocelot Babou. When Archer and Lana are sent to recover an asset named Kazak, Archer is thrilled to learn this is the name of a mammoth dog. Sure, Archer’s enthusiasm is eventually dampened by Babou’s scratches and Kazak’s farts, but it’s a slow process: he has a lot of enthusiasm in this area. Love of animals is one of the few joys his mother didn’t squeeze out of his heart.
Picking a best anything for Archer is a near impossible task, akin to lifting the giant golden key to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. My favorite individual joke is in the Burt Reynolds episode. Improbably, Archer’s hero Burt is dating his mother, so jealous Archer makes his mom think Burt has abandoned her for younger flesh. A drunken Mallory’s response is perfectly wrong: “Leave me for some hot little 20-year-old? Well, I’ll show him. I’ll go find me a 10-year-old!” My favorite episode might be “The Double Deuce,” in which Archer simultaneously babysits “the wee baby Seamus” and helps Woodhouse figure out who’s trying to kill his war buddies. The dark humor of the flashbacks also provide an origin story for Woodhouse — and Archer, whose birth and mother Woodhouse protected. Along the way, Archer makes a memorable statement all frustrated single parents can relate to: “I can do baby or I can do geezer murder mystery, but I can’t do both.”
But for Archer’s Best Story Ever, I have to go with the obvious: the cancer storyline. I wanted to avoid it, because I’ve been thinking too much about cancer lately. My dad has fought off two types of cancer in the past year. My friend Colleen beat salivary cancer. Between the time I submitted this article and it was published, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I never met one of my grandmothers because of cancer. I hate to imagine how many other cancers will be part of my life, and I generally prefer my entertainment to be escapist. But Archer’s two-part cancer storyline was so emotionally true to life — while maintaining the absurdity of the show — that I have to single it out for Archer’s Best Story Ever.
This two-parter starts in the episode “Stage Two,” with Malory being even more villainous than usual. She refuses to hear about Cheryl’s weekend arson, scatters Cyril’s carefully sorted punchcards, and dumps coffee on Pam’s marzipan farm replica, causing her to wail, “It’s just like when the farm flooded in real life! Only tiny and sweet.” Turns out Malory’s upset because she might have breast cancer. She doesn’t, but we soon learn that Archer — thanks to alcoholism and frequent exposure to radiation, as shown in a ridiculous montage — does.
As Archer copes with his diagnosis of stage two breast cancer, we see (and hear, thanks to Benjamin’s skills) new sides of Archer. He voluntarily spends time with his sorta child Seamus and is actually nice to Woodhouse for a few seconds. He tries to bond with his diabolical mother. As “the world’s greatest secret agent,” Archer risks death over and over, but he’s never faced it like this, and it changes everything. Well, not everything. Archer is still Archer, as seen in his attempt at having cancer sex with Lana the night before his treatment:
ARCHER: Lana, I’m in love with you.
LANA: You are also shitfaced.
ARCHER: I can be both.
Indeed he can, and the show is just as versatile: its elastic enough to continue the absurd spy spoofery while taking an honest look at cancer too.
After a stressful serious of fakeouts you need to experience for yourself, this episode ends with Archer’s cancer intact and spreading to his lymph nodes. This leads to the next stage of grief in the “Placebo Effect”: rampage. Or as Archer puts it: “RAAAAMMMPPPPAAAAAGE!”
As the episode begins, Archer is in the middle of treatment but improbably looks and feels fine. Krieger (who, it turns out, can do legit science in addition to creating hybrid pig boys) finds that Archer’s cancer drugs are “basically candy corn and Zima.” So Archer needs to find out who’s stealing cancer drugs, and he swears vengeance:
MALORY: You’re not well. What are you going to do?
ARCHER: Cry havoc and let slip the hogs of war.
LANA: Dogs of war.
ARCHER: Whatever farm animal of war, Lana. Shut up.
As part of his rampage, Archer gets ahold of his actual drugs, and we soon see him with a bandana to cover up the loss of his “fifth best feature” — plus an IV he carries around while shooting preposterously stereotypical Irish mobsters in the knee or face. The rampage is alternated with scenes of Archer bonding with another cancer patient: an older, Regis-loving woman named Ruth. While Archer jokes he’s hanging around just to “bang a candy striper” it’s obvious he cares about Ruth, and she’s half the reason for the rampage, since she needs the real drugs too. It’s goddamn impressive how many layers these episodes give a character who started as nothing beyond “Bond with mommy issues.” Even better, the depth builds on the caricature without contradicting it: poor Ruth isn’t just a fellow cancer patient; she’s the kind of sweet, non-monstrous woman who Archer didn’t get as a mother.
Archer’s cancer does go into remission — this is a comedy, duh — but the way the show got there was an emotionally right-on fantasy I wish everyone with this fucking disease could experience. If you have cancer, you deserve one last shot at drunken sex with a long-term love interest. You deserve to go on a Vegas bender, then blame your shenanigans on Chet Manley. You deserve to terrorize the Irish mob. And you deserve a rampage and a cure.