Archer is such a quotable, dialogue-heavy show that sometimes it’s easy to miss the brilliance of its satire. At its best, this show is one of the most subversive and smart in the history of television, and the season 6 opener, “The Holdout”, is a great example of that.
I have a bit of history with Archer, having done some of the first academic work on it for James Bond and Popular Culture. In that chapter, I focused on one of the show’s most distinctive aspects, namely its use of language and sound. Archer has fun with language – what other animated TV show has a running gag about grammar? (“Phrasing!”) It’s also fascinating in its ability to use sonic links between scenes, sometimes creating whole new jokes by juxtaposing two conversations out of context. On top of that, hearing itself is an important element of the show, as Sterling Archer struggles with tinnitus as a result of repeated close-range gunshots. (The fact that they allow for any long-term physical damage to a superspy character’s health is fairly unprecedented. Can you imagine how many health problems James Bond would have in real life?) So, let’s acknowledge that this show, just on that basis, deserves a seat at the head table of animated comedy.
But satire and parody (the two terms are philosophically linked) are all about what’s being “targeted”, what the intended audience response is. In A Theory of Parody, Linda Hutcheon uses the wonderful terms “knowing smile” vs “disdainful laugh” to describe the two basic types of audience response, with parody, as she describes it, evoking the knowing smile and satire evoking the disdainful laugh. Great satirical art, like Archer at its best, fires off shots at many targets, including itself, and creates a complex but still hilarious collection of parodic “conversations”. Both responses are encouraged, sometimes both at once, depending on the context.
For example, Archer is set in some sort nebulous 1980s, where the cold war is still raging but they have some technology that seems closer to our time. They’ll use old-fashioned green-monochrome CRT displays, but those displays can generate an audio waveform image in real-time, something that my desktop found challenging up until a few years ago. Their office furniture is that sort of formica and pressboard hideousness that populated government offices from the 60s through to the 80s, but the colour scheme and the characters’ costumes seem more at home in the mid-1960s. One reason for this is the juxtaposition between an office of people who look like cold war-era adults (the parents of generation X, and we all love making fun of the previous generation), but talk like cynical gen-X College kids. Moreover, they act way over-the-top, with Dr Krieger (“Not a doctor!” he would no doubt correct me) developing “mind-shredding” hallucinogens and testing them out on office staff, or Pam Poovey’s relentless physicality and endless appetites for food, sex, and just about anything else. So, that’s a relatively obvious satirical connection: they’re making fun of our parents and their lifestyle, and we laugh because we like the idea of tearing the lid off the buttoned-down cold war. It’s the “knowing smile” response. That’s what makes parody so powerful, and so smart, because you have to know before smile.
Over five previous seasons, Archer has targeted Burt Reynolds movies (with Reynolds himself participating), Magnum PI, Agatha Christie, White Nights, Miami Vice and any number of cultural targets from an earlier time. Season five, titled Archer Vice, was a stylistic departure, telling one long, serialized story arc involving cocaine and the CIA. It was met with a mixed reception, and really was of spotty quality, sometimes brilliant (Pam was always wonderful) but sometimes tedious. You never want to see Archer stretching and straining for the jokes. They need to make it look easy, and sometimes last season, they didn’t.
So, this season opens with a lot of audience expectation and a lot of questions. What will the format be now? Will it be like seasons 1-4, or something entirely new? What about the birth of Archer and Lana’s daughter from the previous season finale? Archer always did a bit of re-jigging of the situation in season openers, whether it be the death of Archer’s wife (and her rebirth as a cyborg), or the running joke of analyst Ray Gillette suffering a spinal cord injury. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) But this season it’s up against some pretty profound expectations. And this is what makes this a very strong episode of Archer: it makes the whole episode about just that subject.
The biggest single question – what about the show’s format and setting – is answered more or less right away. Cheryl and Pam have reproduced the old “ISIS” office down to the last exact detail, right down the stains on the carpet and the way certain drawers squeak. As Malory notices, even the liquor is the same. The running joke is that the twisted office staff is using a hologram generator to create two versions of the office, one exactly like it was before and another an ultra-modern high-tech spy office. Malory is disoriented, and so is the audience, but creator/writer Adam Reed and company know exactly what they’re doing, namely that most difficult of satire tricks: satirizing the audience. They know that some audiences just wanted the show to forget about season five and go right back to the way it was before, and others wanted them to do something different, but no one wanted them to do another season five. So, they show us how ridiculous some of our expectations are. We’re laughing at ourselves. And that’s all in the first six minutes.
Meanwhile, Archer himself has gone on a six week bender to mourn the “surprise” of being “forced into parenthood” by Lana, who, as we remember, used Archer’s banked sperm to impregnate herself. His mother calls him back for a CIA-sponsored mission, and he finally journeys back towards America, his plane crashing on a remote Pacific island. Archer is the same character as always: completely self absorbed, with a massive yet fragile ego fuelled by an endless appetite for sex, liquor and drugs. But another side of Archer, the parodic side, is that he represents an entitled mid-20th-century male hero. He’s a exaggerated parody of that hero, the sort of character who we can see and say, “Oh, yes. I knew a guy like that in high school.” Once again, the knowing smile. It’s that very “out-of-time” aspect of Archer that makes him such a rich character and here we get a masterful twist where, in an homage to Hell in the Pacific, he is stranded on an island with an elderly Japanese fighter pilot who has been there since World War II. We then get the hilarious experience of having Archer serve as the voice of facts and reason, of him teaching this unfortunate pilot the essential historical facts of the late 20th century. He only brings his companion up to the cold war, historically, implying that either the show takes place in the 1980s, or Archer is so dumb he doesn’t remember any history after that point. That alone is a rich satirical jab at a certain sort of modern politician seems to still be preparing to fight the 1980s war rather than the 2010s one.
This knowing, witty and brilliant piece of satire brings Archer roaring back after a shaky fifth season. We’ll be looking at each episode in turn, but it’s safe to say that Archer remains one of the funniest and incisive shows on TV.