By Raja Sen
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When the animated spy series Archer began back in 2009, it asked a straightforward yet immediately compelling question: what if James Bond’s boss ‘M’ was also his mother? This starting point was incendiary enough to kick off some exceptional subversion of secret agent tropes and clichés. The exceedingly snide Archer mocked and celebrated its eponymous hero, who, despite incessant womanising and hard-drinking, also turned out to be the best spy in the world, his foolhardiest plans rewarded with unlikely success. In the 13th season of the series — out now on Netflix — a new boss sizes up the leading man perfectly: “It’s like his liver absorbs alcohol and excretes luck."
However, as those of us who know the spy comedy well can attest, protagonist Sterling Archer has also taken his lumps. Past seasons have shown the hero deal with cancer, a failed romance, bereavement, increased irrelevance — problems, in short, that he couldn’t drink away. Complete seasons were spent on imaginary adventures set inside fever dreams (of differing cinematic genres) that Archer conjured in his head while in a life-threatening coma, which shone a light on his insecurities and misogyny. Season 12 saw Archer bid goodbye to his mother — both the reason he’s screwed up and the reason he manages to shine — and when we meet Archer this year, he’s drinking on the job.
Let me rephrase that. Sterling Archer has always been drinking on the job but now, freed of a mother/boss, he’s revelling in the joy of slacking. “Not helping pays the same and doesn’t require trying," he announces. This makes for a unique group dynamic where everyone, save Archer, tries to occupy the leadership role — the empty chair left behind by the unforgettable Mallory Archer, voiced so iconically by actress Jessica Walters, who passed away last year.
And while Sterling Archer may be listless, it isn’t as if he isn’t trying: his colleagues, trying to organise an intervention under the guise of a “brunch-y hang," are stunned to learn that Archer has been seeing a therapist — pointedly named Dr Lacania. Sure, his doctor’s first name is Mallory, and she does eventually dress up in Archer’s mother’s clothes, but you have to give credit to the guy for at least trying to identify his problems. “Impulse control, abandonment issues, PTSD…" Archer lists, taking a big swig from a Bloody Mary, “Self-medicating."
Meanwhile, the rest of the gang takes turns at taking charge. The most viable of the lot is the ultraviolent Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) and somehow the most effective is the utterly insane Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), who is now a self-taught explosives expert. H Jon Benjamin, who voices Archer, leads a murderer’s row of voice talent — who just get even better at playing off one another — and they keep the chaos compelling after all these years. These nincompoops shouldn’t be trusted with anyone’s drink order, leave alone someone’s life. Yet here we are still watching, 13 seasons on. “Here comes the cavalry," says Archer, “except it’s like a cavalry where the horses are in charge."
Ah, those Archer lines. Sharply crafted dialogues that somehow pack in deep literary and historical references, as well as increasingly graphic innuendo. Not to mention more scorn than the characters on Succession. For too often I end up quoting from an episode where Lana (Aisha Tyler) and Cyril (Chris Parnell) are talking about Orwell’s Animal Farm while Archer thinks they mean an actual farm:
Archer: Wait, there are animals?
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Lana: No, Animal Farm.
Cyril: How do you not get that?
Archer: No, I know what an animal farm is.
Cyril: Not an animal farm.
Archer: Maybe we can stampede a flock of goats down the hall.
Lana: Animal Farm is a book!
Archer: No it isn’t, Lana! It’s an allegorical novella about Stalinism by George Orwell — and, spoiler alert, it sucks.
The eternally complicated Archer and Lana dynamic — as co-workers who used to date and now have a child together — has also matured this season. Lana, voiced brilliantly by Aisha Tyler, remains a super-achiever in the field, but is getting bogged down by custody hearings and lawyer calls. Archer, it turns out, is better at communicating with their daughter than Lana (he perceptively chalks this down to his own arrested development) and he seems to genuinely care about his daughter AJ — who, it appears, has inherited her father’s palate. Archer is also openly aware of the void his mother has left behind, and keeps invoking her to colleagues who may be traitors, or to Lana, the only woman he trusts to make his mother proud.
In one episode, a villain offers Archer a dictatorship, a regime of his own to quench all his desires. “Ha! My appetites will never be fulfilled" laughs Archer, “because I am ultimately empty… is, I guess, what I’m arguing." That may also explain the superspy’s desperation to find the next drink, assiduously staying pickled to avoid an aftershock from the sobriety he has spent years evading. “If that hangover hits head on, my bones would explode." While that might not be a reasonable belief, sometimes it takes a little delusion to keep moving forward. Facts can wait. Lie another day.
Streaming Tip Of The Week:
Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? (Netflix) tells the fascinating story of a young man who took a 1990s Pepsi ad campaign on face value, and demanded a Harrier jet plane shown in the company’s ads. An interesting look at false advertising, opportunism and choices of a new generation.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.
- FIRST PUBLISHED09.12.2022 | 10:40 AM IST