GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The animated comedy "Archer" explores the raunchy exploits of Sterling Archer, who is known from Berlin to Bangkok as the world's most dangerous spy.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
The show is violent, smutty and packed with profanity, wordplay and callbacks. Now, in its 13th season, it's a workplace comedy where the workplace is full of guns, sex and the occasional mad scientist. I'm Stephen Thompson.
WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Archer" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us today is the head of production at Wondery, Kathy Tu. Hey, Kathy.
KATHY TU: Hey, guys.
WELDON: Welcome, welcome, welcome. So "Archer" premiered all the way back in 2009, when it revolved around a spy agency run by Malory Archer, played by the incomparable and irreplaceable Jessica Walter. It's worth noting that Walter died in March 2021 but completed voice recording for season 12, so this is the first season without her. Her son, Sterling, voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, is a hotshot spy with a drinking problem and a cavalier attitude that maximizes mayhem. His on-again, off-again love interest is badass superspy Lana Kane, voiced by Aisha Tyler. She once dated on-again, off-again accountant Cyril Figgis, voiced by Chris Parnell. The onetime head of HR is Pam Poovey, voiced by Amber Nash. Pam starts out as the office gossip, but we soon learn that she, among many other pursuits, races drift cars with the Yakuza. Then there's secretary Cheryl, who also goes by Carol, as voiced by Judy Greer. She's an heiress who sniffs glue and owns an ocelot. And if you think Cheryl/Carol is weird, you haven't met Dr. Krieger, voiced by Lucky Yates. He's sort of like Q in James Bond, if Q spent much of his time consuming tentacle porn and creating half-human-half-pig hybrids. And finally, there's Ray Gillette, a field agent who happens to be a gay cyborg. He's voiced by Adam Reed, who created the show. He was also at the helm of the shows "Sealab 2021" and the wonderful "Frisky Dingo." Archer is currently in its 13th season, which sees the gang working for a new boss, Fabian, voiced by "What We Do In The Shadows" Kayvan Novak. It airs on FXX and streams on Hulu.
Kathy, I've been talking a long time, but I feel like I've just scratched the surface. Talk to me about why you love "Archer."
TU: I've been watching the show since it premiered, and what I love about it is that it kind of both reflects society, but continues to have individual episode humor that anybody could drop in on. And that's what I've sort of loved, especially - when the world was under siege by ISIS, they changed the name of the agency from ISIS to something else. I think it's now just the Agency. That's what I love about the show. It's goofy. It doesn't quite make sense. It takes something that we're all obsessed with, which is spies and cool gadgets and hilarious personalities, and it sets it up in a way that just feels relatable. And I think that's why I've been watching it since the beginning. I definitely kind of petered out during three seasons of Coma Archer.
THOMPSON: As did the show itself.
WELDON: We'll talk about that. Yeah.
TU: But I've come back around with - as soon as they announced that he's out of the coma, Season 11, I was back on it.
WELDON: That's fantastic. Yeah, you ticked off a lot of the things that make this show this show. Stephen, I happen to know you love this show. Can you talk to me about how it's evolved over the years?
THOMPSON: Well, I think a lot of its evolution has been by necessity. Several of the very key character actors providing voices on this show have died. Obviously, Jessica Walter died, and they had to write her out of the show at the end of Season 12, and they've had to evolve from that. The great George Coe, who played Archer's manservant, Woodhouse, died, which was a kind of stealth, huge loss for the show. You know, so it's had to adjust just simply to the passage of time. I think this show - it is comfort food in a way that is really hard to explain because this is a very loud show.
THOMPSON: And, like, most lines of dialogue are screams.
TU: So true.
THOMPSON: It is full of gunfire and constant conflict. And yet the rhythms of this show and the way a lot of the dialogue is pieced together - it has a rhythm that is very strangely relaxing to me. And so when I have the house to myself, this show comes on at full blast. Now, you asked me, Glen, about how this show has evolved. I would say very unsteadily. I would say this show is pretty phenomenal for the first five, six, seven seasons with some kind of hiccups along the way. Some of it has aged a little bit better than others. But Seasons 8, 9 and 10 - for three solid years of this show, Sterling Archer is in a coma, and each season is, like, in a different kind of parallel universe. One is set in the '40s. One is set in kind of an Indiana Jones-y (ph) kind of, like, Jungle Island adventure. And then one is set in space. I find those seasons completely skippable.
THOMPSON: For one, you're not advancing the plot in any way. None of it is canon. It's kind of sort of fan service. As soon as it gets him out of the coma, as you say, Kathy, it really kind of gets a little fresh jolt of electricity and is really fun kind of ever since. I would say it is not as consistent as it used to be. But if you dropped out at some point during those coma seasons, I really recommend picking up with Season 11 and getting back into it.
WELDON: Yeah. I'm one of those people who dropped out, like many people. And I am back, and I'm back for good. I've always really dug this show. I love the design, the aesthetics of this world. Everyone on the show is hot. Even the Cyril Figgises of this universe are just hot. There is a really interesting stiffness to the animation in terms of their bodies that's very reminiscent of what it's going for, the sort of Saturday morning, '60s Hanna-Barbera nostalgic thing, with very thick lines outlining everybody - very "Jonny Quest." But the animators are directing all their energy to what matters. The bodies can be stiff, but their faces are hugely expressive because the show knows that so much of the show is centered on the dialogue, not the action.
I mean, it's a big spy show with a lot of explosions and gunplay, but the engine of the show is the tremendous dialogue that is so expertly performed by this amazing voice cast. I love the joke density. I love the fact that it's kind of a caustic and very unsentimental show, which is why, as I was preparing to take this episode, I was shocked at how much of it I had just missed. I haven't kept up with it. And I didn't realize how much of - what I had. And then I couldn't tell you why. I mean, there's a lot more out there now than there was when the show began. But, you know what? Sometimes the show would zag on me, like in the "Miami Vice" episodes or the Burt Reynolds storyline that I just didn't, you know, vibe with.
THOMPSON: Oh, I love the Burt Reynolds storyline.
WELDON: Different things for - different strokes, Stephen. But I dropped back in on this season, Season 13. The show pretends to be serialized. Everything just goes back to first position when a new episode begins, it feels like going home. And I felt like some of these Season 13 episodes could have been a Season 1 episode.
THOMPSON: I think it's a show that drifts off course and then course corrects. It doesn't necessarily reset to square one the way that, say, "The Simpsons" does, where, like, the characters are never really allowed to evolve. These characters do - I don't necessarily think they evolve into better people.
THOMPSON: But their circumstances do change over the course of the show.
TU: Yeah. And then speaking of the action sequences that you were talking about, Glen - I love the action sequences on "Archer." I feel like the amount of stuff that happens in an action sequence - like, if you're just looking at the first episode of Season 13, there's a sequence just, like, coming out of an airplane.
THOMPSON: Oh, yeah.
TU: So I'm a fan of action. So seeing it in the cartoon format really tickles me.
WELDON: Yeah. And there's something fun they do - when there's an explosion, they use real fire or that kind of fake, digital fire that kind of comes in.
WELDON: So much happens on this show, but the characters and their relationships have largely stayed the same. So this is the blessing and the curse of an animated show - right? - because your characters aren't going to age. So they all exist in this kind of suspended eternal now. So you can just throw events at them. But the central dynamic of the show doesn't change. You get a lot of callbacks. But this show is really smart. It's very assiduous in its desire to keep you up to speed. So here's an example. In the most recent season in Episode 3, Sterling and Lana kind of talk to each other about what they've been through together.
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H JON BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) ...My daughter, too.
KENAN THOMPSON: (As the Broker) You two have a child together?
BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) Yes, but not through sex. This woman took my sperm to have a baby.
AISHA TYLER: (As Lana Kane) Oh, my God.
THOMPSON: (As the Broker) Go on.
BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) Yeah. And then she never told me.
TYLER: (As Lana Kane) I told you when I was ready.
BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) After AJ was born during a coup.
TYLER: (As Lana Kane) Not that you cared - because you abandoned her.
BENJAMIN: (As Sterling Archer) So you faked a kidnapping to make me care?
TYLER: (As Lana Kane) Only the first kidnapping.
WELDON: OK, so that makes it sound like you're just summarizing, like, a month of "One Life To Live."
WELDON: But, I mean, if you have zoned out, like, there you go.
WELDON: That's all you need. But that's one of the reasons I say it's also a curse - because I think one of the reasons that long-running animated shows tend to get talked about less in their later seasons - "Simpsons," "Family Guy" - I think "Bob's Burgers" is largely avoiding this because maybe I just - I'm in the tank for those characters. It's just you have this - static relationships. Even if you mix things up all the time, as this show endlessly does, these characters - it's great that they're so well-defined. It's great that they bounce off each other so well. But there is a sameness. So it's kind of a bingeable show, but it's also not.
THOMPSON: They've also given so many of those characters so many layers. You know, when you were just describing who the characters were in the intro and kind of going through, we could spend 5 minutes talking about how each character has developed. Pam Poovey, who starts out as like, gossipy, HR rep and eventually is, like, racing drift cars for the yakuza and is in fight clubs. And, like, they have managed to mine so much comedy.
I do think, naturally, over the course of 13 seasons, they know what to do with some characters more than others. And I think there are long stretches where they don't really know, for example, what to do with Cyril. I think they've struggled a little bit in later seasons to figure out exactly what to do with Lana to the point where they're almost commenting on the fact that, like, Lana doesn't necessarily know who she is. Maybe Lana isn't as fun as she used to be. Like, sometimes there are characters who spend a little bit of time adrift...
THOMPSON: ...Whereas a character like Krieger - they're sort of always able to do new stuff with Krieger 'cause Krieger is just a very, very creepy Q. And you can always have Krieger working on some ridiculous cloning or whatever. You can always graft new comedy onto that. And I think some of these characters, they've had an easier time with that than others.
TU: I don't know how much you both would agree with this, but I have frequently thought of "Archer" as sort of like exactly the same, but the total opposite of "The Office."
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Please tell me more.
TU: You got your, like, two-love interest. You've got a weird boss. You've got the weird Creed in the corner, who is just Krieger. And then eventually you also have, you know, the odd secretary, that "The Office" also ends up getting. So I kind of have always - like, when I'm sick, the things I put on are either "The Office" or "Archer."
TU: 'Cause they're kind of the same thing to me.
WELDON: Yeah, I see that. I totally see that.
THOMPSON: It is, above all else, a workplace comedy, up to and including the fact that it will occasionally get into HR minutia.
THOMPSON: Like, several of them are on a mission, and the ones back home are, like, fighting 'cause their flex account has been drained.
TU: That was like - that was the pilot episode, right?
TU: It was, like, Archer's operations account or something was not accurate. So, I mean, also, the first episode of Season 13 takes place at a ClandestiCon...
TU: ...Which just - with the corporate takeover, like, this is basically workplace...
TU: ...Except for spies.
WELDON: And an exhibit floor, the whole schmear.
WELDON: Let me ask you a question about this new season. As we said, this is unsentimental. This is kind of caustic. There's no growth, emotional growth. They wouldn't waste their time on that. However, they're working for a new agency. There's a crisis of leadership, and Archer seems more adrift than usual, nihilistic as always, drunk, more drunk than usual, making a show of how uncaring he is. Would this show ever do a storyline where Archer is dealing with grief over the death of his mother? Is that what I'm seeing here? Or am I making that up?
THOMPSON: Well, first of all, obviously, they have to write Malory out of the show because Jessica Walter has died. At the end of Season 12, they tie up the Malory Archer storyline. It's sort of set up like she has gone away, but she has not died, so the grief is more - he's adrift because he doesn't have the influence of his mother in his life. To back up just a little bit, like, one of the neat things they do in Season 11 after those three coma seasons, they pick up where the agency has been moving for three years without Archer, and the absence of Archer changes the characters' dynamics in ways they have to address throughout Season 11, in ways that I think are really interesting.
I think in Season 13, what they're kind of setting up is the absence of Malory shifts Archer's motivations. It untethers him from his mother's clutches. They're trying to kind of have that character dealing with the fact that his mother isn't around as an influence. And grief may be a part of that. But some of it is just, like - it's a running gag for 13 years of this show that Archer is deeply affected by his relationship with his mother.
THOMPSON: Like, now he is reacting to her absence in ways that I think have real potential.
WELDON: Well, let me ask you one last question, each of you, because I think people listening to this probably know the show if they've listened this far, but maybe they don't. Maybe they're curious about the show, and they want to know, like, a place to start. Now, it could be a specific episode, or it could be a season. I think we already know which seasons you would not recommend.
WELDON: But where would you start, Kathy, with an episode or a season to just get a sense of this show?
TU: I actually think Season 13 is not a bad place to jump in. I really love the first two episodes. And what's also interesting, I think, is if you want to learn more, you can kind of jump back to any of the other seasons and get a little bit of backstory. Or the Vice season - that's Season 5 - was also very impactful for me. Just anything but the coma seasons.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, I'm certainly on Team Anything But the Coma Seasons.
THOMPSON: I mean, I think if you're looking for an entry point into the show, the pilot is very, very, very strong. My favorite episode of this show ever - and I think it's a pretty self-contained episode - is in Season 3, and it's called "Lo Scandalo." It begins with (laughter) - the prime minister of Italy is found bound, gagged and shot to death in Malory's apartment. And it is part farce, part murder mystery. It is filthy. It is so, so, so funny and really brings out the best in a bunch of my favorite characters on the show. I think this has some of the funniest Cheryl moments, some of the funniest Krieger moments.
I mean, the loss of Jessica Walter - we've talked on this show before about how much we love Jessica Walter and how huge the loss of just this central, central performer from both "Arrested Development," from this show, from 80 million guest spots on 80 million TV dramas. Almost anything with Malory Archer is going to be some of my favorite stuff. And that "Lo Scandalo" is a particularly great Malory Archer episode.
WELDON: Yeah, that's a great pick. And so I think, listeners, you know what we think about "Archer." We want to know what you think about "Archer." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Stephen Thompson, Kathy Tu, thanks to both of you for being here.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
TU: Of course. Thank you so much.
WELDON: Of course. And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you got a second and you're so inclined, please sign up for our newsletter at npr.or/popculturenewsletter. This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Glen Weldon. And we'll see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about "Reboot."
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