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'Archer' And The Loud Comfort Of Rhythm

Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin) and Lana Kane (voice of Aisha Tyler) rarely look quite this uncomplicatedly happy.
Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin) and Lana Kane (voice of Aisha Tyler) rarely look quite this uncomplicatedly happy.

[This piece assumes you've seen the first five seasons of Archer, which contain quite the pileup of plot developments, so: beware.]

Every character on Archer is a creep. The animated FX comedy, which begins its sixth season Thursday night, features a rogues' gallery of spies, bureaucrats, masterminds, hangers-on and double-dealers, and not one can be fully called sympathetic. Even agent Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), the closest Archer comes to having a moral center, has at some point violently assaulted (and had sex with) virtually every other major character.

The rest are, for the most part, even worse. Sterling Archer himself — played by H. Jon Benjamin, who also voices Bob on Bob's Burgers — is utterly amoral, with the looks, means, firepower and reckless disregard for personal safety to act on his id's every whim. His mother, Malory Archer, is essentially Arrested Development's Lucille Bluth if she were the money-hungry head of a shady spy agency. (Aiding the comparison: They're both voiced by the great Jessica Walter. Many Arrested Development alums have turned up at some point here, including series regular Judy Greer.) It's hard to imagine describing any of Archer's supporting players without touching on a fatal flaw — starting with addictions to sex, cocaine, heroin or glue, to say nothing of the likelihood that one is a clone of Adolf Hitler himself — and I haven't even gotten into how often the dialogue is yelled in various stages of distress.

And yet, when called upon to name my favorite pop-culture comfort food — the stuff I turn to when I want to relax, unwind and turn off the world outside — Archer has been among my top answers for years now. If the kids aren't within earshot (the language and subject matter are strictly TV-MA) and I'm free to lounge around in my footie pajamas and shut out the world, it's often Archer that gets deployed for funny background noise.

There's something soothing about Archer, and it took me a while to figure out exactly what it is: that, for all its bombast, explosions, smuttiness, endless barrage of funny shouted insults and occasional gore, this is a show with a clear, noisy, strangely comforting rhythm to it. It helps, of course, that nothing here really threatens to conjure images of everyday life — certainly not mine.

Really, nothing sounds like Archer, yet its pacing and patterns soon become perfectly familiar. Scenes are stitched together quickly via overlapping banter — one ends with a line that also applies to the beginning of the next — which keeps each half-hour episode hurtling along in a manner that's seamless, almost agreeable.

Still, unlike The Simpsons and other animated shows that end each episode where it started, Archer's story develops chronologically and decisively. The wonderful Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) begins the series as a hapless HR rep, but has since revealed a grim backstory, gone toe-to-toe with the dreaded Yakuza and picked up a raging cocaine habit during the team's detour into drug trafficking in season five. Gay field agent Ray Gillette, voiced by showrunner and series creator Adam Reed (Frisky Dingo, Sealab 2021), has been paralyzed, outfitted with bionic legs, re-paralyzed and reconstructed. After four seasons as a magnet for stray bullets, poor Brett Bunsen (Neal Holman) finally died at the top of season five, though he gets a brief but bloody callback tonight.

Elsewhere, the story hurtles on. After abandoning the spy trade for the drug trade last year, Archer's characters resume espionage in the season-six premiere — albeit without the name ISIS, for reasons you might already have discerned. While Sterling Archer is sent off on a CIA-backed mission, others in the gang converge on their new/old headquarters — and, as is so often the case with this show, the workplace material hits harder and generates more laughs than the events in the field. Which, in turn, makes a good deal of sense: This is a show built on rhythms, the louder and more familiar the better.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)

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