The key to H. Jon Benjamin’s success as a voice actor, in the much beloved Home Movies, Bob’s Burgers, and Archer, is his ability to switch from tones of lethargy and breezy sarcasm to wild rage and frustration with extraordinary cadence. As John McGuirk, the sardonic soccer-coach-cum-father-figure to Home Movie‘s main protagonist, Brendon, Benjamin’s humor flowed from the oft-cynical advice and life lessons that seemed to hover over the precipice of furious mania; he always seemed to be capable of terrifically violent acts, but his career choice never allowed for such release. He takes a similar, if slightly more becalmed, role in Bob’s Burgers, which was thought to be destined for a similar fate as the prematurely cancelled Home Movies, but was thankfully and shrewdly saved at the 11th hour.
Both Home Movies and Bob’s Burgers prominently display Benjamin’s unique, brilliant delivery, but rarely surround him with equally talented voice actors, not to mention characters even half as deliriously entertaining as Bob and McGuirk. In both these regards, Archer, created by Adam Reed of Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, immediately announces itself as the most inventive, fully formed, and cripplingly hilarious platform for Benjamin, who provides the voice of Sterling Archer, a Bond-esque secret agent with a hugely unfulfilled Oedipal complex, working at not-so-top-secret spy agency ISIS.
Sterling is, for all intents and purposes, the main character of the show, but it’s apropos that it’s called simply Archer, as the presence of his dominative mother and boss, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter in prime form), permeates the series, even when she’s not on screen. Indeed, tensions that might otherwise lay barely bubbling underneath the surface of such a narrative are here constantly raging in the open, not only between Sterling and Mallory, but also between Sterling and Lana (Aisha Tyler), his fellow agent and on-again/off-again love interest, and Mallory and a litany of men that may be Sterling’s absent father (most prominent candidate: Len Trexler, voiced by Jeffrey Tambor, whose superb comic report with Walter in Arrested Development carries over beautifully).
The first season of Archer is something of a sucker punch. The clever-enough spy-satire template recedes by mid-season to allow for the funniest and most acerbic animated series since South Park premiered some 15 years ago, replete with astonishing wordplay that vollies between high- and low-brow with remarkable ease; a reoccurring line (“I had something for this”) is a consistently delightful prod at the heart of “snappy” action-film screenwriting. And good lord, the violence! People are torn apart by bullets constantly, beaten without mercy, stabbed and strangled, and, in the instance of one double agent, have their hand literally ripped off.
This, along with the series’s smart dissection of office politics shot through an absurdist lens, suggests a fascination with procedure, the ins and outs of maintaining ISIS as a business and hiring out independent contractors (read: assassins and informants). The best episodes of the season (“Killing Utne,” “Honeypot,” “Diversity Hire”) play openly with strained familial bonds, race, and sexuality, none of which are very popular subjects for television programs, animated or not. The result is a human comedy of the densest sort, with visual and verbal gags revealing themselves with repeat viewings (the placed-everywhere photos of Malory’s beloved dead dog, Duchess, is something that just recently came to my attention).
Inevitably, Sterling gets the cream-of-the-crop lines, but Reed, who miraculously writes and directs every episode, allows for a wide, richly detailed world of deliriously humorous characters both inside and outside ISIS. Judy Greer’s Cheryl and Amber Nash’s Pam grow in their comedic potency in nearly every subsequent episode, while George Coe’s vocal turn as Woodhouse, Sterling’s butler, Lucky Yate’s Dr. Krieger, and Chris Parnell’s Cyril Figgis provide consistently funny stalwarts; Reed himself does some excellent vocal work as Gillette, a flamboyantly gay ISIS field agent. There are other talented performers, such as Peter Newman and Dave Willis, who fill out this menagerie of misfits, but as much as he might be the most prominent, Benjamin’s usual place as the most demented comedic presence in the room is, for once, a debatable opinion.
Animation, even digital animation, always benefits from a Blu-ray upgrade and Fox's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of the first season of Archer is no exception. The colors pop out boldly in each scene and there's a huge difference in terms of clarity and texture when this transfer is compared to the DVD release. There are moments of slight aliasing, but other than that, there's nothing really to complain about with Fox's transfer. The audio is equally impressive. There's a dense mix of dialogue, music, and sound effects going on in Archer and the transfer does justice to the show's impressive sound design. Dialogue is out front, clear, and crisp, and sound effects and music are beautifully balanced in the low end.
The best things here are the deleted scenes and the unaired pilot episode, the former showing off some amusing and interesting extended jokes. The latter is simply the entire pilot episode ("Mole Hunt") with Sterling replaced by a velociraptor, which speaks to the lively absurdist tone of the show. The making-of segments are interesting but a bit dry and poorly produced. Enjoyable stuff, but nothing really essential in the slightest sense; an unaired network promo is also included.
Archer is, err, a spytastic series. Damnit, I had something for this.