Like Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers, the title character of FX’s animated spy series Archer is a TV staple: the obnoxious, entitled white dude who’s somehow still lovable. “Things just usually work out for me,” he says in a rare moment of introspection in Season 6, “which I kind of take for granted.” When a target warns him not to fire his gun because they’re on a mountain and it’ll trigger an avalanche, Archer shoots anyway. “Avalanche!” he cries as a river of snow propels him and his team of spies down the mountain. “Woo-hoo!”
On Thursday, everyone’s favorite embodiment of white male privilege is back for a seventh season of ass-kicking, taboo-crushing adventures in spycraft. You know those pervy animators who supposedly stuck dirty subliminal messages in Disney movies? Archer is what would happen if they decided to animate James Bond. The series isn’t afraid to make a character’s erection visible under his pants, or to have another character refer to a mixed-race baby as a “mulatto bastard.”
Season 7 finds our hero Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and his crew of fellow spies and office administrators relocating from New York to a detective agency in Los Angeles. Somehow, the show has managed a reboot in its fifth season (Archer Vice), followed by an un-reboot in its sixth, followed by yet another reboot — and still it remains one of the funniest series on TV, animated or otherwise. Archer demonstrates the value of not playing by the rules.
Like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, another long-running FX show (now on FXX), Archer is a workplace comedy that’s kept its cast and premise intact over many seasons. The show has toyed with longer arcs, but it’s a true episodic series — creator Adam Reed and his team of writers keep finding new reasons to get the team stuck in a jungle or a prison or an elevator, forcing them to find a way out in 22 minutes or less.
But the show has also subtly tweaked its characters and visual style. The upcoming season introduces new interstitials before the commercial breaks, a flourish of silhouetted spies in Charlie’s Angels-like poses. In Season 5, Cheryl (Judy Greer), an office administrator, becomes a country music superstar; in the following season, she’s back at her desk with no memory of her brief period of fame. Lana (Aisha Tyler) visits a sperm bank and chooses her ex-boyfriend Archer’s specimen, unbeknownst to him, and gives birth to a daughter — a pretty big change for a cartoon character. In Season 6 she and Archer finally — finally! — hook up.
I had shipped Lana and Archer hard, even as a part of me hoped they would never end up together; it just seemed so out of character for this show to give into the will-they-won’t-they trope, and for a man like Archer to stop dicking around with every attractive woman he meets. But the show has pulled off its central character’s domestication with signature ease. That Archer is now a father just means that he’s trading hit jobs in exchange for his daughter’s placement in a private preschool.
It’s a testament to Reed and his writing team that, like Archer himself, the show’s jokes may be off-color, but they always hit their target. When Archer’s mother Malory (Jessica Walter) offers Lana, who is black, several thousand dollars to name the baby after her, she adds, “Christen her in a white church and I’ll kick in five more.” In the new season, Archer, Lana, and Malory set up an interview with the head of that fancy preschool, who turns out to be an old classmate from Archer’s prep school — and who won’t shake Lana’s hand. “Yeah, I’m not the maid or the nanny,” Lana deadpans. “Good for you,” the headmaster replies. “Good for you! Gosh, the times we live in, huh?”
No amount of babies will make a show like this less corrosive, but the writers are careful not to let its happy anarchy tip over into something ugly. In an interview, Reed described discovering the James Bond of the novels for the first time while he was creating the title character: “Obviously he drinks too much. He’s sort of a cold-blooded assassin and there’s plenty of racism. But there’s more than one occasion where Bond just rapes these women but in a ‘romantic’ way where you can practically hear the violins swell. I mean, Fleming writes stuff like, ‘Bond twisted her arm behind her back and took his reward.’ And I’m like, ‘Holy shit. James Bond?’”
Of course, Archer never goes that far. But while the series may exist in a universe of its own — it’s set in the present day but has Cold War-era touches, like the office’s boxy, ’80s-style computers — it has one foot firmly in the real world. This season, Ray (voiced by Reed himself) burns Lana for her “shitty weave,” the first mention I can recall of her hair extensions. (“First of all, this is not a weave,” she begins, before muttering, “Well, it ain’t a shitty one.”) And A.J.’s pre-school plot allows the show to delve into Archer’s own school days, where it turned out he was mercilessly bullied to the point of hospitalization. This backstory is a far cry from the one Ian Fleming gave Bond, who apparently left the elite Eton College because of “alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids.”
Archer toys with the line between edgy and offensive, but unlike our canonized spy literature, it’s careful not to cross it. It’s a difficult path to maneuver week after week for seven seasons, and it takes balls, which is maybe just a cruder word for “entitlement.” Given the choice, Archer pulls the trigger and risks the avalanche every time.