In Slate’s Archer TV Club, Jeremy Stahl will IM each week with a different fan of the FX spy comedy. This week he chats with Archer fan Charles Bock, author of the award-winning novel Beautiful Children.
Stahl: Charles, first off I'd like to thank you for joining me. In Harper’s last month, you wrote what has to be the smartest think piece out there on the roots of Archer's comedy and the evolution of adult cartoons.
Bock: I appreciate anybody having read the piece. It was fun to try and bring some light, attention, and thought to Sterling Mallory Archer and his band of merry maniacs.
Stahl: So, this week we got the first part of a highly anticipated two-part season finale. ISIS is yet again lured under false pretenses on a fake mission, ostensibly this time to extract a downed hydrogen bomb in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and ransom it—er, return it for a modest reward to the American government. As Lana notes, this may or may not be treason.
But the point is moot, because we soon discover that Cheryl’s gross brother Cecil has set up the whole thing as a ruse. First, he tricks every member of ISIS into revealing Cheryl’s darkest secrets on videotape, so that he can demonstrate to a judge that she is completely insane and gain conservatorship over her (he needs Cherly’s half of the family’s billion-dollar fortune to fund philanthropic efforts to nourish, shoe, bespectacle, and lapotopify underprivileged children).
Second, in a plot eerily similar to last year’s “Space Race” finale, a rogue eco-terrorist named Captain Murphy (natch) has taken over Cecil’s Undersea Laboratory and is threatening to annihilate Washington D.C., Miami, and New York City with a chemical weapons attack. Cecil apparently needs ISIS to stop Murphy, who is voiced by Jon Hamm.
There was a lot going on—maybe too much.
Bock: Honestly, Cheryl saves the episode for me: her immediate reaction to Cecil is great, and the creepy and foreboding music that only she can apparently hear is even better ("Get out of my head, John Williams"). That added energy to what was otherwise a lot of, hate to say it, treading water.
This episode largely seemed to exist to get to the end of it, no? That next one hopefully will be the greatest thing ever—just Sealab 2021, plus Archer, plus Jon Hamm! What could go wrong (no pressure).
Stahl: It did the job of introducing us to Hamm's insanely scruffy and evil Captain Murphy. Though, I'm just wondering if that could have been done in, like, five minutes. Also, Cecil let me down in the crazy department.
Bock: I actually appreciated that Cecil seems sane, but also subtly passive aggressive. Twenty minutes in he let loose one of Cheryl's patented "oh my god"s, which was delightful.
My guess is that Cecil will be batshit crazy by the end of the next episode—as nuts as his sis. But yeah, give us Murphy in the opening scene and get us down beneath the sea quicker. That's where you'd find me, anyway.
I say all of that with love, of course.
Stahl: In your extremely loving Harper’s essay, and in a shorter web essay, you describe how the show is a direct descendent of not only The Simpsons, South Park, and Adult Swim’s early programming, but the comics of Matt Groening, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar.
What I want to ask you is the extent to which you consider Archer to be a sui generis program, or just the extension of all of the anti-comedy predecessors you documented so well? My Slate colleague Chris Wade said something I thought was very astute, calling Archer “a well realized version of the same kind of genre parodying cartoon that plays fast and loose with its relationship to reality that Reed has been tinkering with since the Sealab 2021 days.”
You nicely describe how Archer has been able to escape the ephemeral feeling of the 12-minute Adult Swim shows like Sealab 2021, and I’m wondering to what extent you think Archer is a wholly original show, and to what extent it’s a kind of Sealab 2.0?
Bock: While researching the Harper’s piece, I went back and watched more AS programs than I can even explain, including almost every episode of the five seasons of Sealab. Your colleague may see germs of Archer in them, and some jokes do reappear, but I don't think they are the same beast, not at all. They just came from the same guy, and have some sensibilities that are similar (Reed's apparent hatred of all things workplace and bureaucratic, for example).
But Archer is much more evolved. The characters are actual characters. The art—come on. Sealab also had a lot of unformed farting around, eons more than Archer. Also, Sealab 2021 is totally obscure. Nobody really watched it. Even on AS chat boards it was hard to find former viewers.
All of that said, this last episode should go for broke on the Sealab stuff. I want a Happy Cake Oven. I want Bizarros. Explosions where people die. First mates gone wild. I am hoping for insanity to the extremes.
Stahl: The other thing I want from next week is to see Cheryl levels of madness from Cecil, and more flashbacks to their childhood. I loved seeing seven-year-old Cheryl with a gasoline canister and an already demented look on her little budding arsonist’s face yelling “take that gazebo.” Plus, there were a lot of little new nuggets that the ISIS team shared with Cecil, like Cheryl’s six-month long life as a werewolf and her scissor attack on poor Brent. The more Tunt origin story we get, the better.
Bock: Poor, poor Brent.
Stahl: Okay, I'm going to go chuck this Mr. Bill strawberry I’ve been building into the blender and finish off making a Horatio Cornblower for my evening nightcap. Salut!