The Hilarious Cartoon Character with the Life of a Superspy and the Soul of a Child

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 9 2012 3:02 PM

Character Studies: Sterling Archer

archer
A still of Sterling Archer on Archer.

On tonight’s episode of FX’s animated espionage comedy Archer, the hero, ruggedly handsome Sterling Archer, leaps out of the elevator into his office, shouting, “Paging Dr. Boy! Dr. Birthday Boy!” He’s crestfallen when it turns out no one is waiting to throw him a surprise birthday party.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Here are some things Archer does that are less charming: He asks his elderly butler why he bothers going on living. He tells a fellow agent who’s just been shot to shut up so he can hear more about his birthday present. He tells a car he wants to have sex with it. He pulls machine guns on the yakuza. He blows up two police cars. And, when all is said and done, he weeps over the memory of a five-speed bike lost when he was eight years old.

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That’s what I love about Archer in a nutshell: He has the wardrobe, sex life, and armaments of an adult superspy, but the soul (and impulse control) of a child.

Archer maintains that juvenile outlook not because he’s an Apatovian man-boy looking for love. No, Archer remains a child because he works for his mom, iron lady Malory Archer, head of ISIS, the International Secret Intelligence Service. The relationship between needy, rage-filled Sterling and hypersexual, cold but loving Malory is the core of Archer’s absurdist comedy; when an entire episode can revolve, as tonight’s does, over a grown man’s fear of what his mother will do when she finds out he lost his birthday present, there’s a lot of pathology to explore.

As voiced by H. Jon Benjamin—best known as the voice of Bob in Bob’s Burgers and, before that, as hapless Coach McGuirk in the much-missed Adult Swim series Home Movies—Archer has essentially two modes: suave self-possession, and unhinged rage/sorrow/joy. He toggles between them perhaps 25 times per episode. He’s animated as a model-gorgeous fashion plate with cheekbones that could cut steel and ice-blue eyes (the only feature he shares with the otherwise schlubby Benjamin). Archer wears designer suits and never stops drinking. On missions, he enjoys wearing a tactical turtleneck. He will tell anyone he is a secret agent, especially hot women. He is not very secret. He is weirdly sexy, and also probably sociopathic.

But c’mon: If I were a secret agent, I’d want to tell everyone, too. I’d get ridiculously excited about spy cars and fighting a guy on top of a train and turtlenecks. If I looked like that, I’d hit on everything that moved. Maybe I wouldn’t kidnap Burt Reynolds because he’s dating my mother, but that’s why I’m not the funniest, most unhinged character on television.

Previously in Character Studies:

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