Homeland may have the awards (including the Golden Globe bestowed on Sunday), but the best espionage series on television is Archer, an animated satire that starts its fourth season on FX on Jan. 19 (the series airs in Canada on Teletoon at Night).
A wildly anachronistic pastiche of spy-movie tropes centred on a dysfunctional U.S. intelligence agency, the show features a bleakly hilarious sensibility that is consolidated in its main character, Sterling Archer (voiced by comedian H. Jon Benjamin), a secret agent whose laundry list of character flaws include – but are hardly limited to – alcoholism, sociopathic narcissism and mom issues that would make Norman Bates blush. The latter are exacerbated by the fact that his mother, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), is also his boss. Imagine the oddly possessive, quasi-romantic maternal dynamic in Skyfall between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Judi Dench’s M after about three highballs and laced with arsenic and you’re about halfway there.
The shadow of 007 surely falls over Archer, which takes place in a world strangely out of time (the bad guys are typically Russian or Eastern European even though the technology is clearly post-Cold War) and embraces certain Ian Fleming-era anachronisms such as casual sexism and xenophobia – both rendered ridiculous by their sheer blatancy. There is also something decidedly retro about the show’s aesthetics, from its Saul Bass-inspired opening titles to the vaguely Hanna-Barbera-ish animation, which eschews fluidity in favour of elegant character designs and brilliantly tactile backdrops.
The show’s central joke is that the people charged with maintaining life-and-death matters of national security are unstable and unreliable, which is also the theme of Homeland. The difference is that Archer is absurd and cartoony on purpose.
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