The animated “Archer” premiered in fall 2009 on cable network FX as a comedic take on the spy genre. At the center of the show was the titular character (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), a man with mommy issues and probably a drinking problem who happened to be a really adept spy at a top-secret agency — run by the mother that gave him those issues (voiced by Jessica Walter). But over the course of its nine seasons and 100 episodes, the key to its longevity was fearlessness on behalf of the writers, producers and network itself to break typical format and bend genres.
“What’s so great about ‘Archer’ is it’s like nothing else,” says FX Networks CEO John Landgraf. “It is this singular combination of absolutely sharp great writing, unbelievably excellent voice cast, and a phenomenal visual sensibility that was built from the ground up by [executive producers] Adam Reed [and] Matt Thompson, and their animation studio specifically to service this visual style.”
The early days of the series focused heavily on grand scale spy missions that often saw Archer and Lana (voiced by Aisha Tyler) getting into car chases, going undercover, and getting into shootouts with a variety of bad guys while their co-workers stayed back at the office, experiencing the mundanity of computer hackings and paperwork. It was a formula that worked — the first season averaged just under a million live+same day viewers (964,000) and the series was given a larger episode order for its second year (up to 13, from the first season’s 10). Benjamin also scored the show’s first Emmy nomination with a voice acting nom in 2010.
“I knew right away when I did the pilot that the character of Archer was pretty unique and the writing was so sharp,” Benjamin says. “First and foremost I think Adam Reed is really good at what he does, in the sense that he writes really interesting characters and the world is really engaging because there are a lot of recriminations and passive aggression and murder. But also the care in which they make the show and the way [it] looks is a prime factor in presenting it as really unique.”
But series creator Reed started to feel constrained by the structure, and says he was growing concerned that “nobody [was] going to come to this party” despite the ratings being up (averaging 1.1 million total viewers for that second year). So he started to kick around the idea of branching into other genres.
The end of the third season saw the gang head to outer space for a two-part story, and then the following year Reed took them under the sea for another two-parter. Then they went all-in on the fifth season, with the bubblegum-colored, ‘80s inspired “Archer: Vice” that saw the gang working a case in Florida.
“Adam came to us [and] said he wanted to break the show from a spy show to ‘Miami Vice’ that season. He wanted to try something different, not with the tone of the show, but with the structure,” says Kate Lambert, FX’s senior vice president of series development and animation.
“It was from him feeling like he wanted to break the form; at the time we weren’t having creators do that.”
Reed’s idea revitalized the series. After the fifth season, “Archer” went into syndication, first with an exclusive deal with Comedy Central. The same year, a deal was made for the online streaming rights of the hit series and “Archer” nabbed its first Emmy nom for animated series. To date, it has been nominated four times and won once — in 2016.
Subsequent seasons became more serialized, each taking on a unique tone. They included a brief turn to the CIA (season six), a Los Angeles-set look at the world of private investigators (season seven), and a journey into Archer’s subconscious (seasons eight and nine) after he was found, seemingly murdered, face-down in a pool at the end of the seventh year.
“What’s so great about ‘Archer’ is it’s like nothing else.”
“On the production side of things it’s very exciting at the start of the season to see what we’re going to do,” says co-executive producer Casey Willis.
Just weeks after the seventh season wrapped on FX, the network announced a three-year renewal and new overall deal with the show’s production company Floyd County Prods.
In January 2017, just months before the eighth season premiered, it was announced that “Archer” was one of a few legacy shows to join the lineup at newer comedy-focused net FXX. The show launched its eighth season — but first subconscious season — that April, seeing 742,000 live+same day viewers for premiere.
“Archer: Dreamland” was set inside a comatose Archer’s mind — a darker look at life as a private eye hunting for a killer. The season averaged 465,000 live+same day viewers and a 0.3 rating.
The ninth season, “Danger Island,” which launched this April, is a lighter, brighter trip to a pre-World War II South Pacific island. The season premiere brought in 0.5 million live+same day viewers to FXX.
Moving into such anthology-style storytelling has allowed the show’s writers and producers to tweak relationships or create completely new ones. In “Dreamland,” for example, Malory had a brief reprieve from being Archer’s mother, while in “Danger Island,” Cyril (voiced by Chris Parnell) is a Nazi, and Krieger (voiced by Lucky Yates) is a different species altogether.
“This whole thing became incredibly freeing that we can go anywhere we want,” says executive producer Matt Thompson. “The core principles of our characters, for the most part, are there season to season. Maybe one or two will take a departure [and] then there’s the wrench that gets thrown in to change everything [but] as long as Archer remains at the center of it — as long as Archer both punches and gets punched around, both physically and emotionally — it makes a brand new tale that still feels familiar.”
The idea of anthology storytelling has opened up the world of “Archer,” which not only lends itself to making noise in today’s increasingly crowded television landscape but should give it legs for years to come.
“What’s so fun about television these days is how cinematic and visually inventive it’s able to be,” Landgraf says. “[‘Archer’] not only reinvented the spy genre, but now it takes place in this weird out-of-time reality and it can reinvent that reinvention.”