I have distinctly mixed feelings about the Adult Swim-ization of TV comedy. Not quite a genre, less than a movement, born of Cartoon Network’s late-night bloc but now found in animation and live action and animated shows across networks, often characterized reductively by fans and detractors alike as “stoner humor,” it’s a shared sensibility that partakes of a complex brew of influences. The recent viral sensation “Too Many Cooks” epitomizes the approach; it’s smart, but it aims its hardest punches at soft targets — usually at the trashy pop culture it both loves and despises. If there is a guiding credo, it is this: There’s no such thing as going too far for the joke. Over the top is where it starts, and it is unshakable in its conviction that excess — of sex, of bloodshed, of fluids and secretions of all kinds — is inherently funny.
It’s an approach, in other words, that puts the fine line between clever and stupid up for grabs, and the results don’t always fall down on the right side. Adam Reed was the creative force behind two early Adult Swim efforts that didn’t really connect with me. Sealab 2021 was scattershot by design, repurposing old Hanna-Barbera animation into blackout sketches, but it too often faltered into unfunny non-sequiturs. The more plot-driven Frisky Dingo deployed its absurdity with a bit more care, and boasted a sleek, appealing visual style, but it too bogged down into wheel-spinning longueurs.
It wasn’t until Archer (which begins its sixth season on FX next month) that Reed found the perfect vehicle for his intensely self-aware, mordant, deeply whacked brand of humor. In Hollywood-speak, the show can be summed up as Mission: Impossible meets The Office — a character-based workplace comedy set in the plot-based world of espionage. Ostensible leading man Sterling Archer is a perpetually drunken, emotionally stunted, endlessly self-regarding, bottomlessly irresponsible playboy who also happens to be the top field agent for a freelance international intelligence service. The service’s founder and director is Archer’s mother, Mallory, who exerts an unhealthy passive-aggressive hold over him. Archer splits his time between death-defying spy missions and managing his messy personal relationships with his co-workers — femme fatale and ex-girlfriend Lana Kane; her most recent ex, nerdy comptroller Cyril Figgis; gossipy HR director Pam Poovey; dizzy secretary Carol (or is it Cheryl?); gifted-but-unlucky field agent Ray Gilette; slightly-mad scientist Dr. Krieger — and a host of vividly-drawn one-off characters.
Archer’s only real peer in the realm of animated comedy is The Venture Brothers; both keep a free flow of sarcastic banter tethered to the discipline of tight plotting even as they mock the notion of plot. The deconstruction of genre tropes, which can so easily degenerate into a mere game of spot-the-reference, yields sublime, multilayered jokes. Like Arrested Development, Archer plays the long game, drawing much of its effect from callbacks and in-jokes, carefully setting up its reveals in season-long arcs. Even its minor characters are given shadings, quirks, and backstories, making them as endearing as they are ridiculous. Cyril frets about his masculinity and struggles with sex addiction; Cheryl (or is it Carol?) has a choking fetish and a huffing problem, and is secretly a slumming rich kid — and a pyromaniac; Krieger is obsessed with prog-rock and anime porn, and may have been cloned from Hitler; and Pam — marvelous Pam! Milk-fed sexual dynamo, drift racer, and ass-kicker, a zaftig party girl with a sweet back tattoo, Pam has made the jump from snarky plot device to breakout star. And Archer himself — shallow, narcissistic, mother-fixated, Burt Reynolds-worshipping, bullet-counting, and obsessive-compulsive, a man with a thousand catchphrases and a wardrobe full of tactical turtlenecks — is almost despite himself one of the most interesting characters on TV. The show never lets us forget how profoundly damaged a human being he is, and his flailing attempts at maturity and empathy are as oddly touching as they are screamingly funny.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to summarize the twists and turns of Archer’s seasons, with their double- and triple-crosses, Russian cyborg girlfriends, weird sex, and postmodern 007 lunacy; so I won’t even try to chart the correspondences here. Here’s 70 minutes of wall-to-wall trashy pop, edited and chopped to within and inch of its life; if you get it, you get it, and more power to you.
(intro montage derived from Que Sera Sera – Pink Martini)
Rotary Ten – R.E.M.
Just a Job to Do  – Genesis
Counting the Beat – The Swingers
Burt Reynolds Rides Again – Eastfield
My Alcoholic Friends – Dresden Dolls
Cool Jerk – Human Sexual Response
Mamma Mia – ABBA
Drunk Girls – LCD Soundsystem
Little Black Dress – One Direction
Choke – The Cardigans
Orgasm Addict – The Buzzcocks
Razor Boy – Steely Dan
Milk Commercial – The Cowsills
(montage derived from Beautiful, Dirty, Rich – Lady Gaga)
YYZ  – Rush
Fatally Beautiful  – T Bone Burnett
Foxy Lady – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Girls With Guns – Tommy Shaw
Poison Arrow [remix, excerpt] – ABC
The Last of the Famous International Playboys  – Morrissey
Russian Ending  – The Low Lows
Love and a Molotov Cocktail – The Flys
Under Cover of the Night  – The Rolling Stones
Miami Vice Theme  – Jan Hammer
Danger Zone  – Kenny Loggins
Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial – Burt Reynolds
This will be the last production here in the Popdose Conceptual Theater. It’s been a great year, but it’s time to ring down the curtain. If you’ve enjoyed these mixes, they will remain live for streaming and download for the next couple of months. Get ‘em before they’re gone, and tell your friends. Thanks, folks; it’s been grand.