Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Archer has garnered itself a fairly strong following, but it is rarely ever talked about as often as shows like Community, Avatar and Gravity Falls. Most people like to talk about these shows and discuss jokes or characterisation events with many layers to them, which allows them to be relevant decades after they end. I think it is sad that Archer, which is another show with amazing writing, does not get discussed with the same enthusiasm. Well, I want to start that conversation by discussing about what I feel is the best episode of Archer.
See, Archer started as a parody on the super suave spy James Bond, but it evolved into a comedy show not reliant on any other piece of media. Viewers who observed a drastic shift between the first few episodes and the subsequent ones may know the reason. In the first episode, every character except Sterling Archer was a caricature of stereotypical office workers. We can actually connect it to the actual Office in a way: Cyril is Toby, Pam is Kevin, Cheryl is the abused-by-her-superior Pam, and so on. It is a bit of a stretch, but this felt true while watching that first episode. Now, none of these seem to fit these characters.
Cyril has been a successful dictator, Pam was a cocaine-addict and Yakuza racer, Cheryl turned out to be a sadistic, masochistic millionaire, and none of these characters feel like they don't deserve their own share of spotlight. This was achieved by essentially retconning every established character and essentially de-flanderising them. This led to the penultimate episode of Archer, Vision Quest. But how about the two characters that were interesting from the very start?
An important element of creating characters is dynamism. Making an interesting character is only half the challenge of characterization. You also have to make sure that the interactions between these characters with is interesting as well. Perfecting this is how you end up with Holmes and Watson, Walter and Jesse, Rick and Morty, Mabel and Dipper, and an endless list of duos which work well. One of my favourite example of this dynamic is definitely that of Archer and Lana.
Archer and Lana's banter is what made the show for me. Their personality is the perfect combination of gelling with each as well as clashing with each other. Archer is childish and risk-taking, while Lana is calculating. But this doesn't end here. Whenever Archer manages to anger her, she does not seem calculating and mature, which allows him to break her. This leads to a superficial high-horse for Archer, where he pretends that Lana's nature is a facade. Lana pretty much knows this, yet she falls for it each time. Occasionally, Lana breaks Archer's all-knowing attitude by either throwing his mistakes back at him in a similarly childish tone, similar to how Archer does the same.
This is just one of their many banters. The show is amazing just by proxy of these two characters, occasionally paired with the others. This leads to my favourite Archer episode, Pipeline Fever. The two have to go on a mission to stop an eco-terrorist from blowing up a pipeline, yet most of the episode is spent with the two stuck in the middle of the swamp. The plot is essentially just them coming up with new ways to survive, and the rest writes itself (in a technical way, the writing still requires a lot of hard work). This is the first episode not only to focus on these two for the entire duration, but also to break the monotony of Archer annoying Lana over and over, and introducing them as... Actual friends. Lana absolutely dislikes Archer as a lover, but she accepts him as a friend, and later, like a family member.
The most interesting of their clashes are the friendly ones, like Archer being embarrassed of his three biggest fears, or Lana hesitantly accepting Archer injecting morphine into her as a good decision. The plot, above all else, isolates the two away from any one else, with each other and an alligator (which makes their interactions WAY more interesting). Lana is consistently berating Archer for his apathy towards nature, but when attacked by the alligator, her self-preservation instincts kick in, and she, on a small-scale, empathises with Archer, who is fully self-preservative in nature, but would go to incredible lengths to save Lana.
The relationship between these two is also impressive because it keeps evolving through the seasons. In season 5, Lana is pregnant and Archer becomes more protective towards her. In season 6, they start dating again, which makes their dynamic more interesting, since now, Archer's actions can directly affect this relationship the audience is so incredibly vested in. This is also why the coma seasons, despite being perfectly serviceable, do not appeal to a large audience. When your most interesting element is the relationship between two characters, rebooting it every year and making it completely inside someone's head makes these feel like anthologies.
These dynamics between the characters spans outside of these characters. Pam and Archer are like best friends, except they don't get awkward by any sexual tension. Instead, Archer is simply disgusted by her and she enjoys the cringe factor. Malory and Archer hate each other but also really care for each other but can't stand each other but can't lose each other... It's a weird relationship. The other episode I was thinking about as a contender for the top spot is Vision Quest.
That is an episode with a premise as simple as it could get: The entire main cast is trapped in an elevator. This is as pure as you can allow the dynamic to push the story further without making it into a talk show. Everyone's dynamics work-off of each other, their dynamics are explored with more than two characters at a time, and the episode branches off the conversations, allowing for a truly non-linear experience; where callbacks, gags and references are used more liberally and more creatively.