Archer: “Skytanic” part 1











We are living in a second golden age of television.  Some of the best writing in any field is being done right now there, from the finely-calibrated social analysis of Mad Men to the demented dark fantasies of The Venture Bros.  Somewhere in between those two shows lies Archer, perhaps the most consistently well-mounted farce ever presented.  Comedy is hard, and farce is the hardest form of comedy, and the scripts for Archer manage to deliver quality, satisfying, twenty-minute farces on a weekly basis.  Those twenty minutes fly by like a cool breeze but actually are hard won crystalline comedy.  Today, let’s look at my favorite episode from Season 1, “Skytanic.”

To properly analyze this episode, first we have to meet this guy:









This is Capt Lammers.  What does Capt Lammers want?  He is the captain of a rigid airship, the Excelsior.  There has been a bomb threat against his rigid airship, and Capt Lammers wants ISIS (which seems to be a kind of freelance spy agency) to ensure the safe flight of the Excelsior’s maiden voyage. A bomb threat is serious under any circumstances, but in the case of the Excelsior it’s quite serious indeed — the marketing people of the Excelsior have put quite a bit of stock in selling the airship as safe.  

This is all explained to us in a promotional film at the top of the show: the Excelsior is safe, says the film, because it’s filled with helium instead of hydrogen. The promotional film, which is played mostly straight, serves an important purpose — to get across a rather complicated premise.  For some reason, in present-day America, someone has decided to begin airship flights across the Atlantic.  Archer often trades in these kinds of bizarre anachronisms.  In spite of being set in the present day, the characters seem to live in a perpetual mid-1960s, mixed with a technological mid-1980s.  The strange anachronisms of the show serve to create a kind of timelessness; it could be happening pretty much at any time between Dr. No and The Bourne Ultimatum.

The promotional film also allows us to experience the exposition of the premise in a graceful way.  Once the film is over, the script needs exactly two lines of brief, funny dialogue to launch the episode’s narrative. (As a side note, one of the most admirable things about Archer is that, even though it is mile-a-minute funny, it actually contains very few “jokes” — the humor comes almost entirely from character, in this case, a group of characters so deeply enmeshed in their petty worldviews that it’s all but impossible for them to carry on a simple conversation.)









This is Malory, who runs ISIS.  What does Malory want?  If you guessed “to serve the interests of her client,” you’re wrong.  One of the key elements to the success of Archer is that few people, if anyone, in the cast is concerned with doing their jobs, no matter how vital or important those jobs are.  In Malory’s case, we find that Malory has taken the job of securing the Excelsior in order to get a luxury airship ride across the Atlantic, in order to show up her neighbor Trudy Beekman.  Does Malory have any interest in keeping the Excelsior aloft?  Not at all.  She’s taking the job to (1) bump Trudy Beekman off the flight, (2) get some luxury pampering, and (3) maybe have sex with Capt Lammers (who doesn’t seem very interested in the prospect).









Here are Archer and Lana.  What do Archer and Lana want?  Well, Lana, being the only semi-professional in the company, wants to protect the Excelsior from a potential bomb threat.  Archer, on the other hand, wants only to have sex with Lana.  Archer, who has the attention span of a comma, is convinced that the Excelsior will explode in an orange fireball with a spark of static, in spite of being told the opposite several times during the episode, but, in order to have sex with Lana, he will brave the danger.  Lana, for her part, has recently left Archer for Cyril, ISIS’s comptroller (who has his own problems), so the job of securing the Excelsior suddenly becomes fraught for her — to go on this job with Archer will endanger her already-fragile relationship with Cyril.

So, perfect setup for farce — an “important job,” a job that requires focus and skill, in the hands of three characters who have the basest of motivations on their minds — greed, envy and lust to name only of the three deadliest.

To give you an idea of how quickly Archer speeds through plot, this entire opening — the promotional film and the setup of four different character arcs — takes a total of two and a half minutes.  That would be, in screenplay terms, two and a half pages, and that’s not even including the jokes that fly past.