Is Archer mean? Yes.

Jesse Thorn interviewed Adam Reed, creator of TV’s Archer, in 2011. Not essential reading but some of what Reed says is interesting. In addition, Thorn goes out of his way to defend Archer against charges of meanness:

JESSE THORN: I want to read you this quote that frankly I entirely disagree with, from a review of the show that ran in the Washington Post when it first came out. Forgive me for doing this to you.

ADAM REED: Is it mean?

JESSE THORN: Oh, it’s spectacularly mean. It says, “Be warned, Archer is as obnoxious and cruel as it can possibly be and still call itself humor. I’d quote dialogue, but all the snappier stuff included naughty words for genitals.” Do you think of the show as being a mean show?

ADAM REED: I do now, after hearing that quote. I’m despondent. I do think it’s mean-spirited a lot of times, but I think there are unexpected moments of sweetness. Yeah, it’s a pretty mean show.

JESSE THORN: I just want to say that when I read that I was annoyed, because I felt like it’s not a mean show, it’s a show full of very petty shallow characters. There’s something very sweet about all of them, and I don’t think the shows perspective is a mean perspective.

ADAM REED: I think it’s more selfish than mean.


I think Thorn is wrong here. The Post reviewer is saying something basic and important about the show — it is cruel, it is mean. (I’m not sure it is “obnoxious” — that seems like an error. The characters are obnoxious. But the show is a great pleasure to watch.) But a big part of what’s great about Archer is that it depicts all its characters in such an unrelentingly negative light — and does a convincing job of it. It is mean to pick on Cyril’s insecurities, to joke that Pam’s body is disgusting, to have a running gag where Archer keeps shooting his gun in the office for no good reason and gives Brett a series of gunshot wounds of comically increasing seriousness (which everyone else is hilariously callous towards).

Adam agrees. “It’s a mean-spirited show.” It seems like Thorn is coding the Post‘s remark as a criticism, and reflexively disagreeing because he likes Archer. Or maybe he is disagreeing because he is worried at some level that it reflects poorly on him to take joy from entertainment that’s based in cruelty.

(The actual defense Thorn gives for his disagreement maybe passes the smell test: that the show is not mean, but depicts “very shallow petty characters,” who are themselves sometimes mean. I think this is wrong though. Archer is fiction, so the show is responsible for the world it depicts. If it creates a world of petty shallow characters, and then relentlessly highlights how petty and shallow they are, that might be mean. Plus a lot of its jokes just are mean, just are instances where we’re supposed to laugh at bad things happening, at bad people getting away with shit, at cruel jokes or non-jokes* made at the expense of the undeserving.)

UPDATE: I’ve been reading this (quite a bit better) Adam Reed interview at the AV Club. Here is an exchange from part 3:

AVC: You bring back Katya, then send her off. . . . What was behind that decision?
AR: Again, kind of like the spy car, to give Archer the thing he most wants in the world, but only for the briefest amount of time, and then to wrench it away from him again.
AVC: What about that routine do you find funny?
AR: It’s just so cruel. When we saw the wee baby Seamus was left in Malory’s care, in the Woodhouse World War I episode, where she’s teasing the baby with a stuffed animal, it’s sort of the same thing, and I guess she did it again with his bicycle. I think it’s a theme that has recurred in Archer’s life forever, so it probably just cuts him to the quick.

Cruel! Good joke though.


*The best jokes are non-jokes.

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