You can literally blink and miss things in this pilot*. Watch it twice. Or three times. First just let the absurdity of the situation wash over you, then go back and soak up all the sight gags and the often casually tossed-off hilarious dialogue. Then absorb the animation; it’s amazing, with remarkable depth of field and subtlety of facial expressions. In the scene where Archer is eating breakfast, pause it and just look at the detail of the food on the table; it’s gorgeous.
The first moments of the pilot give you the idea you’re watching something really dark. Our hero, Sterling Archer/code name Duchess (H. Jon Benjamin), is about to be tortured for information by an old guy with a vaguely Russian accent and a golf cart battery. But the female face that appears on the far side of the observation window looks far more intimidating.
Thus we have our set-up. Archer is a super spy who works for his mom (Jessica Walter). As evidenced by their first scene together, they’re a solidly matched in toughness, narcissism, and vitriol.
Acher’s uniqueness is its successful mash up of spy action with workplace comedy. It’s like if the chick from Alias went to work at Dunder Mifflin. At ISIS, we get pithy axioms like, “When your co-workers put food in the refrigerator, that’s a bond of trust.” They worry about expense accounts and break room etiquette.
Natch, there’s intra-office schtuping. Archer used to date machine gun-toting uber-bombshell Lana (Aisha Tyler). They broke up over–you guessed it–his mommy issues. This woman scorned is now with Cyril (Chris Parnell), who has no earthly business dating the likes of her. He is so painfully dull that his scene with Archer is literally the only boring moment of the episode.
Archer is sleeping with the secretary, Cheryl or Carol. He can’t get her name right. Remember that–the joke lasts beyond this episode.
Archer pretends he thinks there’s a mole in the office, as a ploy to gain access to the ISIS mainframe. When he is forced to break in, he reveals how painfully inadequate the company’s security is. It turns out there is a mole in the office and he is only caught by complete accident.
This thing is just packed with oddball lines ranging from the unexplained “that thing with the mayonnaise” to the twice-used “Johnny Bench called.” (Look it up. I had to.)
The pilot gives a taste of what every episode will be about; It’s not that the agents are complete bumbling idiots. That would be too easy. They’re totally cool and skilled, it’s just that their extreme self-interest blinds them to half the stuff going on around them. And they hate each other, but it’s as a team that they somehow win the day.
And, whether Archer loves his mother or hates her, he does so too strongly to be healthy. At any rate, they’re eerily alike from their piercing blue eyes, revealed in the pilot’s first moments, to their peculiar vehemence about ants, revealed in the last.
*This is actually episode 1.1, “Mole Hunt.” There is an unaired pilot available on DVD through Amazon.