Robert Reece of Furious and Brave and I have challenged each other to an essay-writing contest. Each of us has 2,000 words to write a persuasive essay defending the honour of the superiority of our favourite animated series. Robert has chosen Futurama, and I have chosen Archer. We have not seen each other’s essays in advance, nor co-ordinated in any way (aside from agreeing on publication date and length). His essay can be found here.
When considering the comparative merits of any work of art, taste being subjective, it is necessary to develop a set of criteria by which the different works can be judged. In the absence of such criteria, any comparison swiftly becomes an exercise in who can express the most fervent support – a contest of fanaticism rather than a proper comparison. I must confess that, were this to be such a challenge, I would surely come up short – Robert is far more practiced at defending positions based on the strength of his emotion and passion alone. I am unfortunately forced to rely solely on facts and logic.
And it is based on fact and logic, limited and uninteresting though they may be, that I enthusiastically state unequivocally that Archer is a superior animated series to Futurama. Now, it behooves me to mention at this point that I have a deep personal affection for Futurama – I would not dream of arguing that it is a bad show. Nor would I argue that it has not made its contribution, such as it is, to our popular culture. Such an argument would not only be easily demonstrated as false, but it would be shockingly disingenuous. I am, in fact, a fan. That being said, I recognize superiority when I see it, and I simply cannot deny that Archer is a better show, for reasons I will detail below.
My first task is to establish a set of criteria by which the relative greatness of a work should be judged. Again, due to the subjective nature of taste, I will eschew things that are so obviously subjective as, for example, ‘which show is funnier’. Such a crude comparison is clearly not worthy of the refined and discerning audience of this piece (and besides, for that specific category, Archer would win in a walk). Instead, I offer these much more concrete categories for evaluation:
- Sophistication/variety: in much the way that true masters of any art form must be able to demonstrate basic competence while simultaneously extending their medium, which show employs the most sophisticated type of humour? But lest we confuse ‘sophistication’ with ‘skill’, does the show evince its ability to employ a variety of types of humour? Is the humour balanced with other important dramatic elements – empathy, action, romance?
- Penetrance: Art unappreciated is art lost. The ‘purpose’ of art, if there can be said to be one, is to convey its message to an audience. How do these shows stack up when it comes to reaching an audience and having some kind of impact on the larger culture?
- Timelessness: Perhaps the only important criterion – which show will outlive its run on television? This criterion works in harmony with the other two to separate the Seinfelds from the Dharma and Gregs. Which show is poised to have a relevance that lasts after the last episode is aired?
A brief synopsis
There are undoubtedly some of you who, perhaps because you are being held captive by an evil wizard, have not watched Archer. I will briefly summarize the premise of the show.
This piece will contain specific references to plot elements in the show. While there are too many twists and turns for me to actually ‘spoil’ anything in an essay this short, consider yourselves warned.
Sterling Archer (code name: Duchess) is a highly-trained, highly-skilled spy who travels the world womanizing, drinking, and generally getting up to no good (to hilarious effect). He is joined in his hijinx by the gorgeous and equally-skilled Lana Kane, his sex-fiend and former spy mother Mallorie, the comptroller of the spy agency Cyril Figgis, head of Human Resources Pam Poovey, and a varied cast of regular characters.
Criterion 1: Sophistication/Variety
It would be easy to identify the protagonist of Archer as the show’s main comedic engine. After all, the show is named for him, and he serves as the plot’s focus. Insofar as that is the case, Archer is a show about a hyper-masculine jock whose own ineptness and self-aggrandizing leads him into one bizarre situation after another (for example: running away from home after the murder of his fiancee, Sterling winds up as king of a mutinous pirate island; his rescue and escape are jeopardized by his obsession with the lacrosse league he set up).
However, such an analysis is woefully superficial. Archer is deeply layered, with numerous references to pop culture: literature, film, television - the kinds of jokes that require watching alongside Wikipedia (for example: Cyril objects when it is a poison-tipped pen, and not a model of gun called the ‘Chekhov’ that creates the ultimate plot twist).
The show would not be complete without a robust cast of characters who make the status of ‘main character’ an elusive target. Each episode is a melange of overlapping plots based highly on the interactions and motivations of the ancillary characters. As one example, mandatory drug testing at the spy agency leads Pam, receptionist (and later revealed to be multi-millionnaire) Cheryl, and wheelchair-bound field agent (later revealed to not need the wheelchair at all) Ray to seek out the advice of the head of the agency’s lab, Dr. Krieger (later revealed to be the clone of Adolf Hitler). He doses them with a highly psychoactive substance that results in him having to hunt them down with a tranquilizer gun. This all happens alongside an entirely separate plot arc involving Sterling, Lana, and Cyril being hunted for sport in the jungles of Nicaragua.
The show is a heady blend of the basic staples of sitcom humour – physical comedy, wacky plotlines, memorable characters and repeatable catch-phrases – but it also works well outside of the box by including complex relationships, rich character profiles, and a wide variety of ‘levels’ of comedy from crude flatulence to Shakespearean comedies of errors. It is this ability to hit you wherever your funny-bone is located that makes Archer pull well ahead of Futurama – a show that is clearly written for an audience of nerds and nerd camp-followers (which is what made me love it so much in the first place).
Criterion #2: Penetrance
This criterion is one where I think one could just as easily make the argument either way. Futurama has a much larger audience (pulling between 1.6 – 2.4 million viewers per episode, compared to a paltry 1.0 – 1.6 million for Archer), and has lasted 6 seasons whereas Archer is only in its fourth. Futurama has birthed the aforementioned internet memes, and was resurrected from cancellation through the devotion of its fans.
Arguably, however, Futurama should be a more successful show than it is, being the brainchild and the heir apparent of The Simpsons – arguably the single greatest animated series to ever air (although Samurai Pizza Cats is a heavyweight contender for that title). Indeed, it had extremely strong ratings at its outset – ratings that steadily slipped over time. Given the fact that Futurama appears on Fox, whereas Archer appears on Fox’s alternate-broadcast station FX, it would seem to follow that Futurama should have numbers far in excess.
However, a show’s ratings are a poor proxy for its quality, and I am certainly willing to overlook the fact that Futurama punches well below its weight class. What it suggests to me, however, is that a show capable of holding its own against a show with the backing of major name recognition (one might even call it ‘Fox privilege’), a direct comparison is unfair, and we must adjust our criteria for evaluation to reflect the seeming disparity. Am I saying that you’re essentially a quasi-racist bigot if you think Futurama is better than Archer? No, I wouldn’t dream of saying that.
Criterion #3: Timelessness
Archer is a show that you can fall in love with before the first episode (in which a lying Sterling has to invent, and then pretend to track, a mole within the agency to cover his own reckless spending) is finished airing. However, the true genius of Archer is something that cannot be fully appreciated until you’ve watched a number of episodes. The quirks of the various characters are fleshed out into rich back stories; seeming non-sequiturs from early episodes are explained an entire season later; actions taken in one episode come to fruition much later down the road.
Futurama, on the other hand, cleaves heavily to the sitcom formula that served its older sister The Simpsons so well. Every plot-line is neatly resolved at the end of the show (with a few notable exceptions that are played up for comic effect). The characters do not grow or change in any appreciable way, and aside from catch-phrases or the occasional ‘easter egg’, Futurama plods comfortably along well-trod comedic ground, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to make the effort to sow seeds of jokes that have long-term payoff.
There is a literal timeless element to Archer as well – the show takes place in no time period and all time periods. It makes reference to time periods that intentionally defy accurately pinning it to a single decade, or even century. The show is equally comfortable setting itself in the Cold War era in one episode, then abruptly blasting off into the future of space travel in the next. As a result, Archer is not hamstrung by dated pop-culture references or parochial concerns.
By way of contrast, the very premise of Futurama ensures that it cannot help but fail in this category. We find ourselves being asked to enjoy a 31st Century Earth that is more or less identical to our contemporary world. Even the celebrity cameos are all from an era that we know – how could it be funny otherwise? This is done intentionally, to spoof things we see around us, but it also ties the show inextricably to a specific period of time and a specific culture, all while claiming to be futuristic. The show even once had to resort to time travel into the 1950s in order to make its jokes work (which they did, please don’t get me wrong).
And so we see that, by all reasonable standards by which such a comparison could be made, Futurama comes up short. Archer is a multi-layered, sophisticated, and genre-testing example of an animated series, whereas Futurama pushes few boundaries and relies on a much smaller (albeit sufficient) palate of humour. Given sufficient time and exposure, Archer is destined to set the new high-water mark for animate comedy, as a worthy successor to The Simpsons or South Park, whereas Futurama will achieve its ultimate notoriety as “oh yeah, that show with the belching robot and the guy from the internet meme”.
I will use as my final yardstick for this comparison a show that is widely considered to be one of the best ever - Arrested Development. While the series may have been cancelled (as was Futurama, let’s not forget), it was widely appreciated by fans and critics as something quite outside the ordinary – a genre-redefining tour de force of comedy that changed our relationship to the sitcom. The same quality that made Arrested Development so great – long, multi-episode arcs; recurrent in-jokes and references; a wide variety of styles of humour – are the ones that make Archer stand head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, screaming ‘WOO!’, fist pumping furiously into the dark comedic void.*
So while I admire Robert’s courage and sportsmanship in defending what is so self-evidently a losing position, I cannot help but pity the monumental task ahead of him, in digging his beloved Futurama out of its pit of inferiority. My only guess is that he will have to lie, or bank on the fact that his readers aren’t as clever as mine. As a gesture of conciliation, I am stopping this analysis 30 words early, and am donating those words to him to allow him to apologize for wasting your time.
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Once you’ve read both essays, go to the poll and vote to say whose was more persuasive!