The Spy Who Worked for His Mother

FX pushes the envelope with a clever new animated take on the international spy genre, courtesy of Adam Reed, co-creator of Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021.

Just when you think you’ve seen every possible spoof of the spy genre, a clever new animated series pops up on the FX channel to prove that there’s a fresh way to approach the genre if you get the right channel. The witty, grown-up show is called Archer and centers on a sophisticated master spy (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and his life at the ISIS agency where ‘global crises are merely opportunities for its highly trained employees to confuse, undermine, betray and royally screw each other.’

As show creator Adam Reed tells us, ‘it’s basically James Bond meets Arrested Development. I’d been given a whole set of old James Bond pulp novels, so I did a lot of research. And I was struck by how dark they were. Bond was kind of a misogynistic character’he wasn’t that lovable gentleman that we’ve seen in the movies. He was kind of a dick! So that was the germ of the idea and I wanted to see how far I could get away with it’which is doing a show about a guy who would be pretty good at his job, if he weren’t so self-involved.’

Among the other intriguing aspects of the show is the fact that Archer’s boss at the agency is none other than his domineering mother, Malory, voiced by the one-of-a-kind Jessica Walter (Arrested Development). He also has to deal with the unpleasant fact that his colleague, Agent Lana Kane, is also his ex-girlfriend (Aisha Tyler) in addition to the fact that his hapless secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer) pines for him. SNL‘s Chris Parnell rounds up the cast as ISIS comptroller Cyril Figgis.

Reed, whose impressive list of writing credits include [adult swim] hits such as Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, says he was ready to embark on a new creative venture after taking a year off, walking across Spain, sitting in cafes, drinking beer and coffee and scribbling in his notebook. He recalls, ‘I was in Europe and had a 400-page journal to fill, so I started to think about international affairs. What I didn’t want to do was the old bumbling spy concept. For me, it’s much more fun and easier to write dicks. Basically, it’s all an excuse to get these people in larger-than-life situations and have them bicker while bigger stuff is going on. Most TV is about bickering anyway!’

Also along for the ride are Reed’s exec producing partner and frequent collaborator Matt Thompson, producers Neal Holman, Eric Sims, Mack Williams (director) and Casey Willis (art director). ‘We’ve worked with the same team before, and I have to give credit to all the artists for making the show look so great,’ says Reed. ‘We wanted the show to look as real as possible, so we get models for all the characters and dress them up in vintage clothes. We take up to 700 pictures of someone’s face, from different angles and emotions.’

Kansas City-based Trinity Animation produces the show’s 3D environment. ‘There’s an actual 3D model of Malory’s office, so we can sprint the camera around and shoot it in various angles,’ explains Reed. ‘The backgrounds are done in Photoshop and Illustrator and the bulk of the animation is produced in After Effects over at Atlanta’s Radical Axis.

So how is creating a half-hour show about clever spies different from the 15-minute world of Frisky Dingo? Reed says somehow it takes a lot more than twice as long to deliver the show. ‘It’s a lot different now. We used to do the [adult swim] shows in a two-bedroom house, just eight guys sitting around knocking about ideas. But now this is a real TV show. We have a gigantic hangar full of people working on this series.’

FX has greenlit 10 episodes of Archer for now, and Reed says he’s pretty happy with the way things have worked out. ‘I pitched the show to several networks, and I was hoping that the programming people at FX would say yes, because 90 percent of the shows I watch on TV are on either FX or HBO.’

It takes Reed about three weeks to bang out the 36-page script for each episode’and he has had to do 10 of them since July. ‘That’s about 450 pages, including scripts that didn’t get network approval! That’s like three movies in six months. For Frisky Dingo, we had to do 12 scripts’14-page scripts, one a month. So now my typing has become phenomenal,’ he jokes. ‘My eighth grade typing teacher would be very proud of me!’

Reed remembers watching six hours of TV every Saturday morning when he was a kid. He says he loved the Warner Bros. toons, but found Hanna Barbera’s Scooby-Doo absolutely terrifying. However, his all-time favorite TV series is The Andy Griffith Show. ‘I’ve seen all 6,000 episodes of that show at least four times each,’ he jokes. ‘That is such an incredibly well-written show’it’s a pitch-perfect sitcom.’

Reed’s career in animation took off completely on a lark. After graduating with an English degree, he moved to France to work as a carpenter, but he ran out of money and had to return home to the U.S. ‘I was totally unemployable at the time, so I flew to Atlanta to visit my sister who worked at Turner. I showed up at her office and her boss gave me a job! I stuck with it and got a job at on-air promotions at Cartoon Network, which eventually led me to writing for Space Ghost Coast to Coast.’

Now that he’s walked 700 miles from Seville to Santiago in Spain and created his own spy toon, Reed says he’s really enjoying how people are reacting to the show. ‘The most fun thing for me is to get in the room with the actors and listen to them ad lib and all of us making each other laugh,’ he notes. ‘Then when we projected the finished cut, it was great to hear people laugh at the show’these are people who have already seen the show a bunch of times. Now hopefully, people who’ll see it on TV this month will also find it as funny!’

Archer premieres Thursday, January 14, at 10 p.m on FX.