During the recent News Corp./Time-Warner skirmish over cable carriage fees, I wasn't too bent out of shape over the prospect of losing the flagship Fox network. I was never an "American Idol" guy -- I prefer my pop stars scruffy and sardonic -- and lost interest in "24" when Kiefer Sutherland started barking his every line as if infested with a particularly virulent strain of rabies ("GOOD AFTERNOON, MA'AM. MAY I PLEASE HAVE A HAPPY MEAL SUPER-SIZED WITH DIET SPRITE?"). As for the network's NFL broadcasts, I prefer to consume them amid spirited peers rather than in the wintry solemnity of my boudoir. What else is there? This isn't to retroactively take Time-Warner's side in the dispute -- choosing between the two media monoliths is like choosing between Cowboys fans and Duke graduates -- but I would've been able to get by without the forensics-n'-flirting of "Bones" and my "First at 10!" local weathercast.
I was, however, worried about losing FX, which has evolved from a rerun-engorged curio into one of the most heavily trafficked channels on my cable dial. Unless you're entranced by crimey procedurals, in which case you need not stray beyond the well-manicured lawns of CBS and TNT, no other broadcast or cable network boasts a stronger roster of original offerings.
Even with "Nip/Tuck" having long since devolved into hysterical camp, FX can still point proudly to a slate that includes "Sons of Anarchy," "Damages," "Rescue Me," "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," "The League" and "30 Days." Go ahead, try finding a programming entity that fields a stronger top six. FX's three-months-and-out seasons may be shorter than those that air elsewhere, but even the most lavishly praised series could stand to lose an episode or five. Exhibit A: the wildly uneven 2009-2010 season of NBC's "30 Rock."
After starting strong with drama -- "The Shield" was last decade's finest, boldest series whose name commenced with the letter "S" -- FX has distinguished itself in recent months with its comedies. "The League" simultaneously exposes the awesome idiocy of most fantasy-football leagues and celebrates it, while "It's Always Sunny" comes off as a "Seinfeld" for sociopaths (that's high praise, BTW). Impressively, the network sustains this hot funny streak with "Archer", an animated riff on a boorish, Baldwin-dense, mommy-obsessed superspy. Think James Bond minus 225 points of IQ and with caviar runoff dribbling down his lapel.
In lesser hands, "Archer" might've been another "Family Guy" -- a rat-a-tat series of pop-culture putdowns that confuses volume and velocity with wit. Anyone paying attention, though, will recognize the intelligence and keen eye for detail that bubbles just beneath the show's strenuously anti-PC surface.
Sure, there are dolphin puppets and de rigeur jabs at Dane Cook (enough already. The guy sucks. We get it). One character changes her name every time an officemate misremembers it; another is described in the show's press materials as "a sturdy, blond lesbian who enjoys using hand puppets as a means to resolve inter-office employee conflicts." Still, "Archer" interweaves smart nods to O. Henry and keen visual gags (weaponry bins labeled "hammers" and "tap and die") amid this glib silliness. It's all wickedly imaginative, and it's all a hoot.
The show's genius lies in its reimagining of an elite spy agency as a hotbed of office politics, one in which professional duty and password protection take a backseat to petty vendettas. Yes, every being on "Archer" is literally a cartoon, but somehow they come across as more multidimensional than their counterparts on "real" shows. Credit here should probably go to the actors who voice them, especially "Arrested Development" vet Jessica Walter (as the agency's boss/matriarch) and Aisha Tyler (as a voluptuous, harpoon-gun-toting agent).
With its shout-outs to "food rapists" and risque bits involving ping-pong paddles, "Archer" is far from family viewing. That said, fans of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup and genre satire, whether broad or subtle, will eat it up. The first of FX's five 2010 debuts -- shows from Louis C.K. and "Shield" auteur Shawn Ryan are on tap -- "Archer" has me amped for everything to follow.