If the "Seinfeld" gang became international spies, their adventures might look something like "Archer," the FX animated series that kicks off its second season tonight (Thursday 10 p.m./9 Central). The show revolves around an organization called ISIS (International Secret Service Intelligence), which I'd describe in more detail if I knew what the hell it's supposed to be; it seems like a top-secret organization of super-spies and their support team, but I can't figure out if they work for the United States government or if they're a private organization like Halliburton -- and there are a couple of jokes this season conceding that the people at ISIS aren't sure, either. ISIS is headed by Malory Archer (voiced by "Arrested Development" costar Jessica Walter), a sexually insatiable control freak with a taste for the high life; she's always hustling to land "contracts" to keep the agency afloat financially, as if it were Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce of "Mad Men." The agency's star operative is Malory's son Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), who's an awesomely prolific killer and, unfortunately, a jackass. Archer feels duty-bound to cap spectacular acts of violence with punny kiss-off lines, but he rarely comes up with any. His recurring phrase is, "Uh ... I had something," often delivered moments before or after he's killed an enemy or blown something sky-high.
"Archer" is the brainchild of Atlanta-based animators Adam Reed and Matt Thompson. Their credits include a couple of memorably off-kilter series for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim: "Sealab 2021," an undersea adventure spoof made of footage from the Hanna-Barbera series "Sealab 2020," and "Frisky Dingo," a superhero parody that in retrospect feels like a run-up to the sleazy antics of "Archer." The team's FX spy spoof is the best-designed animated series on commercial television, with strikingly composed panels drawn to take advantage of the widescreen TV ratio, and intricately rendered backgrounds that look hand-painted. (You can see the brushstrokes.) There's a new dynamism in season 2. In tonight's episode the filmmakers play around with big-budget action film flourishes, including epic wide shots that turn characters into flyspecks in the frame, and a moment during a snowmobile chase where Archer spots a pursuing foe in a rear-view mirror seconds before the foe destroys the mirror with his machinegun.
But even though the show has visual panache, movement-wise it's a couple of steps up from the old Hanna-Barbera series that Reed and Thompson spoofed for Cartoon Network. (The characters often deliver dialogue while standing ramrod-straight; their faces rarely blink or even move.) Rather than making the series seem stylistically inconsistent, the mix of minimalist characterizations and elaborate backdrops makes it funnier -- maybe because it reflects the gap between the momentousness of the missions assigned to these characters (rescue hostages, protect diplomats, defeat terrorists) and the pettiness they display at every waking moment of their lives.
Archer and Malory's sexually fraught mother-son relationship is the (cold, dead) heart of the series. (Next week's episode includes a gag where Archer breaks into his mom's office desk and accidentally sets off her vibrator, which rattles around unseen in the desk's top drawer. "There's not enough psychotherapy in the world to undo that," Archer says.) The show's other recurring characters include Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), Archer's curvy, hyper-competitive superagent ex-girlfriend; Lana's follow-up boyfriend Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), a milquetoast administrator who's also a hopeless sex addict; Pam (Amber Nash), a portly, drawling office administrator who recently returned from Jamaica wearing cornrows, smoking giant spliffs and accusing everyone in the office of racism (she's white), and Malory's permanently horny secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer), who declares her intentions to potential conquests by ripping her blouse open, and who once spent part of an episode pregnancy-testing herself after an office tryst with a hunky new agent (she was hoping the results would be positive). The series is even developing its own set of catchphrases and proper nouns; this season introduces a drink called the Green Russian (absinthe and milk) and a brainwashing technique called The Modified Ludovico.
"Archer" didn't find its footing right away. At the start of season 1 it struck me as likeable but unremarkable -- a return trip to the imaginative terrain of "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo," but with more ambitious visuals, and more of a stab at modern TV series continuity. (Although the episode plots are self-contained, each season has a master narrative that's heading someplace, and the characters' relationships and job statuses shift over time.) I enjoyed it, but it wasn't quite working for me. Then at some point around the middle of season 1, the tumblers clicked into place and "Archer" knew what it was -- a sex farce set at a workplace, with ridiculous spy movie trappings -- and it produced episodes that were, in their own naughty/dumb way, perfect. "Archer" is the next generation version of "Get Smart," with a similarly thickheaded, overconfident, horny hero whose petulant deadpan lines are funnier than they have any right to be. A Lolita-like teen that Archer is trying to protect against kidnappers at a ski chalet in tonight's premiere comes onto him by telling him she's 17, and that "I'm from Germany, where the age of consent is 14." "What is that," replies a flustered Archer, "The Alabama of Europe?"