Archer is a show vaguely known combining the action of James Bond, the humor of Arrested Development, and the combined cast morality of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. On the surface, it’s a nod to vicarious entertainment of old spy movies, allowing a viewer to experience the thrill of an action-packed life without being anywhere close to as physically and mentally equipped as the characters. And while I definitely think the spy element fills the vicarious niche, the greater goldmine in this case lies in the thrill of watching sociopathic tendencies in action.
So what exactly is sociopathy? While the definition and diagnosis of sociopathy can be disputed, common symptoms tend to include: callous lack of concern for the feelings of others, persistent disregard for responsibility or social norms, inability to experience guilt or learn profound lessons, and the tendency to blame others or rationalize when forced to acknowledge one’s own questionable behavior. Pam and Cheryl, and to an extent Cyril, fit the bill nicely on individual parts of this equation (Pam’s disregard for people’s secrets, Cheryl’s inability to censor her crazy thoughts, and Cyril’s failure to learn gun safety all ring a bell), but virtually everything mentioned can be used to describe the characteristics of Sterling Archer, the main protagonist and namesake of the show.
Archer regularly commits acts that display disregard for others’ feelings; actions like consistently defining Woodhouse as not a real person, as well as frequently commenting on Cyril’s incompetence and sexual addictions, immediately come to mind. The only times we see a remotely human side of Archer is when his actions cause serious consequences, like inadvertently killing the head of the KGB by abandoning bodyguard duties for an affair, or losing his fiance to a robotic cyborg Barry who only wants to bother Archer for retaliation against past abuse (most notably, dropping Barry off of a balcony twice). And even in the big Season 3 finale, where Archer finally turns down a final showdown with Barry and admits that the mission is not all about his pride, he immediately and noticeably forgets his newfound humility by forcibly hijacking the landing duties from Cyril and crashing their rocket. And while much of his forgetting of valuable lessons can be attributed to the episodic nature of the show, in some cases characters like Lana will directly confront Archer about how quickly he forgot his moment of self actualization.
So why does this kind of humor appeal to audiences? Why do characters like Archer — and, for a few more examples, Homer, Peter Griffin, Michael Scott, Franziska von Karma, and Santana Lopez — all seem to bring joy and humor, despite being generally terrible people?
Much of humor revolves around three principles: incongruity, superiority, or relief; namely, in most cases the butt of the joke will produce one of these feelings, causing us to laugh. And in the case of television characters that take on sociopathic tendencies that contrast with more “normal” characters, an audience can typically experience all three. We live in a world that is very communal — we’re taught early on the importance of making friends, then later we learn the importance of networking. Heck, most would say that the bulk of finding a job is “who you know.”
In these cases, the mind subconsciously realizes something’s different about these characters, who in real life would not stand a chance of the success they do. How did Michael Scott climb up the ladder enough to become Regional Manager of Dunder Mifflin? How does Homer manage to obtain virtually every job he pursues, when characters like Frank Grimes suffer their way through school just to end up underneath Homer? It doesn’t make sense — and this inconsistency baffles us. But at the same time, we feel relief and superiority in knowing that, though not as successful as these people, at least we’re better at actually being people. Few are as dumb as Homer, or as socially inept as Michael Scott — and, above all of this few are as inconsiderate, incompetent, and generally self-centered as Archer.
And, getting back to the vicarious feel, most of us want to be as awful as Archer at least once or twice — how cool would it be to use government money to get a super spy car as a birthday present? How lucky would it be to blame personal embezzlement on a mole — and get away with it? How satisfying would it be to shoot someone in the knee when they talked back to you? And, in most cases, how great would it be to have complete disregard for social norms? Most people care about social norms to the point of extreme awkwardness (an anxiety that creates other television show character tropes).
When we as the audience do ask ourselves “what would it be like to do x,” the humor points at a certain inconsistency of life: that we have a thousand social norms that often don’t have explicitly planned punishments or deliverers of said punishments — and it shows in the awkward silences that ensue. For example, when Archer badgers the handicapped guy to give up his parking spot, the room is silent; it’s so unheard of that nobody really thinks of a quick reaction. Soon enough, Archer moves on and business carries on as usual. And what makes this especially grim (and funny) is that most comprehend that, in real life awkward moments, unnecessary confrontation is also drama-attracting and generally avoided. In some cases, a good sociopath can not only pull a stunt like this, but also discredit the person calling them out. In better cases, the awkward act just slips by without anyone really doing anything about it.
All in all, this kind of humor, this wholistically terrible person doing terrible things, becomes a fantasy to fill and trope to traverse because the human mind enjoys the occasional break from the inevitably social human experience. Whether for a momentary feeling of superiority or for the relief that it isn’t us for once, watching someone fail so miserably at the norms we struggle to maintain is satisfying — even when these shows collectively feed us notions about people being able to succeed in life by being complete douche bags. And in the case of Archer, the only thing greater than the joy of watching him torment undeserving individuals is the anticipation of what he’ll possibly do next.