Ask any fan of the FX comedy Archer what the best part of the show is and they might point to the show’s fun cast of characters or its numerous quotable catchphrases and recurring gags. If pressed, they’ll more than likely admit that the animation isn’t much to sneeze at, but insist that it doesn’t matter because the show is enjoyable regardless. However, the relatively rough style of animation also aids the show’s best hook: its lack of a specific time setting.
Even the most casual fans of Archer have probably noticed the show’s odd mix of fashion, technology, and references from various times in the 20th century. A specific year is never shown and sometimes there are jokes about the ambiguity of the time setting. Archer creator Adam Reed has even addressed the lack of a specific time setting in interviews, admitting that he and the other writers often do what is most convenient or what looks interesting for any given episode. It’s easy enough to see this need for convenience anytime Archer drives around in his ’70s model Chevy El Camino and talks on his cell phone within the same episode. Reed says it’s much easier to do this than have a character hunt for a phone booth. Although, Archer goes beyond a simple mashup of cultural and technological eras when one considers the sci-fi technology that has appeared in several episodes.
In Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13 both show characters using plasma rifles so that they can apprehend a band of mutineers aboard a space station without shooting any holes in the hull. The design of the rifles is also a clear reference to the space marines’ rifles from the sci-fi film Aliens, but with their inclusion, it becomes clear that Archer is a show that blatantly eschews a specific time setting rather than simply not caring. To have a combination of past and current technology might be considered relatively reasonable, but once plasma rifles, bionic limbs, and even cyborgs are thrown into the mix, it becomes clear that the show doesn’t want to be stuck in any given time period in the past, present, or future. Despite the dissonance this creates in the visual aesthetic of the show, Archer embraces the dissonance and is better for it. As mentioned before, the animation style helps immensely when it comes to making the lack of a time setting work well.
Though Archer is drawn in a grounded art style that looks very reminiscent of western comic book art, the show’s animation helps prevent its lack of a time setting from being jarring to viewers. Though Archer’s animation is smoother and clearly has more care put into it than South Park, it isn’t as impressive as other animated series like Steven Universe or Adventure Time, which consistently manage to balance excellent writing and beautifully smooth animation. This middle-of-the-road animation style creates an important disconnect that prevents viewers from becoming completely immersed in the world of the show in spite of the somewhat realistic art style that doesn’t shy away from showing black eyes, broken noses, severed limbs, and other gruesome injuries which characters regularly suffer. If the production team behind Archer invested in smoother, more realistic animation, this disconnect would disappear and viewers would be distracted from the show’s humor because they would be too immersed in a show that has no clear chronological setting, but very clear location settings. For this reason, the animation in Archer is fine as is because it contributes to the show’s unclear time setting and wonderful sense of humor by not getting in the way.