There have been countless iterations of spy TV shows and movies, but there has never been a character quite like Sterling Archer. Part suave special agent, part emotionally damaged head case, Sterling is in many ways not what you would expect.
The writers of Archer are very good at setting you up to expect one thing and giving you another. When you hear about a spy comedy, you naturally think of something in the same vein as Get Smart or Pink Panther. You expect to see a spy who creates comedy from his incompetence.
But what you get in Sterling Archer is actually a man who is quite good at his job. He has extensive skill in weapons and martial arts and is recognized as one of the most dangerous agents in the field. It’s everything else he has problems with.
Having been raised by an emotionally stunted mother, Sterling is incapable of carrying on a healthy relationship. His childhood featured several scarring incidents, from his mother moving away without telling him to being shipped off to boarding school with no friends.
The result is a character with the appearance and skills of a fully capable man, but the emotional maturity of a pre-teen. He still is constantly berated and belittled by his mother – who now is also his boss – and his inability to cut the umbilical cord has poisoned all his other relationships.
Sterling shows only a desire for sex and not love, resulting in a conga line of prostitutes filing in and out of his apartment. He also routinely tries to sabotage the relationships of partner and former lover Lana, keeps manservant Woodhouse around only as a whipping boy and is obsessed with looking like Burt Reynolds in various movie roles.
These characteristics are almost always played for comedy, but that does not change the fact that the Sterling character has a surprising amount of depth. It just isn’t as obvious because it’s not played up for dramatic tension.
The majority of the hilarity Archer provides – and there is a lot of it – comes from Sterling and his various issues. Because the show is part spy spoof and part workplace comedy, his issues can be used on several levels. And there is so much emotional baggage still hidden in him that there is plenty of fodder left.
Programming Note: Archer can be seen at 10/9c Thursdays on FX.
TV’s Top 10 Characters
10 – Stewie Griffin
9 – Sterling Archer
8 – Chuck Bartowski
7 – Manny Delgado
6 – Dexter Morgan
5 – Barney Stinson
4 – Don Draper
3 – Abed Nadir
2 – Phil Dunphy
1 – Ron Swanson
Honorable Mention – April 1