Writing for TV: Archer Pilot
Television is a beast tackle and many struggle with the concept because of the sheer volume you need to have in mind while pitching. Whether it’s the relevance of your story, where you’re willing to have it go, or the task at hand, everyone knows how challenging it is. One of the best recent shows to have a lasting impact is Archer.
If you don’t know, Archer is an adult animated sitcom created by Adam Reed. The show follows a dysfunctional intelligence agency, centered on Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), his mother/boss Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), Ray Gillette (Adam Reed) and Dr. Algernop Krieger (Lucky Yates). The show is set in a Cold War-style universe and parodies spying, culture and society, and the human condition.
Archer is an excellent show to analyze from a writing perspective because of its ability to last as long as it has and remain fresh. Like other iconic animated series, most fans know the show is as good, if not better than when it first started. So, let’s analyze what makes this show so good and what you can learn from it.
Still from 'The Last of Us'. Photo credit: Pog Design
Writing with Longevity
Usually, whenever an animated series is pitched, studios and producers want to hear what you’ll have in mind to keep the show going. Though there have been plenty of series canceled after one or two seasons, most of the studios and creators intended for these shows to last longer.
Archer is a perfect example of a show that can last without feeling stale. You might expect the idea of a bunch of spy buffoons following the same cliche to grow old, but the show pivots whenever it needs to do. A great example comes when Archer is in a coma from the gunshot wounds he sustained from Veronica Deane.
In season seven and season ten, the main character is in a coma, and we experience his dreams while in the coma for those three seasons. Beginning with Dreamland, Archer is trapped in a 1947 noir-style Los Angeles setting called Dreamland. This pivot allows the show to try something fresh, new, and completely separate from how the show started. It develops into the other coma seasons, 1999 and Danger Island.
Hence, it’s always worthwhile to know what you can do to change the story down the line. Obviously, very few writers are lucky enough to get picked up, let alone have as many seasons as Archer has. Regardless, having a plan in mind, even if it doesn’t get that far, can increase your initial chances of getting picked up.
A Simple Pitch
Part of why Archer is so successful is how simple it is to explain to others. “You know James Bond? Imagine if he was drunk, thoughtless, and immature. That’s Sterling Archer, the world’s greatest secret agent.” Having a pitch like that grants us something we’re all familiar with, and are interested in how this paradox of a character from James Bond works in that setting.
No show is guaranteed to have that same level of ease with a pitch. All it means is you should do your best to simplify your pitch. No one wants to hear a lengthy pitch or logline. It’ll always feel like a task for a studio and producer. You have to understand the volume of pitches and scripts they receive every day. Make yours stand out and keep it simple!
Sarcasm and Parody
From a dialogue perspective, Archer is highly regarded in that way. Practically every great animated series understands the value of great dialogue and the one’s that last, tend to knock it out of the park in that sense. Arthur has a special way of utilizing sarcasm and parody, particularly when it tackles heavy subjects.
The show begins with hilarious one-liners and brilliant satire to back its dense storylines. The sarcasm and parody tackle heavier themes of alcoholism, addiction, racism, homophobia, and countless others. It sets a sarcastic tone for the series, which is what brought the show to critical acclaim. It’s why the show was nominated for Outstanding Animated Series at the Primetime Emmys in 2017.
Going off the success of the show, much of it centers back on the show’s excellent beginning. As important as the initial pitch is, none of it matters if you don’t have the writing to develop a great pilot and hopefully first season. Few shows have gotten over an initial first-season slump.
Archer is an example of a show that has an excellent beginning and only gets better as time goes on. As much as the first season sets up the rest of the show—introducing the international web of espionage surrounding Archer and the others—it’s paired with great dialogue and subplots that make it must-watch television.