As a rock and roll legend once said, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.
Agent Elvis’ premise manages to be both at once. Elvis Presley, rock and roll’s first superstar, has a secret life fighting crime, with the help from his friends, one of whom is a pot-smoking, gun-toting monkey. Cartoonish over-the-top violence, colorful retro animation, and frequent winks to the audience, it’s essentially Archer, with Elvis in place of Archer and a musical number or two every week.
Let’s start with the clever. In 1970, Elvis, at the peak of his addiction to countless prescription drugs, met with President Richard Nixon, and asked to be named a “Federal Agent at Large” to use his influence over the nation’s young people (whose affections had long since moved on to the Beatles) to keep them away from drugs (which, again, Presley was addicted to several of). He told Nixon, “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.”
It’s an insane moment in our history, and has a lot of comic potential (which 2016 film Elvis & Nixon mined in a more toned-down fashion). Elvis got it into his head that he would fight crime, and had an affection for gunplay and karate, so his real story only needs a little nudge to get to this show’s gonzo premise, which starts him off as a vigilante in between performances, and then brings him into a mysterious spy organization.
It’s just a shame it doesn’t do more with that premise. Why do the spies try and recruit Elvis? Unclear! Why is crass redneck Bobby Ray (a cast-against-type Johnny Knoxville) also a tech wizard? No reason! Why does Charles Manson want to kill Elvis? He’s Charles Manson, he’s crazy! Why do terrorists want to turn Howard Hughes’ nuclear-powered plane into a nuclear bomb and blow up Las Vegas? They’re the bad guys, duh.
Very little thought seems to have gone into any aspect of the show beyond, “it’s a cartoon, but it’s super-violent!” And while that’s also the simplest way to describe Archer, that series has run for 13 seasons and counting not because it’s a spy spoof, but because underneath the blood splatter and dirty jokes is surprising depth. Archer’s over-the-top violence underlines how cynical and amoral its characters are; Agent Elvis mostly just seems to think random henchmen gushing absurd amounts of blood looks cool.
Same goes for the supporting cast. The monkey sidekick seems like he has comic potential, but the show only hits the same joke over and over — he’s a drunken, violent womanizer, but get this, he’s a monkey. Archer uses Lana Kane (Archer’s black female partner/ex-girlfriend) to interrogate the casual racism and sexism baked into a character who’s directly spoofing James Bond, himself an avatar of masculinity and imperialism. Agent Elvis has Ms. Bertie, Elvis’ Alfred-the-Butler-like housekeeper, who never gets more depth than “sassy Black lady.” And at no point do we examine Elvis’ character or motivations. He’s just a cool guy who knows karate and tangles with murderers and figures from late ‘60s pop culture.
The other thing that makes Archer work is that it’s overstuffed with jokes, but jokes are pretty thin on the ground in Agent Elvis. We’re just supposed to find a monkey doing coke with hookers, or Howard Hughes’ radioactive piss burning a henchman’s face off, being inherently funny without the writers having to strain themselves with things like irony or wordplay.
The shame of it is, the show wastes a great cast. While Matthew McConaughey makes no real effort to sound like Elvis beyond his natural Texas drawl, on vibes alone he’s a great choice to play The King. Knoxville always sounds like he’s having fun. Tom “Spongebob” Kenny voices the monkey. Don Cheadle and Caitlin Olsen run the shadowy spy organization that recruits Elvis. And there’s a murderers’ row of guest voices — Fred Armisen plays Manson in episode one, Jason Mantzoukis is Hughes in episode two, and Chris Elliot pops up as Timothy Leary. Down the line, Gary Cole, Kieran Culkin, Ed Helms, Christina Hendricks, Ego Nwodim, Simon Pegg, Craig Robinson, Tara Strong, and Parliament/Funkadelic’s George Clinton all join in the fun.
Except it isn’t all that much fun.
One of the tragedies of Elvis Presley’s career is that, while he showed flashes of brilliance as an actor, his rapacious manager had him star in one disposable musical after another until audiences were sick of him. Forty-six years after his death, Elvis deserves better than more poorly-written fluff.
• We will still give credit where credit’s due — a bored Elvis skeet shooting with TVs as targets was a clever gag. Elvis famously had multiple TVs in his living room and once shot out the screen when rival singer Robert Goulet came on.
• Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ widow, co-created the show and voices herself in brief appearances in each episode. Her presence means there are some nice touches of authenticity (and the series likely would never have been made, never mind gotten music rights to so many Elvis songs, without her involvement). But it also means that Elvis is portrayed as a pretty one-dimensional straight arrow. The real Elvis of 1968, who was battling addiction and struggling to regain relevance in the culture and respect as a performer, is a character who might have added some depth to this paper-thin show.
• We considered doing episodic reviews for this one, but because Netflix drops all the episodes at once, and because the episodes themselves don’t leave much to talk about, we’re stopping here. Elvis has left the building.