While working in the investigations field over the years, I’ve taken note of the many misconceptions about it created by society, particularly in TV and movies. Such inaccurate depictions make explaining the profession to others a bit difficult and can even bring about an expectation of illicit or shadowy activities on the part of investigators.

If you haven’t seen the award-winning TV series Archer on FX, you’re missing out on a hilarious and satirical animated comedy for adults that, while entirely fictional, often touches on real-world themes related to our industry.

In the season which recently wrapped up, the motley crew of misfit ex-spies have given up international espionage and opened an investigative firm, much to my delight. I’d like to take a moment and briefly take a look at what the show’s writers and creators got wrong and what they got right.

Investigators Need a License

The lead character, Sterling Archer, is ineligible to be licensed as a private investigator due to a lack of experience in investigative work or a relevant college degree, as required by the State of California. As a result, the old spy agency’s comptroller, Cyril Figgis, becomes the principal of the company – much to Archer’s chagrin – and The Figgis Agency is born.

While the show’s requirements are a bit off from California’s actual regulations, it is a refreshing change of pace to see that at least a modicum of research was conducted regarding the rigors of becoming a licensed private investigator. Oftentimes the portrayal of a private investigator can be as unrealistic as that found in the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book series or even the more believable Jim Rockford character from the ’70s TV show. Archer and the team fall somewhere in between, more akin to Thomas Magnum of “Magnum P.I.” fame, after whom this season was unabashedly modeled.

Accurate Client Base

The season-long premise revolves around the firm having been hired by a celebrity damsel in distress in need of the team’s services. While it might seem a bit out of the ordinary, in reality, celebrities and other high-profile individuals are no less likely to clients of investigative firms than corporations, suspicious partners (both business and domestic) or insurance entities.

Throughout the season’s episodes, the show’s characters tackle a number of facets of the private investigations industry, including fraud investigations, asset protection and recovery, executive protection and they even take a contracting job from the Central Intelligence Agency.

As we’ve touched on before in our blogs, public records are a very important tool for investigators, and Archer’s request for information regarding a home’s publicly available records, including plat maps and building permits, was an oddly specific yet entirely believable aspect of one episode.

Attention to Detail, Curiosity and an Analytical Mind

The matriarchal figure of the group, Malory Archer, often waxes philosophical between sips from her cocktail glass and sometimes hits the nail right on the head. In the premiere she states that, “A good detective and a good spy share a lot of skills.” This definitely holds true to life in that attention to detail, curiosity and an analytical mind are useful skills in both professions. The Central Intelligence Agency’s own requirements for a Paramilitary Operations or Specialized Skills Officer include many traits that make a good investigator:

  • Ability to work both autonomously and as part of a team
  • Flexibility to adapt to changing work and training requirements
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Ability to make decisions to meet existing conditions and mission requirements rather than relying on preset assumptions and goals

Where the Show Missed the Mark

Harkening back to their spy days, the team must utilize a whole host of tools and techniques in order to complete their investigation. Many of them are actually used by private investigators: two-way communications devices, night vision and thermal optics, even the tactical turtleneck are sometimes-used tools of the trade. Unfortunately, right about here is where the show goes off the rails of reality.

However, alarm bypass tools, suction cups and lock picks typically aren’t.

Even as a member of a team with core values and beliefs that include being committed to the highest standards of ethics, integrity, character, trust and confidence, sometimes it’s fun to suspend reality and be entertained by the cases and capers of fictional characters. 

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