Archer has never entered a serious slump. Admittedly, its fourth season didn’t hit the dizzying heights of previous years, with some of the comedy drowned out by its epic scale and increasingly convoluted and serialized plotting. The foundation of the show looked strong enough to sustain endless seasons though. The killer ensemble, their globetrotting spy lives, and the intentionally vague time setting allowed it to spoof every genre and era of spy movies—creator Adam Reed and his team had no real cause for concern.
Nonetheless, the show is getting rebooted for its fifth season, and it’s quickly clear what a good idea that is. The posters that circulated around the Internet—headlined “Archer Vice” and showing Archer on a beach with a bag full of money, carrying a sawed-off shotgun and wearing a white suit—are no joke. The cast is the same, the antics broadly similar, but at least for a year, Archer is backing away from spy-show spoofery into a narrower universe. Miami Vice is the obvious forebear, but in typical Archer fashion, there’s no effort made to pretend our heroes are on the right side of the law.
The opening episode sets up the reboot rather spectacularly by finally poking at the very nature of Malory Archer’s ISIS operation, which never made much sense to begin with. Sure, they were independent contractors doing government work, but at the same time, the depth and breadth of their missions never jibed with their supposed extra-governmental status. Without revealing too much, the fundamental concept of ISIS is torn down within the opening minutes of the episode, quickly requiring a change in headquarters, a new job for accountant Cyril and a refocused, even more morally repugnant core mission for the team.
It’s good for the show to clear away much of its extraneous plot detritus. Matters like the mystery of Archer’s paternity, the continued rivalry with Barry Dylan, and the romance with Katya Kazanova were done to death by the end of season four. The loss of the show’s secret agent trappings is barely felt; the “Archer Vice” angle instead feels like a breath of fresh air.
Plus, everything that makes the show great continues to hum along at full force—namely, its characters and the way any member of Archer’s ensemble can bounce off of any other member with glorious ease. Lana’s pregnancy (via donor) heightens both her self-righteousness and the underlying irony of her thrill for the job. Cyril’s new function as staff attorney is the direction his character has long needed—his negative-Nelly personality is even better served. Cheryl and Pam are the reliable, horrifying joke machines they’ve always been.
The biggest change doesn’t involve the ISIS revamp—it’s the moral shift that comes with it. The show’s characters can now make no real claim to being on the side of good. They’re largely in it for themselves, which has always been the case, but the show is now beyond any veneer of spy vs. spy. It’s a somewhat audacious way for the show to go, but based on the first five episodes, there’s little fear of upsetting the audience.
That’s always been Archer’s greatest strength. Its formula is so easily built to avoid status quo, but it enjoys throwing complicated plots and challenging situations at its characters, like cancer, paralysis, amnesia, fatherhood, and marriage. Every time the writers get themselves out of a corner with some ridiculous deus ex machina, it works just as well as when they deal with an issue realistically. It almost feels like they’re daring the audience to object to the latest insanity, knowing full well they won’t.
Season four of Archer opened with an episode devoted to the meta-joke that Archer was flipping burgers in a restaurant, a wink to H. Jon Benjamin’s work on another great animated series, Bob’s Burgers. The situation was rectified within 22 minutes, of course, but from what season five has going on, it’s clear that these characters and this writing would work in almost any setting. Set a whole season of Archer in a burger joint, and it’d still be appointment television.
Created by: Adam Reed
Starring: H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Judy Greer, Amber Nash, Lucky Yates, Adam Reed
Airs: Premieres January 13 at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX.
Format: Half-hour animated comedy
Five season-five episodes watched for review