Try though I might, I can’t really think of anything at all similar to what Archer does in the premiere of its fifth season. It’s a show at the height of its popularity, changing a bunch of stuff around and risking alienating some portion of its audience, solely because that would make for a more dynamic creative future for the show. Even something like Rhoda, which scuttled its popularity by trying to become a better show, genuinely thought the audience had been turned off by Ms. Morgenstern becoming a married woman and wanted to see her dating again. But Archer is pretty much just ditching most of its original premise because Adam Reed got bored, and it’s marvelous.
I interviewed Reed for an article that should go up at midnight Central, if you’re curious to see his thoughts on why this had to happen, but the predominant sense I got from him was that he didn’t think the show had changed that much. And I can see why he’d think that. Even throughout the run of this premiere, as the characters are running around and trying to figure out how to escape FBI custody, it’s obvious that they’re still recognizably the same people. It’s not as if Reed has randomly shifted a bunch of details about the characters. Archer’s not suddenly going to start being a kind, considerate human being, and Pam is still an absolute force of nature. But it’s also clear that Reed thinks of his show first and foremost in terms of its characters—as would most writers and critics—where I think a lot of fans of TV shows think primarily about shows in terms of their premises. Here’s an experiment: Try to describe what Archer was about for its first four seasons without using the word “spy” somewhere. You can, but it’s not your first instinct.
So Archer is no longer about spies, and it is awesome.
Don’t get me wrong. Season four of this show was fine. It was all very funny and good, but it very much had the sense of settling into a long decline where it would eventually turn into a show that we all sort of rolled our eyes at seeing still on the schedule. This is inevitable for almost all TV shows that last more than two or three seasons, and it’s just one of the things you get used to when you really like the medium. In season four or five, most TV shows become about managing the decline, about keeping fans just happy enough to keep them watching, and for a successful enough show, that can usually keep a bunch of people around through at least season seven, if not season 11. The stories in Archer last year were very much the sorts of things you might have gotten used to and enjoyed from having seen the first three seasons of the show, and there was nothing wrong with that. I graded it very well, too.
But did anyone really think that was the show putting its best foot forward, rather than keeping things humming along as unobtrusively as possible? As a long, great year for TV wound along, I found Archer slipping more and more to the back of my memory when people would ask what my favorite shows on TV were. Inevitably, I would remember it—because it is one of my favorite shows on TV—but the newer, more immediate shows were the ones that leapt to mind more readily, because it’s the new that seizes the imagination. Plus, it was always going to be difficult for Archer to top its titanic second and third seasons by just doing more of the same. It’s very hard to get more blood from the same stone.
Which is why the sudden left turn works so brilliantly. Placing the characters in a new context is an ingenious way to see what’s still vital about them, what still makes them tick. Plus, that moment when the audience realizes that, hey, what Malory has been doing all this time isn’t strictly legal is so thrilling and wonderful because it pulls the rug out from under you. It’s the show taking a look at a hole in its own premise that fans have pointed out a number of times before, then choosing not to ignore it and, instead, plunge right on in. When I first watched this episode, I figured that everything that was happening was some sort of weird dream sequence—particularly with that long, balletic opening sequence that concluded with the sudden explosion—but it just kept going. Brett died, for once and for all. Archer shot the man clad in black, only to have him spin around and reveal the FBI logo. Malory insisted she could get everyone out of this.
For a while, it seems like Malory really is going to get the gang out of this particular scrape, by calling in a favor to get some immunity for everyone. And, honestly, that would have been tremendously disappointing, because it would have essentially been a deus ex machina removing something with the potential to be so brilliant. But the longer the episode goes on, the more one starts to realize that Reed is just done with this shit, and he’s going to tear apart everything that he spent all those seasons building so meticulously. The history of the show remains, but it’s as if Reed were building the Taj Mahal and suddenly shifted to building one of the Great Pyramids midway through.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know how great this episode is on a purely structural level. There’s that long section that’s basically just the characters reciting crazy shit that happened over the course of the four seasons, and it was mostly funny for being the verbal equivalent of a clip show. And I’m largely undecided on the way that the show turns into an actual clip show (but for upcoming episodes) in its final four minutes, as if nakedly pleading for the audience not to turn on this series, because it’s still going to be the Archer you know and love. The song is great, and Archer saying “Archer Vice!” is fantastic, but the clips, devoid of context, don’t work as well at building anticipation as they otherwise might (except for that tiger, because you can always use a tiger in a show like this).
Yet I’m giving this an A anyway, because I’m so excited about what this does for the show. Last season, I was going to stop reviewing Archer, not because I didn’t like the show anymore but because I didn’t know what else I could say about it, outside of a weekly list of things that were funny. Yet this episode got me so jazzed about everything the series is attempting—both in terms of how it could go right and how it could go so, so wrong—that it instantly jumped right back into my top pantheon of shows that demand to be talked about. It’s rare for a show this old to be so, well, courageous. Most shows are heading well into their dotage at this point, and that’s fine. But Archer has never been a show that settled for “fine,” which is why season four was mildly disappointing. With the fifth season premiere, Archer has pushed all of its chips onto striving for something more, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
- Welcome back to Archer season five reviews. Before I saw these episodes, I’d turned over reviewing duties to Sonia Saraiya, but then I did see them and desperately wanted to stay involved, so she and I will be trading off through the first 12 episodes, then doing a crosstalk for the season finale. Please welcome her for all of the even-numbered episodes!
- Lana is still pregnant, and it would seem that Archer is very concerned about what’s going to happen with that baby if it doesn’t have a father. The moment when she tells him point blank that she wouldn’t want him to be the father of her baby is surprisingly devastating, emotionally, even in the midst of a big, goofy story.
- Lana and Archer making their way through the FBI office made for a good way of grounding the “story” of the episode (such as it is) in the midst of something that felt very like the show’s old mission-of-the-week structure.
- Lucky Yates—Krieger!—has been added to the opening credits, so we’ll be seeing a lot more of him, I would imagine. Sadly, I fear his wife is gone, now that his hard drive has been wiped.
- The moment when Archer remembers the name of Beaker the Muppet’s employer is my biggest laugh of the episode, particularly since it’s prompted by Brett’s last name. Poor Brett. A loyal employee to the end.