TV shows will occasionally blow up their premises, cutting vital characters or moving everyone to a new setting, but it’s usually a sign of desperation—a last-ditch attempt to avoid cancellation. It’s known as retooling, and a successful TV show will often avoid it all costs. Yet Archer, which stepped into the position of FX’s most successful comedy in its fourth season last year, has embarked on a fifth season where much of what viewers took for granted about the show has been thrown out the window. No longer are Sterling Archer and his co-workers super spies for the independent spy agency ISIS, and no longer do they all hang out around the office. Instead, as of next week’s episode, they will have moved into the mansion of billionaire Cheryl (who’s trying to become a country singer) in an attempt to sell tons of cocaine to make enough money to live comfortably (and then some). It’s at once a radical departure for the show and an extension of everything that’s come before. After all, it’s weird that the U.S. would let an independent spy agency operate with such impunity, and the characters and their relationships remain largely unchanged. But at the same time, it’s hard to think of many shows that have changed this much at the peak of their success. The series’ creator, showrunner, and writer, Adam Reed, got on the phone with The A.V. Club while writing the last few episodes of the season to talk about why he decided to make the change, the Wikipedia discovery he wished he’d made during the series’ ISIS years, and what the characters have revealed about themselves after this major shift.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the big thing fans are going to be asking: How did you extend the theme song to fit Lucky Yates [who voices Krieger] in there?
Adam Reed: [Laughs.] I don’t know how they did that. But that was a couple of days, I think—probably Matt Thompson, swearing at the editing machine, trying to get that music edit to work.
AVC: At what point when you were working on this season did it occur to you that you wanted to blow up your premise like this?
AR: After the season’s over, I get two months off, and I usually go on a pretty big trip. I’ve walked across Spain a couple times, motorcycled through Vietnam, and this past spring, I was going to take this 5,000-mile motorcycle ride from North Carolina to Oregon, all on dirt. My girlfriend was going with me, riding in the sidecar of this Russian motorcycle I have. I spent a couple of weeks getting the bike ready. We were going to be gone for a month. And exactly four miles into the trip, I sank the motorcycle in a river. It was like a 15-minute trip. So once we got the bike towed home, I had a month to just kill. So, I just sat back down and started thinking about Archer, and also dismantling what had been a perfectly good motorcycle. And at some point in there, I don’t know, the idea just popped into my head that this might be a good thing to try.
AVC: What part of it occurred to you first?
AR: The part that occurred first was the, “Hey, you guys have been spying without a license, and you’re in huge trouble,” so then it was like, “Do they all go to jail? Do we do a season where they’re all in this prison and working to escape?” Which, looking back, that could have been pretty fun. [Laughs.] I think Pam would have ended up just running the entire cellblock. Maybe we’ll do that in season six: They all go to prison. Then the idea of the drugs came in. Kate Lambert at FX, she’s always sending me these crazy links to stuff, and one was about Freeway Ricky Ross, and how he was supposedly involved with the CIA and crack cocaine in the ’80s, just all the stuff that, historically, allegedly has been going on with the real CIA and real drugs. There’s sort of a wealth of stuff out there.
AVC: Was there a point when you were in the process where you ever said, “This is too crazy; I should just try and do another season where they all work at ISIS”?
AR: Oh yeah. Every day. But hopefully people are going to like it. It’s been fun to write. I think the cast has been having a good time in the V.O. sessions. Hopefully the viewers will like it. I don’t know if they told you: We actually made a real country album to go along with this season. That was really fun to work on, and we got the actual real-life Kenny Loggins to sing on the album. He’s doing a duet of a country version of “Danger Zone” with Cherlene. It’s been really fun.
AVC: It seems like every season is sort of a trip through a list of things you’re interested in. What are some itches you got to scratch with this premise that you wouldn’t have when it was about ISIS?
AR: [Sarcastically.] Well, my love of cocaine, Todd.
Some of it was getting to go back and have a new reason to work with some guest stars that we’ve had in the past and loved. Ron Perlman comes back as Ramon. George Takei is back. Obviously, we’ve been wanting to get Kenny Loggins forever. So, that was part of it. As far as other itches… I think on paper, it sounds like more of a huge departure than it seems like it is in my head. Because it’s still a lot about their dysfunctional relationships and general lack of success at their [Laughs.] chosen profession. I think they’re still dealing with a lot of frustration and maybe feeling like a second- or third-tier organization.
AVC: Well, it’s very much a natural extension of everything that came before. It’s like act two in some ways.
AR: Yeah. [Jokingly.] Hopefully not the final act. [Laughs.]
AVC: You make all the characters fit in this new world very well. Was there a time you were working on it when it was difficult to figure out the logic of how does Cheryl fit back in, how does Pam fit back in, etc.?
AR: This time has actually been a little easier with that, because in the past when you know we have, like, there’s the spy team, the field agents, which is basically just Archer and Lana and Gillette, and then everybody else is sort of the support staff. So you really have to stretch to come up with reasons why the HR lady is on some mission. But with this, since they’re all just rookies at it, everybody is just sort of bumbling along together.
AVC: You did something fairly similar on Frisky Dingo. The second season was much more about a presidential campaign.
AR: I just realized that, and then the show got canceled, Todd. [Laughs.] Immediately after that.
AVC: What about tearing apart the established stuff in your show and then building something new out of it appeals to you?
AR: It’s the challenge to keep it fresh and interesting. I think probably all writers have the fear of repeating themselves over and over. It’s sort of a way to hopefully make sure I’m not doing that. And also to keep people watching, so it didn’t slowly turn into mission-of-the-week. Although, having said that, I did find on Wikipedia, there’s a whole Wikipedia page that is just the sluglines for the plots of every single Six Million Dollar Man episode. Every single one, when you look at it, you go, “Oh, that would be a perfect Archer episode.” So if I had found that early on, that’s probably what I would have been doing up until now. Like, there’s a two-parter with Bigfoot.
AVC: Are there other sluglines that you’re particularly sad that you didn’t get to use?
AR: Every single one of them. And now that I’ve blabbed it out there. I should have kept that to myself, or scrubbed that Wikipedia page, because they’re all just gold.
AVC: This season is much more serialized than the previous seasons. What has that shift been like to make as a writer?
AR: That’s harder. You know, Frisky Dingo was so serialized that I think it was one of the reasons probably why neither Adult Swim nor Adult Swim viewers were crazy about that show. A lot of those episodes stopped in mid-sentence and picked up mid-sentence in the next episode. They were extremely serialized. I think on the DVDs, we actually just stripped out the open and closing credits and just did it as a movie. For me, it’s harder to do. Also, looking at the season itself as being a three-act structure is also a little more difficult. Pretty far out of my comfort zone, I guess, if I were being honest.
AVC: As the primary writer for the show, who do you turn to when you get lost in the weeds on something like that?
AR: Matt Thompson and our producer Casey Willis. I will go just lay on the floor in their office and moan until they stop what they’re doing and ask me if they can help.
AVC: In an interview with Uproxx, Matt Thompson said FX was fairly supportive of this shift. Is that the case or did you get some notes?
AR: No, they really were. It was weird. It was like, “Hey, so, what if they’re drug dealers?” They’re like, “Great!” [Laughs.] And it was just like, “Oh. Okay.” I thought there would be a much longer discussion then there was, but they just said, “Yeah, sounds good. Go do it.” It’s like asking your dad if you can build your own car in the garage, and he’s just like, “Sure. Knock yourself out.”
AVC: One of the things you’re doing this season is pushing the characters and stripping away some of the things that make them recognizably them and seeing what remains true about them. What have you been most surprised about or most interested in finding out about the characters or their relationships through this process of putting them in a new context?
AR: It’s weird. A lot of them, seem to me, at least, they’re being a little nicer to each other. I don’t know what that is a function of. Man, I’m trying to think. I don’t know. Maybe they’re growing a little bit. I’m finding more and more that Pam has really got a lot going on. She’s quite the onion, and it’s been fun as she becomes mired in this insane cocaine addiction and is getting skinnier and skinnier and skinnier, and nobody’s really commenting on that. But toward the end of the season, she’s going to run out of cocaine and replace it with sugar, just pure sugar. So she’ll probably get rebooted next season when they’re all in prison together. I’m really thinking about this prison thing now. I wonder if FX would let me do that.
AVC: How do you still honor the series’ history even though you shifted the context? You bring back a lot of guest stars, you bring back a lot of reoccurring references, stuff that you’ve always had there, but now it’s all in a new context.
AR: Well, I think ISIS as a spy agency, because of the real-life weirdness of the CIA, the drug thing was not that off-the-wall. It’s not like they were just going to go live on Mars. There’s a lot of information about weird drugs goings-on—drugs for arms, arms for hostages. So, hopefully, it seems natural that they later on in the season find themselves involved in Central American politics and civil wars and a coup. Hopefully, it all seems, at least in the Archer universe, like it makes sense.
AVC: Central American politics and coups being known for their rich comedy value.
AVC: Are there elements of the previous show that you sort of haven’t been able to fit in, like Barry or Katya or things that are a little more spy-centric?
AR: Yeah, they’ve been on the back burner, but I have to bring them back with a vengeance next season, and hopefully it won’t get canceled like Frisky Dingo. Also, we were talking about Rodney, the guy who was running the armory at ISIS. There’s a lot that we have been missing, but it’s also been pretty fun to have them all living in this big crazy mansion together.
AVC: Where did that idea come from, to have them all just live together?
AR: Probably just 50-percent me trying to piss off Matt Thompson, my partner, because he’s like, “The other thing is already drawn. It’s done. The mansion is not drawn.” And then just seeing if I can get him to go along with it.
AVC: We’ve talked a little bit, just speculatively, about season six, but do you have an idea of where this all goes from here or do you even know how season five ends?
AR: I am currently, not as we speak, but right up until the phone rang, writing script number 11. I know how the season ends, so we just have two more episodes to get to the jaw-dropping climax. Then, I don’t know what happens in season six. I did know, but now that you’ve got me thinking about prison, and Orange Is The New Black was really popular. People are liking prison shows again. Maybe they’ll all go to jail.
AVC: If this is really successful and you don’t get canceled, is there a part of you that would just like to keep tearing apart this show every few years and reassembling it in a new way?
AR: Yes. But I think in a way, it’s definitely bad business for a number of reasons. But also in a way it’s sort of selfish and self-indulgent. Like people might not want prison drama crammed down their throats when they wanted to see spy stuff. They might not want to see the drug-dealer thing crammed down their throats, but hopefully, they will just look past that to the people, the characters.
AVC: The first episode ends with that lengthy montage of things coming up in episodes to be seen. Was that you trying to assure the fans that it’s still going to be basically the same show?
AR: Yes, very much so. When that was written, we wrote this trailer, and then it was all sort of place-holder stuff, and I thought, oh yeah, we’ll get to that and somebody will be kicked out of a helicopter at 3,000 feet. So we said, “We’ll wait and we’ll finish the trailer, because we’re going to need the existing footage and blah blah blah.” Then it turned out that almost none of the things in the original trailer as written wound up in the season. So we went back—and I guess how they make real trailers—watched seven episodes and used footage to put in the trailer. And hopefully, it does look very similar to what it traditionally has, but with enough of a change to be interesting. Anew.