Four years ago, Archer ended its 7th season (that’s the one where they were Hollywood detectives, if you’re having trouble keeping track) with its most dramatic cliffhanger ever: Sterling Archer shot, apparently dead, face down in a Los Angeles pool. The show followed that drastic move with an even drastic-er one, rejecting the real world in favor of three seasons of genre-based coma dreams, seemingly designed as much to keep creator Adam Reed’s flagging interest in the show going as for what they could say about the character or his subconscious mind. That all ended (along with Reed’s writing tenure on the show) with last year’s mind-bending finale, “Robert De Niro,” which saw Archer finally fight his way back to the real world, three years older, but probably not three years wiser. Physically weakened, a man out of time, the show left it an open question of how long it would be before the world’s most dangerous secret agent got back to doing what he does best.
30 seconds, as it turns out. That’s how long it takes for Sterling Archer to make life harder for every single person that he knows—and how far we get into the cold open of “The Orpheus Gambit” (A-) before Lana’s phone starts ringing mid-mission, carrying the news that Archer has just awoken from his coma. The idea that Archer has spent his entire life getting, not just in his own way, but in the way of everyone he meets, is a recurring theme both here and in tonight’s second half-hour, “Bloodsploosh” (B-), leaning hard into the idea that “Coma O’Clock” really was a golden age for most of the people in Sterling’s life. The man doesn’t even have to try, either: His wake-up call blows Lana and a suddenly-competent Cyril’s escape from a ring of gun-wielding art thieves, kicking off a season-starting chase scene that—cued with butt-rock irresistibility to the tune of one of Krieger’s Judas Priest tapes—does the lion’s share of establishing just how well the agency-formerly-known-as-ISIS has been doing for itself without having its biggest, most “Sploosh!”-loving distraction around. Largely wordless (with the exception of Pam’s exuberant “Thar she blows, you Moby Dicks!”), the high-octane vehicle chase shows the team operating as a well-oiled machine, from Ray driving support, to Cyril pulling off parkour moves, to the glorious return of Krieger’s beloved van, now dubbed “Screaming For Van-geance.” Everything’s cool, for pretty much everybody. Then the phone rings, and suddenly it’s not.
“The Orpheus Gambit,” written by Mark Ganek (one of a rotating crew of writers handling Archer now that Reed has relinquished writing duties on the series, seemingly for good), is full of little touches of show-don’t-tell like that. That includes the detritus of Archer’s “Welcome Back!” party, still strewn all over his ruined apartment when we check back in on him three months later—i.e., more than long enough for the novelty of his return to have worn off for everyone. Including the man himself, who’s still calling for a dead Woodhouse every morning (aw), rebuffing the possible employment of new valets, and otherwise occupying himself with “void stuff,” rather than coming to terms with what’s left of his post-coma life.
His hesitation’s not really ill-founded, either: Rather than waking up to a crew of people desperate to fill the Archer-shaped holes in their lives, Sterling’s eventual return sees him greeted by colleagues who’ve spent three years finally healing from a lifetime worth of Duchess-based wounds. Cyril’s got his confidence (and muscle mass). Ray, presumably, hasn’t been crippled in years. And Cheryl…Well, Cheryl (sorry, New Better Cheryl) is still completely insane—but at least she’s got a slightly better lock on it at the moment. That’s to say nothing of Lana, who’s been ducking Archer ever since he woke up, presumably because she assumed (rightly) that he’d lose his mind if he found out she’d gotten married during his coma to Robert, an older billionaire played by an always-game Stephen Tobolowsky.
Is it any wonder, then, that the first episode’s spy mission—yes, we’re back to doing spy stuff again—sort of falls into the background betwixt all this beefy interpersonal drama? That’s a bit of a shame, in that “The Orpheus Gambit” pretty much wastes guest star Jamie Lee Curtis, more recognizable from her character’s art design than for her voice work as an Interpol agent with a dark secret. (Such a twist!). But to be fair, there’s a lot of meat to dig into, all of it handled with a maturity that neither Archer the show, nor Archer the man, have always had a lot of patience for. It’s funny as ever when Archer dubs Robert a “bald fortune cookie” when he tries to give him some unwanted advice, but Lana’s new beau’s line about how “the fact that you think me and Lana are impossible is what makes YOU and Lana impossible” does, in fact, land like a punch, as does the way everyone quietly acknowledges that “Coma O’Clock” was one of the most restful and successful periods of their lives. “The Orpheus Gambit” isn’t the most one-liner-heavy dose of show that Archer’s ever offered up, but that’s only because it’s taking its time in letting Archer’s new, everybody-else-has-moved-on reality set in.
In fact, the best thing about the premiere—aside from Pam Poovey, shining liquor angel—is its unwillingness to rush its way back to the status quo at all. There’s a version of this series (a version it’s certainly been in the past, when the joy of undercutting real emotion for a joke got the better of Reed) where this return could have ended with Cyril discredited as a leader, three years of team-wide growth undone, and—and I genuinely worried for a minute that this might be the direction the episode was going to go—with Robert implicated in Peregrine’s crimes, thus removing a thorny obstacle (and a well-cast Tobolowsky) from the picture. That version of the episode would have ended a lot like this one, with Archer reminding everyone that, for all his faults, his ability to improvise crazy shit in the field is basically unparalleled. But it also would have been a rejection of the entire idea that the three years Sterling spent in Dreamland (Danger Island, etc.) were actually meaningful. Archer has built up a healthy payload of narrative weight for itself, through anticipation and longevity, if nothing else. Choosing to actually explore this scenario, to spend some of that capital on a payoff in terms of feelings as well as comedy, is a more mature style of storytelling than this show has usually let itself embrace—and it’s a good look, TactilCane and all. If there’s something genuinely new about this season of Archer, an argument to counter the cries of “Why is this still on?” that have grown around the series after a decade-plus on the air, it’s here. We’ve explored who Sterling Archer is, over and over again, sometimes with the help of mind-altering alien eggs. If Archer wants to actually be about something again, rather than just resigning itself to trudging on as a series of immemorable set-ups for some semi-memorable gags, it needs to follow this thread and find out who he’s going to end up becoming.
So it’s really a shame about “Bloodsploosh,” then, which suggests that that’s going to be a slow, maybe-futile process, and possibly one the show has no actual interest in pursuing at all. Among other things, tonight’s second episode proved that Archer’s “Fuck it, it’ll all work out” instincts are still fully intact, and rewarded by a universe that refuses to let his uppance ever come. Set on a mysterious, very Bloodsport-y island—complete with requisite martial arts tournament—the episode features an Archer who, cane aside, would be pretty much interchangeable with his incarnations from the show’s past, pre-coma seasons. Written by Mike Arnold (who penned last season’s worst episode, “Road Trip”) “Bloodsploosh” plays at being about the ways Archer’s presence drags everyone back into old, bad habits. But it mostly just operates as an excuse to play the hits, right down to a surprise return by a surprise-de-limbed Conway Stern. Lana frustrated, Malory bossy, Cyril beat-down, Pam drunk, Cheryl crazy: We’ve seen these dynamics play out literally more than a hundred times at this point. “The Orpheus Gambit” flirted with something new, but “Bloodsploosh” shoves all those more interesting impulses right back down. It’s still funny. Archer is always funny. (Any show that has Judy Greer tut out a “So disprofessional,” or talk up her “very good typings and other very important non-burny things,” is unlikely to ever drop below a B- rating from me.) But the quality of the jokes doesn’t change the fact that we’ve heard them all before.
Take, as the ur example, the way tonight’s two episodes handle Pam. I’ve noted before that no decision has served Archer better in its latter days than the realization of the Pam-Archer dynamic. 11 seasons in, Pam Poovey remains the only person on Earth who actually, genuinely likes Sterling Archer as a person, and the warmth that Amber Nash injects into “I missed the shit outta you” when they finally get some time alone together in the premiere is the emotional heart of the entire episode. It’s surprising in its realness, even if the sentiment itself isn’t all that shocking. By contrast, “Bloodsploosh” offers up Pam-by-numbers. It’s fun to see her whale on dudes, and there’s a kernel of a neat idea in examining how Archer’s presence might knock her back into some gleefully unhealthy behaviors. But the Pam of “The Orpheus Gambit” seemed genuinely happy with the status quo, committed to seeing what change might look like for this grab-bag of idiots. “Bloodsploosh” Pam, by contrast, acts like she’s just been killing time until Archer could get back to business as usual. One of those ideas is genuinely exciting; the other feels like it could be the final deathknell for this strangely unkillable show.
So: Can Archer keep this balancing act between its comedy roots and its narrative better angels going? I’ll admit that the idea of watching this delicate dynamic bounce from writer to writer over the next several weeks is legitimately nerve-wracking for me. Out of all the writers who were tapped to take over for Reed with last year’s space adventures, Ganek was pretty easily the top of the bunch, and he sets an excellent baseline in the season premiere. But the fact remains that the emotional maturity of Sterling Archer has never been a good bet for lover or reviewer alike, to the point that the show has made a running gag out of the character’s total unwillingness to change under almost any circumstance. “The Orpheus Gambit” makes a fine argument that a humbled Archer can still make for a funny Archer. “Bloodsploosh” suggests that the show’s authors might not think that’s an idea worth pursuing at all.
- Welcome back to our regular coverage of Archer here at The A.V. Club. This is now my fifth season reviewing the series, and I’m really excited to see how Archer ends up paying off (or not) all the potential in this premiere.
- Noting how good Archer looks when it actually puts some money on the screen has gotten as old-hat as “Phrasing!” at this point, but that opening chase really was a nice showcase for the series’ action choreography. I cheered a little when “Screaming For Van-geance” pulled into view.
- “I’m supposed to be here at a time?”
- Malory is now once again running “a quasi-independent freelance international spy organization.” Don’t worry about it!
- Congratulations to Krieger, now wanted for ethical violations in 10 different countries, and who’s down to clown with some “morally questionable Flatliners-style experimentation,” which, yeah, that tracks.
- Krieger’s van screens appear to display some magical girl anime, a doctor trapped in a well, apes fucking, some sort of goatman porn, multiple toilet cams, a martial arts movie, and a shot of the clowns from “Bel Panto.” No fun stuff, though.
- Aisha Tyler has always been one of the best emotional performers on the show, and her take on three-years-later Lana is good as ever: Sad, a little guilty, but not even a little bit wrong about how little she owes the most irritating human being she’s ever known. (Where’s AJ, though?)
- Tobolowsky, fitting in immediately: “We can talk more about how and why I’m bald later.”
- “New Better Cheryl here: Can we all just admit that seeing someone in a coma is intensely erotic?”
- “Thank you, Onan the Barbarian!” Thank god Reed’s departure from the show’s writing team hasn’t led to the disappearance of Ray, too.
- Obscure reference alert (“The Orpheus Gambit): Onan is, of course, the Bible’s favorite masturbator; Flatliners feels like the kind of movie Krieger would watch on repeat; Cyril was kind enough to explain the Orpheus reference for me (thanks, Ayn Rand); Sleestaks are the lizard guys from Land Of The Lost; and the Flemish and the Walloon are two of the regional groups living in Belgium. (Oh, and Pam getting nailed with a dolphin is more of a callback than a reference, but hey: Nice callback.)
- Line of the episode (“The Orpheus Gambit”): H. Jon Benjamin has a lot of work to do this episode, selling Archer’s hateful vulnerability while also tossing off some pretty complicated lines. “In the break room, alone, like a pervert. Wallowing in a miasma of microwave fish curry and its subsequent farts” has got to take the crown, though.
- It just wouldn’t be a season of Archer without me spending several minutes of my recapping time looking up the difference between fancy European pigs. (Fun fact: Culatello is “aged in a beef or hog’s bladder”!)
- “It’s a little thing called being-on-time-iness.”
- Always fun to parse the semantics between a “karate island boner” and a “work-related erection,” as well as Archer’s literal inability to talk about his dick.
- Bowen Yang doesn’t get much to do as the target of “Bloodsploosh”’s mission, but his talking up the loggerhead turtle sliders was fun. (I might be on some sort of exotic meat watch list now, FYI.)
- “It’s called a license to kill, Lana, not a license to gently subdue.”
- “And the delicate foreplay dance begins.”
- This episode is so much more into Conway’s “improving other people’s jokes” bit than I remember from his previous appearances. “Daniel Day Loser” is pretty good, though.
- “Took ya long enough.”
- Obscure reference alert (“Bloodsploosh”): Bloodsport is a 1988 film in which Jean-Claude Van Damme kicks several people. The Hadouken is Ryu and Ken’s fireball from Street Fighter. Pretty much everything else was an expensive or illegal meat.
- Line of the episode (“Bloodsploosh”): I may not be crazy about Pam’s character in this episode, but hearing Amber Nash belt out “Mama’s handing out biscuits!” is hard to say no to.
- Sweet tribute to the late Ron Leibman, a.k.a. Ron Cadillac, a.k.a. Jessica Walter’s husband, there at the end.
- One last thought: As an on-the-record coma-season defender, it still feels really, really good to be back with the “real” versions of the characters. Much of my love for Archer comes from my affection for these assholes, and having the authentic numbers back in play feels great.