Archer is old.
It’s not a novel observation. As an animated sitcom, the series has been on the air (on FX, and then FXX) for 12 years now, suffering right alongside its title character as he’s gotten shot, stabbed, en-coma-fied, etc. across a decade-plus of adventures. Over that period, the series has flirted, maybe more than any other show of its era, with trying to find some radical new direction for itself, whether via the three-season genre jaunt heralded by that aforementioned coma—an effort that often veered wildly between “stunt,” and a genuine effort to expand the series’ storytelling—or slightly more subtle shifts, like the “Well, we’re all coke dealers living in a mansion together now” action of season 5’s Archer: Vice.
The show’s 12th season is not one of those big, ambitious, messy swings, an attempt to jam a little fresh lightning back into the monster. No, we’re firmly back in “We’re all spies, doing spy stuff,” mode (see also seasons 6 and 11), heralded by an opening scene for tonight’s premiere that sees The Agency* subjected to a marketing pitch by a pair of uber-chipper millennial chatterboxes played by Harvey Guillen and Natasha Rothwell. Our favorite spies are being left behind by an evolving marketplace, it seems, despite having saved the world at the end of last year’s “Cold Fusion,” and a rebranding is apparently in order. And maybe that emphasis on putting a new shine on old fruit is fitting, since this does, indeed, feel just like an episode of Archer—only older.
(*They’re called The Agency now, by the way, which is a blessing for anyone who’s had to write “The spy agency formally called ISIS before that got politically dicey” multiple times over the last few years.)
On the topic of the loam-loving Cloud Beam Marketing: I will admit to having come to quietly dread the Archer celebrity guest star, a trend that saw its nadir with Jamie Lee Curtis’ shockingly lifeless turn as kind-of, sort-of recurring antagonist Peregrine last year. The thing is, the prime Archer voice cast is so basically flawless at what they do, uncontested experts at the rapid-fire dialogue that serves as the lifeblood of this show, that it makes newcomers often look terrible in comparison. Any awkwardness, slowness, or just general off-ness introduced by a new member of the ensemble, famous or otherwise, tends to send the well-oiled machine careening off a cliff. That doesn’t happen here—Guillen and Rothwell are both charming enough in their single scene, and Eric Andre gets all of three lines as MacGuffin-builder “The Professor”—but I bring it up mostly to talk about the episode’s other big guest star, who ably subverts and defies those worries: Guillen’s What We Do In The Shadows co-star Kayvan Novak.
As rival spy Fabian Kingsworth, Novak—who also guest-starred, as a different character, in “Cold Fusion”—amps up the smarm commendably, drilling into the closest thing “Identity Crisis” has to an emotional throughline: Sterling Archer’s continued worries about no longer being the toughest, fastest, most badass agent in the field. It’s a rich topic that Shane Kosakowski’s script prods at only weakly, but at least it’s some stable motivation for one of our characters. (Oh, and Lana is having trouble with husband Robert, a topic I have an exceptional amount of trouble caring about when the show’s not willing to actually put Stephen Tobolowsky in the booth to play it out.) You might roll your eyes at the show’s occasional reaches for heavy emotion, like last year’s genuinely poignant “The Orpheus Gambit.” But characters, even rampant assholes like the Agency crew, are funnier when they care about things, and “Identity” gives precious little for them, or us, to latch onto.
That general sense of coasting isn’t helped by the fact that the comedic premises that are here feel thoroughly under-explored, or given mere lipservice. The idea of The Agency having to run a mission on an extremely tight budget is funny. The idea of Archer taunting the corporate goons of ODIN fill-in IIA for all the money he’s making them waste trying to kill him is funny. The idea of Cheryl and Pam forming a de facto marketing team together is an obvious comic gold mine. All of these ideas are funny. But “Identity Crisis” generally isn’t.
So, we have to ask: Is this just Archer now? A shadow of its former self, cracking self-deprecating jokes about the entertainment value of comas, and coasting along on luck and goodwill? It’s a pleasure to check back in with these characters, and these performers, for another year; they’ve been with me for a third of my life now, and I could never bring myself to hate my time with them. But as far as pleasures go, that’s about all “Identity Crisis” has to offer. Here’s hoping it’s all uphill from here.
Episode Grade: C
- Let’s start by noting the obvious: This is the first episode of Archer to air since Jessica Walter’s death back in March. (I was surprised that my screener of tonight’s premiere didn’t end on an “In Loving Memory,” although the show is presumably saving that tribute for a later date.) There’s a Malory-focused episode later in this season that will likely serve as a better place to effuse about everything Walter brought to this part, but suffice it to say that it’s hard to imagine how the show can or will proceed without her.
- The repeated references back to “Cold Fusion” suggests that the writing team is much more invested in the events of that episode than, say, me.
- Among the Agency budget cuts: Healthcare, Krieger’s “Dark Science,” and the wall art that riled Cheryl’s loins.
- Cyril is back to being completely ineffectual; Ray suggests (during another “this is funnier on paper” sequence, that sees him and Cyril tear into each other while doing their awful Archer impressions) that it’s due to a lack of self-confidence. Either way, it’s a bummer. I liked the dynamic of Archer not being able to push him around.
- Best line of the episode: All of my laugh lines came from Archer tonight, for whatever reason; H. Jon Benjamin seems to be having a good time. His wistful read on “An expensive MacGuffin in a life full of them” got a laugh out of me.
- I really assumed that the episode was going to end with the reveal that Malory had sold out the Agency to IIA, with the season playing off the culture clash between the two agencies. Shows what I know.
- The fake game name tonight was also way off. I love Chet Manley as much as the next fan, but neither “Slugs -N- Jugs” or Dr. Whirlington Spinblade were up to the series’ standards. (Okay, I kind of liked “Back And Spy-In Center.”)
- “Yeah, comas aren’t as entertaining to watch as I’d hoped.”
And lo, it was uphill from there: “Lowjacked” may not be the best episode of Archer ever written—or even the best episode of Archer in which this specific crew of dysfunctional weirdos has to foil a terrorist plot on a luxury aircraft—but it’s at least a decent uptick in funny from “Identity Crisis.” The problems that have dogged late-season Archer (a reliance on guest stars who aren’t up to the show’s pacing, a tendency to drop funny premises when they’ve been barely explored) are all on display here, but they’re at least sharing space with the stuff the show does best. (I.e., having Pam hit people, and then eat a biologically unwise number of steaks.)
The premise is laid out swiftly in the cold open: The Agency’s new CFO, and Lana’s old husband, Robert (Tobolowsky, typically excellent) has loaded our crew onto a luxury airliner for a teambuilding exercise, only to be waylaid by a crew of tremendously incompetent eco-terrorists, led by Tony Cavalero and Michaela Watkins. Numerous jokes about cheap 3D-printed guns and hippie sandals thus ensue.
The decision to make the hijackers here genuinely awful at their “jobs” is an interesting one; it instantly and deliberately defuses any stakes that might have gotten in the way of, well, steaks, as the Republic of Pamistan swiftly establishes itself in the plane’s upstairs lounge, after Ms. Poovey kicks the asses of her would-be kidnappers. It also sets up a fun premise where a bored Archer coaches the hijackers to be somewhat better at what they’re doing, which could have served as the spine for a whole episode. (With shades of Pirate King Archer from way back when.) Instead, though, we zoom forward to the next comic conceit, and then the next after that: Cyril getting punched in the face, Lana and Robert having a sweat-soaked argument, puppies, Cyril getting hit again, and a violently divorced hostage “negotiator” that might actually be even worse at his job than the hijackers are. If “Lowjacked” took a breath and focused on any of these ideas for more than a moment, it could have built something more comedically cohesive; as is, the show relies, as it often does, on the performances to make the most of its vast square footage of concepts.
The core cast rises gamely to the challenge, as usual: Amber Nash is never better than when letting Pam go full ham on things, while Judy Greer is as comfortable tossing out Milton one-liners and creepy ASMR vibes as she is sobbing about how no one wants to kidnap poor billionaire Cheryl. This is also a pretty great Ray episode, for all that he spends most of it unconscious; nobody does indignant and pathetic quite so well as Adam Reed. The guest cast is a much more mixed bag, though: Tobolowsky is great as ever as Robert, managing to make the argument with Lana carry some actual emotional heft while still clearly having a blast with the show’s meaner dialogue. Watkins and Cavalero, though, fall firmly into Bad Archer Guest Star Syndrome—especially Cavalero, who never finds more than the most surface-level reads on his extra-violent extremist character. (Meanwhile, I’m not sure who’s voicing the hostage negotiator—there are quite a few additional voices listed in this week’s credits, outside the guest stars—but his immediate dive into rage got a definite chuckle out of me.)
“Lowjacked” isn’t going to stand up terribly well in comparison to classic Archer “Everybody’s stuck on a vehicle” farces like “Skytanic” or “The Limited.” It’s too unfocused, and the script (penned by Shana Gohd) doesn’t match the relentless, new-joke-every-10 seconds pace set by the show’s earlier, Reed-penned seasons. But it does have a pretty steady stream of jokes, Krieger trying to spear fish in an aquarium, and H. Jon Benjamin’s “hanging out with puppies” voice. All of which adds up to “Sure, I’ll take it.” It’s an improvement over the season opener, if nothing else.
Episode Grade: B
- Ray angrily demanding “Why are you Satan?!” of Cheryl is matched only by the sight of his unconscious body going down the slide at the end. Good Ray episode.
- Robert, pointing out The Agency’s dire straits: “I saw you mix tequila and vodka together out of two plastic bottles.”
- Malory gets very little to do this week, and most of her dialogue seems to be short, sharp phrases. It makes me genuinely wonder if all of Walter’s dialogue for this installment had been recorded by the time of her death, or if some of it was re-used from other episodes.
- This is also a great Cheryl episode, and a great episode for reactions to her; casino employee Harold’s quiet “I don’t…like that town” in response to her nipple-grater based fantasies was another highlight.
- Admittedly, they’re very cute puppies.
- Line of the episode: Cheryl, when asked where they’ll go if she sets a fire on the airplane they’re all trapped inside: “We’re on a plane! We could fly anywhere!”
- The runner-up? “Not too old to piss myself laughing at your ass, delivered by Pam as she mocks a fleeing Ray.
- I love that Cheryl is carrying around buckets of her slot winnings at the end. Everybody gets a win!