As much as my first and foremost love is cinema, I have to admit television has been having something of a major boom lately. Deeper more intelligent dramas like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have become genuine cultural phenomenons, comedies like How I Met Your Mother have been drawing audiences that would embarrass Seinfeld and even animated comedies like Bob’s Burgers and Rick & Morty have been more unique and better put together. But one of the earliest examples of the new wave of great television is probably one of my favorites: Archer.
Archer is at heart a spy parody, based around Sterling Archer, a broad riff on the James Bond archetype. He’s a sociopathic womanizing drunk who just happens to be a lethally dangerous spy, at least in certain areas. He, and most of his coworkers are awful human beings, variously damaging each other, hurting everyone around them and failing to actually accomplish anything. It’s an incredibly simple setup with a series of several wells they return to regularly (Archer’s weird relationship with his mother who runs their spy agency, his regular attempts to reignite his relationship with fellow spy Lana who remains one of the few non-awful, non-stupid people around, etc.) but it works, it’s humor based around running gag and fast dialogue. And one of the things I like about it best is it’s not afraid to fix things that don’t work.
Take, for example, the characters of Cheryl and Pam. In the first season they were both fairly uninteresting cliches; the plucky office girl and the fat girl who wants love, respectively. But as the second season began they began to find new molds for them. Pam became more assertive and sexually aggressive (up to and including having a stanza from The Destruction of Sennacherib tattooed on her back). Cheryl on the other hand was not only revealed to be the heiress of a massive fortune but also violently unhinged. This willingness to alter the formula and switch things up, rather than getting stuck in a rut has served them rather well long term.
And it might well have been time for another big shakeup, as Season 4 was one of the more uneven seasons. Oh it had some of the series’ highest highs to be sure; episodes like The Honeymooners, Legs and Papal Chase are some of their best and the crossovers with Bob’s Burgers and Sealab 2021 that opened and closed the season respectively are especially brilliant. And while the episode as a whole was kind of up and down, the final joke of The Wind Cries May was one of the funniest and darkest moments in the entire show.
But at the same time, Season 4 contained some of the series’ lowest lows. Once Bitten is built around an extended pulling of Archer’s chain that takes too long to get started, the framing device of Coyote Lovely dulls the impact of the first half and Un Chien Tangerine just…wasn’t funny. Still, the season closed out strong (with the aforementioned Sealab 2021 crossover) and hopes were high for the new season, especially since, as creator Adam Reed put it, he got bored and promised to shake up the formula.
And shake it up he did. Starting literally minutes into the first episode of Season 5 they revealed that ISIS (the spy agency for which all the leads work) has been working without government approval and are shut down. But before the various members of ISIS can go their various ways, Malory suggests they help her unload a literal ton of cocaine. And thus begins what Archer himself terms Archer Vice. And with it, in my opinion, the best overall season of Archer thus far.
I don’t necessarily think it’s got the best episodes, although a couple of them are certainly some of their better work. But because, as a season, it holds together the best. It’s a season long story that manages to have a beginning, middle and end and have arcs for all of the characters. It has none of the issues that plagued previous attempts at season long arcs, like muddling it with unrelated episodes or failed attempts at big villains. Indeed, one of the better episodes of Season 4 (Live & Let Dine) got dragged down in the final moments by an attempt to drag in the season long villain. By keeping the story tight and the main villain the character’s own ineptness, the story manages to move at a good clip and retain a tight focus on their failing attempts to sell the cocaine. Yeah they manage to hit the reset button pretty hard at the end of the season, but it still manages to have consequences and most likely lasting impact.
There are a lot of elements in play in this season, but one of the more interesting ones is how they handle Krieger. I don’t want to spoil (as the eventual development at the end of the season is rather bizarrely hysterical) but it actually speaks to how well they’ve been handling him so far. Dr. Krieger is an interesting character, in that they have to keep him at a very specific spot. Oh they have to use him alright, he’s one of their best creations, a fantastic mix of comedic insane non sequiturs and mad science that allows him to solve, or create, any issues they need him to. But they also have to keep him at arm’s length, as too much of a specific personality or skill set might defuse his role in the plot. The reveal here is not only the source of some of the funniest moments in the season but also one of the better ideas they’ve had as well as the payoff to a throwaway joke from 3 seasons earlier.
Most of the problems in the season as a whole (not counting things like single jokes or scenes not landing properly) are in isolation. Cheryl’s storyline, involving her becoming a country music star is the source of a lot of good moments, such as Cheryl’s new justification for her insanity being that she’s “Outlaw Country!” but the storyline ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. Although that could be ultimately continued in the next season, so I’ll withhold judgment. There was also something of a rush to sideline Malory’s new husband from the previous season. It might have been because they realized that, outside of one episode exploring his relationship with Sterling, his presence wasn’t adding much, but I’m sure there had to have been a better way of doing it than just tossing him off screen. And I’m sorry, but I really missed Woodhouse all season.
If you’d asked me when it first came on the air what I thought the fate of Archer would be, I’d have told you it would probably pull an Arrested Development: Hang around for 1-3 seasons, rack up some accolades and loyal fanbase, but ultimately go off the air. It is a testament to the changed landscape of modern TV that not only has Archer survived, but thrived. It’s thus far had 5 seasons and has been renewed all the way out to a 7th. And it has my blessing to continue, so long as it keeps up this high level of quality.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he decided to hold off on discussing the ‘Pam gets skinny’ arc until he sees if it goes anywhere in Season 6.
– some of their best overall storytelling
– a couple of genuine emotional moments
– still absolutely hysterical
– Cheryl’s story doesn’t go anywhere
– no Woodhouse