A year ago, some idiot wrote an article about the fourth season of Archer. He said the following:
The agency on Archer feels full and the characters have developed relationships with each other that they can mine for jokes during bigger plots, but no one is in any danger of becoming reasonable or compassionate. That’s how they can keep turning out new episodes without jumping any kind of shark, ever: there’s no shark to jump if no one ever moves.
That idiot was me, and that idiot was wrong.
Archer didn’t jump the shark in season four. Quite the opposite: season four of Archer proved that creator Adam Reed knew his characters better than I did, thankfully. The titular (like I said in my last review, there’s a word he’d never let me say without comment) Sterling Archer managed to do the one thing no one thought he would in season four. Sterling Archer grew a little bit.
So did the rest of ISIS, the spy agency that served as the setting for most of the first 49 episodes of the show. Archer, for the uninitiated, is a show about people in a spy agency trying to succeed before tripping over themselves through relationships, personal conquests, and sometimes (though increasingly rarely) actual spying.
It’s a surprise that season five of Archer will be “Archer Vice” instead of spy show and center around the cast trying to sell off millions of dollars worth of cocaine, but it’s not a big surprise. The show was never really about the spying. The spying and the agency were just there to hold all the characters together. They were there to explain why an accountant, an HR rep, a scientist, and a millionaire were all hanging out with James Bond. Adam Reed thought that the use of the spy elements wasn’t necessary anymore, so he designed this season as a change of scenery.
The season is now two episodes old. How is it different?
The first episode (“White Elephant”) of season five is almost entirely setup. ISIS gets raided and it turns out that none of this spying stuff was strictly legal. Everyone’s headed to jail forever but then, by way of Malory’s uncanny ability to have dirt on everyone, they’re free to go.
Then there’s a five minute montage of clips from “Archer Vice,” and that’s apparently what we’re going to experience over the next few months. It’s all biker gangs and catchphrases and shootouts. The parallels are easy: spies and coke dealers are apparently not so different, and the show won’t really change that much as a result.
The second episode (“Archer Vice: A Kiss While Dying”) is a bit of a step backwards in the joke department, but it gives a much better feel to how the season will work. Carol/Cheryl Tunt is a country singer who only sounds great when no one is watching. This seems like it’s going to be a big part of the season, but it still goes largely unexplored two episodes in. The bulk of the episode is just Archer, Lana, and Pam Poovey trying to execute a drug deal in Miami. It feels like an episode that could happen at any point in the series. When you start to dissect it you realize that it basically has happened before. Most of what I liked about the first episode is absent here, but most of what there is to love about Archer in general is still intact. It’s funny, it’s paced well, and it’s definitely servicing (again, as Archer himself would tell me, phrasing) a bigger story.
The thing I keep coming back to is a joke in the middle of the first episode. Archer and the newly-pregnant Lana Kane are handcuffed to an interrogation desk at the FBI. After some typically silly escape tactics, Archer mentions that the child shouldn’t have to grow up without a father. Lana says that she’d rather it have no father than Archer as one, and Archer starts to cry.
It’s an extremely quick shift in tone. It’s immediately played for a joke when Lana buys into his devastated response, but it does force you to realize that you would believe either result. If Lana actually had hurt Archer by talking about his difficult relationship with paternity (in more ways than one) or if Archer really was baiting Lana into only thinking she had hurt him for a joke, we aren’t sure. We don’t know because Archer the character is more complicated than the scotch-soaked spy of previous seasons. He’s real now.
Everyone’s real now. Cyril Figgis, the accountant, has been constantly played for laughs. He’s slowly become a full-fledged member of the team with his own specific deficiencies and successes. He’s not the punching bag for everything now, he’s the punching bag for his own specific reasons. In the world of Adam Reed, that’s a big damn step up.
And of course: the show was never just about things like Burt Reynolds (“I wanna say Burt Reynolds!”). All too often over the last few seasons the show used the spy narrative to loosely set themselves up for whatever story they wanted to tell, not the other way around. Some things were obviously “why would spies be doing blank” rather than figuring out what spies would actually be doing. Now they are free to tell the cocaine story without resetting every episode and pretending this has to make sense. It just does make sense. It’s “grounded” (sorta) because they’ve already convinced the audience: the gang couldn’t spy anymore, so now they sell coke.
More people are watching Archer now than ever before. That’s fantastic. I thought the show’s success hinged on unchanging characters that everyone grew to love even though they were unlovable. I thought it was just a joke machine. Like 30 Rock, though, Archer has managed to make me care about someone that I thought was more of a symbol than a character. I’ll never call Archer a show primarily about compassion or growth, but the loss of setting goes down smoother because these people finally, somehow, matter.
Image credit: GQ