animation

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Bob’s Burgers

Bobs-Burgers

Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: how Bob’s Burgers is what Modern Family isn’t.

The Simpsons didn’t get nominated for an Emmy this year, and that’s apparently big news. I haven’t been a Simpsons watcher for some time now, but I know that it being left off the nominations list speaks to how much animation on TV has changed lately.

Bob’s Burgers is about to return to finish its fourth season (it comes back on October 5, my birthday, so thanks, Fox). The show started hemorrhaging viewers in the fourth season, so if you’ve been gone, it’s time to come back. You can’t let this one die on us. Bob’s Burgers is the only place on television that “heart” isn’t a dirty word.

Modern Family, one of the most popular shows on television, is built on the idea of “heart.” It’s a kind of The Wonder Years moral machine where someone learns a lesson and then tells it to the audience. In an episode about learning to love your gay son, Dad learns his lesson visually and then explains it through narration just before the end of the 22 minutes. It’s insulting on a colossal scale. It’s lazy and it’s infuriatingly bad television.

Bob’s Burgers has episodes that are also about learning things, but it has mastered “show, don’t tell.” The family in Bob’s Burgers has to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times, but they do so without turning to the camera and saying “you know, we have to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times.” It’s television, animated or no, the way it’s supposed to be.

You can read elsewhere about how the voice acting is amazing or how the music is the glue that keeps the show together. A note on that last bit, you absolutely should check out Song Exploder‘s episode about the theme song. You can read elsewhere about how it’s smart and funny and quick and worth your time. All I want you to know is that the last show on earth about being good to your family — without a garbage tagline at the end or a heartwarming guitar song — is coming back soon. Go watch the last few so you’re ready.

You can watch Bob’s Burgers on Netflix or Fox’s website or, on television, I guess. You’re so smart, you find it.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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“Archer Vice” Season Review and How We React to Disappointment

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Alex Russell

Some weeks ago, I called myself an idiot for missing the point about Archer. I talked about how showrunner Adam Reed succeeded in keeping Archer fresh by making the show about the characters and the stakes rather than the setting. I suggested that those truths made the show’s shift to Archer “Vice” — this season’s change in setting from a spy agency to a series of international cocaine deals — a change that didn’t matter. It wouldn’t mean a thing, I said.

Archer “Vice” (henceforth just Archer) turned out to be 13 weird episodes that showcased just how far a show can fall. Archer is a great show that found some purchase with viewers after establishing itself. All it apparently took was this season’s reboot to destroy that following: Archer‘s ratings dropped by nearly half from last season.

The change of setting truly doesn’t matter. Archer is a show a show about spies as much as Parks and Recreation is a show about local government. The spy stuff was there just as framework for jokes. The real problem wasn’t a location switch. The real problem was that they just don’t care anymore.

In the 12th episode characters question out loud why they are making certain decisions. When a character unlocks a jail cell the prisoner asks her where she got the key. She says she has no idea and the situation is dropped. Another character — one of the relatively important “bad guys” in the season — is killed (by a tiger, for just about no reason) because the show runs out of stuff for him to do. There’s no explanation given for some of the stupid decisions, and most of the best parts of Archer have revolved around people finding reasons for seemingly senseless acts.

An important point here: No one on Archer is ever “random.” They make mistakes because they’re stupid, or selfish, or shortsighted. They succeed because they make the right decision for the wrong reason. These things don’t just happen, because that wouldn’t be funny or interesting. The good part of Archer has always been the why, and this season was far less interested with why.

As for the finale itself, I won’t give away the ending because it’s still worth your time. It’s good at what Archer is good at: depth, character development, and a hard reset. Without giving it away, I can still mention that the jokes are terribleArcher has always been about mixing “high” and “low” at the same time. People set up more complex situational jokes with slap contests and puns. A lot of this season has been lazier one-off stuff, and that is never more obvious than a half-hearted sex joke in the finale that you can even hear Pam’s voice actress not care about as she delivers it. The “stupid jokes” don’t feel like they’re done on purpose anymore. What’s worse, and I would have said this was impossible, is that this season of Archer just wasn’t very damn funny.

I didn’t watch How I Met Your Mother, but it provided an interesting commentary on television and disappointment this year. People waited and waited to see how the story would wrap up, and they seem to have been, for the most part, disappointed. People often couched their anger with the ending in a kind of “I deserved better” sentiment. The argument seemed to be that they felt “owed” a better ending for the time they invested. We feel like television is part of our life experience now. We meet people and we get to know them. Even on a joke machine like Archer, we meet people and we want to be interested in their lives.

Adam Reed doesn’t owe me better episodes of Archer, but he might want to consider making some next season anyway. I rather like this show, and another season like Archer “Vice” will probably be the end of the series.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image:  GQ

Can Chozen Follow Archer?

chozenlead

Jonathan May

FX’s Chozen features, at its core, an outcast in a lot of ways. Our eponymous star is not only a white rapper and a convict, but also a homosexual. Luckily for its audience, the show focuses little on how these elements make Chozen (voiced by Bobby Moynihan) different from other people; the show does, however, focus on how gross he is. We see Chozen peeing, farting, getting head, burping, offending; the show basically begs us to congratulate it on presenting the non-gay gay. But what’s the situation?

Out of prison, Chozen lives in his sister’s college apartment while trying to figure out how to best gain revenge on the man who framed him, thereby sending him to jail. They say living well is the best revenge, and living it up seems to be his and the show’s main purpose. We see lots of partying, drugs, alcohol, implied and boldly stated sex acts. There’s lots of talk about the rap game, but very little rapping. Each episode, almost as an afterthought, devotes scant attention to the story’s overarching concern, instead lingering on stupid race jokes, obvious sex jokes, and lots of slapstick influence. So why do I watch?

Initially, what I appreciated about the show was its non-standard representation of gay men. I see more gay men who look like Chozen than men who look like the guys in HBO’s Looking. At first Chozen acknowledged its own stereotypes and often subjugated them with ironic force; the frat dude who hankers after Chozen is seemingly out and wants a relationship. What a lovely twist, I thought. But it’s unfortunate that the show’s “awww” moments end there. On closer inspection, the show tends to conflate “straight male behavior” with “gay male sexuality” to produce its now-tired effect. It’s like the producers were like, “How can we make the gay character more relatable? Oh, I know. Let’s just make him more straight-acting.” While this does provide welcome differentiation in gay portrayals, it wearies the viewer very quickly into the season.

Speaking of the show as a whole and its motivation, I hope it centers back onto the main plot point: revenge. We’ve spent more than half a season engaged in college high jinks, crass sexual jokes, and attempts at moral lessons on friendship. We need to get back to the story, or else Chozen will be nothing more than that show that comes on after Archer.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Chozen can be seen on Monday nights alongside Archer, and you can read our examination of Chozen as a spiritual successor to Kenny Powers here.

Image source: Complex

Space Dandy Needs Women: Anime’s Feminism Problem

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Alex Russell

When I first talked about Space Dandy a month and a half ago, I praised the animation and commented on how odd it was to see the New York Times commenting on it. I mentioned that it really needed to learn how to balance the absurd humor of parody and the interesting nature of a universe worth exploring. It’s now seven episodes in, and so now I feel more comfortable evaluating what Space Dandy is rather than what it could be.

The show is broadcast in the United States and Japan on the same day, which allows for the US broadcast to proclaim that you’re watching the “world premiere” of every episode. It’s definitely a unique show in that regard, and the narrative elements of the show prove why they took that risk on this show.

A traditional anime series is 26 episodes long per season, with a lot of shows only getting that one season. Since not every story merits a 13-hour uninterrupted telling, one of the big tropes of anime is the “filler” episode. You meet everyone for 11 episodes and then everyone goes to the beach, or rides a train, or visits a friend in a far-away land. It’s either that or a recap show (imagine if every single sitcom had a clip show, whether they had the history to pull clips or not) and the “filler” episode is just an accepted part of the genre.

There’s no “filler” on Space Dandy, because every episode is equally unimportant. On a normal show those episodes can help explain characters by taking them away from a grinding story and forcing them to develop without advancing the plot. Space Dandy is absolutely not interested in growth, so no need to worry about getting too deep in the story to examine everyone. Everything is one plot and nothing carries over from episode to episode enough to bother with characters.

Or does it? The most compelling part of the show is the loose continuity. In one episode they surf away through space on lava coming from an exploding world. The next episode opens on a throwaway line about surfing, and then they’re done discussing it. It leads instantly into a Wacky Racers parody. It is forgotten, because it doesn’t matter.

It is easy to use this decreased emphasis on character to explain the problem with what Space Dandy is not: a reasoned discussion of the role of sex and gender in anime. Space Dandy is built to make fun of every single thing traditional anime does — right down to the hapless bad guy that doesn’t even seem to be trying very hard to catch the good guy — but it handles women so poorly that it’s tough to tell if it’s failing at the joke or legitimately doing a bad job with the topic.

There is an aggressive dedication to parody in this show. The lava-surf-riding episode ends with a nonsensical song about what happens after the end of forever. It’s impossible not to see this as a send-up of some of the more fantastical elements of animation. They nail this so hard that anyone who recognizes the joke will love it. Why can’t they also spoof anime’s gender problems that well without adding to them?

Space Dandy the show is about Space Dandy the character hunting aliens down to register them in order to make money. His crew is a genderless robot (voiced by a female, but the gender never matters in the show) and a cat whose gender is established but never really matters. Lest I be labelled as looking for a problem here, let’s look at the only thing that happens in every single episode of Space Dandy: he tries to find the closest Hooters-clone restaurant.

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Honey, essentially the only female on the show, is in every restaurant. After 3.5 hours of the show she still does not have any real character elements; she’s mostly played as a pleasant-but-simple person who likes that Space Dandy keeps coming to the restaurant. Her outfit is absurd. She’s a waitress at outer space Hooters. Use your imagination, not your Google.

The argument here is if it is “joking” with the ultra-masculine pompadoured-Dandy and his approach to women. At a certain point, does it matter? Sure, naming the restaurant “Boobies” shows that you’re trying to be a little sly with the attitude towards it, but if you keep going back to it what does it matter what the intent is?

Other than Honey, who has absolutely no character to speak of, the only time the show has dealt with gender at all is in the episode “A Merry Companion is a Wagon in Space, Baby.” Dandy meets an alien that he can make a buck off, but the little girl has the power to turn someone into a stuffed doll once a day. The plot of the episode works as a “journey” while the two have to learn to get along on the way, but the slow development of the little girl as a character that matters feels glacial. She finally earns Dandy’s respect as a peer, but it is entirely dashed when it comes out that she just wants to grow up and “hang out” with Dandy. After working so hard to develop a character — a rare attempt for the show — they finally decide she is only valuable as she relates to the male protagonist.

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Space Dandy the show is rarely about anything other than the absurdity of Space Dandy the guy and how much he wants to find some women, but that lens is no excuse for the way this show excludes half of the world. The creators of Grand Theft Auto 5 went on the record saying that their game features three playable male characters and no female characters because “the concept of being masculine was so central to this story.” People didn’t buy that and people shouldn’t buy this. Anime has plenty of powerful women, but it’s largely a space occupied only by women defined as sexual objects. If Space Dandy wants to mock the genre, it would honestly have to get even more absurd to handle the topic this way. As is, it comes off a lot like GTA 5: part of the thing that it’s supposedly making fun of.

There’s a lot to like about the animation and narrative risk to Space Dandy, but the world is hollow because it’s half empty. It’s a phenomenal show because of what it lampoons and the success with which it does so, but it’s hard to imagine this show couldn’t take down the sacred cow of anime: the limited role of women. Hopefully, it will. It might want to start with itself.

Image source: Space Dandy wiki

Chozen: Spiritual Successor to Eastbound and Down?

"Chozen"

Scott Phillips

After three episodes, I still have no idea how to feel about FX’s new animated series Chozen.

A Monday night FX comedy that airs following Archer, Chozen is a unique blend of cartoon comedy and hip-hop with some humor about Chozen being gay thrown in for good measure (more on that in a minute).

That’s right: Chozen is a gay, white, cartoon gangsta rapper.

That lead character — and show itself — should make for something unique, but as the mixture of staffs indicates in the trailer, this show is a lot like Eastbound and Down meets Archer.

Before you Archer fans get upset, the animation is what I’m comparing but the Eastbound and Down comparisons stand through three episodes of Chozen.

Chozen is a less likable and less realistic — it is a cartoon — version of Kenny Powers during the first three episodes. Bobby Moynihan does great voice work but Chozen’s desire to make it to the top as quickly as possible while doing drugs and chasing sex is very much like the journey of Kenny Powers.

But there are some subtle differences.

For one, Chozen is gay and his preference is men rather than Kenny womanizing while pursing his former girlfriend. Chozen’s sexual preference is not forced or used for frequent cheap pops — much like how sex can be overused for both heterosexual and homosexual characters for cheap laughs in comedic situations. While Chozen’s sexual preference is mentioned and Chozen frequently pursues sex, this character tendency doesn’t feel forced and it feels as though Chozen’s desire for sex prevents him from attaining his goals of rap superstardom.

People do stupid things for sex and Chozen is no exception. Chozen being gay was played up quite a bit in the trailer,  but it doesn’t feel like that big of a part of Chozen. Chozen is — thankfully — more about revenge over a rap rival than it is about the sexuality of a white rapper and that is why Chozen has potential as a show. The storyline for revenge is feasible and Chozen’s character traits of enjoying drugs and sex sometimes prevent Chozen from achieving those goals. Pretty simple formula…

…which is why I’m still scratching my head about this show, because the main plot line and hip-hop elements of the show have been very up-and-down.

As a lifelong fan of hip-hop, I appreciate many of the jokes and, of course, rap songs that go on in Chozen but I just can’t get over how awful Chozen’s rival, Phantasm, is.

Once, or twice, during each episode Moynihan and the”Chozen crew will conjure up a fake rap song that Chozen will fantasize about while doing something else. The results of these songs are often fantastic. They’re humorous, catchy and have so many subtle one-liners and jokes in many of the songs that poke fun at hip-hop culture and other things.

When Chozen raps “Murder, Sex” in the pilot it makes fun of every hip-hop cliche in both video and song form while also adding in the element of hard-bodied dudes in bear-heads grinding up on Chozen. The whole song and video is absurd and it’s hard not to enjoy if you understand some of the ridiculous pitfalls of modern hip-hop culture.

So we have Chozen — free after spending 10 years in jail — and he’s instantly making catchy rap songs in pursuit of his rival Phantasm — who framed Chozen and put him in jail after previously being in the same rap crew.

Phantasm is now one of the biggest rap stars in the world. He’s got videos, security teams, and a pet jaguar, and everything about Phantasm pisses me off.

Voiced by Wu-Tang Clan legend Method Man, Chozen takes Meth’s trademark gravel voice and makes it sound so much worse. It sounds like a charisma-less Method Man did some PCP and had a tracheotomy before he did Phantasm’s voice work. It’s fucking miserable.

So, not only do we have an awful voiceover job at work when it comes to Phantasm, but Phantasm as a character just isn’t very realistic. As an audience, many of which are likely keen on hip-hop, we’re supposed to believe that a mediocre rapper named “Phantasm” is going to become one of the world’s biggest stars?

Many musical acts make it to the top without a lot of talent, but never with a name as awful as “Phantasm” in a genre as judgmental as hip-hop. Image and street cred are EVERYTHING in hip-hop and Phantasm doesn’t look, sound, or act like a major rap star. In the first face-to-face moment featuring Phantasm and Chozen in episode 3, Phantasm reveals that other people write his tracks and how he struggles to be creative in the studio.

Again, maybe this is being used to make it seem like Chozen has a chance at glory, but it makes Phantasm look like a cheap prop that will be good for nothing once Chozen and his friends pass him by.

It undermines Chozen and his journey to top Phantasm if everyone in the audience thinks Phantasm is whack to begin with.

This, again, draws back to Kenny Powers and his journey on Eastbound and Down. Kenny had rivals on “Eastbound and Down” but the main battle that Kenny fought was always a battle of inner demons in his quest to make it to the top. While some of Kenny’s rivals came and went during the journey, the trip to the top was always the ultimate payoff.

With how Phantasm is being set up the early part of this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Chozen’s journey — and story arc — follows much of the same path as Kenny Powers’.

There are plenty of other fictional cartoon rappers that Chozen can go against as a rival character in the future, but this show will likely always center on Chozen doing whatever it takes to make it out of his sister’s living room and onto the covers of magazines.

While I’m not buying Phantasm as a rival and the sophomoric humor can be up-and-down, Chozen has a chance to be a decent comedy if it sticks to its formula and lets Chozen — as a character — breathe and be creative. Moynihan has a good grasp on the Chozen character already and there are a lot of different and fun ways the writers can go with how to take Chozen.

Let’s just hope the Chozen staff keeps the formula simple and lets the journey to the top guide Chozen along his path.

Chozen can be seen on FX’s website and Monday nights alongside Archer.

Image source: LA Times

Rick and Morty: Midseason Review

Mike Hannemann

It’s got to be hard pitching a show to Adult Swim. The network is famous for giving shows a chance that couldn’t have possibly gained an audience (Google Saul of the Mole Men some time when you have five minutes to kill and want to waste precious brain cells). So, in theory, if you can get enough momentum behind an idea and some clout, there’s a chance you can get it on there. However, Adult Swim original shows are also forever associated with things like Aqua Teen Hunger Force: stupid, pointless shows that get more laughs out of randomness than pathos.

Sure, there are exceptions. The Venture Brothers is a front runner of mixing absurdity and character depth to mine laughs. I have a feeling that when Dan Harmon (of Community) pitched his current 22-minute long cartoon, Rick and Morty, he was well aware of that.

Rick and Morty has aired six episodes so far, so we’re at midseason now. Before I jump into whether or not this is working, here’s a quick synopsis: the titular characters are an alcoholic scientist (Rick) and his pubescent grandson (Morty). It’s essentially Back to the Future if Doc Brown did cocaine, Marty was a constantly-wound ball of nerves, and the universe was about to explode every second. A wealth of storylines from previous sci-fi ventures are mined, including the “shrinking down to go into someone’s body to stop a virus” just to name one example. There’s a handful of supporting characters coming from their family: Chris Parnell plays the part of Morty’s father in a role that seems to have been written for him simply because they saw an episode of Archer. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

The show is clearly cynical, which most “adult” cartoons are. The kind characters get beaten within an inch of their life and the bastards seem to get away with everything. Morty, in the role of put-upon reluctant voice of reason, is thrown into situations by his grandfather that are sociopathic. Constantly on the verge of death, the show reaches for humor in seeing this kid go through some extremely rough situations where his victory is “well, he didn’t die.” Rick, on the other hand, is an alcoholic. He does whatever serves his current purposes (be it money or revenge) and usually gets away with it all. There’s no hug at the end and no moment of warmth. It looks, on its surface, to be just another tick on Adult Swim’s soon-to-be-cancelled list…

…except for the fact that the creators clearly respect their medium. As a 22-minute show, Rick and Morty is allowed to be a little loose with time. There’s time for establishing shots, grand epic sets, and whatever action sequences need to take place. This isn’t thrown together last-minute flash animation. The visuals have a retro feel to them. They look like the action scenes from the cartoons you remember watching as a kid. Clarification is needed here: it doesn’t look like something from the early 1990s that you’d pull up on YouTube. They look like how you remember they did. For a minute you forget the monster on the screen is actually a gigantic mutant strain of gonorrhea. It’s just plain fun.

Adult Swim is broadcasting this show on Mondays, which is uncommon for their new programming. It’s also airing at an earlier time slot – in between reruns of Family Guy and American Dad! It’s early enough to give the show a chance to reach audiences that are used to just binging their usual reruns. And while you can say what you will about both of those options, animation has always been something they’ve excelled at. It’s almost like Adult Swim is saying “Ok, Fox, we know you can do this. So can we.”

All of this wouldn’t matter much if the characters haven’t slowly been able to grow, as well. Much like the best comedies, the heart shows through just infrequently enough to catch you off guard and feel earned. There’s never going to be a sitcom-esque wrap up where everyone grows and learns. But in the midst of escaping from a virtual AI simulation on an alien spaceship, there may be a brief moment where the kid and his grandfather have a makeshift snowball fight (in this case, I replace “crystals an alcoholic wants to sell for booze money” with “snowball”). It isn’t much to drive a show, but it’s enough to keep the viewer engaged in the story. It’s the most real element of a show that makes it a point to go as far away from that description as possible.

All in all? This is something to have on your radar. Rick and Morty could become something much more than what it is now. There are flaws, of course. The jokes are often visual and for shock value (everything you expect from Adult Swim, honestly). The weaker characters remain weak and one-note. The premise could easily get overdone if not handled in a creative way. I wouldn’t say the cards are stacked against Rick and Morty working. They’re evenly doled out on either side.

Right now, it isn’t must-watch television… but in a few years, I could see people binging on three seasons in a Memorial Day weekend on Netflix because their friends told them to check it out. I hope to be one of those annoying friends.

Recommended Viewing: If you want to give this show a try, check out episode five: “M. Night Shyam-Aliens!” You don’t need to watch the show in sequential order and this one nails the elements I mentioned above.

Rick and Morty airs at 9:30 p.m. CST on Adult Swim.

Image source: Adult Swim

The Less Things Change: Archer is Back and Still Amazing

Alex Russell

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