Archer is the best workplace sitcom on television. I suppose it’s a decent spy-parody, too.
The FX animated show, pitched as “James Bond meets Arrested Development” by creator Adam Reed, enters its fourth season tonight, looking for new places to go after the third season began with a three-part pirate adventure, detoured to missions around the globe, and closed with a two-part mission in space reminiscent of James Bond in Moonraker. But all of the spy-aesthetics are secondary to the running jokes and squabbling character dynamics that make the show much more Arrested Development in nature (not to mention Jessica Walter’s warped maternal dynamic with H. Jon Benjamin’s titular character).
As much fun as all of the derring-do and international intrigue can be (and Archer exists in an undefined, nefarious point in time when the USSR is still a thing and Castro is still alive, so it can hit all of the standard espionage-plot highlights), I love Archer because the writers keep coming up with new ways to make references to Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone,” and they’ve given us all a not-played-out alternative to “that’s what she said” in the eloquent “phrasing.”
Even the best part of the wild plots is the way they pay off recurring gags- anytime a gun is discharged in the ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) offices, bit player Brett accidentally gets shot (and yelled at for his trouble). The globe-trotting third season was universally enjoyed, but most critics agreed that nothing held the emotional weight of season two’s Archer-gets-cancer story arc - the victory being that we almost care about the ties between this group of pathologically narcissistic, incompetent spies.
The fourth season premiere, “Fugue and Riffs,” opens with a head-scratching crossover. Sterling Archer has apparently lost his memory, and is slaving over a grill all day at a restaurant called “Bob’s Burgers.” A KGB hit-squad arrives, which he disables to his own astonishment (as well as his wife Linda’s, voiced by Bob’s Burgers’ John Roberts). As crossovers go, it’s visually amusing (any reason for the Burt-Reynolds-obsessed Archer to wear a mustache is a good one), but kind of awkwardly straightforward, and requires stretching the plot in ways that Archer normally doesn’t. For a show so outlandish in tone, it’s remained admirably dedicated to continuity. It also raises the question of where Bob has gotten to, if Bob’s Burger’s exists in the world of Archer, and it seems like it would have been more fun for the two Benjamin-voiced characters to interact.
Not to worry - the premiere sets the other characters about rescuing Archer from the KGB (and his amnesiac “fugue state”) in typically inefficient fashion, and the next three episodes are Archer at its finest. The second episode, “The Wind Cries Mary,” features guest star Timothy Olyphant (in an FX crossover with Justified) as Archer’s best friend and former ISIS agent Lucas Troy. He’s caught up in intrigue surrounding stolen uranium and $10 million in bearer bonds, but the episode is just as much about the office politics. It starts with a staff meeting about how messy the breakroom is, and characters fight about peer-review forms even as a gunfight in the Vermont wilderness unfolds. It also has another of Sterling’s fake-voicemail pranks, one of my favorite recurring jokes.
The third episode, “Legs,” shows how unafraid of continuity Archer is, as the entire plot hinges on an agent disabled in the season three finale, attempting to get bionic legs, which sets of Archer’s robot-related fears that stem from his bionic nemesis, bionic ex-fiance, and a childhood incident with a vacuum cleaner that’s been brought up multiple times. It takes place entirely within the ISIS offices, but doesn’t lack anything for action or intrigue. Archer even gets distracted from stopping the leg surgery when poor Brett gets accidentally shot from preposterously far away by a ricocheting bullet (“It’s like we’re the Warren Commission!”).
The new season also demonstrates a commitment to expanding the world of Archer with a couple of new recurring characters. A sarcastic stuffed shirt named Rodney has been placed in charge of the armory, making attempts to get weaponry in the second and third episodes like a trip to the DMV. Plus, there’s Mallory Archer’s new husband Ron Cadillac (voiced by Jessica Walter’s real-life husband Ron Leibman). He shows up in the premiere, as Archer’s mother’s wedding might have had something to do with his mental breakdown, and the fourth episode “Midnight Ron” sees Archer bonding over misadventure with his new stepfather, who, like seemingly every Archer character, has a hidden past.
After the series pilot seemed to portray ISIS as a much bigger operation, before quickly scaling it down to the series regulars plus a few bit players, it’s encouraging to see Archer involve new characters that add wrinkles to the workplace dynamic, or inform ongoing character relationships, like Archer’s Bluth-ian bond with his mother. Episodes seem to follow a similar repetitive fashion (grouping three or four characters on a mission, following the rest at the office for some workplace hijinks), but the talented voice cast, sharp writing, and continually evolving characters of Archer keep it as fast-paced and hilarious as ever.
Duncan Carson is a stand up comedian and writer in Austin, Texas.