Longevity is the mortal enemy of serialized television. On a long enough timeline, any TV show will run up against the bugaboo of repetition. If you write 100 hours’ worth of scripted activity for a defined set of characters, it’s nearly impossible not to retread a little territory. This issue plagues animation more acutely than live-action: Actors have a pesky habit of aging out of their proscribed roles, which forces writers to cook up major life stages for their characters. But Bart Simpson will remain an unruly 10-year-old until the end of time. When the onward march of time comes to a halt for cartoon characters, new ground becomes more and more difficult to break.
Enter Archer, now barreling with a giddy “WOOHOO” into its seventh season, eager to reinvent itself whenever a premise threatens to stagnate. The daring pivot into Archer: Vice and the sixth-season stint as CIA flunkies both represented huge gambits for the show, dynamiting its basic premise and paving the way for fresh dynamics between characters. Suddenly, Archer not only had new missions, but new types of missions.
As workplace comedies age into their later years, they take drastic measures to avoid retread storylines. The Office ditched Michael Scott after Steve Carell outgrew the small screen, and although the new bosses didn’t always make for compelling (or even plausible) television, they kept Dunder Mifflin vital. Similarly, the agency formerly known as ISIS is long overdue for another shot in the arm. In an era when Hollywood has become obsessed with remakes, reboots, preboots, revamps, and whatever other series of letters can be gracefully attached to the prefix “re-,” Archer has found a genuinely original way to render everything old new again. Archer is dead; long live Archer.
“The Figgis Agency” finds Archer and Co. pursuing a new line of work in a new city with a new boss, and the ploy to energize the show could not have gone more smoothly. After getting fired by the CIA at the end of the sixth season, the crew has decided to reinvent themselves as a private detective agency, and there’s no better place to be a dogged gumshoe than the City of Angels, the site of Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, and Chinatown — not to mention Sunset Boulevard, which lends the episode its cooler-than-cool cold open.
Once of the most exciting aspects of what I’d clock as Archer 4.0 is the vast wealth of pop-cultural referents to which it now has access, allowing the gang to pay homage to timeless detective cinema instead of the usual spy or action flicks. The rat-a-tat dialogue that the two private eyes exchange as Archer floats faced own in the pool (?!) crackles with true-blue noir stylization, and provides a tantalizing glimpse at events to come, a la Breaking Bad.
But the real treat is the upended power dynamic back at the home base. Cyril, forever doomed to be the only one who even slightly has his shit together (so long as he’s not indulging his chronic sex/chocolate addiction), spearheads the new organization because he’s the sole person qualified to run a private detective agency. Friction between Archer and a new supervisor he’s loath to acknowledge is a deep well of comedic potential, and also provides Cyril with some nice character shading; the character was conceived as the put-upon straight man who contrasts with the raging typhoon of recreational assholery that is Sterling Archer, but often enough, he also expresses a slightly nastier side. Cyril’s self-involvement tends to emerge the moment he gets a faint whiff of power — such as his fleeting reign as dictator of San Marcos, a fictitious South American banana republic, in season five — and having his name in big embossed letters on the lobby wall can’t possibly be good for his ego. As evidenced by Cyril’s embarrassing need to cede the floor during briefing, he’s not cut out for leadership, but watching him lord it over Archer while it lasts is good fun.
As for the mission itself — retrieving a disk that contains what is almost definitely a sex tape, but perhaps something … else — well, it takes a far back seat as the episode busies itself establishing this new status quo. But even as Archer moves in a bold new direction, it maintains a lot of the things that make it great: Mallory is still riotously bitchy, the writers still hydraulically compress as many esoteric allusions as they can into each script, Cheryl’s still down for a quick choker at any time, and the crew still sneaks moments of unexpected beauty into a relatively simple animation style. (See: The careful framing during the cold open that skillfully conceals and reveals visual information.)
The sense of newness only enlivens the show, never altering it beyond recognition or robbing its characters of the qualities that make these terrible people so perversely endearing. Los Angeles and the private-eye agency push characters to bounce off of one another in original ways, but amid this radical reinvention, some things never change. Premises come and go. Pam’s terrible flyer advertisements are forever.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- In one of the episode’s finest jokes, Archer threatens to sew Pam into a canvas bag full of rats, and then throw that bag into the river. Mallory’s rejoinder suggests that Archer is referring to the iconic, yet misleadingly named Los Angeles River, but I choose instead to see this joke as a spiritual successor to recurring mentions of “the town” in Adam Reed’s previous TV show, Frisky Dingo. (Also, welcome to my Archer recaps! I hope you forgive my insistence upon bringing up Frisky Dingo, one of the most criminally underwatched comedies of the new millennium.) Something about both jokes’ deliberate vagueness is hilarious to me, like Archer’s mishmash of temporal signifiers that effectively unstick it from time.
- Speaking of fun callbacks, Mallory’s fleeting diss of “Mancy Drew” must surely be an allusion to the legendary “M as in Mancy!” mix-up between Archer and Ray in season one.
- Shanghai Moon is a perfect fake film noir title. I would watch this film, and not only because the star’s gown is reportedly a-mah-zing.
- Show of hands: Who else had flashbacks to driving school when Archer complained that 15 minutes is the minimum amount of P.I. practice time he can log in a single sitting?
- Another new season of Archer, another change in Ray’s physiology. In what might be the single greatest running joke on a show that’s primarily fueled by running jokes, the season-six finale left Ray crippled yet again, and season seven checks back in with him after he’s received bionic legs, courtesy of Krieger. You may now begin the countdown clock to Ray’s unceremonious loss of his bionic legs. I give it, oh, 12 more episodes?