Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Archer is a sitcom. It’s visually distinct, endearingly profane, and cartoonishly violent, but at heart it’s basically The Office — with all of the romantic tension, misplaced egotism, and work-related incompetence that comparison implies.
The fourth season, which wrapped up with last night’s finale, ostensibly was as globe-hopping and dynamic as the previous three, but the writers seemed to fall back on established habits more often than not this year. Multiple episodes featured H. Jon Benjamin’s arrogant title character goofing around while Lana (Aisha Tyler) tried to stick to the mission, Lana and Cyril (Chris Parnell) were dating again for a while, multiple missions turned out to be self-serving hoaxes by head honcho Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), and so on. Multiple episodes feature Archer surviving impossibly fatal wounds/maladies, a trick I feel like would bother me less in a straightforward spy show where the stakes require caring if people get hurt.
It’s not that this is bad, it just lacked the surprising emotional resonance of earlier seasons, and the attempts at serialized storytelling in Season 4 just didn’t have much of an impact. Malory gets married, but beyond one episode her husband’s barely a presence; Archer’s nemesis Barry returns to make trouble until… he’s not seen again; Archer nearly remembers who his father is… but then he doesn’t. Only a late admission by Lana carries weight for next season, and pays off some vague character work earlier in the year. The show seemed like it was feinting toward the sort of oddly touching story arcs along the lines of Archer’s cancer scare or the death of his fiancee, only to pull back into mission-of-the-week mode without fail.
On one level, it seems absurd to care about this sort of thing, especially on a show where cartoonish narcissists frequently shoot one another on accident, but the strength of Archer has been the way it’s subtly built the characters and relationships among its excellent voice cast, giving them all histories and keeping their admittedly colorful personalities consistent. The “Sea Tunt” two-parter is a little more interesting in that it introduces us to the brother of minor player Cheryl (Judy Greer), and some hints are dropped about the childhood of Pam (Amber Nash), as well.
No show is better at spinning its wheels than Archer though, and it’s been another great season in terms of outright hilarity, obscure references (Earl Butz?), running jokes, and seasons-deep callbacks. The voice cast is superb, and multiple episodes demonstrated the show’s ability to get the most out of notable guest stars- Dayton Callie from Sons of Anarchy! Mad Men’s Jon Hamm! Timothy Olyphant AND Nick Searcy of Justified! And by far the most enjoyable is a guest-turn by Anthony Bourdain as an attention-desperate reality show chef in “Live and Let Dine.” Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal even show up near the end (although their presence is sorely lacking in the Bob’s Burger’s crossover in the season premiere).
And despite surely being written and produced months and months before air, a couple of episodes were timed just right to current events: in “The Honeymooners,” Archer and Lana try to stop North Korean terrorists from buying uranium (just weeks before serious threats started coming out of Pyongyang), and “The Papal Chase” correctly explains the process of selecting a new pope, just after it had been all over the news cycle with Pope Francis’s selection. And the episode “Coyote Lovely” sees Lana and Archer having a semi-informed debate about U.S. immigration policy; let it never be said that Archer can’t be smart television and say “taint” multiple times in an episode.
As Season 4 draws to a close, it’s hard to know what to expect from next year. Lana is set up for a major life change, but everyone else is complaining about lack of bonus checks and the usual office politics. The tangential KGB master plot is left in the wind, Malory seems to be tiring of her new husband, and ISIS is as broke as ever. But I can guarantee you I’ll be excited to see Archer come back. If I want to care more about the show’s storylines, it’s a testament to the consistent approach to character Archer has taken through four years of otherwise wildly diverse, entertaining storytelling. Here’s hoping it runs as long as the American Office, ratcheting up the gunplay and infighting and hilariously-protracted fake voicemails all along the way.