Archer returns to its classic spy parody roots and forgets almost entirely about Vice, for better or worse.
Archer Vice sure was different, wasn’t it? After four seasons exploring the lives and exploits of a thoroughly dysfunctional freelance spy agency, Season 5 switched gears by completely dismantling the organization and seeing if the show could be about drug runners instead. As it turns out, no, it could not. But as strange as the shift was, it remained appealing television thanks to great performances and solid writing. Archer, Lana, Malory, and the entire cast are hilarious whether they’re facing KGB agents or Central American cartels, and they all went through significant changes that kept us watching the entire divergent season.
But now it’s time for Season 6, where we’re getting back to spies and putting all that Vice business behind us. And I mean all of it. Pam’s put back on the weight she lost. Cheryl seems to have forgotten about her country musician career. And of course, Archer’s back to his usual routine as the world’s best secret agent (in his own eyes). Other than Lana carrying a newborn baby around you could assume nothing had changed at all. Well, other than Brett still being dead.
It’s incredibly refreshing as it is for Archer to return to its spy movie parody roots, especially after the long wait between seasons. But at the same time, we seem to have dropped some of the more interesting changes too, like how Archer slowly realized he wasn’t a complete asshole. Which would be fine in and of itself, if Archer wasn’t following the exact same pattern we saw in previous season premieres. You can only keep telling the same joke for so long after all.
Regardless, that’s a fairly minor concern at this point. The premiere is still a riot to watch, and it’s likely that Archer will see the effects of last season in future episodes. Archer’s actually answering his phone, for one. Who knows what could happen? In the meantime we’re about to enter the Spoiler Zone, so if you haven’t already you can catch up on Archer through FX, Hulu, or buy the episode on Amazon.
Picking up six weeks after the events of Archer Vice, Archer returns to form by waking up hungover in a trashed hotel room with a bottle of King Cobra Whiskey beside him. (The prostitutes, naturally, are in a nearby washroom.) We’re quickly filled in on what’s happened when he answers a phone call from his mother: Archer disappeared – again – after learning he was the father to Lana’s child while ISIS rebranded itself as a new freelance spy agency. Lana insists that Archer come home to address what’s happened, but given Archer’s convenient location, Malory has a job for him to complete first: Retrieve a CIA computer from a spy plane that just crashed in the midst of a conflict in Borneo.
Archer makes his way to the jungle island to complete his mission but encounters a wrinkle in his plan: The jungle is already occupied by Kintaru Sato, a World War II Japanese soldier who never found out the war ended. As crazy as the concept is, it’s completely accurate historically, although pop culture savvy Archer only understands it through the lens of a Six Million Dollar Man episode.
In the real world, these soldiers were treated with dignity, reintegrated into society via surviving commanding officers. But since this is Archer, the process is a little less graceful. Sato leads Archer through a trap that impales his foot and breaks two of his ribs in combat. Archer captures and ties up his attacker while trying to explain that he’s not racist for doing so. Later, Sato steals the oddity that is his smartphone, and is horrified to learn exactly how the war ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Once the awkwardness is out of the way though, Archer and Sato actually end up bonding. Archer tells Sato much of his recent life story, prompting a rebuke that he shouldn’t abandon his daughter. Sato steps up to help Archer complete his mission now that he’s too injured to do so alone. And in what is hands-down the most emotional scene featured in the series, Archer uses his phone to reunite a tearful Sato with his still-living family. It almost makes up for Archer’s colossal dickishness at the beginning of the episode… almost.
Meanwhile, the rest of the supporting cast is returning to their new (or is that old?) lives as freelance secret agents. After the ISIS office was destroyed last season, Malory put Cheryl and Pam in charge of renovating the base and moving the team into the 21st Century. And at first glance it looks like it’s been pulled off spectacularly, with futuristic desks, holographic computer interfaces, and even a floating drink tray.
Except it turns out to be a complete fake: Cheryl and Pam used the money to painstakingly recreate the original office in every possible way, then cover it up with a hologram. We’re back in the exact same hideously colored 1960s office as before – Cheryl and Pam even went so far as to put a facsimile of Brett’s blood in the spot where was killed. But why go to such lengths to create a futuristic vision only to pull the rug out from them? To make Malory, who becomes increasingly upset the more time she spends looking at the old office, go through a breakdown.
There seems to be a message here: Don’t like Archer moving in exciting new directions? Fine, we’ll give you what already happened. We’ll give you so much of the past that creator Adam Reed might as well be shoving it down your throat. (Yeah, I know, phrasing.)
It’s obvious that Archer is returning to its classic roots after the hard left turn of Archer Vice. Archer still practically considers himself to be God’s greatest gift to espionage, despite refusing to read mission briefings and generally complicating objectives with his very presence. Any time he interacts with another operative (specifically the ones who took him to Borneo) you quickly realize how criminally negligent he is. But then he arrives at the mission and thanks to a combination of fighting skill and insane blind luck resolves the problem in a way that won’t completely destabilize the region, all while dishing out rapid-fire jokes and reminiscing about pop culture.
That all being said, while Archer is as funny as ever, the whole “Archer runs from responsibility” gag is getting really old. The past few seasons developed his character into something beyond a secret agent with the mind of a ten-year old, however slight those changes were. Vice even suggested that Archer hoped to be a father figure to Lana’s baby, even to the point of running away with them and starting a new life. Yet for some reason, finding out that he’s the literal father drives him away again.
Sure, this isn’t out-of-character for Archer, but after five years we’ve already been through all of these plot points. And not just how Archer runs away from anything potentially traumatizing (between Seasons 2-3 and 3-4). Remember how he was mistaken for the father of Cyril’s baby and had to pay child support way back in Season 1? No comedy can get away with making the same joke without changing some part of it, which is why we’re not using “phrasing” anymore. But sticking with the same joke after painstakingly building a new connection with Lana just makes Archer even more dickish and unlikable than before. And so far, the premiere suggests he’s not about to change: He even goes so far as to admit that he’ll probably break any ground rules they set in the future.
That’s not to say I’m not glad to be watching Archer again. Its unique combination of crude humor, witty dialogue, and surprisingly deep character moments is as exceptional as ever. I just hope that we’re not rolling back the clock so far that Archer‘s good developments get swept under the rug as well.
Bottom Line: Archer‘s premiere returns us to the classic spy agency fans fell in love with, which is both a blessing and an annoyance. But while it covers a lot of old ground, it’s hard not to enjoy the performances, raunchy jokes, and a tender conclusion based on actual historical events.
Recommendation: If you love Archer, you’ll love this episode. If you hated Archer Vice, you’ll probably love it even more.[rating=3.5]