This is a non-spoiler review of Archer season 7.
Throughout its first six seasons, Archer has been paradoxically both welcome to and resistant of change.
The shake-ups began in season five when the whole season was subtitled “Archer Vice” and pivoted its characters from employees at a spy agency to drug runners. The following season had a similar shake-up when the group began doing international work for the C.I.A., abandoning their private agency once again.
The narrative change-ups were much welcome and, in a way, creatively admirable. Reed and his writers were producing a successful show with a successful formula by any metric and still underwent an overhaul just to keep things as fresh for the viewer as possible. Unfortunately, despite the drastic changes in settings and purpose, Archer still somehow got a little stale.
While the settings may have changed, the humor remained the same: verbose, witty and self-referential. Some time mid-way through season six it seemed like the show may have become too self-referential. Callback humor is great but at a certain point if a show has gone on too long, nearly every line can get to a point where its just referencing something else in-universe and lose perspective.
It didn’t matter where seasons five and six were set or what its characters jobs and goals were because those characters were going to be trapped in their own self-referential feedback loop. Seasons five and six were still funny at times but for the first time in Archer history the show seemed at risk at collapsing under the own weight of its own bloated comedic universe.
Now season seven marks the third time Archer has undergone a soft reboot of sorts with the characters relocating from New York to Los Angeles to create their own private detective agency. I’m happy to report that the third time appears to be the charm in this case.
Through the first four episodes screened for critics, this narrative shake-up has accomplished what the Archer Vice and C.I.A. seasons set out to do but couldn’t manage to complete: be both fresh and funny. Archer season seven is both operating in a new, sunnier climate and is an unexpected, exciting return to its early form.
The former-ISIS* gang begins the season in sunny Los Angeles, a fact that few are excited about. They have set up a private detective agency called “The Figgis Agency” because Cyril Figgis is the only one with a law degree and private investigation degree. Or as Archer puts it “because California is assholes.” The former spies put their espionage training to good use for a new clientele of entertainment lawyers, actresses, prep schools and maybe even a cyborg or two.
The new setting couldn’t possibly work better. After spending six seasons in their own anachronistic version of New York with Mad Men-style suits and offices but with ample cell phone reception, the animation team is more than up to the challenge of depicting a Los Angeles that seems to exist outside of traditional time and space. It’s a tremendous fit for the show’s animation style, as Los Angeles, itself, seems to exist outside of time and space. In Archer’s version of it, classic ‘60s actresses exist alongside sophisticated modern technology in a setting that looks like a Manson murder in the Valley can occur at any minute.
The jokes are as consistent and self-referential as ever. And in case you were wondering, yes, we are doing “phrasing” again. The freshness of the new environment, however, acts as an all-important reset key, effectively diffusing the bloated history of all those jokes that threatened to cave in the show’s humor in the previous two seasons.
More importantly, the show is now marrying cleverness in its dialogue with cleverness of its plotlines. Archer has long been one of the smartest comedies on television. But when it got lazy, that cleverness was almost entirely verbal. Characters all seemed to share the same voice which and seemed in a contest to share the most obscure pop culture reference possible. Those hilariously obscure pop culture jokes are still the norm in season 7* but the speed of the plot has caught up to the speed of the jokes.
*Be sure to peruse the Wikipedia entry for Alphonse Bertillon prior to episode two.”
That is to say, storylines for the first four episodes are actually consequential and not just a series of static environments for the characters to tell jokes in. The settings and the circumstances matter now, much like they did in the show’s early seasons, and it makes the rapid-fire gags even funnier and even smarter. And each episode reviewed thus far has included a twist or two that is legitimately surprising and satisfying. There is even a season-long film noir-esque mystery blooming in the background of each episode.
Archer season seven may not totally reach the heights of its earliest seasons. There is an inevitable law of diminishing returns for some of its brand of humor. But still, it’s hard to view this season as anything other than a return to form. Comedy is hard, callback and self-referential comedy is harder and animation is harder-er. It’s a small miracle that Archer has been able to turn in the beginnings of a solid season seven years in.
Then again, for as self-aware of a show it has been, its creators have been even more self-aware. Reed and company have spent the last two years tinkering for a way to slow the inevitable staleness of a show approaching a decade of work and now they appear to have finally found it. Sterling Archer may be proud of his inability to learn new lessons but Archer has learned plenty.