The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Season six of FX’s Archer came as quite the change from the previous one, yet it seemed quite familiar at the same time. That’s because season five was the true renegade; the outlier. After four years of ambiguously-legitimate spying, ISIS (not the terrorist organization) was deemed a fraud, and Sterling, Malory, Lana, Pam, Cheryl, Ray, Cyril, and Krieger had to pack up shop and pursue a new venture. They elected to become drug smugglers, and the show was off to the races. The gang eventually crossed paths will CIA Agent Slater (Christian Slater), and the two groups struck up a friendship at the season’s close. (Well, sort of.)
For the past thirteen episodes, Archer was given fresh life. Rejuvenation. It was the first time ever that the agents were doing legitimate spy work, and it came as quite the contrast from the previous season. The completion of missions instead echoed the plotlines of the initial years – but to say the show returned to form wouldn’t be totally accurate. Yes, there were once again trips to faraway lands, the gathering and defense of sensitive information, and the protection/capture/assassination of individuals, but Malory wasn’t pulling the strings (and sometimes was barely present) and there were side story episodes mixed in with the missions, with numerous characters being at new, different places in their lives.
Lana and Sterling are now parents, and Malory a grandmother, so this added some extra conflict to the show, as the formers’ relationship would need to be clarified, and the latter would be forced to feel her away around her new role.
Sure, Cheryl ditched the country musician act, Pam ditched the cocaine addiction, Ray ditched a limb in favor of a bionic replacement – all technically returns to form – but Krieger was possibly a clone of his real self (past sense, since he seemingly squashed this theory in the finale), so that counts for something, right? And as for Cyril…well, he’s still just Cyril.
When one looks at the plots throughout the past few months, there’s actually a nice balance of all the previously-mentioned types. Some were throwbacks to the old days, some had similarities to last season, and a few entirely were comprised of entirely new ideas.
The premiere (“The Holdout”) fell in the first category, resembling a classic episode more than almost any other in season six. There was a mission, and Archer of course almost completely botched it, before its inevitable successful completion. Week two’s “Three to Tango” (and the return of Conway Stern) and Week three’s “The Archer Sanction” (the Alps episode) both fell in his category as well, with Sterling’s vague recollection of the latter mission only adding to the déjà vu. Other mission episodes included week nine’s “Pocket Listing,” week 11’s “Achub Y Morfilod,” and the two-part finale. (Kind of. More on that later.)
As for shades of last season, week four’s “Edie’s Wedding” definitely qualified, as the Archer-Pam alliance was reunited when the duo hit the road together, and “Southbound and Down” immediately came to mind. Those two also had a close relationship in the finale. (But no, not in that way.)
So what was unique this time around? Well, the new mommy & daddy provided a few stories, like in week six’s “Sitting.” It resembled an actual CIA mission, since Sterling was tasked with guarding a foreign national, but the whole thing turned out to be a ruse set up by Lana to test Sterling’s parenting skills. This led to “Nellis” the following week, which saw Sterling attempting to return home post-bender following Lana’s trick. Archer was introduced to Lana’s parents in the next installment, with this simple story formula actually leading to one of the most entertaining episodes of the year. Week 10’s “Reignition Sequence” dealt with Cyril, Ray, Pam, Cheryl, and Krieger conspiring to break apart the happy couple, and “Achub Y Morfilod” began with a “romantic” getaway.
The finale was especially unique, as it completely bent reality as we know it. Archer fans should be used to the series stretching the truth for action’s sake, especially when it comes to technology, but this brought it to a whole new level of sci-fi. The crew was shrunk down and injected into another human (à la Fantastic Voyage) for their last-straw CIA mission, as they had been causing more trouble than they had been preventing. In a surprise ending, the crew botched the entire thing beyond repair as they destroyed the mission, the man’s body, and ended the year with a literal bang. We always expect the agents to foul things up, but this was catastrophic.
However, the most unique episode, in my opinion, was “Vision Quest,” the bottle episode. It took place almost entirely in an elevator, and still knocked the effort completely out of the park. Adam Reed and the Archer crew did so much with so little, and ended up creating one of the best episodes of all time. Although I suppose that distinction could be stated a lot lately, but this was an especially bold risk that totally paid off.
As for the humor, it was Adam Reed’s usual blend of wittiness, obscenities, sexual innuendos, phrasing, and cultural references – and once again writers everywhere had reason to be angry at how good it was. It’s the kind of show where every line is so well crafted that viewers can’t afford to miss a single one without a serious case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). For a show that features spies and action in every episode, there are very few sight gags, with the show instead relying on characters, plot, and dialogue. With the stories being exceptionally amusing by themselves (evidenced by the ease in which I could recall each one above and the fact that I felt compelled to do so) but adding that unique brand of Archer-style comedy made this season wildly successful.
And speaking of characters, they were yet another strength of season six. Of course the regulars were phenomenal, but the guests sparkled as well. Allison Tolman was perfectly cast as Pam’s sister, as were Keith David and C.C.H. Pounder as Lana’s folks, and Matthew Rhys, Justin Edwards, Jason Hughes, Carrie Brownstein, and (TV’s!) Michael Gray rounded out the solid cast of voice actors that joined season six along with return performances by Christian Slater, Gary Cole (Agent Hawley), Coby Bell (Conway Stern), Dave Willis (Barry), Ona Grauer (Katya), and Ron Leibman (Ron Cadillac). Seeing Barry and Ron, albeit briefly, were two definite high points of the season, as they are two of the most entertaining recurring characters.
Despite Archer logging five full seasons before the most recent one, this is the first time I felt the show had a true veteran presence. It took a couple seasons (like most shows) to find its groove, and seemed on the edge of establishing itself fully with season four, but then it made a risky move. Archer changed its dynamic completely, and it was without a doubt a make-or-break moment. Fail, and the show would be forced to pick up the pieces and retreat back to its former formula with its tail between its legs. Succeed, and the show would prove that it was a true heavyweight and an unstoppable power. Thankfully for everyone, it was the latter. That paved the way for season six, which allowed Archer to strut confidently into our living rooms like a boss, certain that the pieces which propelled the show to its high status would work once again. And they did. I’m somewhat of a stringent reviewer, and I only scored one episode lower than an 8, and that was one single 7.5 that I agonized over. In fact, I’m actually surprised the average score didn’t end up higher, but it still paints a clear picture: Archer is as strong as ever, and the best could still be yet to come.