The Agency is staffed with an important mission to guard a priceless statue that gains such magnitude that even Interpol is apart of the operation. The pressure is on for the Agency, all of which becomes even worse after Sterling Archer wakes up from his three-year coma and both he and the team struggle to find a way to incorporate him back into their new lives.
No one wants to outlive their purpose and become irrelevant.
Archer used to be one of the most popular and hilarious animated series on television. The series still features ridiculous stories and some lovingly exaggerated characters, but Archer’s relevancy has slowly been in flux. The series absolutely deserves credit for finding a way to organically change a show about spies into insane genre pastiches that essentially turned Archer into an anthology series. The decision to transform Archer into a noir homage or space adventure has some appeal, but audiences seemed to just want the show to return to its “prime reality” and stop playing games. It even reached the point that some audiences weren’t sure if Archer would ever get out of his coma.
If the return to reality wasn’t enough, “The Orpheus Gambit” begins on what’s probably the most impressive cold open that the series has ever done—both in an action and visual sense. There are times when Archer’s storytelling power is lacking, but the animation never wavers and it’s consistently gotten better every season. This A-Team-esque introduction is just pure, undiluted awesome on every level. It’s not just an enjoyable scene to watch, but it also effectively sets the tone by showing how everyone has turned into such a well-oiled machine without Archer. These spies have arguably never been more in their element, yet the reawakening of Archer turns out to be the giant wrench in the system that throws off everyone’s rhythm.
There’s a spy mission in play, but it’s really just the framework for the emotional trauma that’s ignited by Archer’s presence in that spy mission. This is made abundantly clear when all of the squabbling and unresolved history between the group leads to them being so distracted that someone makes off with the statue while they’re all preoccupied. Archer, the character, struggles with feeling irrelevant, which puts both him and the show itself in the position of trying to prove otherwise.
So while the team’s mission to safeguard the statue is technically the plot of the episode, the real storyline is Archer’s emotional journey to figure out how he fits into the picture and if he really has a purpose anymore. He’s turned into a supporting character in his own show, which evidently becomes a role for Archer that has a lot more depth than making him a noir detective or a pirate-esque pilot. It’s a strong place to begin the season and a problem that Archer really hasn’t had to come to terms with in the past, even when he’s been skirting through the unresolved trauma of his subconscious.
Another major change in Archer’s 11th season is that while the series does return to reality, it does so without the series’ creator, Adam Reed, being nearly as involved. While Archer has always been Adam Reed’s show, it’s been clear that his passion towards the series has slowly wanted and he’s struggled to find ways to get reinvested. This is not only fine, but practically expected for a series that has run for this long. While the past few seasons have slowly brought more writers into the fold, it’s genuinely exciting to see them get a little more freedom here and push the show in some challenging directions. These writers are clearly invested in these characters and it’s clear from frame one of this episode.
The writing and characters are as good as they’ve ever been and without looking at the credits it’d be impossible to realize that there have been any changes. In fact, the dialogue is so on fire in this premiere that I laughed more at the witty asides from this one episode than many of the wilder sight gags from the past few seasons. There’s plenty of the show’s trademark bizarre and brilliant wordplay, some of which revolves around niche Biblical character, Onan, and another that calls back to scaly creatures named Sleestaks from a one-off episode of Land of the Lost. Contrast that to the marvelous gag where it seems like the series is about to indulge in a heavy refresher regarding the hijinks from all of the show’s coma seasons, possibly even in an attempt to give them some substance as the show returns to reality, only for Archer to immediately abandon the idea. It’s a funny joke that borderline mocks the series’ past few years, but it’s also a clever distillation of what this new season wants to achieve. It’s truly moved past the coma seasons and it wants to keep its focus on the future.
Archer has a lot of changes to make sense of and the people in his life have grown in some interesting ways. The responsible “New Better Cheryl” is fantastic and there’s such a seething, fragile complacency to her lines that it’s going to be heavy when she finally succumbs and falls off the wagon. It’s amazing to see that Judy Greer can even make “normal” sound crazy and hilarious in its own way. Hopefully there will be more opportunities for her to work together with Krieger this season because every bit of that is fantastic.
Archer’s on-again off-again relationship is another relationship in the series that’s continually been looked at from different angles over the course of the series. This season doesn’t waste any time in that department and finds a genuinely compelling new angle as Lana has truly moved on with her life and found someone else. Archer and Lana have been broken up and had obstacles in the past, but this feels different, both in terms of how much Archer has actually changed, and that Lana truly seems to have found peace and appreciates a life that’s void of Archer’s bullshit. This material is seriously exciting and I’d respect it so much if it concludes with Archer finding peace over this and maybe even finding a new love while Lana and Robert are allowed to stay together. This season wants you to think that Archer will eventually be able to win Lana back, but everything in this premiere carefully explains why that’s not a healthy decision.
One of the most satisfying decisions made in this episode is that Pam is the one who’s there for Archer in the end. She’s the person who may be his sole friend throughout this season. Archer has occasionally flirted with the idea that Archer and Pam are more endgame material than Archer and Lana. It’d be nice to see the series really embrace this, but in a tender way that respects the characters. Archer tells Lana that she was the one constant that he experienced during his coma dreams, but Pam was also there by his side through all of it, too. Sometimes, in an even greater capacity.
This premiere features a number of very entertaining action set pieces that are never the focus of the series, but it’s just nice to see how far they’ve come and how impressively choreographed they all are where there are tones of moving parts that just come to together in a sublime execution. Even just minor elements like the exteriors of the museum are handled with such care and look amazing for a background.
It’s extremely satisfying to see that Archer’s return to the norm has perhaps become the best that the show has ever been. It cleverly uses the series’ baggage to help it evolve and this one episode manages to fit in more character development than entire past seasons. If “The Orpheus Gambit” is any indication of the rest of the season’s quality than this will be some very enjoyable television.