Brow Beat

Archer Is the Rare Comedy that Lets Its Characters Evolve—and It’s Only Made the Show Better



Comedies rarely succeed by changing. Give or take Parks and Rec, which built up a head of steam by relying on relentless positive growth for its characters, the best pure sitcoms—shows like Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—run on stagnation. The sitcom format, in its purest form, demands closed narrative loops, and the same overt character flaws motivating plots week after week. It’s remarkable, then, that Archer, entering its seventh season of spy hijinks on FX, has managed to keep evolving without sacrificing any comedy at all.

After six years, the characters of Archer have always been exceedingly well-defined. Sterling Archer (Jon Benjamin) continues to be an excellent agent, a raging alcoholic, and painfully dependent on his mother, Malory (Jessica Walter). Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) is, as always, frustrated by Archer’s antics and unable to resist their emotional connection. It helps that they now have a child together, in the rare instance of a TV show introducing a baby without imploding—occasionally, Archer and Lana seem to forget that they have a kid, and no one really cares. Everyone else in the cast—the insatiable Pam, unstable Cheryl, bemused Ray—remains inextricably themselves, even though the cast is now out of the spy game.

These people are known quantities, but that doesn’t make the predictable ways they bounce off each other any less amusing. Like a real group of friends (albeit friends who not-so-secretly hate each other), they’ve developed their own ecosystem of inside jokes, and a long list of shared experiences. This season amps up the show’s use of callbacks, not in the form of running gags, but by just having characters acknowledge that a ton of bizarre stuff has happened to them. (Remember that time Malory murdered the prime minister of Italy? Crazy, right!)

Archer’s long-running gags are potent narrative oil reserves that can be tapped at will. Though some of these wells ran dry around Season 4, some of them have actually come back around, in the same way that Family Guy used to drag out certain scenes until they became funny again through brute force. One of the show’s original jokes—Sterling calling out double entendres with the word “phrasing”—has gone through so many phases that the joke is now firmly his obsession with the fact that this used to be a running joke, rather than the innuendo highlighted by “phrasing” itself.

When creator Adam Reed announced that the characters who formerly worked for intelligence agency ISIS (a name that has since been quietly disavowed by the show) would go into the drug business in Season 5, it was remarkably risky—this spy comedy was ditching the “spy” part. But Archer: Vice was wildly successful, warping the show in unexpected, rejuvenating ways. Season 7, Archer: PI, isn’t quite as refreshing—in particular, it loses the thrill of Vice’s season-opening montage of insane coke dealing adventures—but it rests comfortably on a foundation that is by now rock-solid.

Here’s what’s different this time: the characters have traded their office for new digs in Los Angeles, strongly reminiscent of Mad Men’s modish Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office. They’re working as private investigators, navigating a new city, and finding themselves, as ever, strapped for cash. There’s a new intro sequence, and snazzy new bumpers that segue into commercial breaks. The new lead-outs are a purely cosmetic change, but they modify the edges of the show’s long-since perfected rhythms.

Los Angeles as a setting imposes newer, slower pacing, something that occasionally makes the opening two-parter feel lumpy, but also opens up new space to see what the characters will do. With the same set of skills in play (wacky investigating, acid tongues, general haplessness), the answer is still “pretty much anything they want”. As was the case with Vice, explicitly placing Archer into a new genre simply reinforces the show’s energetic skill at ducking in and out of different traditions, from the spy movie (of course) to narco thrillers to, now, noir and classic ’70s TV procedurals. Like The Simpsons, Archer could comfortably run for 20 seasons—but, unlike The Simpsons, Archer probably wouldn’t get stale.

The characters have matured, too, in fully credible ways. Archer has grown up, sort of. He’s in an apparently stable (and monogamous) relationship with Lana, and though he seems to forget that they have a child, he’s willing to put his money (and his gun) where other people’s mouths are in order to protect his family. It’s closer to real life than Parks and Recreation—rather than straightforward “growth,” characters gain minute degrees of maturity, visible enough for long-time viewers to care, not so visible that everyone stops trying to ruin each other’s lives. The underlying dynamic of the show will never change, no matter where the crew winds up. Faced with the opportunity to reinvent themselves, Malory pointedly asks, “Why would you keep being you?” Because it’s funnier that way.