Archer, Season 6: FXX’s animated spy comedy returns to its status quo

 Archer S6

Archer: Season 6
Airs Thursdays at 10m ET on FXX, starting January 8th

When it was first announced, Archer Vice, AKA the completely serialized fifth season of Archer, blew minds. The notion of a popular comedy ditching its usual episodic-with-bits-of-serialization format, changing the occupations of its entire cast, and completely changing the locale for an entire season was a radical one, though admittedly one totally in keeping with creator Adam Reed’s anarchic comic sensibility. The reality of actually watching Archer Vice was a little less exciting; the use of a season-long story sapped some of the series’ vitality and memorability, making for a frustrating week-to-week viewing experience.

It wasn’t a huge surprise, then, when Reed announced that Archer would “de-boot” back to its status quo for its sixth season. Indeed, season six opens with the status quo of the first four seasons completely restored – well, almost. In the first moments of season opener “The Holdout,” the ISIS name is quickly and literally thrown into the junkheap of history, without any overt winks as to why (a wise move). This season, Sterling Archer and his co-workers are lowly CIA subcontractors – in other words, they get to be spies again, but there’s another level of bureaucratic nonsense to contend with (an exploit for comic purposes). Their new CIA overlords are mostly represented by one of the few holdover elements from Archer Vice, the character of Slater, who happens to look and sound exactly like Christian Slater.

With the episodic format back, is Archer truly its old self again? Yes – and no. In the series’ second and third seasons, Reed (who has received sole writing credit for the majority of the series to date) was able to achieve an uncanny balance between hyper-specific gags of all stripes, broad sex-and-violence farce, and honest-to-goodness character work, all with the attention to world-building and marathon running gags you’d expect from the creator of Frisky Dingo. Those seasons are remarkable; season four is merely good, with Reed losing the potency of the series’ comic voice a little thanks to a preponderance of high-concept episodes and an overreliance on vulgar-for-vulgar’s-sake material. Based on the first six episodes, Archer’s sixth season feels more or less on par with season four, both structually and quality-wise.

That’s not such a bad thing, really. Season six is loaded with callbacks to the pre-Archer Vice landscape, with familiar villains and character beats resurfacing after prolonged absences, and the return to that playground makes the season worthwhile already. Reed’s use of literary and historical punchlines is, if anything, doubled down on this season, with at least one reference that would appear to stump even Wikipedia. There are some great new sources of humour, too, including a combination office robot/toaster that may or may not have been inspired by The Americans. Reed is nothing if not a ravenous devourer of pop-culture history, and as usual season six both mocks and exploits old storytelling tropes whenever possible. (The bottle episode! The out-of-town wedding! Ten Little Indians-style murder mystery!) The results are persistently amusing – the series is nothing if not consistent – but the attempts to fold in character arcing amidst the action-oriented chaos isn’t as successful as it once was.

While the series’ very best days may well be behind it, there’s still only one Archer. Comedy series that are unilaterally guided by the voice of a single writer are very rare, with many sitcoms slaves to the writers’ room’s ability to groupthink riffs and one-liners. (Is it a coincidence that so many sitcom premises boil down to “funny characters hang out and riff”?) Archer is one of the few comedy series that functions as both a sitcom and a genre exercise, thanks to the incredible voice cast – H. Jon Benjamin’s baritone deadpan remains a source of wonder, matched only by Jessica Walters’ expert snark – and Reed’s hyper-geeky love of genre fiction of all stripes. Rather than berate the series for falling short of its own absurdly high past standards, let’s celebrate that it’s still kicking.

Six episodes sent for review.

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