“Archer” finishes up its fourth season tonight with the second half of a two-part adventure/disaster at sea that includes an homage to “The Abyss,” an off-the-cuff mention of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and a moment that represents the closest the show gets to sincere emotion. In other words, your typical solid installment for the ISIS crew, even if these more ambitious multi-part stories (like last season’s “Space Race” and “Heart of Archness”) suit the series a little less well than the stand-alone ones. “Archer” is fundamentally anti-ambition, even as the show heads from luxury airships to Monte Carlo to West Virginia — that’s part of what’s made it so consistently entertaining over four years, with a fifth already greenlit. “Archer” may be an anachronistic animated saga about spies, but at heart it’s always been a gloriously petty workplace comedy.
This season of “Archer” began with a nod to both “Bob’s Burgers” (the title character of which is voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, who also provides a voice for Sterling Archer) and to “A History of Violence”; it ends with one to “Sealab 2021,” one of “Archer” creator Adam Reed and executive producer Matt Thompson’s earlier series that ran on Cartoon Network and then the just-created Adult Swim. “Sealab 2021” used the characters and some stock animation from a serious 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon and turned its concerns from environmental ones to surreal and often frivolous ones — that nevertheless frequently led to the lab blowing up or people dying, only for things to go back to normal by the next episode.
“Archer” has a more consistent (if equally odd and out of time) universe that allows it to make even greater use of the divide between the characters’ ridiculous personal squabbles and the epic backdrops against which they take place. The way the show always foregrounds its… I guess you could call them dramas, though that gives them a little too much credit, means that even though life and death are at stake, someone will always stop to bicker over a sexual relationship, a romantic past or the annual bonuses. That instance of actual feeling in tonight’s season finale comes around the time another character leaves in a huff over perceived cheating in the middle of, and completely disregarding, a dangerous situation.
From its inception, “Archer” has paired wonderfully piddling storylines with James Bond-style antics, from Archer’s breaking into the ISIS mainframe in the pilot to clear his abused expense account, only to accidentally uncover evidence of a Russian mole in the organization. But what the show’s managed particularly well as its run has stretched on is how to deal with the issue of character growth when it’s based around a petulant idiot savant of a secret agent whose skills are matched only be his constant womanizing and drinking. We don’t want Archer to become a nice or even remotely more responsible guy, and we don’t the comedy to get softer — and yet these people have genuine affection for one another under the boozing, the drugs, the gypsy woman death predictions and the sleeping around (my personal favorite pairing was the weirdly charming one of Archer and compulsively inappropriate HR rep Pam, voiced by Amber Nash).
Archer and company haven’t grown up so much as they’ve grown, slowly, richer and more rounded — and as their back-stories have been filled out, they’ve included the occasional touch of candor that’s been just enough sweetness to keep the show from being weightless. From Archer to his terrifying mother Mallory (Jessica Walter), from the unfortunately competent Lana (Aisha Tyler) to the nebbishy Cyril (Chris Parnell), these characters may be awful people, but they’re very fun to spend time with. And their world doesn’t reset after the credits roll, which has made it all the better — ISIS staggers on, the least effective but funniest global spy agency to be hidden inside a laundry service.