“Things just kind of work out for me… which I kind of take for granted.”
So says Sterling Archer, the world’s most well-known secret agent, during the opening episode of the character’s sixth season of duty. The last time we saw Codename: Duchess, he had a thick beard, tattered clothing, and was discovering that the baby Lana had been carrying throughout a drug-fueled Season 5 was actually his own.
“Archer Vice,” the adopted title of the series’ fifth season, provided a respite from a well-known formula, taking the law enforcers and putting them squarely in the sights of their former professional counterparts. No longer was the ISIS team a spy-for-hire agency ready and willing to help make the world a safer place (for a price). They were drug runners just looking to survive. Now, they’re neither.
After real world events appropriated the agency’s title, a name shift and a slight revamp to the company’s policies are the biggest changes as Archer, Lana, Cyril et all return for more secret missions, covert ops and spy games. Season 6 finds them working for the CIA: They handle missions the government doesn’t want to, thus providing ample opportunity for double crosses, twists and other dramatically favorable developments. The gang — and that’s what they are, a group of criminals with a license to kill — is back to business as usual, but that’s not entirely a good thing.
One of the reasons “Archer Vice” worked so well had to do with the limit being broached as to how many action-packed missions the team could endure, before watching them became an exercise in redundancy. “Archer” has always made recycling a point of pride, repeating its best lines of dialogue again and again for tremendous comedic effect. After five years, though, creator and writer Adam Reed has reached a point where he must create new catchphrases, missions, and relationships within the core group if he hopes to keep his show among the very best on television (as it has been for each of its first five seasons).
That’s exactly what he did last year, but recapturing the magic in an old setting is perhaps a more difficult proposition than risking an established rhythm in a new world. Yet, things have always worked out for Archer (and “Archer”). Whether it’s his divine streak of luck in the battlefield, bedroom or boardroom, the character is first to admit he’s been overly fortunate in terms of how he makes a living (and keeps himself alive). The quote listed above isn’t the first time he’s noted as much, though it is the most meta example of both Archer’s infallibility. The latter half of his statement implies, up to this point, that the show has taken a lot of its varied narratives for granted (along with the diegetic assertions of the character), an idea possibly realized after struggling to reinsert a square peg into a newly-rounded-out hole.
The first five episodes of Season 6 get things back to basics. The over-Archer-ing plot (he’s a verb now, as you’ll discover in Episode 2) doesn’t extend past individual episodes, with the only noticeable alteration made for fans who may have missed Season 5 being the intermittent presence of A.J., Archer and Lana’s baby. Otherwise the episodes serve as standalone adventures, with Archer being sent to destroy a crashed aircraft in one episode, assassinate an assassin in another, and recover a stolen security disk as well. It’s not until Episode 5 that we see anything attempt to break from the long-established norm, and that bottle episode is one to be savored.
Yet even if the stories are somewhat stagnant, the writing remains laser sharp. Barbs exchanged and fists thrown are highlighted by an acute attention to detail, with clever cuts and intricate dialogue creating paradoxically crude — and delightful — moments in each episode. These moments don’t always build to bigger scenes, but each instance, no matter how brief, earns its laughs. “Archer” remains the most articulately astute show on TV (with “Veep” coming in a close second), as Season 6 continues to build on its series’ smarter-than-thou reputation.
The animation also takes a notable step up this year, primarily in the action sequences. An avalanche tears down a mountain with ferocious speed, but not too fast we’re unable to appreciate its sophisticated design. Even a fistfight in a small apartment is given added gravitas by a wobbly camera and well-blocked cinematography. It may not be what people are most excited to see — I imagine fans being more amped for Archer’s verbal assaults than his physical ones — but it helps create a feeling of freshness for a veteran program like this.
In the end, that’s what we’re left craving most. Change isn’t always for the better, but after seeing what the crew was capable of under a new mandate last year, it’s sometimes difficult to go back to what we’ve already covered. Plus it’s easier to drift off and miss some of the more obscure references (another popular series trope) even if you know they’re coming. “Archer” has proven it still has plenty of rounds left in the chamber. Now it’s time to fire those oh-so-accurate shots in a(nother) new direction.
“Archer” premieres Thursday, January 8, on FX.