In Season 11 “Archer,” FXX’s Emmy-winning, adult animated sitcom, returned to the world of spies after a genre-hopping, delirious, three-year coma. But, of course, Sterling Archer’s (H. Jon Benjamin) return to consciousness was a shock to his overblown ego. He was suddenly like a fish out of water — out of sync, out of shape, and even more clueless — trying to cope with the fact that his dysfunctional colleagues were more efficient without him.
At the same time, the Atlanta-based Floyd County Productions had to make some adjustments as well. Creator Adam Reed stepped further into the background after providing the premise to pursue other projects, which gave more creative control to executive producers Casey Willis and Matt Thompson, who also directed the Sony/Netflix animated feature, “America: The Motion Picture,” produced by “Spider-Verse’s” Phil Lord and Chris Miller. They consequently divided the scripts among five writers. “Adam and I would always talk about the season,” he said, “but having so many writers has been fun coming up with ideas with them. But also having so much of ‘Archer’ being written by Adam and then going to a team has been a challenge. We’re switching how we make the show with new voices.”
The new voices were necessary. The dedicated fanbase (which includes James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, who visited Floyd County four years ago) grew restless after three years of Archer’s “Dreamland” excursions into noir, Indiana Jones, and sci-fi. So a return to globe-trotting mission of the week was required, but with a psychological twist: “He has to come back to a team that was working so well without him,” Willis said. “It’s two-fold that he has to adjust to that and it hurts his feelings because in his mind everything stops. Trying to integrate himself back into the team is the struggle.”
Genre-hopping prevented the series from becoming stale, but it also meant rebooting every season. Turns out that’s not the smartest move for animation. “There’s a reason why Homer and Bart are always wearing the same clothes,” Willis said. “So we weren’t saving on any drawings in those seasons. In fact, initially when we went into Season 11, we thought we’d be able to reuse things again [returning to New York]. But when we looked at those backgrounds again, the leaps that we made in the drawing and background painting made us realize that we had to redraw everything.”
However, Floyd County has become a polished 2D animation team, relying on a workflow that combines Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and After Effects. This was never more evident than in the cold open motorcycle chase in Episode 1’s “The Orpheus Gambit,” which very much resembles a live-action vibe. “That cold open got a lot of attention,” added Willis. “People think we must’ve amped the animation budget, but it’s merely an evolution of the artists’ techniques and skills.”
Yet it wasn’t easy. While the motorcycle riders and backgrounds were done in 2D, the motorcycles and van were animated in 3D, but the textures had to blend in well with the style of the backgrounds. “If you compare that motorcycle chase to Season 5’s, it’s a big improvement,” Willis said. “But we’ve learned a lot.”
By contrast, in Episode 6 (“Double Date”), they came up with the slowest chase possible, beginning with frustration at stand-still traffic, then pursuit on foot that eventually become a chase in hansom cabs through Central Park. But the important part was the continuing conflict between Archer and ex-girlfriend Lana (Aisha Tyler) and the developing tension between Cyril (Chris Parnell), the meek accountant who bulked up to become Archer’s replacement, and Pam (Amber Nash), the fun-loving human resources head, who remains Archer’s most loyal colleague.
Not only did the writers give Archer a new arc of being lost in a once familiar world (he now requires a Bond-like tactical cane for assistance), they also provided small transformations for his colleagues as well. For example, Lana has married billionaire Robert (Stephen Tobolowsky). “The first time that Archer sees Lana again at the museum and she tells him that she’s married hits him pretty hard,” Willis said.
Even the choice of music in the cold open motorcycle chase (Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”) conveyed how cruel scientist Krieger (Lucky Yates) had moved on from prog rock to heavy metal. “I also liked seeing Cyril as he transformed throughout the season,” Willis added. “We didn’t do much because he’s hidden behind a suit. It was Chris Parnell’s acting and then Archer just being a dick about making fun of his weight. But Cheryl [the personal assistant voiced by Judy Greer] flips back to her old self pretty quickly.”
Yet the one constant has been Malory, Archer’s snarky mom and stern head of the spy firm, voiced by the late Jessica Walter, who passed away in March. (George Coe, who voiced Archer’s dedicated valet, Woodhouse, died in 2015, and his character was killed off in the series rather than replaced.) It’s been a devastating loss, but, fortunately, Walter was able to complete her voice work for Season 12, which begins August 25.
“Jessica really lent so much credibility to the show,” Willis said. In fact, she was invaluable as one of the first voice actors cast. “We have a great voiceover cast, but Adam has told stories in the past that when he was looking for somebody to play Malory, he had her in mind as a type. And then he decided to just sign Jessica. Her presence helped in signing other voice actors. In a lot of ways, if it weren’t for Jessica, who knows if ‘Archer’ would’ve made it? She was a delightful, caring person, and her wit was [always on display].
“She told stories about a time in Hollywood when they spent money on locations and flew the crew [to the various circuits] for ‘Grand Prix’ . It was a time that might never be duplicated. I will always remember having to explain filthy jokes to her ’cause she always had questions: ‘What is teabagging?’ Sometimes I wondered if she knew and she just wanted to make us squirm. She will be missed, of course. She was one of a kind.”