In its seventh season, Adam Reed‘s Archer has settled into a level of confidence that very few programs, let alone an animated series, are capable of in modern television. Even Family Guy, with its increasingly bitter and shallowly righteous humor, has yet to find a steadiness in character, tone, or story to back up its audacious jokes. Archer, in comparison, has continually returned to characters that, though often deplorable, have dimensions and cultural opinions that are built up and explored thoroughly through a variety of tics and obsessions. And whereas shows like Seth MacFarlane‘s long-running cartoon wear their brash, unchallenged politics on their sleeves, Archer has built big, roiling laughs out of acts as seemingly minor as searching for the right word, disputing not-so-pop culture references, and the nuanced realities of spy cliches.
The negative side of this reliable narrative efficiency is that Archer is rarely out-and-out surprising and there’s very little in the way of daring in the procedural storytelling that Reed and his writers have mastered. Even in this season, with Sterling (H. Jon Benjamin) and his team, voiced by Amber Nash, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, Lucky Yates, and the great Jessica Walters, moving to the West Coast to become a private investigation agency, the rhythms of the series remain largely identical to the previous seasons, though the words have changed. There are plenty of callbacks but unlike, say, The League, these callbacks don’t pilot the storylines and don’t feel like a desperate attempt to get a bit more gas out of tired gags. The show is still funny but not as gutbusting as the series’ exhilaratingly original and inventive first three seasons, which include over a dozen of the most hysterical episodes of television of the last ten years.
Still, the seventh season of Archer keeps all these elements just fresh enough to ensure there is a constant smile cracked on its devotees. In the third episode of the season, the writers work an excellent parody of Fletch, with Archer being contracted to kill one of his old classmates who has been diagnosed with cancer, and the interplay between Sterling’s bitter past and forced wanting to do something good for his daughter with Lana (Aisha Tyler) is simple and guffaw-laden. There’s also an ingenious variation on Sunset Boulevard involving two Los Angeles cops, voiced by J.K. Simmons and Keegan-Michael Key, that attests that the FX series is second only to South Park in its ability to critique modern or classic films and popular storytelling structure.
The Sunset Boulevard reference is actually a framing device that tips off a season-long mystery that’s being built up in the background of the episodes, in the spaces between each case of the week. Though the series doesn’t play with the serialized format with quite as much glee and imagination as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, there’s inarguably something endearing about how the show flirts with such concepts and yet doesn’t indulge to the point that the series is nothing but plot turns and incremental steps towards the climactic happenings. Indeed, Archer is consistently in the moment and garners many of its still plentiful laughs by focusing on the immediacy of the world that Reed has created, a world where a former spy and new father can find himself fighting terminators and robbing high-scale L.A. lawyers while also tangling with Oedipal urges and an ego that, after seven seasons, isn’t even close to settling down.
Archer Season 7 premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX, with a new episode every Thursday at 10 p.m.
★★★ – Still Going Strong