Archer is back — both the FX animated comedy and the titular super-spy, who at the end of Season 10 woke up from a coma that enabled creator Adam Reed and his team of writers and animators to dream up wild new scenarios for his core ensemble, sending Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and his pals to old-timey Hollywood, Danger Island, and even outer space.
Now that Archer’s awake, it’s time for him — and the audience — to find out what’s changed for all of the characters over the past three years he’s been absent from the “real” world. It’s technically a return to the show’s roots as a spy caper, but things are also still pretty different, for reasons executive producer Casey Willis explains below. Via phone, Willis also revealed some alternate pitches for both the show’s characters and the show itself which might still one day be used, and how Simpsons creator Matt Groening is the reason why he wants the show to last at least 26 seasons.
So this season is I think something for which people have been waiting for a couple of seasons now. Why was last season the season where it was like, “We’re done playing around in coma-land, let’s go back to reality”?
CASEY WILLIS: There are a few reasons and probably one of the bigger ones is it just felt like the right time. We’ve spent three seasons in Archer’s coma and during that time, we were able to explore a lot of the things that we wanted to. In that first Dreamland season, it was really a way for Adam to dig deeper into the death of Woodhouse and give it the treatment that he felt it deserved. George Coe had passed away when we were doing Season 7, and so there was thoughts and ideas about how to tackle it in a script during that season. But the more Adam thought about it then, the more he was like, “This is bigger than just one episode. This needs to be handled properly.” And so having this season-long tribute in a way to George and to Woodhouse was the solution for that.
And then as we kept going, there were other things that we wanted to explore, like Archer and Lana’s relationship, Archer and Lana meeting for the first time in these different scenarios, which we have never seen in the real world. And then finally, when we got to Season 10, a lot of the reasons why we started the coma seasons in the first place had evolved themselves. And it felt like the right time to come back. And also, we were just very interested in what the characters were doing in real life, in the world outside of Archer’s dreams. And we then wanted to see how Archer would deal with a world that had moved on from him. He’s been out of the world for three years, so how’s he going to handle it when he’s reintroduced into this world?
He’s been gone for three years, but a lot has changed in those three years, but the first episodes in the season really do seem to put an emphasis on acknowledging that.
WILLIS: And we really wanted to explore the things that have changed in our characters, how that affects Archer. But then also how the reintroduction of Archer back into their lives, how’s that going to change our characters as well?
In terms of where the characters are now versus where they were when Archer went into the coma — what were those discussions like? How many alternate ideas were bandied about?
WILLIS: Quite a few and some, we just had to get out of our system when we talked about it. And we talked a lot about how much involvement do we want AJ to have, and what happened to Lana? Where has she been? What does it mean for her personal life not to have Archer there? Was he a tether to something that she really didn’t want? So we talked about a lot of different ideas for all characters, but I’m really satisfied with what we ended up with. And I think there’s a lot of compelling stuff that we’ve explored with that.
Do you happen to remember any of the wilder pitches that people threw out?
WILLIS: Krieger becoming a very successful inventor — he invented a certain product that becomes wildly successful, and so then he’s got a lot of money and how is he dealing with that? That was something that we thought of, but eventually didn’t go with. Several things with Pam as well, wanting to maybe explore relationships with her, or maybe even just giving her a puppy. That’s the things that we thought of. And Cheryl as well, we even talked about Pam and Cheryl becoming roommates. And have a big, Odd Couple-type situation between the two of them. But that never came to fruition.
It’s interesting because there are elements of the show that do feel pretty grounded. And then you have characters like Pam, where you could throw something pretty ridiculous at her and it wouldn’t feel out of place.
WILLIS: For sure. But with Pam, we wanted her to be Archer’s connection to reality. That was also a mirror to some of the things that had happened in those coma seasons. We talked a lot about in season nine, the Danger Island season, we referred to them internally as Han and Chewie because that’s kind of their relationship that they had — Archer and Pam had a big junky old freighter that they flew around, and they were just best buddies getting into a lot of trouble. And so I think that was really just a manifestation of Archer’s real feelings for Pam. And Pam having Archer back, she’s so excited. They’ve been successful, but maybe Pam felt things were lacking in the office and she’s ready to spice things up again.
So sometimes it sounds like, when making this show, Adam Reed will just… This sounds a little blunt, but it’s like he just gets bored and he wants to try something new. Do you feel like returning to the world of spies is that something new this season?
WILLIS: Yeah, I do. The spy thing is going to be fun again, and we’ve talked about things that we want to try to accomplish with returning to that spy world. Things like globe-trotting and mysterious people that we can meet, and those type of things. Those were always fun to play with but I think also, the thing that’s fresh this time around too, is the fact that Archer has been gone. And there’s then, these changes with with the characters. So that’s going to be a lot of the focus in this season is how everybody fits back together.
Even with the whole different season idea, we had a ton of [additional] coma season ideas as well. We kept calling a season King Archer where we would do Arthurian tales with Archer, and the crew as the Knights of the round table. And we were really excited about that idea but after doing them for three years in a row, even that idea of the genre hopping felt like it was getting a little stale. And, we wanted to come back to the roots of Archer.
Does that mean that you feel like these seasons are done, or do you feel like there’s a chance they could return in the future?
WILLIS: I would never say that anything’s done. I have no idea. I don’t think I ever want to put Archer in a coma again, it would just be a little sadistic and mean for us to do that again to him. But there might be other themes that we want to explore in the future, it just depends on how we talk about it and what comes up. I think when Adam said it was out of boredom, I think that’s something that makes us so successful is Adam was writing to make things that were interesting and funny to him. And then that translated to the audience that appreciated that and enjoyed that.
Same thing here, Adam and I still go over the seasons and talk about the structure. And the episodes and what we want to happen. And so this is now the new, exciting thing. If later on down the line we want to switch things up again, I could see different things happening and it might not be as crazy as King Archer. But there’s still a lot of things that we have in our back pocket that aren’t so far of a departure that might spice things up.
Is Adam writing on this season at all?
WILLIS: Adam did not write on Season 11. Adam wrote, I think half the episodes in Season 10. So we have some of the returning writers from season 10 working on season 11, and some new writers that we were very happy to work with as well. But Adam was involved with the planning and as we went through the season, he was giving feedback. And he’s still involved in the show, but he didn’t write any episodes this season.
Is there a particular reason why, or just he was busy with other things?
WILLIS: I think he was busy with other things and he was, I think, happy in his role with setting up the world and talking about that. And then he really enjoyed the writing that the other writers did in Season 10. And he’s like, “I want to see more of this.” So he was excited to see that world interpreted by other writers — that was what excited him again this time around.
After 11 seasons, have you guys talked much about, say, “13 and we’re done”? Do you have a sense of even working towards an end game?
WILLIS: Well, not currently. I’m sure whatever we decide, FX is going to be with us and I think one good thing is that they’ll want to give the show, when it does end, a proper ending. But I’ve been telling a little anecdote about being at a party at a Comic-Con and seeing Matt Groening there. And I was like, “I got to introduce myself to this guy because he was the reason why adult animation in particular is here.” The Simpsons is such a big influence on everybody in primetime animation.
So I went and talked to him and to my surprise, he knew about Archer and was a little bit up on things that were happening. I think at that time we were about to go into Season 6 and he said, “So what season are you guys going into? You’re going into your sixth season?” And I was like, “Yeah, sixth season.” And he smiled a little bit and just said, “Well, call me when you get to 26.” In my fantasy world, I would love to get to 26 seasons and be able to call him up. Who even knows if we will be using phones by that time. And guaranteed, he will not remember the conversation. But I’ll be like, “Haha, got to 26!”
You definitely have to do that.
WILLIS: Yeah, I would think so. But it was such a cool experience and it was so fun meeting him. And he was such a nice guy. It was actually Amber Nash, who plays Pam, and me, who went over and talked to him. And he couldn’t have been nicer and sweeter. It was so cool and I’m kind of half joking there, but it does give you a little bit of motivation to think like, “Well, these guys did it. We could do it.”
To wrap things up, this is a really interesting time to be making an animated series and have the framework for making animated series. Are there any specific projects that you’re working on in addition to Archer? And how do you feel in general about the future of animation within this industry, as a storytelling medium?
WILLIS: There’s currently nothing on my plate besides Archer, just because it’s such a full time job. And especially now in a work-from-home era, it even takes more focus and more time, but I’m so happy to be doing it and I’ll do it for as long as I can. But animation as storytelling, I think, especially now with so many outlets out there wanting original content and now in this work-from-home environment that we have going on as well, we might see a ton of new animation. And I think that can only help animation gain even more acceptance than it already has, so I’m excited to see what the future holds. Who knows how many amazing things got greenlit over the past couple months that we’ll see it in a year or so.
So I think it’s going to be a really exciting time and I think it just can make it stronger than ever. Because animation, for the most part, has been half hour sitcoms. But who knows what will be made in this time — there might be other forms of that. Rather than that standard half-hour sitcom, what other storytelling can take place in animation? I think that’s really exciting, and I can’t wait to see what happens.
Even with this season of Archer, I feel like the opening minutes of the premiere are an action sequence worthy of the Fast and Furious franchise. And there aren’t really that many jokes. It’s really just pure action sequence, which is cool.
WILLIS: Yeah, we wanted to thrust everybody back into this, and I don’t know when this is going to come out so I don’t want to give any too much away, but there’s even some surprises in there as well. I was so happy because even people really close to the show, or had been close to the show in the past but had moved on to other projects. When we showed that to them, when that little surprise came at the end, they were even shocked. Like, “Oh, I thought something else was happening.” So that was such a cool moment that we pulled that off and I’m really proud of that opening sequence. And so much hard work went into it, and I’m really happy with all of our artists and animators who put so much work into that. And I think it’s going to really pay off.
Archer Season 11 airs Wednesdays on FX (and is available the next day via FX on Hulu). Don’t forget to check out Adam Chitwood’s rave review of the show’s return.