Archer is back – for real this time. After three seasons spent in “dreamland” while the titular spy was in a coma, the FXX animated comedy series has returned to the land of the living for Season 11. But that doesn’t mean things are back to normal. The writers instead embrace the notion that Archer has been out of commission for a full three years to show how Archer’s friends, family and co-workers have evolved and moved on in his absence, making his sudden return all the more dramatic. And it works quite well! Archer Season 11 is less a “return to form” and more another step forward for the long-running comedy, as it also makes a few well-intentioned attempts to reconcile the character’s hard-drinking, harassing ways with the #MeToo era. It’s still funny and wildly inappropriate, mind you, but the refusal to just keep doing the same thing over a decade after the show first premiered is part of why Archer continues to endure.
When Archer Season 11 begins, it’s been three full years since Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) first went into a coma, and the agency has continued to run in his absence. A now extremely buff Cyril (Chris Parnell) has taken on a leadership role to fill Archer’s void, making Lana’s (Aisha Tyler) life a bit easier in the process. Heck, it’s made everyone’s life easier. Even Cheryl (Judy Greer) has changed, dubbing herself “New Cheryl” as she attempts to avoid the pure insanity that previously consumed her character.
But of course Archer’s arrival throws everything off track, and the fun of Season 11 is seeing the ways in which Archer pushes back against the newfound maturity of the other characters, and how long it takes until he forces them to revert back to their old selves. Luckily the show’s writers know better and refrain from pulling a full reset back to “the good old days,” instead allowing this dramatic tension to fuel the first few episodes of the new season. It provides for a lot of comedy to be sure (there’s a payoff at the end of the premiere that is beautifully ironic), but also allows the show to dig a little deeper emotionally as well.
Indeed, the world moving on in Archer’s absence forces the character to confront some of his habits that may have been a source of comedy in earlier seasons, but are now a little, well, uncomfortable. Just as Skyfall asked what James Bond looks like in the modern era, Archer Season 11 doesn’t let the lead character off easy when it comes to the casual misogyny, bullying and questionable choices that were prevalent in the show’s early days. That’s not to say Archer is now “woke” – he’s still Archer through and through – but the show refreshingly isn’t keen on merely pretending the world of 2020 isn’t different from the world of 2009.
The fun of Archer has always been the banter between the individual characters before, during, and after missions, and that continues in Season 11. But despite the fact that the show is now back in the real world, it carries over the desire to evolve and shake things up that led to the three-season “dreamland” arc in the first place. The notion of “theme seasons” began back in Season 5 with Archer Vice, as the writers kept putting these hilarious characters in wildly different scenarios and settings to see how they’d react. The “dreamland” notion pushed this even further as Archer’s coma meant the characters weren’t even really themselves anymore, and that’s one of the ways in which Season 11 feels refreshing – Cyril may be different, be he’s still Cyril, and that extends to all the characters.
And honestly, a “return to normal” at this point would have been boring. Archer’s done that before, over and over again, so significantly shaking up the power dynamics in the agency (which Mallory describes as “a quasi-independent freelance international spy organization”) keeps the series fresh while significantly upping the stakes by returning to the real world. It succeeds in a way that makes you think this show could probably run for many more seasons, as long as the writers keep the central premise fresh year after year.
So yes, Archer is back in a way that is – at least on the surface – similar to the early days of the show. But you’ll soon realize just because we’re back in the land of the living doesn’t mean this series is done evolving.
Read our interview with executive producer Casey Willis on the show’s return and why he wants it to last for 26 seasons. Archer Season 11 premieres on FXX on Wednesday, September 16th with two new episodes airing back-to-back starting at 10pm ET/PT, and streaming the next day on FX on Hulu.
Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. You can follow him on Twitter @adamchitwood.