‘Archer’ Got Me Back By Closing Up Shop

One of TV’s most ambitious shows is ending, and I’m here to say goodbye
‘Archer’ Got Me Back By Closing Up Shop

Our relationships with TV shows can take many forms. Sometimes, our fandom is so straightforward and uncomplicated that we become evangelists — just ask all the friends I texted ordering them to watch Primo. Other shows come into our lives for a reason or a (literal) season before we part ways. But even when a series has long since fallen off our schedule, the announcement that it’s wrapping up might get us back for the final push. I’m not sure what else could have brought Archer back to my consciousness, but its 14th season, premiering tonight, is also its last, and I have to know how it ends.

When Archer premiered in 2009, I was already a pre-sold fan. Creator Adam Reed had established himself as a cult hitmaker with the Adult Swim show Sealab 2021, but that’s not how he got me; during its run (2000-2005), I lived in Canada, where it didn’t start airing until 2007, after I left. Reed’s next show, Frisky Dingo, might have also passed me by if not for a trip to the U.S. I took toward the end of the first season, during which I happened to catch an episode. Given how obscure Dingo still is, even for major comedy fans, I now think I was destined to be in front of a TV when it aired so it could change my life for the better. Dingo tells the story of Killface’s attempt to hold the world hostage with his doomsday weapon, the Annihilatrix, while local vigilante Awesome-X tries to foil him and turn their rivalry into a line of merchandise produced by his alter ego, billionaire playboy Xander Crews (voiced, as is Killface, by Reed). It’s an absurd adult-animated superhero satire that predates the MCU era, and plays even better now than it did then, as I can personally attest, having watched through its two brief seasons many times over the years.

Archer, which came along the year after Dingo’s series finale, seemed very intentionally designed to transcend the success of its forebears. Whereas they had surreal, esoteric settings, Archer joins one of pop culture’s most durable genres: espionage. Instead of Adult Swim’s bite-sized runtimes, Archer got a half-hour primetime slot on FX, a major cable network. And the voice cast was packed with comic superstars: H. Jon Benjamin (Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist) as the titular secret agent, an arrogant womanizer in the Xander Crews mold; Jessica Walter (Arrested Development) as Malory, both Archer’s boss and his mother; Aisha Tyler (Talk Soup) as Lana, Archer’s fellow agent and ex-girlfriend; Judy Greer (13 Going on 30) as Malory’s assistant Cheryl, aka Carol; and Chris Parnell (30 Rock) as Cyril, initially the agency comptroller and Lana’s new boyfriend. But while the framing premise is easier for a casual viewer to hook into, Archer carries elements over from Dingo: a comically arrogant protagonist; a painterly animation style; as much graphic violence as the intentionally limited art will permit. 

For its first several seasons, Archer was reliably entertaining exploring its core concept, which could be boiled down to “What if the Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a huge asshole?” The enormous variety within the spy genre allowed for spoofs of everything from Moonraker to Magnum, P.I. to the entire life and career of Burt Reynolds. But starting in its fifth season, Archer changed format. Around the time Reed decided that the show’s central spy agency should no longer be called the International Secret Intelligence Service — or ISIS, for short — he also saw an opportunity to stop writing mission-of-the-week episodes. Hence the dawn of Archer: Vice, in which the characters gave up espionage in favor of drug-running. After a return to form in Season Six, with Archer joining the CIA, the departures continued. Season Seven finds Cyril running a P.I. agency in L.A.; Season Eight is a hard-boiled 1940s noir taking place in Archer’s subconscious while he’s comatose; Season Nine is a 1930s adventure; Season 10 takes place in space. 

I’m sympathetic to Reed’s desire to reinvent Archer. Running any TV show is a grind, but a plot-heavy procedural like this has to be a special kind of challenge; how many times can your characters infiltrate a fancy embassy party or parachute into a combat zone? Then there’s audiences’ evolving attitudes toward law enforcement and American imperialism, both of which spies reinforce. I personally would have liked to have seen the show stay on task and grapple with these questions, much as Brooklyn Nine-Nine did in its final season — imperfectly, but compelling for the attempt. But Archer’s many hard resets were too high-concept for me, and by the time Season 11 returned the show to its original time and place, three years after Archer first became comatose, Archer was off my radar, where it remained until I found out it was ending, and suddenly felt compelled to find out how the show’s producers wanted their final word to be. 

There are, after all, many tried-and-true ways to end a sitcom’s run. The average animated sitcom has more freedom than a live-action one to transform its characters or relocate them in time and space. Archer, having already done all those things, might have saved its wildest notions for its grand finale. Or it might give its characters a sendoff sweet enough to surprise viewers who’ve become accustomed to its impish tone. Or it might not be an ending, exactly; it’s easy to imagine the door being left open for a movie, like the recent feature-length cappers to The Venture Bros. and Metalocalypse. Archer was a show I didn’t just drift away from, it was one that had a lot of ideas, and while I wasn’t on board with all of them, I could still respect its conviction. When a series like this is closing down, I need to know how.

The first four episodes of the final season that were provided to critics feel like a return to the show I knew and love. Archer gets a new foil in Natalie Dew’s Zara, a rogue (and roguish) Interpol agent who can cheerfully take him on in a loose-cannon contest. Her mutable motivations and loyalties make her the perfect addition to a spy story: the kind of character who’s predictably unpredictable enough to drive the plot wherever it needs to go, and who looks just as hot in her tactical black turtleneck as Archer himself does. Lana, the new head of the show’s intelligence agency, finds out how impossible it is to maintain her personal ethics in a leadership position. Future episodes address the morality of museum acquisitions from colonized nations, and the threat posed by A.I., giving it bleeding-edge urgency along with its customary lunacy. An old antagonist also comes back for a last (or is it?) go-round. Producers are playing the hits while they still can. 

The show has always been as confident as it is ambitious. If you, like me, stepped away while it explored the sitcom space, consider joining me back in the audience, so we can all see how these qualities manifest in Archer’s conclusion.

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