Seven seasons in, Archer continues to take no prisoners when it comes to its own setting and status quo. Just two years after turning its cast (briefly) into drug dealers, the series has hopped coasts for Los Angeles, and the world of private investigation, for its noir-heavy seventh season. The show’s executive producer, Matt Thompson—who, along with creator Adam Reed, helped birth beautifully weird Adult Swim programming like Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021 before moving over to FX—walked us through the first four episodes of the new season. Alongside discussions of how the new setting has changed both Archer the show and Archer the man, Thompson also revealed whether fan favorite Ray Gillette is “officially” a member of the show’s main cast, and how actress Jessica Walter’s love of New York affected Malory Archer’s anti-L.A. attitudes.
The A.V. Club: You teased a couple of different directions you could have gone with this seventh season. Were there ever any real options besides L.A. and private investigation work?
Matt Thompson: No, there weren’t. We knew that we wanted to do this for awhile. We had to make it natural. It’s like how we knew we wanted to do a “Skinny Pam” storyline; it never made sense, until it made sense. We knew that we wanted them to eventually be P.I.s, but not until it made sense to do it. So it was definitely a planned-out thing, that we were going to move this way. We’ve been thinking about it probably for two years now.
AVC: Some people have this sense that there’s some fatigue with the spy stuff. Is that part of it, or is it just excitement about the new direction you could go?
MT: I think it’s both. At the heart, this show—and, technically, all TV shows—are about bickering roommates, or in our case, bickering workplace friends. And so, for us, it truly doesn’t matter what it is that they’re doing. I think this show works best when there’s a dangerous mission, and all this interpersonal relationship stuff is happening on top of the dangerous mission. You throw all of our main characters into a dangerous situation, and then have them bicker about who had the worst childhood or whatever. That’s the way the show works best. And you can put that scenario into almost anything, and I think they survive and work in it, because the characters are so fully formed. They’re all so relatable.
Everybody has their own little thing that they are terrible for. None of these people are necessarily good people, but you just enjoy hanging out with them. So for us, we just want to make sure that they are in a dangerous world, and then put them in a place where they can just hang out as much as possible. And we felt that the spy thing was making it increasingly harder. Like, why is Pam there, what are they all doing? There are only so many missions of the week that we wanted to get to. Now, translating that over to a private investigator genre, it opens up whole new pathways that are similar in vein. It’s change without changing. It makes things fresh, but at the same time, you feel like it’s not unrecognizable.
AVC: The show’s ensemble has been pretty solid since the second season. Do you ever think about adding another character to the mix? You know, the characters like Ron or Rodney, the armory guy?
MT: The show, when it was pitched, when it was first thought out, it was really designed as a story about a man and his overbearing mother. And that’s it. The show really stayed there pretty hard in its first season. I think Pam had two lines. Krieger didn’t even speak in the pilot. Over time, we’ve come to fall in love with Judy Greer and Amber Nash and Chris Parnell, and realized how much they could add. The show has shifted from a show about a man and his mother to a true workplace comedy, and that’s been a natural thing over time. Some of the best episodes are the ones where you learn a little bit about Ray’s backstory. Or you learn a little bit about Pam’s backstory, and at the same time there’s a mission happening around that. And that didn’t happen in the very first part of the series; it’s just been a natural progression and evolution.
The one debate we always have is, is Ray part of the main cast or not? Ray is a great character, but sometimes he doesn’t feel like he’s in the core group. And we ourselves can’t decide. Is Ray main cast or not? And I think Adam [Reed] usually errs on the side of “No.” Since Adam voices Ray, he doesn’t want to take anything away from our great actors. And he’s like, no, Ray’s not main cast, the other people are. I think Adam feels self-conscious about his acting.
AVC: What else is different this season, overall?
MT: There are three big changes that are happening, and we hope you don’t necessarily notice them all, but they all just kind of happen, and they kind of wash over you. The first one is, we changed our act structure, which is important to us, but I don’t think the normal viewer realizes what that means. No matter what, you’re going to have four breaks for TV. A lot of people that consume our show consume it over something like Netflix or Hulu, but for those people who are consuming it as it comes on broadcast, you’re getting commercial breaks. The first change that we made is that we changed it so we have a teaser that goes into our open, that goes into our act one, without a break. Our act structure used to be: teaser, break, act one, break, act two, break, act three, end of show. And now, it’s teaser, open, act one, break, act two, break, act three, break, and a new section, the coda. So we’ve reversed it. We did that for a couple of reasons. We wanted to grab you and keep you inside of this story. It changed the way we do things. It especially changed the way where, we have like a little wrap-up at the end of every show. So that’s the first change that you see.
The obvious one is they’ve changed their location, and they’ve changed their job. I don’t need to really elaborate on that; that’s a big change. The last one is we have changed our color palettes, to some degree. The show has gotten warmer, and the show has gotten older. We don’t really live in any set time period, but I’ve always considered the majority of Archer to take place, stylistically, in some sort of mashup of the very late ’60s. I know that’s a small shift, but that’s important to us as graphics people. Now the show is having a language that is more late ’70s than it is early ’60s. And that’s evident in a lot of the clothes that they wear, and the paintings that are on the wall, and the furniture that’s displayed in the offices. But you know, again, no matter what, it’s a show that has fart jokes, you know? It’s like, you’re not going to sit down and go, “Well, wait a minute, that chair’s probably a chair from the late ’60s!” That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the overall feeling of change.
There are these new bumpers that take place before you go to commercial break. And that’s our homage to early ’70s private detective shows, or Charlie’s Angels. We’re trying to make you have these feelings without knowing that you’re having them. Because they’re all kind of subliminal, hopefully. If we’ve done our job right, it feels different, and you’re like, “Why does it feel different? I’m not sure.” Those are conscious decisions that we’ve made. We changed our location, we changed our job, we changed our act structure, we changed our color palette, we changed the basic time period, even. Shows just don’t do that. We’re not just introducing a baby on Family Ties, or whatever, to say, like, “Hey look, it’s a new storyline!” In fact, when we introduced a baby, it was really only so you get a deeper relation between the two main characters of Lana and Archer. It’s not about the baby. It’s about Lana and Archer. “Yeah yeah, but they have a baby, and the baby’s gonna be cuter, and it needs them.” But it’s not a show about that new character. It’s a show about an evolution of two people and their relationship, and what they mean to each other.
AVC: Speaking of Lana and Archer, there’s a moment in the first episode that really stood out, when he gives her that kiss, and then has Ray take her away. How do you view that relationship this season?
MT: Their relationship goes through a really interesting path this season, where we first see them, and they seem to be doing pretty well. Like you said, in that first episode, Archer obviously cares for her, and wants to get her out of harm’s way. Gives her a loving kiss. “I want to take the danger here, and you go.” But it gets more complicated as the season goes on, and their relationship is going to go through some pretty trying things. It’s not going to go well because Archer, at his heart, can’t stop himself. He’s trying to be good; he’s trying to be a good person; he’s trying to actually be a father. But, no matter what, he can only change his stripes so much, and he’s gonna mess it up.
AVC: In the second episode, there are moments where he is openly flirting with other women in front of Lana. But there’s also the moment where she says they’re essentially together.
MT: He’s trying to have it both ways. And it’s not going to end well for him.
AVC: In that first episode, we have the first of those big cold opens, with J.K. Simmons and Keegan-Michael Key’s detective characters. What kind of thought was put into that big Sunset Boulevard reference at the top?
MT: We looked at a lot of things about what we wanted to do, and what we wanted things to look like. We’ll spend a lot of time this season on a movie set, and get involved with that, but we are creating our own version of Hollywood, and it’s sort of weird. When we first started this show, we wanted to do something like Blade Runner. By that, I mean that Blade Runner had this really cool look of “This is what the future’s going to look like.” It’s gonna look a little bit like the future, and little bit from here, and all these time periods that came together for them, and they picked and chose what worked for them. And we did the same thing on Archer, which is, we want people to have cell phones, but we like 1970s muscle cars, and we really like the way that somebody’s pants were fitting in the late ’50s, or whatever. So we took all these different time periods and put them together, and then we started thinking about going to L.A., and what do we want L.A. to look like? We knew that we wanted to age ourselves up and go to the ’70s. But at the same time, it feels like the most glamorous part, just looking at Hollywood from the outside in, was like the ’50s, and kind of seeing how the movie industry worked then, and so we kind of paid homage to that. And at the same time, having our ’70s time period. So we’re kind of picking and choosing. One of the best examples of that is to go back and look at a movie like Sunset Boulevard. Veronica Deane, and her house, and everything, is a very, very conscious effort for us to ape Sunset Boulevard, and say “This is the kind of Hollywood we’re talking about.” The golden age of Hollywood, if you will. Even though you’re going to see its look is brighter and more like the 1970s, we’re still trying to harken back to that time.
AVC: It’s a bold move to start your season off with these two characters that the audience doesn’t know. How did you go about making sure they were still recognizable as part of the Archer universe?
MT: I do think that our style has become recognizable. So hopefully, when you see these drawings, you know that it’s an Archer show. But it was a conscious decision not to start with our main cast, and not to start with our people, because we wanted the reveal of Archer face-down in the pool to be that much more dramatic. So we weren’t really trying to play that back in for comedy. We didn’t want our people around to get in the way of the story, which was, “Who’s the dead guy?” So it was very much a conscious thing. And you see [detectives] Diedrich and Harris throughout the season. They’re going to be peppered out in approximately five episodes this season. And you’re going to see Patton Oswalt as well, peppered throughout the season, kind of carrying us along the whole way.
AVC: Looking at that second episode, the big set piece is a riff on Archer’s voicemail pranks. The show has a lot of callbacks and self-references. Do you ever feel like, “We’ve taken this joke as far as we can for now”?
MT: It feels like it. I don’t know how we’re going to do another voicemail prank after the one that’s in the second episode. I just don’t know how that joke could get better. It reminds me of when, early on in the show’s run, we talked about Archer’s father all the time, and then one day, it was like, [tired voice] “We’re no longer talking about Archer’s father.” We might come back to it at some point, but I do think that this is going to be the height and suspension of the voicemail prank for a while.
AVC: “Phrasing” came back, and it’s once again beautiful. When you guys use “Phrasing” now, it’s mostly Lana saying it, as a way to cheer Archer up.
MT: Yeah, it mutates, it changes, and then you suspend it, and then it’s back. The way that I think our show is different than every show on television, as far as cartoons go, is these characters are in a constant state of evolution that you can recognize. And I think that jokes like that have a pattern, too. In everybody’s daily life, you get into a joke pattern, and this is the joke that I’m going with, and then people are like, “Please, stop. No more of that joke.” And then you stop it for a while. And then eventually, you know, a year after you stop it forever, the joke’s funny again. And I think that is kind of where we live as a show.
These are all things that are happening to people, and they’re all in a constant state of change. I do believe our characters are vastly different, almost every single one of them, are vastly different today than they were in season two, season three. And I think every year they change a little bit. But you still recognize them. And that goes for our joke patterns, that goes for everything that there is about this show. They feel real because they constantly change. And they do have joke patterns, they do drop them, they do suspend them, they do change them, other people pick up on them, nothing every stays static. And I really enjoy that about our show.
AVC: Can you dig into that a little bit more? How do you feel like Archer has changed over the years? Like, Sterling specifically.
MT: Well, out of all of the people, he’s the heart, you know, it’s his show. And so, I think for a long time, he was just the world’s most selfish child. And that stayed with us for a while. And then he came to realize that he needed friends, and he came to rely on his friends. And then he realized that he was in love, and he didn’t want to be without his love. And then he realized, “I’m being suffocated by this. I don’t think I want this anymore. Maybe I want to be by myself again.” And now I think that he’s getting back to that place of where he was earlier in the run of things. The height of our ensemble-ness was in season five, when everybody seemed to take over an episode. We kind of moved backwards on that in season six, and the episodes took on a much more Archer-centric role. And I think you see him sliding in and out of this place where he wants to have these people as his friends, he doesn’t want to have these people as his friends, and he wants to be alone. And he is trapped inside of that ball that has led him to this evolution from season one.
AVC: Talking about Archer like that, the third episode, “Deadly Prep,” adds a lot of vulnerability to the character, because we see him bullied. How often do you feel like you need to go back and show the backstory of these characters?
MT: I always love it when we show backstory. There’s a clip from Archer’s backstory—I don’t even know what season it is—it’s this little boy, 8-year-old Archer, sitting alone in front of his prep school on the bleachers with a lacrosse stick in his hand, and he’s just sitting there and the leaves are going by and he’s all by his lonesome. I love that about him. To know that this incredible specimen of a physical human being was this lonely child. And for years, we thought of it as, Malory dumped him off at this prep school, and he was just lonely, and made his way. And in the third episode of this season, we’re going to find out that not only did Malory just dump him off at this private school, but things didn’t go well for him there. He was physically bullied.
And the bullying he took has really influenced his life path, and led him down a road to where nobody’s going to push him around ever in a million years. For me, it’s interesting to learn something about a guy who you’ve seen now for seven seasons, and to learn something new about him. And when you do learn it about him, it makes sense. It’s not just like, “Oh, he lived on Mars for two years!” It feels natural, like a part of the character that’s always been there. And those are some of our best stories, when you do learn something about him, and nothing strikes you as something that came out of left field.
AVC: It feels like there’s also a lot more of Malory this year. This season has her saving the day in the second episode, as well as that extended run in the fourth episode that’s just about her escaping.
MT: Yep, I love what she’s doing, especially in the fourth episode, “Motherless Child.” This shift in storyline has made a real shift in what’s happening with her character. She’s such a New Yorker. She loathes L.A. I think that’s somewhat influenced by us knowing Jessica so well. Jessica is a life-long New Yorker, you know? I think [with] Malory, we’re taking that character out of its element, and putting her in L.A., and putting her not in charge, and see her playing this sort of shadowy second fiddle inside a private detective agency. She’s become untethered, and it makes her a more interesting character. We get to go back and we get to see Malory be dangerous. That’s one of my favorite things about the fourth episode of this season. We talk a lot about this woman who has run this spy agency and has done all these things in a Cold War-era setting. You’ve seen her kill the Italian prime minister. But to see her be physical and dangerous and save the day, it’s pretty cool. I’m glad to see Malory doing so well this season. I think the move, more than anything, has helped her character out more than any, I would say.
AVC: She gets that big speech in the second episode about how if you can be anyone, why be yourself?
MT: It’s true. Why go on being you? Because no matter what, all of these people, all of them are terrible. It really applies, like, “Don’t be terrible anymore. Be someone different.” And you know, if you do move somewhere new, who’s to say? Why not be something different? Why not change? Again, it goes back to what I keep saying about the show, which is the show is in a constant state of change without ever changing. And that’s Adam talking to himself. Why go on being you? Why go on doing the same thing that you do every single time? Why not challenge the viewer? Why not challenge yourself? I hope that we’re doing that in a good way that people will enjoy, and not just feel like, “Ah, you’re screwing up my favorite thing.” Because we don’t want to screw up anything for anybody. But at the same time, we want to keep things feeling new. Again, change without changing.
AVC: That fourth episode also seems like it’s the first one to not have any moments from that big overarching plot; instead, it focuses on the Barry story. How did you balance that when you were plotting things out?
MT: We didn’t want you to know exactly what you were going to get from every single episode. No matter what, Archer at its most basic is going to be, set up a problem in the early-going teaser, and then in act three, there’s some sort of action sequence, and somehow there’s some bit of resolution at the end, after Archer probably jumps from one car to the other car somewhere in act three. That’s going to happen, for the most part. But then sometimes, we want to make sure that you don’t tune in on autopilot and feel like you’ve seen all these things before. A good example of that is the last season, where they’re in an elevator for the entire episode. Or the fourth episode of this season, there’s not really a giant action set piece, and it’s really just about these characters that we love.
The fourth episode does not deal at all with the overarching storyline that we’re setting up with Longwater, and Veronica Deane, and Alan Shapiro in the first episode… because we didn’t want it to! We don’t want it to be, this is what you’re going to get out of every single episode. We want to do stuff that makes us interested, and what made us interested right there was spending as much time as we could with Barry, who’s a character that we absolutely love, and has probably gone through more change than any character we’ve ever had. He started off as a colleague of Archer, then Archer did him wrong, and now he’s turned into his nemesis. And now he’s a robot. And you come to find out in this episode he actually somehow thinks he’s friends with these people. That was more interesting to us in that particular moment than dealing with the large overarching, “What’s Longwater? What’s on that disk? What’s happening?”
AVC: Do you ever feel like there’s a point you could go too far with things like turning characters into robots, or shrinking them down? Or is everything fair game?
MT: We’re very cautious about it. Barry is the only character we’ve let do that. Adam and I come from the Adult Swim world. We’ve both made TV shows, together, that are just nuts. You go back and look at our shows, Frisky Dingo or Sealab, and crazy things just happen. Archer’s very grounded, except for Barry. We’ve got a cyborg and his girlfriend Katya, that’s about as far as it goes. And Krieger has some crazy inventions. But for the most part, the laws of physics apply to this show. Even though it’s a cartoon. A cartoon gives you license that anything in the world can happen, but for the most part, it’s a show that is grounded in real-world rules and physical consequences. If people die, they die.
Except for Barry and Katya, those are our only exceptions. We tried not to fill the world with thousands of exceptions, otherwise it just becomes unbelievable and unrelatable.
AVC: At the same time, it seems like Sterling carries his injuries a little more fully this season.
MT: He does. Personally, I don’t think we necessarily talk about it too much, but he’s getting older, he’s getting slower. He’s hurt. He can only take so much.