After throwing convention to the winds last season what with all the cocaine dealing, country singing, and dictator swapping, Archer is going back to the spy missions of the week that the series knows inside and out. The fact that people are calling it an “unreboot” reveals just how unusual a move this is, since “unreboot” is not, nor will ever be, an actual word my Microsoft Word recognizes. It was startling enough when Archer decided to add “Vice” to its name and throw out its founding concept, but throwing out the new in favor of the old isn’t a move we recognize. Evolution isn’t supposed to mean backward motion, after all.
So it’s not surprising that much of the talk around this sixth season is about whether going back to basics means that last season’s Vice detour was a failed experiment. While opinions on Vice were polarized, it’s clear that co-producers Adam Reed and Matt Thompson weren’t swayed by any pining over lost spy missions. They were bored with what they had, they went in another direction, and now they’re ready to return to the covert ops that inspired the series in the first place. But an “unreboot”? Hardly.
The non-word “unreboot” implies a total negation of what happened last season in favor of the status quo, a concept this premiere plays with while simultaneously discarding it. “Holdout” opens with a scenario we’ve seen play out several times over the seasons: Archer runs away and spends X amount of time up to his eyeballs in liquor, nameless flings and, if the situation is really desperate, body modification (that earring, you guys). We then check in with him as he lies in bed in some far-flung corner of the world, hungover and disheveled, and gets a reality check from his mother and/or Lana. This time, though, the runaway spy routine has a twist: He’s running away from his daughter. Stakes thus heightened, the stage is set for an episode full of things that are just like they used to be, but just different enough to make a real difference.
For one, there’s the sight gag of anonymous workers rolling out the old “ISIS” sign while Malory talks to Archer about their new CIA freelancing contract. Dropping the old agency name was a “tweak” creator Adam Reed and company found necessary in light of the very real and very horrifying Islamic State, but it’s also a fitting way to commemorate the almost-but-not-quite reset of the series itself. Then, in the episode’s biggest laugh out loud joke, Cheryl and Pam tease Malory with a pristine new office complete with holograms and drink cart, only to reveal that her dream headquarters is actually just a hologram. They ignored Malory’s vision to recreate the old office, bloodstains and all. (Ray: “Why would you do that?!” Cheryl: [gestures to stricken Malory, too delighted to speak.]) Still, there are a couple differences even in Cheryl and Pam’s painstaking replica, namely a new Japanese spa room for Pam and Krieger (or is it Clone!Krieger?) and Milton, the new mobile toast dispenser and only possible heir to the sidekick throne that piss-reeking ocelot Babou so callously vacated. Hell, even the episode animation itself follows the same “old with a twist” formula. Reed and Thompson have discussed how their two-season renewal allowed them to be more flexible with the budget, and between the brief but stunning hologram office and the plane exploding over the jungle, that extra money shows.
In preparing to review Archer, a show I’ve loved and quoted ad nauseum since day one, I re-watched all of Archer: Vice and select favorites from previous seasons. I was tightening my grip on what had come before (phrasing), but I was surprised to realize just how much Sterling Malory Archer has evolved over the course of the series. Yes, Archer’s still a heavy-drinking lothario with an appreciation for the more awesome things in life—James Bond via Peter Pan—but he’s also been through what he’d call “some freakin’ heavy shit.” He’s searched for his father, fought cancer, loved and lost, and hey, even messed around with Pam. (I say this with love: I know former Archer correspondent Sonia Saraiya is a Lana/Archer ’shipper, but your new reviewer would seriously consider a tattoo of Archer and Pam a la Smokey And The Bandit.) Archer will always be in search of ultimate awesomeness; he’ll always try to shirk his duties and find said awesomeness in bed or at the bottom of a bottle of cobra whiskey. But Archer’s just not the same guy we met in 2009, and “Holdout” shows a willingness to embrace that fact for the season ahead. When Archer meets Kintaru Sato (Togo Igawa), a Japanese soldier who’s been stuck in the jungle since 1942, the plot doesn’t really gain steam until he reveals how much he would give to regain the time he lost with his family. The parallel to Archer deliberately leaving Lana and his kid behind is obvious, but that doesn’t make it less touching when Archer pulls up Kintaru’s wife on his magic computer phone and tears up at their reunion (Archer, spraying bullets at the impatient CIA extraction team: “We need a minute, Captain Shitnuts!”). As Archer’s inevitable return to the office confirms, he knows he can’t run forever.
So let’s talk about the wee baby Abijean, alias “AJ.” She’s the clearest indication that the times, they are a changin’, the most important holdover from Archer: Vice (though I will hear arguments for “inappropes” and telling the jungle to eat however many dicks). I still doubt that AJ’s going to seriously alter the caustic backbone of the Spy Branch Formerly Known As ISIS so much as Archer and Lana’s relationship. Like I said before, Lana reprimanding Archer into responsibility is a scenario we’ve seen countless times before, but the most interesting aspect of their conflict in “Holdout” is that… well, Archer has a point. Lana’s reveal that she used the sperm Archer froze during his cancer treatment was huge enough to be the literal final note of last season, and led to questions about what it would all mean once the show came back, plus baby. Now, usually Lana is the moral voice of reason, and I don’t expect that to change dramatically or even really at all now that she’s a mother. Still, her indignation at Archer running away doesn’t feel quite as deserved as usual. It’s not like he knew she was pregnant with his child, or even donated to a sperm bank. Like Archer says, she (and apparently Malory) used his sperm against his will. We’ll see how much that breach of trust factors into their relationship, which got about as tender as it’s ever been last season. Lana and Archer’s simultaneous “hey” when Malory tells the baby to shut up is the first time I thought it might be fun to watch them parent.
So yes, there’s plenty different about this “unreboot” even as it looks and sounds like Archer Classic. And while there’s so much ground to cover, Archer still manages to stack jokes on top of rock solid vocal performances that bring it all to life. It all bodes well for the upcoming sixth season—a feat for any aging comedy, and especially for one with a new baby. It’s not, as Cheryl insists, “exactly like it was,” but that’s exactly as it should be.
- Hello and welcome to season six coverage of Archer! I’m thrilled to be following in Todd VanDerWerff and Sonia’s footsteps, and look forward to your comments/quotes/reminders that I missed X reference, how could I not see that?!
- The only joke that fell completely flat for me was, unfortunately, the one before the smash to credits. Archer’s been pretty cool and even kind of fluid with his sexuality as the series has gone on, so his pained “suuuuuuper” at the katheoys disrobing was pretty gross.
- My present to you all for this premiere is that I’m gonna let you handle quoting the jokes, but I’ll still use this space to declare Cheryl/Judy Greer the MVP of “Holdout.” (Seriously, that wordless laughter killed me.) A close second is Jessica Walter, not only Malory’s despair, but her utter delight at the office drink cart like it was goddamn Gene Parmesan.
- Krieger or Clone!Krieger?: Krieger has trouble remembering Pam’s name and fails to reveal even a single horrifying radioactive hybrid creature.
- Malory vs. Milton: Malory is too angry at the office replica to come up with a cutting remark when Milton so insolently pops toast in her general direction.