Now that it’s over, Adam Reed’s tenure as the primary writer of the first nine seasons of Archer is an amazing thing to look back at. Give or take a story credit here or there, Reed wrote (or, on rare occasion, co-wrote) all of the first 102 episodes of the show, a feat that probably did more to establish Archer’s greatest strength—its rock-solid clarity for who these assholes are, and what they’d do in pretty much any given situation—than even the genius voice actors who brought them all to life. Consistency is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to a medium as unpredictable—and collaborative—as television. Reed the writer had his quirks and weaknesses (and an almost pathological distaste for climax or character growth), but under his hand, Archer became one of the most reliably consistent comedies on all of TV.
You can probably already see the “in contrast” coming from a mile away here, but hey, here it is: In contrast, this season of Archer, written by a rotating group of writers, and the first to not feature even a single script by Reed, has struggled to figure out any kind of unified identity for itself. Even its least funny episodes have had some great gags in them, but as a story being told by a team of writers, it’s been all over the place. If you need an example of that sort of (possibly inevitable) mission drift, look no further than the character of Lana Kane’s new husband, Robert: Introduced in the (excellent) “The Orpheus Gambit” as a thoughtful and emotionally available billionaire, he was then re-defined in last week’s (also excellent) “The Double Date” to give him a whole bunch of very Archer-esque rough edges, including an abundant dose of dirty old man-ness, and a plethora of dead dogs. And to be fair, you could argue that “Double Date” was simply revealing new facets of Robert, demonstrating that his first impression was a little too good to be true.
But now, in light of tonight’s installment, “Caught Napping,” I have a new theory: There are simply two (or more) different Roberts on hand, brought out depending on who’s writing the episode, and with very few similarities between them. It’s not for nothing that “Napping” was written by Mark Ganek, who also penned “The Orpheus Gambit,” and who’s clearly the current Archer writer most interested in exploring the more human ramifications of Sterling Archer’s 3-year coma coma. (H. Jon Benjamin managed to wring genuine pathos tonight out of Archer’s breaking heart at seeing his daughter call another man “Daddy.”) I like Ganek’s scripts, as it happens—they’re funny, emotionally intelligent, and full of winking nods to the show’s long history. But the whiplash from the last five, far wackier episodes of this show, back to this sudden burst of sentimentality, was enough to give me a pretty serious case of critical whiplash.
Enough long-term analysis, though; let’s dive into the episode itself, which transplants the whole team to Switzerland after Lana’s daughter A.J. gets kidnapped and ransomed. And while this all ends in a place I didn’t especially enjoy—Jamie Lee Curtis is a damn fine actor, but I never needed to see her lackluster villain wannabe Peregrine pop up ever again—the steps to get there were almost uniformly delightful. That includes Robert’s hapless but abundant helpfulness (tranq-ing the entire agency and dragging them along, because he’s not sure what any of them actually do), to Cheryl navigating the world of her high society peers, to Archer serving as Lana’s “rampage sherpa” once she catches wind of the kidnapping plot. There’s also an abundance of Ray, and nothing makes me happier than to hear Reed come back to lend some energy to a scene as everyone’s favorite defrocked minister/third-place downhill skier.
If I have a problem with “Caught Napping”—outside my general discomfort with figuring out its place in the wider Archer structure—it’s that Ganek might like the characters he’s getting a chance to play with a little too much. Everybody gets to have a “hero moment” in the episode’s big climactic chase scene, and while it’s all well-animated, it does feel a little like there’s a checklist with lines like “Ray saves the day,” “Pam saves the day,” “Cyril saves the day” written out on it in a not especially organic way. The final conversation with A.J. also threatens to go completely over the edge into saccharine, with the reveal that she came to visit “Sleeping Beauty” while he was in his coma—but just manages to barely pull itself back from the brink with a well-timed semen joke.
And that’s what I kept coming back to, as I wrestled with the conflicting feelings “Caught Napping” evoked in me: Taken in a vacuum, this is an incredibly witty, fast-moving, and funny episode of Archer. I’m always leery of reductively keeping a “jokes that worked/jokes that didn’t” ratio running in my head when writing these reviews, but this is undeniably a very quotable installment of this show, from Archer’s frequent Taken riffs, to Ray’s banter with skiing rival Flula Borg—”All’s fair in love and war.” “This was neither of those things!”—to that final “sperm delivery device” line. I might even go so far as to call a lot of these “classic Archer gags,” of the kind Reed frequently excelled at writing.
All of which makes “Caught Napping” a difficult episode of TV to evaluate. If it had come immediately after “The Orpheus Gambit”—if the show was clearly charting an arc toward a more sincere, but still very funny, version of itself—it’d have almost certainly landed much more smoothly for me. As is, though, it feels like a steering wheel that has too many hands on it, yanking this season back and forth toward different idealized versions of what it could possibly be. (The fact that Ganek’s also writing next week’s finale, “Cold Fusion,” suggests a pretty clear vision of where it’ll all end, though.) Archer’s consistency has never been as important as its comedy—and it’s not more important here, because, again: Funny! But it does make the challenges of sticking with the show after all this time a little more severe—and when the series you’re writing for is this long in the tooth already, that’s not necessarily something you want to be playing with.
- This is pre-rampage, but Archer offering his hostage/hapless service worker a “painful but undeniably fancy way to die” is a lovely little bit of murder-poetry.
- Archer asks if Robert’s doing a “secret villain” thing; to be fair, we’ve still got an episode left in the season to go!
- “Archer, I need you to be a little less Archer right now.”
- Pep talk, Archer style: “I need every single one of you to become the most competent version of yourselves.”
- Seriously, it’s going to be even harder than usual not to turn this whole section into a long list of killer quotes. From Cheryl/Carol alone we’ve got “You’re getting old lady juice all over me” and “It’s so hard to talk to poor people, it’s like there’s gruel in your ears” and “Lamest childhood leukemia fundraiser ever.”
- One aspect I don’t necessarily feels like works: The running C-plot about Lana’s concerns with balancing motherhood with work, which just feels a little shoe-horned in. It does get us some great interactions with local fixer Brigitte, though, who, as Archer notes, “was on a whole thing, huh?”
- Also an extremely quotable Ray episode, but my favorite line of his might be the simplest, just because Reed nails the delivery: After being told “Don’t be like that” by rival Borg, he responds with a wonderfully snippy “Guess what? I will be like that.”
- Okay, yes, and also, “I may have just found a clue—or am about to have the most degrading hate sex of my life, which is saying something.”
- Not a lot of Krieger this week, but the spoiler that lifts up on his custom-made “Sleigh-er” is a cute little touch.
- I’m still not entirely sure what they were trying to do with Peregrine. As mentioned above, Curtis is a great performer, but she’s not much of a voice actor—there’s not enough range there to give the character any real depth, comedic or otherwise. The character’s 0 for 2 for me, and not likely to get a 3.
- Archer yelling “What is this? The fox and the river puzzle?!” during the ransom hand-off really made my night.
- Obscure reference alert: Do I need to put Taken here? Archer references it twice, explicitly at the start, and then with his “general set of skills” speech. More subtly, he also drops a The Day The Earth Stood Still reference with “not to get all Gort about it.” French philosopher Michel Foucault was, indeed, very interested in talking about power structures, swebop’s not real, and I assume Archer’s talking about Clifford the Big Red Dog, and not the completely insane Martin Short/Charles Grodin movie. Oh, and “clockwork elves”—a.k.a. “machine elves”—are a particular hallucination specifically associated with taking DMT, so nice pull there, Cheryl/Carol.
- Line of the episode: It has nothing to do with anything in the actual episode, but Archer’s drunken ramble analyzing the lyrics of “American Pie” absolutely killed me. “I’m concerned about the mental health of them good ol’ boys” was wonderful, but Benjamin’s shocked horror on “Do you think their jobs were levy-based?” was sublime.
- Fine, fuck it, one more Ray line: “Man he’s fast! Oh, wait.” *pulls out gun and shoots at the guy*
- See you next week for the finale, folks! Archer just got renewed for a 12th season, so presumably they’re not going to blow the whole planet up with some “Cold Fusion.”