Of the 104 currently extant episodes of Archer, you can count the entries not written by series creator, showrunner, producer, actor, etc. Adam Reed on the fingers of a single hand. (Provided it had four of them, at least; as Sterling Archer would point out—especially if he wanted an excuse to eat the hand in question—there’s no reason to be ableist here.) Even on those episodes where he doesn’t have a story credit—“Swiss Miss” and “Pipeline Fever” from the show’s second season, and “El Contador” and “The Papal Chase” from the two that followed—Reed is still credited with the teleplay, ensuring that every episode of Archer sounds like, well, itself. Along with the cast, Reed’s writing has been the guiding element that’s kept the series vaguely on the rails in the years since it brazenly ditched its spy genre trappings; it’s also the sort of thing that can open a show like Archer up to accusations of burnout and repetition, as callbacks pile up and character beats recycle, sometimes threatening to drown out original setups or jokes.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that tonight’s outing for the crew of the pretty-crappy-actually ship Seamus, “The Leftovers,” is the first Archer episode in more than half a decade not to carry Reed’s name as its credited writer, and it’s…a surprisingly welcome turn? Written by Mark Ganek—most recently of Amazon’s late, lamented The Tick—“Leftovers” has the occasional feel of a frequently sweated-over spec script, concocting a scenario that allows Ganek to take a snapshot of what each of the show’s characters is “about,” while also indulging in a whole bunch of the sort of Archer-isms that Reed’s scripts have been less passionate about pursuing of late. (With all due respect to the Crédit Mobilier scandal, it’s going to be a very bulky Obscure Reference Alert down in the Stray Observations tonight.)
In terms of plot, “The Leftovers” relies on a pleasant little pivot on classic sci-fi TV tropes; what starts out as a very clear Alien/Aliens pastiche (complete with references to those frustratingly ambiguous 2D motion scanners that are always getting hapless space marines et) shifts instead into an Archer: 1999 take on that the old standby, the “sci-fi nonsense makes everybody act out their deepest desires” episode. It’s a classic setup—original flavor Star Trek and The Next Generation both tackled it in their first few weeks on the air for a reason—allowing writers to bluntly say things about their characters that they couldn’t normally get away with. In Archer’s case, obviously, that translates into a sudden musical obsession with Warren G. Harding’s long dark night of the soul. With hip-hop influences.
But Ray’s descent into historical musical theater (and am I just projecting, or does Reed seem to be having more fun than usual voicing everyone’s favorite non-Firefly space courtesan?) isn’t the only unexpected side effect when the food-deprived crew begins chowing down on the neurotransmitter-laden eggs constantly being crapped out by Pam’s former lunch/Archer’s latest instantly-bonded animal companion, Benedict. (Get it?). We also get to see Cyril live out his dream of being a cool, confident, existentially lazy beachcomber, and Pam assert her inner captain. Oh, and Archer and Lana fuck like there’s no tomorrow, which, duh.
The re-centering of the Archer-Lana relationship has been one of the qualified delights of Archer: 1999, not least of which because it gives the always-brilliant Aisha Tyler a whole lot more to do than she got in either Dreamland or Danger Island. Here, the eggs also help sidestep that dynamic’s least enjoyable quality—i.e., making us sit through the show’s millionth “Archer tries to do something irresponsible, Lana says no, he makes a mean joke about her hands” scene—instead putting them on roughly the same page, re: whether they would like to continue boning, possibly forever. In the end, Lana does end up back in her typical voice of reason role, filbert-esque knuckles in tow, but it’s nice to see her get a break from rationality for a minute, even if it was with the help of some incredibly, horrifically, stomach-churningly disgusting eggs.
Because let’s be clear: This is a very gross episode of television, in a really wonderful, “Hey, how fucked up can we make this look?” sort of way. Benedict is a lovely piece of animation, resembling an extra-fleshy armadillo with a whole range of dismayed reactions while watching the crew devour her hideous young or plopping another dozen of them out in every single scene she’s in. And someone clearly got a brief to make the eggs themselves as profoundly difficult to look at as possible, all covered in green, glowing hairy hooks that makes watching the crew bite into them over and over again extra quease-inducing. In the end, it’s Carol/Cheryl who ends up “saving the day” (or whatever), though, flushing the poor beastie out the airlock rather than watch her hated co-workers find sweaty, atonal happiness. It’s a weirdly sad moment to watch poor, frozen Benedict float out into the void, even if it does bring the relief of meaning we’ll hopefully never see those grim ova again.
The most telling thing about “The Leftovers,” though, is how atypically joke-filled it is for a latter-day episode of Archer. While jotting down notes for this review, I was shocked to see that I’d used up something like three times the space that I usually do, just on the strength of lines like “It sounds like a piano double-crossed the yakuza,” or Archer and Lana’s exchange about whether or not rocks have mother issues. Where Reed’s scripts—and to be clear, it would be silly to assume he wasn’t at least moderately involved in the writing here, regardless of whose name was on the finished product—are typically more sparse, leaning on rhythms and callbacks to do the heavy lifting, Ganek’s is much more aggressively dense. It’s a welcome sort of throwback—even before poor, ricochet-prone Brett shows up at the end to take one more hit for the team.
- Speaking of the Brett thing: It’s the sort of moment I’m talking about when I say this episode sometimes feels like it was written by someone who hasn’t watched the show in a couple of years.
- “I vote dying!”
- “I vote space goo!”
- I know Archer loves its callback to Reed’s old Adult Swim show Frisky Dingo, but I can honestly say I never expected “Ah, the cloaca blooms” to make the cut.
- Lana, responding to Cheryl’s weirdly sultry plans to eat her: “I am so confused by your tone.”
- Sterling Archer, songwriting coach: “Start-heart is the lyrical equivalent of light beige.”
- “So testing on a live subject would be totally unethical…Let’s use Cheryl.”
“Wait, were we considering anything else?”
- Archer, shocked by his and Lana’s hook-up: “I don’t usually have a thing for older divorced ladies.” (Just kidding, he totally does.)
- Benedict’s sad little face when Archer tricks her into letting him eat her eggs again is weirdly very cute.
- “Hitting the sauce?”
“It’s not sauce, it’s marinade!”
- “Freedom to what? Become a human Jimmy Buffett B-side?”
“You mean awesome, and underrated?” Cyril, going to bat for the margarita man.
- Archer, after realizing that Cyril is now the alpha: “You think he’d let me groom him?”
- Obscure reference alert: Deep breath, people. Okay, here we go: Santiago Calatrava is a famous designer of elegantly leaning bridges. Georgia O’Keeffe is known for her love of yonic imagery. Teapot Dome was the scandal where President Harding’s secretary of the interior gave out essentially free passes to national oil reserve to some of his industrialist buddies; Crédit Mobilier is the one where railroad executives (including, yes, one named George Train) bribed the vice president and the Speaker of the House in order to get the contract to build a transcontinental railroad. (As dramatized on Hell On Wheels, in case you’d ever wondered what Hell On Wheels was about.) But hey, we’re not done: Cheryl’s line about the action being the juice is a direct lift from Heat, and “So say we all” is a Battlestar Galactica nod. Filberts are another name for hazelnuts, mynocks are those creepy bat things from The Empire Strikes Back, eggs Benedict is a popular hollandaise-based breakfast dish, and George S. Patton was a famed American general (and George C. Scott biopic subject) who apparently couldn’t lift Pam’s nuts. Woof! Jesus space Christ.
- “I just ejaculated dust, and I’m pretty sure it was my own pulverized skeleton.”
- Line of the episode: As previously noted, this is a particularly crowded category this week; the whole digression about Ray’s PhDong degree being yet another contender for the throne. But I’m going with a simple, effective setup: Archer’s “Not to start this off on the wrong foot, but I’m thinking of eating your feet,” which is a very funny way to come back from commercial.
- And that’s a wrap, folks; see you back here next week, when we’re “Dining With The Zarglorp.”