“I’m…happy you’re not.”
If there’s one exchange the proves that tonight’s Archer premiere is still the same show that debuted on a different network, in a different genre, in an entirely different galaxy, way back in September of 2009—barring the one where Carol/Cheryl compares the smell presently percolating its way through the Merchant Vessel Seamus to “a fart that’s shit its pants,” anyway—that little interplay between Lana Kane and Sterling Archer would probably be it. Archer might have ditched its previous settings for the far-flung future of 1999, but this is still a show about a group of dysfunctional assholes trapped in close quarters with a bunch of other people that none of them especially like. It’s just that, now, said close quarters happen to be on a spaceship.
While watching “Bort The Garj”—about whom, more in a second—it’s useful to perform a simple thought experiment: Ask yourself, “What if this was the first episode of Archer I had ever seen?” Which is to say: Could this episode of TV stand on its own, without a decade worth of callbacks, backstory, and assumed character relationships propping it up? Archer has spent its last three (or four, or six, depending on where you want to draw the line) seasons distancing itself from the original universe in which it aired. So how does it fare without that long-earned, much-tested benefit of the doubt?
Pretty well, honestly. While “Bort” admittedly gets some of its thrills from seeing our old friends get dropped, yet again, into familiar genre archetypes—with Krieger as a Bishop-esque android, Carol/Cheryl as a glue-huffing Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, and Pam as, well, Marvel’s The Thing—it also sketches out the character dynamics both deftly and swiftly, with a minimum of exposition, and a maximum of Shepherd’s Pie-flavored flatus. Sure, our hypothetical newcomer would miss out on the episode’s most exquisitely callback-heavy joke—the reveal that this universe’s version of recurring antagonist Barry has finally gone full-robot, at last—but outside of a little “space phrasing,” there’s nothing stopping this episode from serving as a pilot for an entirely separate show. (Adam Reed and his team now refusing to even feint at the old “coma dream” conceit that used to justify these alt-universe shenanigans, before they found the confidence to start justifying themselves.)
And so, in brief: Sterling Archer and Lana Kane are co-captains of the good (?) ship Seamus, Lana having scored half the vessel as part of what can only be assumed to have been an extremely messy space divorce. Goaded by his mother—who’s apparently some sort of holographic/alcoholic floating entity in this particular reality—Archer attempts to pick the bones of a destroyed passenger vessel, only to a) get caught by the rest of the crew, and b) allow the titular stowaway (voiced by the having-a-pretty-dang-great-year Sam Richardson) to ooze his way aboard. (Also, there are some pirates, but Carol/Cheryl absolutely blows the shit out of them.) Bort charms the less-rational/more-goose-chase-y elements of the crew with a promise of an easy reward for getting him back home—where he’s apparently royalty—and faster than you can say “Admiral Ackbar’s All-You-Can-Eat-Seafood Buffet,” they’ve wandered straight into the clutches of the sinister Barry-6, who promptly tosses them into his dungeon while threatening to do an informal extraction on all of Archer’s bones.
As that description suggests, this initial outing for the Seamus crew is incident heavy, but a little plot-light—not that “plot” has ever been a great reason to check in on Archer in the first place. What’s most notable is that this is, indeed, a crew: After two seasons that saw the former ISIS team spread out into a variety of opposing roles—with Lana, especially, seeming to get sidelined more often than not—this is the first time in years that we’ve seen these characters all functioning under the same roof together at the start of a season (for a given value of “functioning,” at least). It’s a mostly welcome return to form, even if you could argue that the show has proved Cyril is a lot more interesting as an outright villain, rather than Archer’s most consistently pitiful punching bag. It’s all worth it to see the show dig back in to the once-tired Archer-Lana dynamic again, though; there’s nothing quite like Aisha Tyler’s “Nooooooooope” when she realizes what fresh bullshit her ex has gotten her into.
“Bort The Garj” has the feel of being a table-setting episode for what’s to come, offering up a low-key introduction to the show’s highest-concept production to date. It’s also, despite the far-flung setting, the most familiar the series has felt in years; while Dreamland and Danger Island both seemed determined to shake up the Archer formula, this feels like the show getting back to what it ostensibly does best. It’s pretty much guaranteed that things will get a lot sillier and more profane from here, but, then, this is still Archer, after all: What else did you expect?
- Welcome back to our regular Archer coverage, folks! This’ll be my fourth season manning this particular station (and possibly last, if Reed sticks to his guns about bringing the show in for some kind of ending this year), and I’m excited to see if the show can go above and beyond what we’ve already seen so far. (Yes, that was a Space: Above And Beyond joke.)
- We don’t get much of it, but Richardson’s performance as Bort is delightfully self-absorbed and self-effacing. He’s kind of a big deal!
- Of the various character transformations, Cheryl/Carol as the world’s deadliest, most bored fighter ace is probably the funniest for me, although the reveal of Ray as a Firefly-esque courtesan is a strong contender for the throne.
- Would it be paradoxical to get a “said Ripley to the android Bishop” callback at some point this season?
- “Suppressing fire!”
- For the record, Team Wild Goose Chase is comprised of Archer, Malory, Cheryl, Ray, and Pam. Good company.
- Cheryl’s bathroom reading of choice is a very familiar, fairly choke-y looking copy of Robots Amok; Pam favors its sister publication, Humans Amok, instead.
- I say this every year, but I cannot emphasize enough how absolutely gorgeous the show looks these days—even though the glossiness occasionally contrasts a bit with the “used future” aesthetic of some of the films it’s aping. That space battle, though!
- Obscure reference alert: Although the background references to various sci-fi properties are all over the place, the episode largely shied away from any profoundly obscure textual reference, aside from a now-mandatory Isaac Asimov namecheck. (Does anyone know why they’re using “fish” as a slur for Krieger’s android kin, though?) I did note that Archer’s mission patch apparently features our old crepuscular pal, Babou.
- Line of the episode: I’ll admit to a weakness for Judy Greer’s delivery on the “ugh” re: Ray’s little spoon collection. But let’s not fool ourselves: It’s “Potato, po-bo-bot,” by a mile.
- I’ll just say it: I miss Crackers.