Archer creator Adam Reed pulled a fast one (are we still doing “phrasing”?) on Comic-Con attendees in 2015, announcing that a “refresh” had delayed the animated comedy’s seventh season, necessitating the creation of new wardrobe, new weapons, and new surroundings for the spies-turned-drug-dealers-turned-CIA-contractors formerly known as ISIS. When it comes to the air on March 31, that refresh finds Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and company freshly blacklisted by Central Intelligence and setting up shop as private investigators in Los Angeles, a scenario established with the blend of breezy exposition and vigorous tongue lashings (seriously, are we not doing phrasing anymore?) that have become customary for fresh rounds of Archer. It’s a good look for the show, whose weekly missions have always had a whiff of Stephen J. Cannell to them—and which now walks the same beat as another TV dick known for collecting aggrieved voice messages.
It’s also definitive proof of Archer’s unique versatility, upping the ante previously set by Archer Vice’s adventures in cocaine trafficking. Like that season, the characters’ morally compromised baseline eases the transition into non-espionage work. “A good detective and a good spy share a lot of skills,” Malory Archer (Jessica Walter) says midway through the season premiere, and the qualities that made Archer an uproarious secret-agent sendup make the new season a hilarious treatment of primetime PIs from the ’70s and ’80s. (Dig the throwback musical stings and Technicolor silhouettes marking the act breaks!) But the new setup is also an opportunity for the employees of The Figgis Agency—a distinction that causes the Archers no uncertain amount of grief—to make themselves over. It’s nothing quite so drastic as the season-five makeover that thrust Cheryl (Judy Greer) into the country-music spotlight—it’s more like Cyril (Chris Parnell) adapting (poorly) to a position of authority in the office.
This also serves to underline Archer’s evolution into a top-shelf ensemble series. In spite of his fundamental selfishness, Sterling has truly learned to share: He takes the lead in a murder-for-hire case involving some former prep-school classmates, but when an old adversary resurfaces, their wrath is directed toward the elder Archer, putting Malory in jeopardy while her captor presses the Figgis staff into finding a maternal needle in a digital haystack. The new format introduces some of the most aggressive capering of Archer’s seven-year run, but merely hearing TV’s most talented voice cast trade insults and banter remains the show’s primary draw. (Though they mostly remain silent for the season’s epic riff on Archer’s voicemail pranks.)
Season seven’s biggest question mark is, appropriately, a mystery: The premiere opens, in media res, with a corpse floating in a pool. There’s a Norma Desmond to go with this Sunset Boulevard setup, an older Hollywood starlet who hires Cyril’s angels to break up a blackmail plot. Links to that case keep turning up in subsequent episodes, as do LAPD detectives played by J.K. Simmons and Keegan-Michael Key. But with such crackerjack episodic plotting on display—episode three, “Deadly Prep,” is a romp of “Lo Scandalo” caliber with some immaculately animated action sequences—a season-long conspiracy threatens to gild the lily. More rewarding hay is made of recurring comedic elements, like the hot pink fliers that are both a cause of embarrassment for the Figgis crew and the agency’s only reliable source of clientele.
Still, The Case of the Starlet and Her Incendiary Disc is another sign that Archer isn’t losing any ambition with age. Reed and crew made the most of their relaxed production schedule, crafting a picture-postcard L.A. while giving the Figgis offices that “second floor of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce” sheen, and increased animation budgets elevate even mundane images like the hypnotic swivel of the gang’s new office chairs. The unspoken conflict of these episodes pits a band of cynical New Yorkers and their sunny, laid-back, celebrity-infested new hometown.
The outcome of season seven is still unknown, but the show’s adaptability to the PI format stokes anticipation for a future refresh. With these characters and this cast, the possibilities feel endless: Maybe The Figgis Agency could spin gold from the NBC Mystery Movie wheel, with Sterling and Lana in the McMillan And Wife position and Pam as a distaff McCloud. Perhaps a detour into the legal profession is in order—the setting and the pun quotient are both right for a stab at L.A. Law. Airwolf season, anyone? Or Riptide? Or maybe the show puts this tactic to its ultimate test, pegging 13 episodes to a Krieger-and-cyborg-Ray-centric riff on Knight Rider, Automan, and the soft sci-fi turkeys of Glen A. Larson’s late ’80s run. At this point, Archer can put these people in any position it wants and still find satisfying results. (Phrasing!)