Archer is back — in both a literal sense, with season 11 currently underway, and in a thematic sense. The main character, whose fanciful coma dreams guided seasons eight through 10, is finally in the real world, still recovering but also being the best, most obnoxious secret agent ever. Like we said: Archer is back.
The coma seasons — Dreamland, set in a 1940s film noir version of Los Angeles; Danger Island, which took place in the South Pacific circa 1938; and 1999, which travelled to outer space — were intriguing experiments that felt like further (but much less successful) extensions of what the show did in season five, also known as Archer Vice. All the main characters and certain regular foes appeared as off-kilter versions of themselves, with Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) occupying his usual anti-hero role. No matter the scenario, his selfish disregard for things like caution and preparation (and his fondness for getting drunk on the job) inevitably brings everything to the brink of disaster — before he ends up saving the day anyway, to everyone else’s continued disgust. That hasn’t changed in Archer’s new season, but there’s a new element that has shifted things in a way that makes familiar plots feel fresh again.
After he wakes up and reluctantly returns to work, Sterling realises that none of his former teammates at Malory’s spy agency — except Pam (Amber Nash), who missed her drinking buddy — care that he’s back. Some of them are openly annoyed by his return, particularly after he starts bringing chaos back into an outfit that’s been thriving without him for three years. Malory (Jessica Walter), devoted as ever, is determined to get her son back in the game, but she’s also focused on other important things, like hiring just the right valet to replace Sterling’s late, lamented Woodhouse.
While for the audience, Archer is back to resembling the series that became a cult hit in its early seasons — especially welcome after the diminishing returns of Danger Island and 1999 — Archer himself is aghast at the changes that have transpired in his absence. Not just things like mandatory morning briefings, or that a newly buff Cyril (Chris Parnell) is leading the missions, but also the fact that his longtime on-again, off-again romantic interest Lana (Aisha Tyler) is now married to an ageing billionaire. Demoted from not just his alpha gig but also his prized parking spot, rejected by Lana, and forced to use a cane thanks to his lingering injuries, you’d think Archer’s massive ego would shrink just a tad.
Since he’s Archer, it doesn’t really. But while his ability to effortlessly frustrate everyone around him has been part of the character since the beginning, he’s now feeling some of that frustration himself. He has new physical limitations. He has to learn to take orders from Cyril. That sexual tension he once shared with Lana seems to have completely evaporated. Everyone’s more professional; they try to use non-lethal force instead of just shooting their foes, and they don’t say “sploosh!” or make dick jokes anymore. In more than one episode, Archer has turned to another character to ask “Am I still in a coma?” — just to try and make sense of the weird world he’s now having to navigate. It adds a dimension to the character that was missing before and makes him a tad more endearing, even in the frequent moments that he’s being a total jackass.
While Archer may be feeling his first-ever twinges of self-doubt, Archer the series feels more confident than ever. It’s back to wacky spy missions infused with the show’s signature sense of style and humour.
So far we’ve had a motorcycle chase set to Judas Priest; an art heist double-cross featuring guest star Jamie Lee Curtis; an Enter the Dragon riff; a perfectly placed Planet of the Apes reference; a duel between Sterling’s “post-coma voicemail hoax” and Malory’s “elaborate voicemail prank;” obscure references (during an elevator scene: “Cool it, Alexander Miles!”); the long-awaited but sadly short-lived arrival of a valet worthy of Woodhouse’s legacy (guest star Simon Pegg); and — huzzah! — the even longer-awaited return of phrasing. It’s all the vintage Archer stuff that didn’t quite land right when the show was off on its elaborate tangents, and it took a return to form to remind us what we were missing.