Ten Years of ‘Archer’: How the Comedy Managed to Stay Fresh

Around season nine, The Simpsons could no longer be called one of the greatest shows on television. Cheers peaked in its second season, and while it introduced characters such as Frasier Crane and Woody Harrelson’s Woody Boyd in later seasons, the series gradually started to diminish despite having a solid cast. Futurama probably should have ended with season four, as should have How I Met Your Mother, which, while still having the occasional great episode, gradually got worse.

These great TV comedies ran much longer than they should have, and at a certain point, they stopped being, well, great. There’s a variety of factors here, varying from cast members leaving to the show losing sight of what made it great in the first place. But often, what causes a great TV comedy to weaken as the years go by is repetition, lack of change, and every episode having a feeling of “been there, done that”. How can you keep things fresh with a comedy series? Do you try to add in new characters? Or add in long-running plotlines? It’s a problem that every long-running TV comedy will deal with; you can’t tell a good joke if we know the punchline. So, what do you do? Well, let’s look at a series that managed to overcome these obstacles. One that’s just wrapped its tenth season, aired 110 episodes, and that’s coming back for an eleventh (and what look to be final) season.

From creator Adam Reed, who is responsible for cult classic animated comedies Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo for Adult Swim, comes Archer, which follows the antics of the narcissistic, arrogant, sharp-tongued and undiagnosed alcoholic Sterling Archer (voiced by voice actor and comedian H. Jon Benjamin). Archer is a secret agent for the spy agency ISIS (the series was released well before the rise of that terrorist group) which so happens to be run by his controlling mother, Mallory Archer (voiced by veteran actor Jessica Walter of Arrested Development fame). But this spy agency was populated by characters that would soon have the same measure of spotlight as Archer and his mother. Such characters are Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) the smart, capable spy who formerly had a fling with Archer and has no time for his immature and reckless bullsh*t, Cheryl Tunt (voiced with absolute glee by Judy Greer), Mallory’s psychotic and destructive secretory, Cyril Figgis (voiced by the SNL veteran Chris Parnell), the agency’s accountant (and coward), and Ray Gillette (voiced by series creator Adam Reed), the agency’s field agent and analyst. Later on, supporting characters like Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), ISIS’ head of HR who is terrible at her job, and Dr. Algernop Krieger (Lucky Yates), the agency’s mad scientist (and possible clone of Hitler) would become breakout characters. Archer first aired on September 17th, 2009 and was an immediate hit with viewers and critics, who praised the series for its non-stop firing of filthy jokes, sight gags, and references so deep that you’d need to have your phone with you to keep up.

Promotional poster for Archer

What was originally a comedic take on James Bond and/or a foul-mouthed Get Smart, the series soon outgrew its somewhat singular focus on its titular character and realized the treasure trove of actors and characters it had. Soon, most scenes had a few (at least) of the main characters trading barbs at each other, and before long the series became an ensemble comedy. The chemistry between the central characters is outstanding, with the cruel barbs being thrown at one another having such a unique rhythm that this series ended up having one of the best ensembles in recent memory. And what’s even more amazing (and frankly shocking) is that in these scenes, the actors aren’t even in the same room, instead reading their lines at different times and parts of the country.

Promotional poster for Archer: Vice

After four successful seasons, for its fifth season Reed did something radical and unexpected: he blew up the series premise. Previously focused on the exploits of spies trying to save the world (and at times putting it in peril), Reed instead had the characters become drug smugglers (now baring the season title Archer: Vice, a reference to the classic cop drama). It was a brave and incredibly risky endeavor. Would the series lose what made it funny? Did the show lose track of what made it special in the first place? Well, Adam Reed was well ahead of us in realizing that we watch the show not for its spy setting, but for its ensemble of hilarious, cruel, and profane characters. Not only was it one of the best seasons of the show, but it made us realize what truly made the series special. We’d follow these characters anywhere, something that Reed would follow up on to startling effect.

Background: Algernop Krieger (Lucky Yates), Ray Gillette (Adam Reed), Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer). Foreground: Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) from Archer: Season 6

For its sixth season, Reed returned these characters back to their spy setting just to see if it works anymore. No longer baring the now-unfortunate moniker of ISIS, the characters went back to their usual antics, but something felt off. Sure, there were fantastic episodes in that season (“Edie’s Wedding”, “Vision Quest”, and the two-part season finale “Drastic Voyage” featuring TV’s Michael Gray), but it felt stale. Changing the setting and occupation for the characters shook things up, and it was fun seeing these characters try (and often fail) at these different occupations.

Knowing this, Reed had its characters leave the spy game for its seventh season, relocating the characters to a 70s’ style L.A., where they open a private detective agency. Like season five, Archer’s seventh season was serialized and had the characters’ detective agency embroiled in a Hollywood mystery. Featuring new characters voiced by actors Patton Oswalt, Keegan Michael-Key, and J.K. Simmons, and returning characters like the homicidal cyborg Barry (Dave Willis) and Slater (voiced by Christian Slater), along with a revamped visual style inspired by Magnum P.I., the series once again reinvented itself. This being the second time the series changed itself, it almost became routine now, almost expected. At the end of this season, a lot of us were wondering what was going to happen next? Well, none of us could have seen this next one coming.

(Left to right) Mallory (Jessica Walter), Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), Ray Gillette (Adam Reed) from Archer: Season 7

Despite having an ominous flash-forward at the beginning of the season, where Archer is seen floating face down in a bloody pool, seemingly dead, we didn’t think that Reed would follow through on that flash-forward’s implication. Many of us thought that it would be a fake-out, and the two-part season finale was implying this right up until the end. In the last few minutes of the episode, we were led to believe that wasn’t Archer, but a robot copy that Krieger invented. Well, it wasn’t. Archer was dead. Or so we thought.

Promotional poster for Archer: Dreamland

As it was revealed in press materials leading up to the season eight premiere, now dubbed Archer: Dreamland, Reed wouldn’t resolve that major cliffhanger and would instead have the entire eighth season take place in Archer’s mind whilst in a coma. Going all in on its noir-inspiration, season eight was redesigned to have an Art-Deco style, once again taking place in L.A., but this time in 1947. Here, Archer was a former WWII vet turned private eye investigating the murder of his partner, Woodhouse, who in real-life was his long-abused personal butler (George Coe, who died in 2015; his death was worked into the story). In Dreamland, all the other characters had new roles and different relationships with Archer: his mother, Mallory, is now named Mother, a crime boss and head of the seedy nightclub Dreamland, Pam and Cyril are corrupt detectives, Lana is Dreamland’s lounge singer, Krieger is Dreamland’s bartender, Cheryl is now Charlotte, an heiress trying to fake her death, and Ray is Lana’s bandleader. Archer: Dreamland was notably darker and more violent than previous seasons, which fit its noir setting. When the season was released, many fans were bothered with this drastic reinvention, wanting Reed to follow up on its seventh season cliffhanger and go back “reality” where the characters we know, and love reside. But these protestations changed nothing.

Promotional poster for Archer: Danger Island

Reed continued with this format, and with season nine reinvented the show as a jungle adventure resembling 40s’ serial adventures under the title Archer: Danger Island. This season was lighter and more upbeat than its predecessor (which could be guessed based on its title) and was inspired by Reed’s own love for the one season 80s’ adventure series Tales of the Gold Monkey. Archer was now a one-eyed pilot residing on the island of Mitimotu with his co-pilot Pam. Other characters were again given new roles. Lana was now the princess Lanaluakalani, Mallory was back to being his mother and head of the island’s resort, Cheryl was a stranded heiress, Cyril was now Fuchs, a Nazi spy (likely reflecting Archer’s own view of Cyril) and so on. Oh, I should mention that this dream’s revamped version of Krieger was… a talking parrot named Crackers (as Archer said, “…don’t make a big thing out of it”).

(Left to right) Crackers (Lucky Yates) and Archer (H. Jon Benjamin from Archer: Danger Island

Unlike the more serious (and frankly less funny) Dreamland, Danger Island was colorful, over the top, and just plain fun. It was somewhat of a return to what the series used to be: never too serious, adventurous, and always willing to point out the insanity of what’s occurring. As we were nearing the end of the season, thoughts turned to what was Reed going to do next? Would he go back to the “real world” like so many fans desperately want? Or would he continue experimenting in this sandbox of endless possibilities? In the final seconds of the season finale, he showed us a glimpse of where the series was going to go next: space. Yes, space, the final frontier (I’m so sorry), and, once again, the series would change its art style to reflect its new setting.

Promotional poster for Archer: 1999

Inspired by the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien and what the 70s’ imagined the future to look like, the series took place in the far, far future of 1999. Archer: 1999 centered around the crew of the salvage ship Seamus, where Archer and Lana were co-captains (and former spouses). With Mallory being the ship’s A.I., Krieger as a synthetic android in the mold of Alien’s Ash, and Pam now a giant, rock-resembling alien, this was the series most drastic reinvention yet. Now in a completely different genre that allowed creatures and concepts that the original series couldn’t tackle, this season included gladiator pits, a nihilistic doomsday device, a giant space octopus, and Barry being a full-blown android.

(Left to right) Cyril (Chris Parnell), Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), Lana (Aisha Tyler), Krieger (Lucky Yates), Ray (Adam Reed), Pam (Amber Nash), Cheryl (Judy Greer)

Like those other ambitious seasons, 1999 wasn’t entirely successful. While it had outstanding episodes that managed to fully wring out the promise of its new environment with episodes “Happy Borthday”, “The Leftovers”, and “Mr. Deadly Goes to Town” (featuring the great Matt Berry as the previously mentioned nihilistic doomsday device), it felt like the series found itself in a new dilemma. It would give itself a new setting and roles for its characters but wouldn’t take advantage of the huge possibility it gave itself. But we didn’t learn.

Despite the show airing over 100 episodes and now being in its tenth season, we still didn’t trust it. We should have, because the last two episodes of the season, “Cubert” and “Robert De Niro”, threw a curveball at viewers. While it was sadly revealed at Comic-Con prior to the airing of its penultimate episode, Archer was finally starting to wake up. Memories and vision from his real life were crossing over and mixing with his dream world, and after a several minute long recap of the series we know (that also doubled as a goodbye for Reed, who wouldn’t return to its eleventh season as head writer) in the last minutes of its season finale, he woke up. Archer realizes that three years had passed since he was shot, with Mallory staying by his side during these years while everyone else left.

From what it looks like, Archer’s upcoming eleventh season will be its last. The series has seen declining ratings over the years (it’s frankly a surprise that it was given an eleventh season in the first place) and the premise of its eleventh season has a tone of finality to it, where Archer is dealing with the fact that everyone has moved on and that he’s no longer the center of attention nor physically capable of doing what he was once able to do. But if it does end up being the final season of this hilarious, bizarre, and profoundly filthy show, what a ride it was. The series made it to eleven, eleven, seasons while staying fresh, original, and most of all unexpected. Archer always knew when to try new things while always knowing exactly what it’s good at.

It’s crazy to re-watch the pilot now, having aired ten years today. The animation’s a bit flat, the body movements of its characters are stiff and rigid, and there is absolutely no hint of what this series would ultimately become. Earlier I asked what a comedy series should do to fight off repetition and staleness. The answer to that question is Adam Reed’s spy/crime/detective/adventure/sci-fi comedy series Archer.