Drastically altering the formula of a popular television show that’s already had four great seasons feels like a fool’s errand. Not only is there the genuine argument that if it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it; there’s a very real chance that the changes you do make might make it jump the shark altogether.
Still, it’s only by taking the biggest risks that you get the biggest rewards, and by rebranding itself as Archer: Vice, the fifth season of the hit spy pastiche has turned out to be one of the funniest and cleverest so far.
Starting with a literal (and very loud) bang, Vice sees renowned spy Sterling Archer (H Jon Benjamin) and the other members of freelance espionage group ISIS arrested by the FBI. Turns out, they were never actually sanctioned by the US government: a rather elegant solution to the problem of exactly who was letting ISIS get away with the stunts they’ve been pulling for four seasons. Left without jobs, the team is eventually saved by Archer, who reveals a (literal, not figurative) metric tonne of cocaine hidden in the walls of the office and suggests that the group form a drug cartel. As you do.
Making the entire season revolve around this one storyline, as opposed to the “new week, new mission” formula the show has stuck to in the past, turns out to be creator Adam Reed’s genius move. Not only does it take the action away from a formula that may have grown stale – we were about done with the KGB, in all honesty – but it also gives the programme a lot more grounding. Not that Archer ever comes close to reality: its trademark wonderful jumble of anachronistic technology and pop culture references means realism might as well be a dirty word. But by at least managing to avoid any huge, epic adventures in space or at the bottom of the ocean, the series has been able to give some genuine development to its colourful cast of characters.
Lana Kane’s (Aisha Tyler) pregnancy, revealed at the end of Season 4, does a wonderful job of giving her straight woman character an extra level of depth as she prepares for the challenge of motherhood, while also providing some of the most genuinely touching moments in Archer’s history. And, freed from the constraints of working for “the good guys”, supporting characters Pam (Amber Nash) and Cheryl (Judy Greer) get to be the depraved and despicable people we always knew they were. The former’s newfound drug addiction (quelle surprise) goes from a predictable joke to genuinely dark, while the latter’s attempts to become, of all things, a country singer, manages to be a surprisingly funny B-story.
Add in new supporting roles from the likes of Bob’s Burgers veteran Gary Cole and Christian Slater – and even a cameo from a certain musician that’s been a long time coming – and the result is one of the best casts you’ll find on television right now.
But despite the obvious effort that’s been made to shake things up, Vice never loses sight of precisely what made Archer so damn funny in the first place. Minor characters from the show’s rich history are brought back into the fold in surprising and inventive ways, and the show’s snarky and irreverent tone has remained mercifully intact. It even makes jokes about the jokes it doesn’t make anymore.
And at the centre of it all is Sterling Archer, debauched and debonair as ever. H Jon Benjamin’s deadpan vocal performance remains the best thing about Archer – his verbal sparring with his mother Malory (Arrested Development’s wonderful Jessica Walter) has never been more pointed – and Benjamin himself has surely earned a place alongside Seth MacFarlane as one of the dominating forces in animation today.
After joking about it for years, Sterling Archer has finally stepped into the Danger Zone, but the move has paid huge dividends. By stepping out of its comfort zone, Archer: Vice puts a new spark of life into a show that had the stuff in spades to begin with.