If re-inventing the formula of a hit show after four consistently brilliant seasons is a bold move, then going back to the old formula just one season later is insane. Thankfully, there seems to be method in showrunner Adam Reed’s madness; while the sixth season of Archer is not as consistently funny or emotionally satisfying as Archer Vice, it’s still everything we’ve come to expect from the world’s most awesome secret agent.
After failing to start a successful drug cartel and making a deal with the CIA, Sterling Archer (H Jon Benjamin) and co. return to their headquarters in New York to continue working as freelance spies. The offices are exactly the same, from the bloodstains on the carpets to the hint of bleach in the ice cubes in Mallory’s (Jessica Walter) drink – although the organisation’s old moniker has quietly died, like an unfortunately-named dog in an English stately home.
The team may be back in their old digs, but thankfully Reed keeps things fresh by continuing to shake up the “Get Smart meets The Office” formula. While it’s undeniably great to see Sterling put on a tactical turtleneck and do some serious spying again, we also get a mini-mountaineering thriller, awkward encounters with relatives and in-laws, and even a spoof of The Fantastic Voyage, complete with awful white scuba suits.
Archer’s anachronistic aesthetic has always helped it stand out from other animated shows on TV, but this season the production values are even more impressive. There’s a visual flair to the action sequences that wasn’t there previously, and characters’ faces look much more expressive too. Ironically, though, the highlight of the season is what might be called the “bottle episode”, which sees the cast stuck in an elevator riffing off each other for 20 straight minutes.
Being back in such familiar surroundings also brings home just how much the characters have changed. Archer and Lana’s (Aisha Tyler) struggles with parenthood and their feelings for each other are genuinely satisfying to watch, Pam (Amber Nash) and Cheryl (Judy Greer) are more depraved than ever, and – perhaps most interestingly – Cyril (Chris Parnell) has transformed into a sort of Machiavellian Milhouse.
Unfortunately, like those old bloodstains on the carpet, some of the jokes are starting to look a little faded. Yes, “phrasing” will be funny until the end of time, and the show’s habit of cutting between scenes and conversations at key points still yields fantastic results. On the other hand, there are whole episodes centred around characters whose presence seems to serve no purpose besides referencing earlier seasons.
And yet Archer is still worth coming back to because, underneath the running gags and the wacky art style, it’s populated by people you have genuinely come to care about. With the possible exception of BoJack Horseman, they might just be the most three-dimensional 2D characters on TV. The two-part finale promises that the show will be striking out in yet another new direction come Season 7. Wherever it ends up, the odds are good that it’ll be a joy to watch.
Archer: Season 6 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.