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Archer used to be one of TV’s best shows. What happened?

The sixth season premiere of Archer features Sterling Archer meeting a Japanese soldier who believes World War II never ended.
The sixth season premiere of Archer features Sterling Archer meeting a Japanese soldier who believes World War II never ended.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Archer launched its sixth season on FX last night with an episode about a Japanese soldier still fighting World War II and a once-destroyed office that was reconstructed exactly as it had been.

Along the way, there were plenty of meta jokes about everything getting back to normal, after the partial reboot of the show's premise in season five. (Long a show about spies, the fifth, highly serialized season was about former spies trying to sell off a massive haul of cocaine.) But it was the former plotline that resonated more. Archer just feels tired of fighting old battles now; it's not hard to blame it.

Archer is still a reliably funny show, with great gags and moments in every episode. But it's also a comedy in its sixth season, when it's not uncommon for shows to lose a step, and it's a show coming off of a season that proved hugely divisive within its fanbase. (I loved it, even if I didn't think everything about it worked.) What's more, this is the first season of a two-season order, and such things have a long history of feeling sort of safe and unexciting. There's nothing like knowing for sure that another season is coming to kill off innovation.

I don't want to suggest Archer has completely lost its way. But this was by far one of my favorite shows on TV in its second and third seasons, and I loved the raw ambition of season five. And now, it feels a touch sluggish in the season six episodes I've seen (six, so far).

Here are my best guesses as to why.

1) The characters are stuck

That Japanese soldier feels, in some ways, representative of everybody on the show at this point. Archer used to be my go-to for a show that was primarily about jokes, but also boasted seriously great character development. Normally, putting "character first" in comedy means injecting some more pathos-ridden, dramatic moments. (Think The Office or Cheers.) But Archer was proof that the characters could be utterly insane, but still capable of surprising depth.

With every season, creator Adam Reed (who has also written the vast majority of the show's episodes) gave these characters new facets. He filled in more and more of their back-stories. He turned one-gag characters — like mad scientist Krieger — into figures you understood the motivations of, even as you were cracking up at them. He incorporated elements of spy stories and sci-fi in them, but he never let those elements take over. And they all felt like they were going somewhere, even if that somewhere was straight to Hell.

In the show's fourth season and the first bit of season six, however, Reed seems uncertain how to proceed. He can't keep introducing new, weird facts about the characters, because the time for that is over. (This sort of exposition is usually best confined to the first couple of seasons.) And characters' story arcs feel frozen, consequently. Super-competent agent Lana, for instance, has a baby now (and Archer's the father, no less), but it's never been precisely clear what the show is doing with this plot point, even now that the kid is on screen. (It's not a coincidence that the season's best episode so far is its fourth, which gives us more of one prominent character's back-story.)

2) So are the relationships

Going hand in hand with Archer's heavy focus on character has been the necessary corollary that it has some of the best-defined relationships on television. At the center of the show are the relationships between Archer and his mother/boss Malory and the relationship between ex-lovers Archer and Lana. Both of these core relationships have changed and evolved over the course of the show, revealing more of their depths of hideous, hilarious co-dependency.

But the show also excelled at creating relationships where literally any pairing of characters would be different from any other. A scene between nebbishy accountant Cyril and suave, gay secret agent Ray would be hugely different from one between sadomasochistic secretary Cheryl and bounteously joyful HR rep Pam. The show's deep bench of characters and character pairings proved its secret weapon.

But over time, it's become all the more apparent that the show has been reluctant to advance or deepen these relationships too much. Malory and Archer may have a strained sort of familial love, but if they ever express that outright, the show might crumble. The same goes for the obvious attraction between Archer and Lana (even though they, again, have a kid together now). The series struggles to find new ways to push the relationships forward and, instead, keeps returning to the same rapidly depleting wells.

3) The humor simply feels a little too cruel now

Early in the season premiere, Pam and the other characters are ascending in an elevator toward the headquarters of the spy agency they work for. (Formerly called ISIS, the story fortuitously allowed for the characters to simply drop the name and start contracting for the CIA, long before ISIS came to mean something else entirely in the news.) Pam, overweight, bounces up and down in the elevator, and the framing of the shot underlines this to show how much she's jostling the space around. It's a slightly crueler gag than the show would have gone in for before.

Archer has always been a show about people who are casual jerks to each other. That's part of its appeal — it takes place in a workplace where everybody really says what they mean. But underneath all of that, it was obvious that Reed bore an immense affection for all of these absolute assholes, even if he didn't always show it. The Pam gag is actually one of the less egregious examples in the early going of season six of Reed appearing to lose interest in (or patience with) this band of characters.

4) It's always hard to un-reboot

Like it or hate it, season five was an attempt to do something enormously different with the series and its universe. It too often fell back into the series' worst habits and found itself occasionally trapped by its labyrinthine plotting. But at its best, it was an attempt to see what would happen if these characters were placed in a new context, and it explored those questions in fine form.

For a short while, Reed and his collaborators apparently discussed setting this season in prison, but quickly abandoned that idea. And in season six, they've instead headed directly back to the premise from the show's first four seasons, with all of the attendant snark about how lazy that is.

But here's the thing — even if you point out how lazy something is, that doesn't make it somehow not lazy. Returning so quickly to missions of the week balanced with office subplots feels like the show desperately trying to shove itself back into the format that made the first four seasons so popular, after fan outcry about the different makeup of season five.

The problem is that lots of shows have tried altering the status quo before, only to find how much harder that makes writing episodes. Think, on a smaller scale, of all of the shows that have coupled up characters, only to realize how hard it is to keep the stories coming from such a scenario, then abruptly broken those relationships off. There's a reason this is often seen as a moment when a show jumps the shark — it's hard to change something, then abruptly unchange it and hope nobody noticed, just to get back to the status quo.

That's the space Archer finds itself in, only on the level of the whole show. The problem is that this was a show that burned through most of its natural story in the first three seasons, but then became a minor hit. As such, it's going to keep running for at least a few more years. It's made of sturdy enough stuff and Reed is a good enough writer to keep it funny and engaging for a few more years, at least.

But at one time, Archer was so much more than "just" funny and engaging. It used to be one of the best, most daring shows on TV. Yeah, it probably couldn't have kept that up forever, but it still hurts to see it slip.

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