What good are spies if they're not allowed to spy anymore?
This is the question driving the seventh season of Archer, FX's animated spy comedy that flirts with disaster, pithy banter, and absurdist twists on a weekly basis.
While most of the series' previous seasons followed high-risk, inevitably catastrophic spy missions, the seventh season (which returns on March 31) picks up with Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and his cohorts banned from spy work after bungling a partnership with the CIA. And that mistake only happened after messing up countless times while running their own agency for an assortment of shadowy benefactors, not to mention a brief and reckless detour into light drug dealing, in a Miami Vice–inspired set of adventures.
It's a long story.
But in the four episodes screened for critics, Archer's seventh season is one of its most ambitious yet — and not because of any particularly intense missions. Instead, the show has moved its cast to Los Angeles and transformed the former spies into private investigators, in a Magnum P.I.–inspired set of adventures.
To exactly no one's surprise, they're not so good at letting go of all the high-tech gadgets and international conspiracies that defined their former lives.
Here's what you can expect from Archer's seventh season, with bonus insights from creator Adam Reed and executive producer Matt Thompson.
Archer's move to Los Angeles makes everyone reevaluate their place
Besides that outlier fifth season, Archer's been based out of a New York that's neither of our time nor of any other. They wore '60s-era suits and dresses; the main enemies were the KGB; and the characters had cellphones and the internet, but their computers were Working Girl–era basic.
The seventh season, however, catapults the cast across the country to Los Angeles, where their spy skills are put to the test to satisfy the demands of Hollywood's elite.
The CIA has blacklisted the team. They've got no resources. When they get beat up, they stay beat up. Cyril (Chris Parnell) — Archer's resident frustrated and often emasculated accountant — has become the de facto boss, since he's the only one with a law degree and ergo the only one who can legally own a private investigation firm.
Said Thompson in delight, "Oh, he's going to lord this thing over everyone. Like his giant penis." (As the show has previously established, Cyril does at least have that to brag about.)
Meanwhile, Archer's perpetually disdainful mother, Malory (the indomitable Jessica Walter), can't rely on a firm of spies and infinite resources to break her out of tough spots anymore, and so has to swallow her pride and help herself.
As we are quickly reminded in an impressive sequence, Malory used to be quite the spy before she settled into swilling gin behind a desk. "[I have] a drawer full of scripts where the B- or A-story is flashbacks to Malory blowing up bridges in World War II or whatever," Reed told me. "Definitely a long and checkered career."
So, hey, if season eight turns out to be the Malory Archer show, you won't hear me complaining.
More importantly: Shifting Archer's focus from international spy games to local PI work opens up a whole new world of possibilities
For Reed, moving to Los Angeles and away from international spy work also made it easier to write a comedy without bumping up against real-life disasters — like how he decided to ditch the name of Archer's spy agency for those first four seasons, which just so happened to be "ISIS."
"As a writer, [a shift provided] a little bit of escapism from the spy stuff and geopolitical ramifications," Reed told me. "When we started writing Archer, things were a bit more calm in the world. ... As things have started to go to shit, there are fewer and fewer things I feel like joking around about."
And so throwing Archer, his off-again, on-again partner Lana (Aisha Tyler), and the rest of the characters into private investigating felt like a way to keep them active and in the field without bringing down entire countries, as they've done in the past.
There are still plenty of weirdo twists and guest appearances to keep Archer fans satisfied. For instance, season seven welcomes a new slate of talent. Patton Oswalt will recur as a millionaire whose temper tantrums tend toward the deadly, while Keegan-Michael Key and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons show up in the first episode as a pair of mismatched cops.
According to Thompson, the two — who also recorded their parts together, where most Archer actors record their voice tracks separately — will be popping up throughout the season to investigate an ongoing murder case.
Thus, much of Archer's traditionally absurdist ethos is still around in season seven. Archer and Lana still bicker on the job by trading escalating pop culture references, and Archer's nemesis Barry returns in all his cyborg glory to wreak unholy havoc, as he is wont to do.
But even indulging in some tried-and-true Archer traditions doesn't take away from the fact that season seven feels like a real evolution for its characters — because they're being forced to evolve.
Everyone on Archer has had nine lives and then some. In season seven, they come crashing down to earth — and they hate it.
In the beginning, Archer was a parody of James Bond, that relentlessly smooth secret agent who rolls out of bed in a crisp button-down with a half-naked lady on one arm and a stiff drink in the other.
But as the show has gone on, it's revealed more than a few chinks in Archer's armor and made him — much to his own horror — much more of a human being. He and Lana even have a kid now, which would have been unthinkable back in the first season, when they were spitting venom at each other and/or shooting each other in the foot to cut off an insult.
Season seven is by far the most personal of the Archer seasons — or at least the one that most knocks its usually outsize characters back down to earth.
As everyone grapples with their new positions, Archer even starts to come to terms with what it means to kill people — something we've seen him do dozens upon dozens of times in previous seasons.
The third episode of this new season ("Deadly Prep") is maybe the best example of how much Archer is actually dealing with issues that previously would have been played off as jokes.
From the description — "A prep school reunion leads to an interesting business opportunity for Archer" — it would be easy to assume the episode would feature some classic Archer debauchery and raunch. Instead, the show made Archer struggle to face his childhood bully, who had put him through some real traumatic shit that's apparently haunted him all his life, secret agent or no.
"The germ there was, what would you do if your nuclear-level bully from childhood gave you the power of life or death?" Reed explained. "To me, that was an interesting experiment. How would I react to that? How would normal people react to that? And then how would Archer react to that?"
And even though Reed himself was surprised at how dark the prep school story became as he wrote it, there's a reason Archer allowing himself some real human reactions came naturally to the story.
"What separates us from other cartoons is that we do change," Thompson told me. "Relationships change. People come and go. People die. Our clothes change, and our settings change. ... As the show's gotten older, we've expanded our universe."
Plus, Archer has simply never looked better
The ongoing story goes a long way toward expanding Archer's universe — but so does the overall look of the show, which has dramatically improved since day one.
When I recapped the sixth season of Archer over at the A.V. Club, I took note of an episode that buried Archer, Lana, and Ray underneath a devastating avalanche. The animation was, quite simply, leagues beyond where the series had been to that point.
"One of our animators made a side-by-side reel of season one of Archer and similar things in season six," said Reed, "and it looks like two totally different television shows."
Archer's increasingly ambitious animation has carried over in a way that makes just about every scene pop off the screen in season seven. As per Thompson, the show has used the move to LA as a reason to move away from its usual late-1960s aesthetic into the early '70s, which you can see even in the more free-flowing clothes on the cast. In the premiere, a stunning set of shots light up the literal glass house Oswalt's character lives in, with the Los Angeles skyline glowing in the distance.
And while Thompson pointed to this season's ability to better animate "hand-to-hand" fights — including a tricky slo-mo sequence coming later this season — even a seemingly simple set piece requires a new level of attention.
In one season seven episode, the office calls Archer as he's on one of his murderous "rampages," but they think it's just another one of his prank voicemail gags, where his recording tries to pretend like he picked up the phone in order to fake out a caller. (Bonus voicemail gag trivia: While we've heard Archer's voicemail go on and on, we've rarely heard the full version Benjamin actually recorded. According to Reed, Benjamin has even done a full 15 minutes of voicemail gag material without stopping.)
As the horrific sounds of Archer's fistfight ring out through the phone speaker, his co-workers sit and wait it out, s-l-o-w-l-y spinning around idly in their chairs — a motion that's deceptively difficult to do on a cartoon.
"That's one of those jokes that ends up being wildly expensive to animate," Reed said. "Probably as much as a car chase, [since] you have to draw basically 360 [degrees] of those people."
But even more than just rounding out its jokes, Archer's eye for detail and willingness to change is what sets it apart from most cartoons.
"It's the worst business decision Adam and I have ever made in our lives to say, 'Hey, let's keep changing the looks of these cartoon characters!'" Thompson said with a laugh. "The No. 1 problem we have in animating this show is continuity. We pay so much attention to it. Because our show changes ... that's really at the heart of us never wanting to be stagnant, never wanting to say, 'This is what works. Let's just keep doing this.'"
And more than anything, season seven is defined by that pushback against falling into patterns. Everyone might seem the same as when we last saw them — but they won't be for long.
Archer airs Thursdays on FX at 10 pm Eastern. Previous seasons are available on Hulu and Netflix.