Archer is back again, classic characters and quirks in tow—but not necessarily running on the self-confidence of a veteran seven seasons deep. “I’m more nervous now than ever,” says creator Adam Reed, a perpetual pessimist. “It’s stressful as hell, every season, where it’s like, Oh my God, is anybody gonna come to this party? We bought all this food.” Reed’s referring to this year’s reset: a move to Los Angeles, which, for the show and its talent, entailed a new wardrobe, setting, and job.
Last week’s season premiere introduced FX’s band of super-spy assholes to Cyril Figgis’s very own private investigation biz (because of local technicalities explained in the episode, he’s the only one qualified to run such an operation, and the rest of his coworkers no longer tout sparkling résumés for espionage or government freelance work). The crew’s first job charged Ray, Lana, and Archer with retrieving a Hollywood actress’s compromising computer disk. Along the way were instances of fan-favorite wordplay, burns, pop-culture references, and action. In a lot of ways, it felt like a traditional Archer episode, but the exposition-heavy intro reinforced the conceit of Reed’s brand-new season-long arc.
“The Figgis Agency” marks a development most everybody in the show loathes, especially beneath its CEO, but it’s one Reed hopes fans find more fun than distracting. After all, the change avoids the surreality of Vice, a bigger overhaul that exchanged the spy agency f.k.a. ISIS for thirteen episodes focused on cocaine deals, drug cartels, and country music (God bless Cherlene). The West Coast shift registers more low-key, and, as Archer and Krieger exemplify, the gumshoeing here still reads more James Bond than Sherlock Holmes.
Reed can’t pinpoint why exactly he chose to set this season in Los Angeles, but it’s the perfect excuse to play with the private-eye shows of his youth: Magnum, P.I.; The Rockford Files; and Simon & Simon—all of which took advantage of sunny locales (and all of which might pop up in the form of typical Archer winks). The new destination also fits nicely within Reed’s ideas for season eight, which he can’t talk about but can tease amid the backdrop of more private investigating. (So there.)
It’ll all be in an L.A. Angelenos will half recognize and fully enjoy laughing at. “Did you watch Mad Men?” asks Amber Nash, the voice of Pam. “Remember when they all go to L.A. because they have an office out there and L.A.’s so ridiculous-looking? It’ll be exactly what everybody that’s never been to L.A. thinks it’s like.” (If you need proof of this fact, refer to the show’s Los Angeles-themed promos below.) Because the show is notoriously anachronistic, that means you might see a car from the ’70s, a dress from the ’60s, and a cell phone. By extension, you might notice Robert Evans-types, Norma Desmonds, and oblique references to old Hollywood. Don’t expect faithful nods to local history—except for “not-great” policemen—but do expect recognizable roadways, like Mulholland Drive and PCH: “L.A. is so great for car chases,” Reed says. “All those alleys and being able to slam into trash cans—it’s just made for car chases.” Perfect, then, that Reed has given Sterling Archer the Magnum, P.I. Ferrari 308.
To hear the cast talk about Reed is to listen to people describing something like the IRL incarnation of Mandark, a diabolical genius with an inventive master plan. “I trust Adam’s vision for the show—he writes every episode himself, and he has to entertain himself,” says Aisha Tyler, who voices Lana. “That’s what you’re seeing with Archer, Adam Reed entertaining himself. He has this sensational comedic taste, so if he’s amused, the rest of us will be as well.” Reed’s past self-entertaining has yielded updates as superficial as Ray losing most of his limbs and as deep as Archer and Lana grappling with newfound mortality as parents. But he’s the kind of guy who discusses his series’ growth with humility: “It seems that unintentionally all these characters are slowly maturing, and it’s absolutely unplanned. I don’t know why it’s been happening as the writing moves forward, that they’re like Wizard of Oz characters: Archer’s getting a heart, Pam’s getting a brain.”
A New York Times review of Archer’s seventh iteration likened his show’s staying power to that of other cartoon immortals, like South Park and The Simpsons. “The [private-eye] work is different, but personality-wise, Archer and his comrades are much the same,” Neil Genzlinger wrote. “At least at first. The show seems to be giving itself license to explore.” If the show is anything like South Park, though, it’s like the South Park of late, the one that’s not scared to experiment with a season-long arc while still staying true to its DNA. These are shows whose evolutions—whether intentional or not, big or small—have contributed to their survivals, not just as cult hits, but as bonafide hits. Unlike other series—Agent Carter, say—in which a West Coast setting became a character in itself, Archer uses the switch as a device rather than a crutch. “I think reinvention for [Reed] is just about pushing himself to keep up the standard, or his standard, so [the show] doesn’t get lazy,” says H. Jon Benjamin, the voice of Archer. “The season-arc stuff is a way to do that really well.”
As Nash and Tyler underline, the reinvention is more subtle this time ‘round, so it will produce a mix of Archer stylings new and old. Despite the coastal swap, viewers should still look for their favorite characters: Slater and Barry, for starters. A Woodhouse narrative that was supposed to make it in last season will show up in season eight, Reed promises (he’s been hanging onto it because he wants to execute it well). Joining the series will be the likes of Patton Oswalt, Jon Glaser, Jon Daly, Keegan-Michael Key, and J.K. Simmons—“we don’t get a lot of Oscar winners on Archer,” Reed says, “but we do now.” And Pam will be more in the mix this year (with a new catch phrase).
The other aspect of the show’s reinventions that makes them palatable is they’re not sticky; the characters essentially just need new things to react to and to interact with. As Reed cautions: The more Archer changes, the more its function stays the same. No matter what happens in the show—as far as limbs, babies, jobs, locations—it’s still some type of office comedy at heart, with a primary focus on the characters’ relationships and a tertiary or quaternary look at the spycraft. If Benjamin were to evaluate the protagonist, for example, he’d mark him 96 percent self-involved when the show began, and about 83 percent now. Sure, baby A.J. has forced Archer and Lana to deal with responsibility and compassion for the first time. But it’s maturation at a glacial pace, and it’s counterbalanced by the regression of other characters in the show. At the end of the day, as Tyler puts it, “The inmates are still running the asylum.”
Archer airs Thursdays at 10 p.m., on FX.