The “why didn’t I think of that” moment is a rare pleasure on television. It’s Don Draper leaving Sterling Cooper to form Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It’s Hank Schrader putting the “W.W.” pieces together. And now it’s Sterling Archer becoming an unlicensed private investigator living in Los Angeles. It’s so brilliantly obvious, and it pays off remarkably well in Archer season seven.
For something like the eighth time in two years, Archer has rebooted itself. What began as a spy parody became Archer Vice in season five, where the former ISIS gang became drug dealers, and Archer Freelance in season six, which ended with Mallory Archer’s agency getting blacklisted by the CIA. It wasn’t that last season was bad, exactly, because Archer could run for 18 seasons, and it would still be one of the funniest shows on TV. It’s more, the jokes were growing a little stale. It was a catchphrase-filled, referential season, with “been there, done that” missions. Another hard reset was exactly what the show needed, and exactly what we got.
Archer P.I. — which is largely a stylistic reboot; the colors are warmer, and there’s a retro musical accompaniment to the act breaks — picks up a few months later. No one has any money, but they’re living in sunny California (hence the swimsuits) and working at the Figgis Agency, a name that inspires much bemoaning from Sterling. In theory, it should bring a less-dangerous stability to the lives of Sterling and Lana, who are raising a child together. Their first case, retrieving a stolen file for a famous actress, even invites chuckles from Mallory because of how easy it sounds. But in typical Archer fashion, things don’t go as planned in the first three episodes. There are explosions, and double-crosses, and mounds of corpses, and dogs sh*tting all over the walls, and the most extended Sterling’s voicemail joke yet (it has something to do with the aforementioned mounds of corpses).
The episodes work as standalones, but there is an intriguing arc to season seven, and it involves the cold open of tonight’s premiere. I won’t spoil anything, other than the LAPD detectives are voiced by J.K. Simmons and Keegan-Michael Key (the guest stars this season are fantastic; Patton Oswalt was born to play a short-tempered “Jewish lawyer” with an agenda).
Sterling Archer’s egotism should be exhausting by now, but it’s not. That’s partially due to H. Jon Benjamin’s excellent-as-ever performance, but it’s largely because the change in setting and scenario has allowed creator Adam Reed and the other writers to tell new jokes using what we already know about the old Sterling. It works for Cyril, who’s now the boss (in name only), too, and Lana; she can’t be as reckless as she once was, not with a child at home. There’s a sad lack of Pam and Cheryl in the early episodes (although they’re involved with one of my favorite gags — it involves swivel chairs), but Ray, with his bionic legs, really shines, as does the oft-boozy Mallory.
In episode two, Mallory tells Cyril that he’s been “given the opportunity of a lifetime” to reinvent himself. “You can be anyone you want,” she says, with more than a hint of Jessica Walters’ unmistakable dignified nastiness. “So why would you keep being you?” It’s a lesson Archer has taken to heart.
For more on Archer, here’s our interview with Adam Reed and Lucky Yates.