The first half of the sublime second season of Archer shows a great deal of refinement from the already exemplary comedic blitzkrieg of the first season. Starting with season-opener “Swiss Miss,” which sees Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), and the rest of the ISIS team heading to Sweden to secure an investor and protect the investor’s nymphet daughter, there’s an immediate sense of newfound confidence in not only the performers, but, perhaps even more so, in Adam Reed’s writing and direction. The wordplay is snappier, the jokes are more bold, and, at moments, even more esoteric, and the episodes spin into even more demented and ludicrous plots and backstories than even the gleefully absurd first season.
In “Pipeline Fever,” for instance, we get a taste of the origins of Sterling’s long-suffering, quasi-clear-headed love interest and fellow field agent, Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), as an afro-sporting leftist under the tutelage of her professor and lover, an environmental radical who’s now threatening to sabotage a corporation’s oil pipeline. “The Double Deuce” deals almost entirely with the salad days of Archer’s beleaguered butler, Woodhouse (George Coe), as a soldier during the Great War, who was deeply in love with his ward, fighter-pilot hero Reggie. And in the explosively funny “El Sequestro,” we not only get a key into the madness of Malory’s secretary, Cheryl (the invaluable Judy Greer), but also get a taste of the fury boiling under the equally batty Pam (Amber Nash), a character that Reed lends a great deal more nuance to in this season as compared to the first.
Had season two simply shown growth in terms of character and writing, it would have quickly secured Archer as the funniest series currently on television, and with help from Justified and Louie, pushed FX to the forefront of cable programming. Then, suddenly, the one-two punch of “Stage Two” and “Placebo Effect” hit, and Archer seemed not only to be the funniest series on the air, but one of the few truly fearless series to be currently thriving on cable. Spurred by Malory’s cancer scare, the two-episode arc actually follows Sterling’s battle with breast cancer, from his diagnosis to his failed removal surgery to his raucous chemotherapy adventure. With an unwavering sense of his characters, Reed approaches this normally invariably weepie subject matter with a thankful, near-miraculous lack of soft, saccharine emoting and a rare dedication to following a character (and comedy) into the abyss; what if facing death didn’t perceivably change who you were in the slightest?
The season is capped by the less bold though no less hilarious two-episode arc of “White Nights” and “Double Trouble,” which features Sterling’s most audacious attempt to secure the identity of his father, but ultimately is about his brief but intense romance with Katya (Ona Grauer), a KGB agent who saves him from a hit squad. Katya is later eliminated by Sterling’s nemesis, Barry (Dave Willis), who has been transformed into a KGB-engineered cyborg, and here we return to the paramount emotional element of Archer: loss. The essential loss and absence of a father figure in Sterling’s formative years is mirrored in Malory’s highly protected fear of losing him, a manic fear that leads her into the pitch-black corners of the mind. And as much as Sterling is attempting to fill a parental void while denying he needs anyone, Malory is attempting to repair the damage she’s done to him without admitting that she actually cares.
These barriers are broken at crucial times, but though it veers toward a lunatic sweetness at moments, the last thing you could accuse Archer of being is sentimental. The violence is still unmerciful (a man is burned to death in “Swiss Miss,” Woodhouse enacts a vengeful slaughter in “The Double Deuce”) and the office politics are still dead-on (check the viral-video send-up in “Tragical History” and the celebrity gossip/worship in “Movie Star”), but the boundaries that might have fenced a first-season series in have now been moved so far out of reach that nothing less than a move to a pay channel could allow for a more ferocious and bleak sense of humor. If the series does slightly shortchange essential stalwarts like Chris Parnell’s Cyril and Lucky Yates’s Krieger, and gives characters like Reed’s own Gillette a little more room to play, in its leap into canonical comedy, it does so only in the assurance that every one of Reed’s characters will have all their demons brought into the daylight at some point to be at once mocked and looked upon in horrified awe.
Like Fox's Blu-ray transfer of Archer's first season, the visual treatment here is generally jaw-dropping, especially considering the boldness of the colors and the overall clarity and texture of the series. The second season gets a higher grade than the first, however, due to the fact that the second season has a lot more going on in terms of design and yet there isn't a single negligible problem with the transfer, whereas the first season suffered ever so slightly from aliasing. Similarly, there's a newfound ambitiousness in the sound design; the series sounds busier, but maintains a robust clarity. The dialogue is zippier but clearly and crisply out front, whereas the sound design backs it up with an excellent low-end mix of sound effects and music, which varies from spy-theme variations to staple jazz numbers to the occasional piano ditty.
This is an overall poor showing, only given slight interest by the "ISIS Infiltrates Comic-Con" featurette, in which the cast fields some questions from the Comic-Con audience. The rest of the extras can be classified as enjoyable throwaways that would never warrant re-watching, including two shorts and an "Ask Archer" segment. An animated shout-out to soldiers serving in Afghanistan is also included.
Archer's second season finds not only a brazen confidence and an unwavering focus on character, but a rare comedic fearlessness in Adam Reed's excellent animated series, afforded a stellar visual/audio transfer from Fox.