When “Fugue and Riffs,” the premiere episode of Archer’s fourth season, opens with a logical yet no less ingenious crossover with Bob’s Burgers, which also features H. Jon Benjamin’s highly sought-after pipes, and a sly homage to A History of Violence, any possible trepidation that one of the smartest and funniest animated shows on television might be losing its superlative wit goes straight out the window. It’s a relief that FX’s indomitable series can be consistently relied on to bring clever plotting, masterful quips, and nearly unparalleled jocular back and forth between its exceptional cast to the table. As with many developing comedic ensembles, from the frequently heartwarming Land of Ooo denizens on Adventure Time to the more emotionally bitter frenemies of The Venture Bros., it’s the evolving narrative mythologies and the relationships of the central characters that breathe life into every aspect of the production, and the heaps of deep-rooted in-jokes and visual drollery that Archer has been incrementally constructing since 2009 are what amplifies the effectiveness of its piquant humor.
An episode like “Fugue and Riffs” serves as both an immediately accessible introduction to the series as well as a monumental payout for those who’ve been following the various amoral escapades of Sterling Archer and his fellow maladjusted ISIS agents from the beginning. For reasoning periodically divulged over the course of the narrative, Archer’s long-term memory has been temporarily replaced with that of an individual all too similar to the titular fry cook from Bob’s Burgers (seeing the Belcher clan—Linda, Tina, Gene, and Louise—fully rendered in Archer’s more realistic-looking aesthetic is a treat). As members of the rouge Russian military track down Archer, who’s obviously unaware of his former existence as a spy, his categorically unfit yet determined co-workers seek to alleviate his amnesia by staging a fake reconnaissance plot that, coincidentally, involves the KGB. As the operations (preposterously set at an upscale spa resort) go utterly haywire in true Archer fashion, many of the inside wisecracks and damaged-relationship histories are reintroduced via a brisk crash course in the show’s mythos. The offbeat sexual tension between Archer and partner Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), his scarred upbringing by his controlling mother, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), and the general field-level incompetence of comptroller Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) is simultaneously reintroduced and more exhaustively explored to the point of chronic self-deprecation. When Archer finally does recall his actual identity, the recycled yet no less perfectly timed sight gag that sparks it is both a nod to a classic Flintstones storyline and, quite frankly, the only possible way the constantly pop-culture-referencing Archer would accept that he was in a fugue state to begin with.
Archer’s idiosyncratic fears seem to play a much larger role in season four, and the series is at its most compulsively watchable when it delves further into the demoralizing peculiarities of its primary protagonist. The excellent “The Wind Cries Mary” (a cutting reference to the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic rock staple) pushes Archer’s systematically unchecked homophobia to its limits, as his bromance with an ex-ISIS operative and former BFF voiced by Justified star Timothy Olyphant takes a turn for the disturbing in the snowy wilderness of Vermont. “Legs” examines Archer’s intense paranoia at the thought of a cyborg apocalypse when the fetish-prone Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) aims to rebuild paraplegic intelligence analyst Ray Gillette’s (Adam Reed) lower limbs. Archer’s daddy issues are earnestly reexamined in “Midnight Ron,” a batshit-crazy parody of Martin Best’s 1988 crime caper Midnight Run starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin that has Archer awkwardly bonding with Malory’s new husband (voiced by Jessica Walter’s real-life spouse Ron Leibman).
As off-the-wall and nonconforming as these episodes are, they still manage to elicit a bizarre humanity from Archer’s harshly naïve views on the world. As much of a thoroughbred asshole as Archer is, his overtly trying-too-hard-to-be-masculine exterior is often ceremoniously shed in times of intense desperation brought on only by his own foolish actions and shortcomings. Archer is a wonder in that its most fiercely flawed characters are its inextinguishable heroes, and their stylized comeuppance arrives in ways that are perpetually unpredictable and altogether resonant within the show’s singular, emotionally unhinged universe.