More than any other animated series on television, and with the possible exception of H. Jon Benjamin’s other gig, Bob’s Burgers, Archer has rooted its comedy in sharply defined characters whose outsized behaviors are based in recognizable desires, ambitions, and neuroses. Season five, which jettisoned the spycraft missions of the first four seasons, was creatively thrilling in its repudiation of formula, but its success was tempered by occasionally ramshackle plotting; at any given moment, the series felt like it could fly off the rails. Season six’s re-establishment of the agency formerly known as ISIS (in a “renovated” office that’s exactly the same as the old one, right down to the bloodstains and squeaky drawers) brings the series back to its tried-and-true format, and while that immediately lends the proceedings a more clear-cut sense of purpose and confidence, it at times gets bogged down by a sense of sameness.
Archer’s weakest episodes tend to simply rehash the same character beats, and season opener “The Holdout,” which strands Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) in the jungles of Japan as he grapples with the existential angst of becoming a father, is no exception. In delaying the titular spy’s inevitable return to the agency, it both isolates Archer from the rest of the outfit and mines the same emotional terrain as season three’s “Heart of Archness” trilogy—but with less success.
Archer’s egotism can be a rich vein for comedy, but as a rule, the series works best when its ensemble is given the chance to play off each other. That’s why “Vision Quest,” which finds the characters trapped together in an elevator, stands as a series highlight. The animated equivalent of a bottle episode, it succeeds by placing the group in close quarters and letting their idiosyncrasies escalate as the situation becomes increasingly dire. By the time Archer is threatening to use Cyril’s (Chris Parnell) sweater vest to wipe up the urine Pam (Amber Nash) has tried but failed to keep contained in the bottle of a 40 she downed moments earlier, the episode has reached a chaotic nirvana.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the best episode of the season’s first half also eschews the show’s trademark spycraft trappings. The missions that compose the other episodes, deftly plotted as they are, never quite escape the feeling of routine that began to creep in during season four. What does enliven the season is the introduction of AJ, the child whom Archer unwittingly fathered (by way of a sperm sample) and Lana (Aisha Tyler) gave birth to at the end of last season. A baby, of course, is the most well-worn of sitcom clichés, but Archer has a talent for repurposing the hoariest tropes. Casting Archer and Lana as new parents has helped invigorate the dynamic between them, which, after nearly five years of stasis, had threatened to become stagnant. Likewise, it’s added a palpable urgency to their missions, with the pair at least somewhat cognizant of the responsibility parenthood has thrust on them. Even as the series begins to show its age, Archer’s commitment to character ensures that these episodes never feel too familiar.