Archer’s implicit ability to be at once categorically preposterous and occasionally brilliant has become its calling card. Taken strictly at surface value (i.e. its less-than-big-budget animation techniques), it’s an extremely silly show that consistently reveals itself as surprisingly mature via the thoughtfulness and expertise infused throughout all of its other production aspects. No one else crafts comedic dialogue quite like series creator Adam Reed, whose scripts are filled to the brim with lightning-quick, turn-away-and-you’ll-miss-it references that aren’t just for flashy know-it-all pop-culture showboating; they actually manage to accomplish compelling character-building and fuel the narratives. It also doesn’t hurt that Archer boasts one of the most well-assembled casts on television, animated or otherwise; the group’s undeniable chemistry is nothing short of miraculous. Though the show doesn’t reinvent itself in its third season, offering more of the same compacted outlandishness, the familiarity is very much welcomed.
Archer is at its most watchable when it successfully places its spy-world mockery motif in the background, substituting action-heavy set pieces for gut-punching, enterprising wordplay. The show’s best episodes typically revolve around events that take place within a confined space, with ISIS’s agents set loose on each other in a manner that hastily, comically strips away any of their snide emotional armor. Which is why the season premiere, “The Man from Jupiter,” falters. Archer isn’t an action-packed show, nor should it ever be. The latter half of the episode ditches the entertaining repartee and false idol-worshiping between a star-struck Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and Burt Reynolds (voiced by Reynolds himself) in favor of a drawn-out car chase involving an inexplicably vengeful Cuban cartel. Why the Cubans are after Archer is explained in the span of about a second, with the remainder of the episode bouncing between uninspired jokes about Reynolds banging Archer’s mother and random, aimless shootouts.
Thankfully, once Reynolds (whose performance isn’t half bad, simply misguided) is out of the picture, Archer comes into its own again. In “El Contador,” ISIS’s go-to number-cruncher, Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), becomes a field agent in the wake of Ray Gillette’s (Reed) paralysis (in the special trilogy “Heart of Archness”) to uproarious results, and there’s also a hilarious subplot involving the office-bound ISIS workers attempting to pass a newly sanctioned workplace drug test with the assistance of Krieger’s (Lucky Yates) not-so-sanctioned system-cleansing herbal tea. Both “The Limited” and “Lo Scandalo” are fine examples of what the show can be when it’s firing on all cylinders: fundamentally, a pair of bottle episodes that are able to transcend the format, keeping the cast sequestered in a single locale (a train in the former, Mallory Archer’s house in the latter) while skillfully piling on plenty of inventive plotting, tantalizing underhand banter, and frequently staggering character revelations.
Watching Archer is an exercise in tolerating the limitlessness of the insanity that stems from everything the ISIS agency comes into contact with. The inevitability of ISIS’s failure to properly coordinate is what, ironically, brings out the cast’s inherent strengths. Each character in Reed’s universe is a self-centered tool (Archer’s butler, Woodhouse, is the solitary exception) whose every movement is made solely in order to benefit themselves, and the fact that they’re all ultimately quite likable is a marvel in itself.