Though Fox likes to tout its Sunday night lineup of adult-oriented cartoons as "Animation Domination", the fact is that many of television’s best adult animated series no longer appear on network channels (Bob’s Burgers perhaps being the exception). Now, the most consistently daring and well-written animated comedies appear on cable channels like Adult Swim and FX, where the lines of acceptably risque content are (at the very least) blurry. Because of that, we get shows like Archer that take pop culture tropes (like spies) and turn them on their head, ass, and every which way all while squeezing every last drop of comedy from the source material before finally releasing its grip. And based on the new direction of the season currently airing, this fourth season of Archer was exactly that: Archer’s final blast of passion into the exhausted corpse of spy-specific comedy.(Phrasing!)
Season four starts with a nod to H. Jon Benjamin’s other headlining show, Bob’s Burgers, and then takes us through the usual motions: Archer’s douchebaggery sabotaging a mission, Archer going rogue on a personal mission, bottle episodes kept entirely within the ISIS office, and the occasional group field mission (like to Rome). The main conventions of these episodes are inherently similar to those we’ve gotten in the past, but they’re redone in such a way that they’re all the stronger for it. Loyal fans of the show are rewarded with callbacks to countless past instances and running jokes, while new viewers have enough to feast on with jokes that stand well enough on their own. Archer’s fourth season is still undeniably funny if you ever appreciated the show’s sense of humor, but it’s definitely better if watched after having seen the previous seasons so you can catch the comedic callbacks to some of the series’ best episodes.
At the same time, however, some of the show’s repetition works against it; at some point, it’s hard not to feel like you’re seeing too many elements repeat this time around even if some of the character growth is fresh. It’s suggestive of a show that has reached the bottom of the well and should look elsewhere for new comedic depths to sink to. The show’s writing even acknowledges the season’s feeling of repetition at one point when the ISIS gang signs on to foil an assassination attempt at a restaurant, which leads many to wonder if this too wasn’t a petty effort by Malory to get a reservation at a place that would make her rival Judy Beekman jealous (like with the mission aboard a rigid airship). The season finale, despite some great guest appearances by Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal (thus bringing the season’s nod to Bob’s Burgers full circle), feels reminiscent of the third season thanks to it being a multi-part story that takes the gang to another remote base (this time underwater instead of in space) that’s been commandeered by a crazed soldier.
Everywhere you look in Archer’s fourth season, you see hints of recycled jokes and ideas, and whether or not you can get past them and treat them as natural extensions of past jokes will likely depend on how funny you thought those jokes or plotpoints were the first (or second or third) time around. Fortunately, there are enough episodes that don’t feel like direct rehashes of past adventures and which help to add depth to side characters who until then had only been expendable resources the writers could send off or leave behind on a whim without the audience caring one way or another. The writers also pulled off something spectacular by restoring Ray’s mobility and removing his status as an easy mark for cripple jokes (while still being the show’s go to guy for most gay jokes - though Archer is increasingly getting his fair share) while simultaneously contributing to Archer’s hatred of all things bionic. That’s a win-win combination if ever there was one.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
A recording of a live reading of an Archer episode with the cast and a brief featurette are the only extras.
"Archer: The Complete Season Four" is on sale January 7, 2014 and is not rated. Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy. Written and directed by Adam Reed. Starring Aisha Tyler, Amber Nash, Chris Parnell, H Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Judy Greer.