It sucks to condemn a show when it attempts to break the mold and do something that most shows can’t do due to their premise or won’t do due to a fear of losing viewers, but the sad fact is that Archer Vice, the fifth season of Archer, didn’t have enough compelling material to fuel its break away from the format that served it so well for four seasons. If nothing else, the season stands as a fascinating experiment of who all the characters of the show could be without the day-in and day-out reinforcement of their personalities from their co-workers in the same boat. Breaking free of that shackle, Archer Vice went a little nuts and made a lot of distance from its starting point, but unfortunately the comedy paid the price more than anything, especially since the sixth season effectively restores them to their starting point with only a few things really changed (or “replaced” in the case of one character).
Thanks to a certain licensing indiscretion on the part of Mallory Archer (Jessica Walters), the spy agency known as ISIS suddenly finds itself on the run from US authorities with nothing but its employees’ assets and a huge supply of cocaine seized in a previous operation to keep them afloat. From there, the story explodes into a bunch of different directions as each character does their own little thing while still staying within earshot of Cheryl (Judy Greer), who decides to become a country singer (called “Cherlene”) with Ray (Adam Reed) as her teacher and Mallory as her agent/manager. Meanwhile, Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and Lana (Aisha Tyler), pregnant with their child, do their best to get into the drug-dealing business—with disastrous results—in the hopes that they can sell some before Pam (Amber Nash) ingests it all and loses a lot of weight. The musical tour and the failing drug ring lands them in a South American country with a dictator whose political power just might get ceded to Cyril (Chris Parnell) and potential proof to the rumors about those “Boys from Brazil”, much to Krieger’s (Lucky Yates) dismay.
No one can say Archer Vice lacks ambition – that’s really what this season is all about, and if it does anything, it proves that these characters are still entertaining and can retain their general characterization and zaniness even if you remove them completely from the safety of their established roles or surroundings. Sure, Ray is still the responsible spy who pays for Archer’s indiscretions or stupidity, and yes, Mallory is still her usual controlling self, but Archer Vice proves she doesn’t need the official rank of “boss” to inspire the obedience she’s so used to exploiting. None of the characters really need their traditional jobs to have the kind of adventures or do the stupid things we’ve come to expect of them. Who they are isn’t dependent on their environment or job, but rather on being part of the very strange family that Mallory Archer has assembled.
It doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment until you consider just how many sitcom characters are dependent on the very narrow role assigned to them. How many sitcom dads actually have much discernible character once you strip away the stereotypical “dad” persona? Or teachers or secretaries? In so many sitcoms the characters sink into their roles and rarely do they do anything crazy if it doesn’t make sense for the character in that role to do it. Archer has always kind of bucked that trend (with HR lady Pam and secretary Cheryl constantly stowing away on missions) but with Archer Vice it absolutely eviscerated that practice to see just how long the characters could stay intact when everything but their personalities get stripped away.
As great experiments as it is—considering it’s probably one that few other shows will likely endeavor to recreate—the ultimate sacrifice is the comedy. The fifth season has a lot of overarching narrative to cover and so you don’t get as many punchlines per episode like you used to when the writers didn’t have to worry where the characters will end up or how they’d get there. The long-form storytelling of the season takes precedence in the writing and it’s noticeable. It’s still very much worth watching for fans, but that shift in tone from a show that’s largely about comedy with elements of a larger spy story tied in to something with inverted priorities is felt even if you’ve only seen one or two seasons before it.
So admire it for what it is—a bold one-off undertaking—and then put it out of your mind, because if the sixth season has shown us anything it’s that while the events of Archer Vice will have lasting impacts, the traditional office- and mission-based format is back to stay.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
A music video for Cherlene Tunt’s hit song “Midnight Blues”, an interview with Cheryl in character as Cherlene, and, keeping with the musical theme of the extras, a little song-and-dance piece further reminding us of Pam’s farm-raised roots in “Old Pam Poovey Had a Farm”. They’re all amusing one-offs, though compared to the first two, Pam’s musical comes a little out of nowhere in the context of the season.
"Archer: The Complete Fifth Season" is on sale January 6, 2015 and is rated tv-ma. Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy. Directed by Adam Reed, Bryan Fordney. Written by Adam Reed, Boswell Cocker, Matt Thompson. Starring Aisha Tyler, Amber Nash, Chris Parnell, H Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Judy Greer, Lucky Yates.