What happens when a TV show decides to switch up its style entirely? FX’s Archer, which wrapped up Season 5 in April, made such a move for its most recent season. Season five, retitled Archer: Vice, saw the show everyone associated with espionage switch to a 1980s Miami throwback. But it did not necessarily work.
Archer is a quick-witted yet raunchy cartoon about a suave spy named Sterling Archer. With no specific time setting, it is obvious that it borrows heavily from shows like Mad Men and the 1960s era with its furniture, dress and even threats; Communism and Russia are both common themes with the KGB playing major roles throughout the show. It is a TV show that is unique and rewarding in that it manages to cross lines and subvert reasonable expectations while maintaining not only beautiful animations and sets but a certain level of class. Not many shows can have its protagonist stroll into a blimp like James Bond before making humorous but possibly off-putting comments about race and bomb threats. And that is what made Archer so great. Not only did it have references to old movies and famous painters, like Salvador Dali’s ocelot, but its humor was an amusing and witty mix of shock-and-awe and clever wordplay. There was also a high level of imagination in the plots, including double-crossings in space by rogue astronauts, crooked coyotes, eco-terrorists and many more. So when Season 5 premiered, viewers were given an enticing first episode where we saw ISIS, the spy agency, shut down and the crew having to distinguish themselves as cocaine dealers. In a short montage, we see the style change to a Miami Vice look and Archer running rampant on motorcycles, playing with tigers, flirting with drug empresses, invading countries and doing all sorts of other unimaginable things to sell off the literal ton of cocaine he and the rest of ISIS had stumbled upon. So after an incredible first four seasons and an extremely exciting new premise, I was left at the end wondering how it all went so terribly wrong.
For starters, the main problem with Archer: Vice is that it destroyed the characters that the viewers had gotten used to. Changing them or exploring them more is fine, but utter destruction is not.
Sterling Archer, the suave, arrogant, badass spy was turned into a meandering child who could not do anything right. Instead of screwing up ISIS’s plan before coming to the rescue by enjoyably going rogue, he is reduced to little more than a cowardly wimp who loses mission after mission.
Lana Kane, Archer’s counterpart in the field who tries to keep him reasonable and on-again-off-again love interest became pregnant and was turned into nothing but a complaining burden to the whole crew.
Cheryl, a clueless billionaire secretary, was turned into a country musician who did little more but yell expletives and complain about her tours.
And Pam, a useless character whom I’ve never liked because of her stupidity and immature, out-of-place crudeness, became not a mere obstacle for the show but an actual detriment. Rather than being a rural-raised nymphomaniac, she became a cocaine addict who did literally nothing but spend five minutes an episode standing and trying to eat cocaine.
While the shift in characters was pathetic and certainly served to hurt the show a great deal, the main problem came down to the execution. What so many people loved Archer for was that its humor was not stupid or bathroom level intended for schoolchildren. It had a level of sophistication to it, whether it was a double-entendre, shock-and-awe, or just a random mocking reference to an established figure or event in history. What Archer did so greatly was parody the world we live or lived in while being hilarious. Archer: Vice did nothing of the sort. In this season, the humor became nothing but characters saying swear words and calling each other insults. Then later in the season, there was just no attempt at making the show funny. One of the running gags was literally “I had a joke for this but I forgot it”. The animation and designs were still just as beautiful and intriguing as before, but the show had lost its heart and soul. No longer was it a clever satire of a world so afraid of terrorism and war but just a group of people bumbling around, eating cocaine, saying random swear words and ultimately screwing up.
My problem with this season is not that it changed from spies to cocaine dealers. As I mentioned, before I found that idea very promising. Nor did I dislike the season because they made offensive remarks or inappropriate comments. But they did so with no justification and no intention. When a character made a joke, it was not funny. It was just random and plain stupid. There’s nothing funny about a person standing and saying expletives. Nor is there anything particularly inventive or worthwhile about it.
Archer will be ditching its Vice theme and returning to espionage for season six, and part of me believes that this is in part because of the lukewarm reception Archer: Vice got. Although critics loved it, facebook comments were generally negative and its TV ratings were cut in half. As a huge fan of Archer, I sincerely hope that it can get back to where it was. But my main concern is that the problem with their weakest and most recent season was not a new idea gone awry, but a completely blown opportunity down to poor execution.