“Archer,” a cartoon most fans probably still think of as a spy movie parody, debuted its ninth season on FXX Wednesday. But things looked a little different — yet again.
The show has consistently reinvented itself during the past few seasons in an attempt to avoid the diminishing returns that plague many shows in their middle age.
In Season 5, the cartoon stepped away from the secret agent world and rebranded itself as “Archer: Vice,” which found our heroes as cocaine dealers. Season 6 brought the crew back as a spy agency, but the seventh found them in Los Angeles for a comedic take on a 1970s Hollywood thriller. The eighth season, “Archer: Dreamland” found them in a 1940s noir.
Wednesday’s premiere of the show, now redubbed as “Archer: Danger Island,” makes the biggest leap yet.
The new season doesn’t just change the year, characters’ jobs, or even mental states. It changes the setting (a French-owned Polynesian island in 1939 centered around a hotel owned by Mallory on the edge of a terrifying jungle) and, in one case, a character’s species (Dr. Krieger is now a macaw named Crackers who annoys everyone with his intentionally dull quips, such as when he accuses Pam of being racist for using the word “goose bumps,” because “all birds have bumps”).
So why all the changes?
After all, “Archer” premiered in 2010 with a simple premise: Its central character Sterling Archer was a spoof of James Bond. He was an often-tuxedoed spy who, despite clearly suffering from sex addition and alcoholism, was surprisingly adept at his job.
The show found success — and a large fan base — by mocking all the regular trappings of a secret agent movie.
The agency (the International Secret Intelligence Service or, erm, ISIS) was run by his overbearing mother, Mallory, and featured a cast of wacky characters that worked as analogues to those in Bond movies. There was the mad scientist who makes nifty gadgets (but this one loved Rush and dated a hologram of an anime girl), the clueless assistant (but this one turned out to be insanely wealthy, owned an ocelot and had extreme sadomasochistic sexual fantasies) and the archenemy who at one point defected to the KGB (but this one was a cyborg with an anger problem who ended up floating in space).
The show trafficked in lightning-quick dialogue, gross-out humor (often sexual or scatological), inventive expletives and recurring jokes (which often concerned grammar). At its heart, though, was a sendup of the type of espionage films that were popularized in the 1960s.
By the end of the fourth season in 2013, series creator and showrunner Adam Reed felt the premise might be wearing thin. Meanwhile, the Islamic State, the extremist group known as ISIS, began dominating the news due to the violent acts of terrorism around the world for which it took responsibility.
It gave Reed an idea.
“The other ISIS, as I call them, sort of happened right at a crucial inflection point for the show,” Reed told The Washington Post. He wanted the show “to continue but they can’t be called ISIS anymore.”
Instead of changing the name of the central agency, Reed changed the entire concept of the show.
“Well, if we’re going to” change the name, Reed said, “why don’t we just spend a season selling cocaine?”
Hence the birth of “Archer: Vice,” the show’s first true departure from its central conceit. It returned to the spy agency for one more season, but Reed realized he was invigorated by the idea that “Archer” could truly be anything, so long as it’s filtered through the lenses of his established characters.
After Season 6, “we missed being able to take them into these other genres, so we veered back into that direction,” Reed said. “Once we started making them, and having a good time making them, [we thought] ‘what are some other things we can do now that the boundaries have sort of been passed?’”
The ideas flowed out of him, such as “King Archer,” which would be “‘Archer’ as Arthurian legend,” or “Archer Gulch,” which “would just be a western” featuring cowboy Archer.
With that in mind, the show could continue indefinitely. Reed said that on the morning of this season’s premiere, he “brewed a pot of coffee and started writing the first episode of season 10.” The show’s future beyond that remains unclear, though he said that even if he steps away, he wouldn’t mind someone else taking the show’s reins.
Such extreme changes, though, could alienate fans.
Mileage on the new season, for example, will likely vary depending on if you prefer the original premise of “Archer” or its characters and style of humor. The dialogue is still fast, and the show does its best to mine the setting (in time and place) for comedy. Sometimes it fails, such as when it nods to the then-strange idea of Japan attacking the United States. Other jokes land, though, such as when Pam tells Archer, “This is a real Catch-22,” to which he responds, “Uh, I don’t think that’s a thing yet.”
But, much like the past few seasons, it still feels like a different show than the original “Archer.”
Reed said he knows some purists might not like the shifts, but that’s a chance he’s willing to take, even if it’s difficult for him: He admitted he used to “obsessively lurk in the fan comment sections of some criticism websites” but that he’s mostly kicked the habit.
He said the change is worth it.
“I’m sure some people have turned off the TV in anger and never turned it back on again, and I like to think we’re replacing those viewers,” Reed said. “My fear is always that we can’t churn out the same show every time. People are going to get bored and quit watching.”