Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) always had a problem stopping himself, be it from a cutting remark, or from indulging his addictive tendencies. No doubt, his excesses are self-destructive, but they are often the catalysts to half an hour of unbridled mayhem. And at the end of it all, it’s sort of a win for our hero and ultimately, the viewers. Not so much for those around him.
But it’s a schtick that the show’s creators and writers have milked to death, wrote themselves into a corner, then wrote Archer into a coma – literally speaking – and repeat all over again. Archer as a series is a perfect demonstration of what you can get away with just by sheer force of personality and clever jokes. Archer has lasted twelve seasons – an eternity in today’s context – simply because it is a sharply-written comedy that finds humour in the most unlikely of places. And the most obscure ones at that. Who else writes a bit around Bartleby the Scrivener?
The writing for the series has groaned beyond dick jokes and we’re at a point where we can expect a couple of character development arcs every season. The way I see it, this is pretty much a necessity to keep a tired formula fresh; just enough to satiate its loyal fanbase to clamour for one more season. It’s a far cry from the machine-gun barrage of non sequitur one-liners and innuendo assault of the early years, but the showrunners are self-aware enough to know that the series needs to head somewhere.
While it’s a little far-fetched to proclaim that the series has matured as a hole, but it certainly has found a clear direction, which many questioned was lacking after three seasons of the alternate universe/coma plot. Despite the irreverence of the characters, the series is ultimately underscored by misery; to be precise, the failure of its characters to overcome their past trauma and unfulfilled desires.
Season 12 continues the post-dream-world universe and places the team in familiar circumstances – broke and trying to scheme their way into money. And yet it’s a very different beast altogether because there is a clear indication that this time, its inhabitants are not content to stand still.
Along with Season 11, Season 12 is the perfect one-two for post-coma Archer. Last season, Archer has been quick to undo the massive strides that the group has made in their personal progress without the toxic mess that is Sterling Archer. We start Season 12 at square one and all the good vibes are now gone, but there is growing evidence that Archer as a series won’t end until its characters reach the end of their respective personal journeys.
It’s rather unfortunate that the series has lost George Coe (Woodhouse), Ron Leibman (Ron Cadillac) and now, Jessica Walter (Mallory Archer), robbing Archer of at least two of his closest allies and family. Perhaps it’s in the face of such tragedy that the writers have had to write him into readdressing his relationships with the rest of his work-family, which can only push the story forward.
While Season 12 is classic Archer of old, what’s different is the dynamics have changed irrevocably because of conflicts in their personal lives. At the core of many of the season’s narratives, Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), faced with the pressures of a difficult marriage, inevitably starts to behave more like the classic Archer that she had grown to detest. It’s not helped by the fact that the agency’s new owner complicates matters at home.
Pam (Amber Nash) and Cheryl (Judy Greer) have always been the worst enablers for each other, and they resume their shenanigans, content to milk the most out of their undoubted chemistry. Ray Gillette (Adam Reed) spends most of the season off-screen because he realises he needs to plan for the future. Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) reverts to the self-loathing pushover from the pre-coma arcs, only to rediscover his confidence through a most unlikely catalyst.
The season’s driving force is undoubtedly Lana’s deteriorating relationship with her husband Robert (Stephen Tobolowsky), which sets the tone for almost the entire season – at least that’s how it feels like the moment Lana appears onscreen. From their respective arcs this season, it just feels as though Lana and Archer will be heading towards an inevitable reconciliation after completing their own hero’s journey.
Some low-key, potentially cool turn of events: Kreiger (Lucky Yates) now has a fellow metalhead colleague in the form of Colt (Eric André). Colt are Kreiger are alike in many ways aside from their obvious brilliance and as they share the same taste in music and vans. Kreiger’s wildcard character has always been rather tricky to develop, but Colt might provide the spark. Even in the worst-case scenarios, two Kreigers are better than one.
We also see two new faces: Sandra (Pamela Adlon), Lana’s ex-schoolmate turned colleague, and Fabian Kingsworth (Kayvan Novak), the arch-villain boss of a rival agency that plans to monopolise the espionage industry. They’re just being bedded in for the time being, and I suspect their moments will come next season.
The untimely passing of Jessica Walter is a devastating loss that could well derail any other show, but Season 12’s development has given the series a chance to possibly survive, and maybe even, thrive – there’s still a season or two left in this long-running series.
It may not be as laugh a minute as it was before, but Archer Season 12 may be the actual season that the series wakes up from its creative coma.
Update: Apologies, I missed a key moment and caught it on rewatching – nope, Kreiger’s probably going to remain the way he is.
Archer Season 12
Verdict - 8/10
The strongest season in a while. There's plenty here to hint at a potentially exciting future despite the untimely loss of Jennifer Walter.