TV Column: How much can a show change and still stay the same?

Can Archer keep changing and still be the show we fell in love with?

Well, can anyone? Those of us fortunate enough to have found someone to put up with our crap ‘til death do us part’ will know that change is inevitable. You grow, they grow, you both adjust, and in the process become different versions of who you were. The hope is that love is strong enough to keep you both in parallel on that journey. I change, but I’m still me. There’s nothing quite so profound going on in the love between a TV writer and an animated show about a misanthropic spy, but the central tenet remains. If Archer changes, is it still Archer?

Pam and Archer as pilot buddies in the show’s latest switcheroo

Yes and no. After four stunningly brilliant series, the team behind Archer spotted the rut on the horizon, the gigantic pit that the show could fall into and spend the rest of its days running in circles, going nowhere fast. It’s a common issue for shows with no designated end point, the kind of regurgitation and wheel-spinning that befouled everything from The Walking Dead to The Office (U.S). So, creator Adam Reed has spent each season reinventing the wheel, taking Archer and the unfortunately titled ISIS from spy agency to drug runners to detectives to film noir and now boys’ own adventurers.

Pam, Lana, Cyril and Archer try on some new identities in season 9

The first reinvention was probably the worst received, Archer Vice proving too sudden a switch for most fans to get on board with, an adjustment made all the more difficult by the whole ‘outlaw country’ thing. In hindsight, that change-up was pretty mild when compared to what was to come. It’s hard to tell now whether Archer Vice was a weaker series or whether the teething problems came from the difficulty in accepting the changes. It reminds me of the first time I watched The Wire. Season one was superb, but I spent all of season two’s sojourn on the docks just wanting to be back on the street corners. Rewatching it a few years later, it became evident that season two was every bit the equal of its predecessor and the only problem was my inability to adjust to the new environment.

Last season’s Archer in Dreamland was the first time Adam Reed played with character’s actual identities. Seasons five, six and seven involved the same Archer, Pam, Krieger, Lana and co. in different settings, but this was a step further. Played out as Archer’s dreams while he lay in a coma, identities shifted as Archer imagined himself as a gumshoe tracking down his partner’s killer. It worked pretty effectively, mixing things up and keeping it fresh, while retaining each character’s defining characteristics.

Archer takes a detour into a noir dream in season eight

This latest season, however, is a complete break from everything that went before. There’s a half allusion to Archer’s coma in the opening line, but otherwise, there is nothing to tie it to what’s gone before. Archer is now a rugged pilot, equal parts Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Rip Manley, with Pam as his sidekick. His mother is still his boss, Lana is now a Pacific Island princess, Cheryl a newlywed heiress who violated her marriage vows with Archer, Ray is a French gendarme, Cyril’s a Nazi, and Krieger… well… Krieger’s now a talking parrot called Crackers.

It may sound like a jump too far but, so far, it seems to genuinely be the best season of Archer in years. For all the identity changes, everyone is still recognisably themselves, with the exception of Krieger, but the real gem is how the show now focuses more on the friendship between Archer and Pam, which has always been its strong suit. Put those two in a situation together and the results are always far funnier than combining Archer with anyone else. The show still retains its acerbic edge, but there’s an ever-so-slight warmth now that serves as a palate cleanser. Adam Reed’s willingness to continually find ways for the show to change has worked exactly the same way that change should in any great relationship: it’s made it stronger and deeper. Phrasing!

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