Archer Season 12 premieres Wednesday, Aug. 25 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FXX and is available the next day on FX on Hulu.
In Archer’s Season 12 premiere, “Identity Crisis,” a pair of overly perky marketers inform the main cast of dysfunctional spies that they’re dinosaurs who need to reinvent themselves. That’s a pretty meta jab, considering that the series has lasted so long in no small part by consistently transforming, spending seasons jumping between genres. But like their perpetually contrary characters, the show’s writers are rejecting that message and instead delivering a fantastic start to a season that gets back to the series’ roots.
Archer began as a sort of fusion between James Bond and The Office set at the International Secret Intelligence Service or ISIS. When the rise of the Islamic State made the fictional spy agency’s name have a very different impact, the show began changing things up, transporting its characters into riffs on Miami Vice and Sunset Boulevard before going even further afield for a set of seasons taking place in the comatose mind of the series’ namesake superspy Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin).
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While those romps, through pulp and space opera, provided a novel way to let the cast effectively explore other characters while still maintaining key components of their chaotic dynamic, they felt like diversions from the main story. Season 11 finally saw Sterling awaken from the coma and throw a wrench into the lives his family and coworkers had built without him, culminating in a fantastic finale where he proved that, for all his flaws, he’s worth keeping around by saving the world from a tech bro planning on profiting off of flooding the world.
Yet the luster from that moment of glory has already faded by the time “Identity Crisis” begins. The Cloudbeam marketing team Alton (Harvey Guillén of What We Do in the Shadows) and Kaya (Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell) claim they could have gotten Archer the adulation he deserves, but instead the U.S. government covered up the incident and his agency can barely keep the lights on. Cloudbeam blames tough competition from the new spy conglomerate International Intelligence Agency, but as usual Archer’s inept coworkers are at least equally to blame. No one’s called them with a job since psychotic office assistant Cheryl/Carol Tunt (Judy Greer) smashed the phone and didn’t tell anyone.
The crew of Archer is normally entirely unsympathetic, so there’s a lot to gain from painting them as the underdogs. Sterling himself has had to learn some small modicum of humility after emerging from his coma at less-than-full strength. No longer the world’s greatest spy, he’s had to rely more on his coworkers, particularly his hyper-competent ex-girlfriend Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), who’s perpetually exasperated by Archer’s antics. Of course, given the mercenary nature of the Archer crew, she and fellow spy Ray Gillette (series creator Adam Reed) quickly start talking about how they can join IIA themselves. IIA head Fabian Kingsworth (Kayvan Novak of What We Do in the Shadows) is effectively Sterling in his prime, relentlessly mocking the gentleman spy he once admired and providing a perfect foil for not just Sterling but the entire crew.
“Identity Crisis” sees the team trying to beat IIA to the reward for rescuing a kidnapped scientist while “Lowjacked,” the second part of the two-episode premiere, follows a team-building exercise that goes awry thanks to some ecoterrorists who are just as inept as Archer’s crew. Both establish the bumbling dynamic of Season 12, where some members of the crew try to be responsible and earn the money and prestige needed to keep their business going, while others just slack off. It’s the sort of farce that’s always worked well for the show, which is driven as much by sexual innuendo (or “phrasing” as Archer calls it) and ridiculous subplots involving cloning and country music, as whatever’s happening in the main plot.
Getting back to the basics of modern spycraft has allowed Archer to drop the gimmicks, fun as they may have been, and reconnect with what has always made the show great — its sharp writing and incredibly talented voice cast. Benjamin perpetually shines as he laughs at his relative luck and the misfortune of his most hated coworker, the bureaucratic Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) who gets beat up while Archer plays with dogs in “Lowjacked.” Cheryl and HR director-turned-field agent Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) are constantly engaged in misadventures, whether it’s taking their own terrible crack at developing a marketing strategy or opting out of helping with a mission so they can enjoy hibachi. When a nervous chef tries to remind them that there’s still a hostage crisis happening downstairs, Cheryl’s main concern, naturally, is if that will affect the grill.
Season 12 also marks Jessica Walter’s final role, as the actress who played Malory Archer, Sterling’s overly sexual alcoholic mother and boss, died in March. It’s a worthy capstone to her exceptional career as she plays the human manifestation of side-eye, perpetually judging her employees between sips of whatever drink she can get her hands on. The show’s limited animation style does an excellent job conveying facial expressions, and, in particular, it masterfully shows the bemused contempt Walter previously brought to the role of Arrested Development’s Lucile Bluth.
Malory has always kept her misfit employees together, and Walter’s death throws the entire future of the show into question. But in this one last eight-episode season with the full original cast, Archer’s fundamentals are as strong as ever. If this winds up being the series’ final season, then it’s particularly fitting that it feels so much like a return to where it began.