‘Archer’ Returns, with Burt Reynolds

Archer‘s third season begins by introducing a major guest star. Burt Reynolds lends his voice to the role of… Burt Reynolds. Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is simultaneously star-struck and horrified when he chances upon Reynolds in a restaurant, waiting for a date who turns out to be Archer’s mother and boss at ISIS, Mallory (Jessica Walter).

Like everyone else who meets Reynolds here, Archer still sees him as he used to be, geeking out a laundry list of the star’s ’70s action flicks. This is perfectly in keeping with Archer‘s anachronistic, unmoored-in-time setting. The show ostensibly takes place in the present day, but the Soviets are still around and ISIS uses bulky computers with sickly green monitors. So why not imagine a world where Burt Reynolds is in his 70s but never went through the Out of This World and Evening Shade periods of his career?

The high point of the new season’s first episode — which airs 19 January — comes during an extended chase sequence, where Reynolds proves to have all the action-movie skills of his movie characters. In the midst of his expert driving and shooting, Reynolds doles out some fatherly advice to Archer, about growing up and accepting Mallory “as a person,” not just his mother.

Subsequent episodes are just as good. Archer continues to deconstruct spy fiction tropes while maintaining its keen twisting of the workplace comedy. One episode has the team assigned to clean up the mess when the Prime Minister of Italy ends up dead in Mallory’s apartment. The episode underscores the Agatha Christie-like elements of this plot, so the team ends up pretending to enjoy a fancy dinner party attended by an inquisitive detective. It’s part of the show’s off-kilter charm that the agents are utterly unconvincing at this charade, and mostly end up confusing the detective instead of making him suspicious.

While Archer benefits from such extra-textual references, it also references itself, repeatedly. Regular viewers wil get the jokes based on consistent character traits and backgrounds. In one episode this season, the whole team escorts a Nova Scotian terrorist back to Canada by rail. Though the assignment hardly needs multiple officers, the show remembers that Cheryl (Judy Greer), the secretary, is a billionaire heiress to a railroad fortune, so she uses her influence to get everyone invited on the trip.

Such details invite viewers to share in the team’s camaraderie, as we can remember conversations or events when Archer and his colleagues do; creator Adam Reed doesn’t seem too concerned about making the show accessible to newcomers, but rather, trusts the audience to keep up.

When Cyril gets sent into the field, it makes sense (and it’s funny) for Archer to reference his disastrous training incident from the show’s pilot episode. Lana (Aisha Tyler), Archer’s on-again, mostly off-again love interest and fellow spy, again calls Archer out on his terrible behavior when he shows no regard for her well-being during the second episode’s jungle mission. Her sarcastic, ever-irritated personality is the perfect foil for Archer. Or at least it would be, if Archer wasn’t so self-obsessed that he effectively ignores her most of the time.

If the first four episodes of Season Three are any indication, this could be Archer‘s best season yet. The animation remains a little crude, but the show is at least trying to be a bit more dynamic in its action sequences this year. And the roughness contributes to the comedy, as the awkward cartooning collides with the quick wit of the script. It might not be the best comedy on American television (Parks and Recreation, and Community are hard to top, and Louie exists in a weird dramatic comedy subgenre all its own), but it’s definitely in the top tier.

RATING 7 / 10