Midlife crisis continues to be a good look for Archer. Back for its seventh season on Thursday night, FX’s giddily crass cartoon has been on a multi-year soul-searching tour after creator Adam Reed decided he’d done all he could with the show’s original premise as a James Bond parody. (It didn’t help that real life intervened to dissolve Archer’s fake spy agency, the suddenly awkwardly named ISIS.) After a season-long road trip from Miami to Central America in Season 4 and a stint at the CIA in Season 5, Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and his squad of highly trained, gutter-minded screw-ups have relocated to Los Angeles, where they establish themselves as private investigators.
It’s a far fall from the (self-described) world’s greatest secret agent to “Mancy Drew,” but the gang has no choice after it’s been blackballed from espionage by the CIA. It’s a testament to the strength of the characters that Archer’s been able to reinvent itself year after year and still feel familiar, but the move west offers something new and unexpected to the series: comfort. For a series that routinely indulges in seaside car chases and a cyborg arch-nemesis (seen this season tea-bagging with nonexistent robo-balls while waving around a gold-plated Kalashnikov), its main character settles into what passes for the mundane for him, retrieving sensitive data for faded movie stars and trying to get his toddler daughter into a chichi preschool. The show’s format, too, reverts back to basics, with mostly standalone episodes made awry by Archer’s adrenaline addiction.
The animation is as beautiful as ever, providing slight makeovers for the characters (as California is a bit warmer than New York) and repurposing Malibu cliffs for Homer falls. But at least in the first four episodes, the sudden loss of Archer’s jet-setting means missing the posh luxury of Monte Carlo and the tangerine heat of Marrakech.
The trade-off, though — for Archer’s ongoing evolution — is definitely worth it. Last season, Lana (Aisha Tyler) challenged Sterling’s default mode of near-fatal recklessness after the birth of their child together. Though he’s still in mortal danger in every episode, the turn to private investigation feels true to the character — as does his bristling at the fact that his new boss is tweedy milksop Cyril (Chris Parnell). Still, in the excellent third episode, Cyril helps Archer understand the roots of his bullying personality when Sterling’s old prep-school classmate reappears in his life, triggering a cascade of traumatic memories.
I hope we stay in Los Angeles for a while, if only to watch the rest of the characters adjust to their new lives and roles. The deposed ISIS chief, Malory (Jessica Walter), and Cyril naturally jockey for control of The Figgis Agency, while Pam (Amber Nash) and Cheryl (Judy Greer) scramble to avoid landing at the bottom of the totem pole. Ray reveals his gay-wizard porn-star name; Krieger reveals some of his creepiest inventions yet. Buzzkill Lana is the sole exception to the terrifically flexible ensemble; Reed desperately needs to give her something else to do than be constantly hit on or fume while Archer eye-bangs other women.
Keegan-Michael Key, Patton Oswalt, and J.K. Simmons make notable guest appearances, but the show’s clever vulgarity and occasional heart are best carried by the core cast. In a world full of change, Archer and company’s steadfast commitments to their id — drunken rampages, hybrid pig-boys and all — reassure us that they’ll always be around to scream at one another.