Archer has plenty in common with its predecessor, Frisky Dingo (for the unaware, a cartoon by Archer creator Adam Reed that premiered on Adult Swim in ’06), but what sets them apart the most will always be the way they should be viewed. Frisky Dingo was engineered for marathon viewing- each episode lasts a paltry eleven minutes, so an entire season can be burned through in less time than it’d take to see an average feature film. The series’ penchant for cultivating deeply rooted running gags and inside jokes and it’s heavily serialized, bizarre narrative spells certain doom for anyone watching an episode out of sequence or without the context of those that came before it. After viewing the show as a whole, watching a single episode feels insubstantial, like watching an eleven-minute slice from the middle of a movie.
Barring a few exceptions (the cancer storyline, the wee baby Seamus and the occasional two-parter), Archer functions much differently. Like Dingo, there’s a certain fluency requirements in pop-culture knowledge and the show’s previously-established running gags, but once you’re in, each episode of Archer becomes it’s own perfectly self-sustaining nugget of entertainment. Both shows are suitable for hours of all-you-can-eat TV smorgasbords, but only Archer tells a story from beginning to end in each half-hour.
The disadvantage to this format becomes clear after four seasons. Both shows fuse several genres together (for Archer, spies and office comedy, for Dingo superheroes mixed with both corporate and political satire), but Dingo only had one story to tell, while Archer has had to create clever pairings of two diverse story types for four years now. And while jokes are always fresh, the actual plot-lines are often not much more than a vehicle for the jokes. Just take the first two episodes of this season- the premiere started strong with a clever Bob’s Burgers crossover, but by the third act there was little more than a shootout with throwaway Russian spies. Last week’s showing was equally bare. Agent comes back into the field who may or may not be a traitor, and everyone not involved with him fills out employee evaluations. As fans of Frisky Dingo will tell you, Adam Reed’s oddball brand of humor works best alongside an equally oddball story.
“Legs” has all that and more (plus a reunion between the Reed-voiced Ray Gillette and Dingo‘s Mr. Ford). The story is over and done in a half an hour, but the synopsis alone is worth a chuckle or two (the official one being “Archer’s fear of cyborgs hits home when Krieger offers to make robotic legs for Gillette), and creativity in the narrative means that the jokes don’t live and die solely by their own merits. Some gags build off the goofiness inherent in the story while others pop up independently, but having narrative strength for the humor to lean on makes this far and away the most gleefully enjoyable episode of the three we’ve seen this season.
A stronger story also gives the gift of higher stakes and more well-rounded characters. Ray and Krieger exist almost exclusively to dart into a scene, deliver a one-liner or two, then disappear just as quickly, but the first few minutes of “Legs” allows both of them a meatier role. Ray’s opening sequence sets up his frustrations that kick-start the story, and makes him just a bit more sympathetic than the average Archer character, so there’s actually some tension when the success of his operation becomes uncertain. Ray’s one of the few malleable characters on the show, having been confined to a wheelchair more than a season ago, and it seems more likely that a character the creators were willing to drastically alter once before is a more likely candidate for killing off than someone who’s been on the same wavelength since episode one. Giving Ray a little emotional depth also benefits the jokes, as the risque material involving handicapped people had none of the uncomfortable qualities that last week’s gay jokes did. If a disabled character is three-dimensional, laughs at his expense poke more fun at the teller of the joke than they do at the target. If, like last week, the target of the joke is flimsily written in the first place, it feels a little like the show is actively pointing and laughing along with all the other characters. Krieger gets a bit of a bump too, as his conversation with Ray about robot legs actually gives him the opportunity to say a few lines that aren’t meant solely for shock value. True to form, he ends the scene by drugging Ray and forcing him into surgery (and for the rest of the episode does little more than operate and spew one-liners), but seeing him actually relate to someone on a human level, even just for a moment, feels like new ground for Krieger.
“Legs” sails over the limitations of the story-of-the-week format, but it also manages to sow some seeds of Frisky Dingo-like storylines along the way. Giving Ray the use of his legs certainly upends the status quo, but a strong presence from new additions Ron and Rodney implies the cast of characters might be open to more change than it was previously. Rodney is little more than a gag given human form (see also: Brett), but Ron genuinely feels like a worthy addition to the cast. For one, he seems to be a regular person (at least until he reveals some old-fashioned racism), and with the balance of confidence and competence that eludes nearly everyone else at ISIS, but he also breathes new life into the relationship between Malory and Archer. Four years of super-spy mishaps and life-or-death situations has strained their mother-son relationship almost past the point of believability, but Ron’s weirdly cooling presence makes everyone feel more like a genuine family. With her son lost in the ventilation shafts in an attempt to stave off the robot apocalypse, Malory’s only real options are to storm off in a huff or to send more agents after him (which, given Archer’s state of mind at the time, could have only ended in disaster), but Ron calmly whisks her away while providing plenty of anecdotes about his many Cadillac dealerships. Four years in and Archer hasn’t added anyone to a regular position around the ISIS office, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that Ron will be the first.
But even if Ron ends up being swept under the rug or shackled in a diminished role, there’s more than enough in “Legs” to suggest that Archer is a show capable of at least partially reinventing itself. The only thing left to do is to keep watching.