Archer will always hold a special place in my heart, but it pains me to see the show continually make the same mistakes week in and week out. “Once Bitten,” solely through the strength of its premise, could easily have been the standout episode of the season, yet it can’t help but gravitate toward the same basic formulas that’s made recent episodes of Archer start to feel a bit repetitive.
This wouldn’t be nearly as disappointing if the first two thirds of “Once Bitten” weren’t so strong. Opening halfway through a mission is a welcome change from the somewhat overused, sitcom-esque establishing shot of the ISIS building, and mixing up the usual lineup of spies doesn’t hurt either. Before long, newer, and more disturbing elements are being piled one on top of the other, but the episode hits its peak much too early- right about the time Cyril turns a wayward camel into roadkill. From here, Archer’s hallucinations lose their zaniness and become a straight-ahead, if melodramatic look into Archer’s past. After four seasons, we’ve seen plenty of flashbacks to Archer’s boyhood years, and a knockoff James Mason isn’t enough to keep these sequences from feeling stale. The final gag doesn’t help either, as the identity of Archer’s real dad has been toyed with enough to keep one more fake-out from carrying any real weight. Ray and Cyril’s negotiations in reality make smart use of the despot’s dog joke that was set up earlier, but it’s not enough to keep the rest of this ending afloat.
And the B-story is so thin that it’s only purpose seems to be providing the characters absent from the A-story with a few lines of dialogue. There’s nothing of note here-Mallory is unable to find out what’s happened to her agents in the field, then she and Lana get into a small spat. It doesn’t impact the story in the slightest, and this drab material feels even more so when played out alongside a story of snakebites to the genitals and robot legs gone awry. The only noteworthy moments all come in the form of non-sequiturs: Pam re-grinding sausage links, Krieger’s rat wedding or the orchestral swell under Cheryl’s bizarre (yet surprisingly accurate) tirade. Had this whole story been cut and the best jokes pasted into a more ISIS-centric episode, “Once Bitten” could have had more room to breathe in developing its juiciest material.
Even at its very worst, Archer is still sharply written and good for more than a few laughs, but at the halfway point of season four, it has become more and more common for a typical Archer outing to be charming yet all-too-easily forgotten. I can’t imagine I’ll stop watching anytime soon, but it’s hard not to yearn for something with a little more substance.