Last season, FX’s animated comedy Archer departed sharply from its spy-spoof premise, shutting down the in-universe International Secret Intelligence Service and sending agents Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) and their weird co-workers on the lam. But with the premiere of its sixth season on Thursday, Archer returns to the madcap world of espionage, and Executive Producer Matt Thompson couldn’t be happier.
“When [co-creator] Adam [Reed] and I sat down and talked about what we wanted to do, we wanted to get back to what we thought the show was at it’s core, which is a show about Archer and spying,” Thompson told Spinoff Online and other media outlets. “Last season we had a blast and we kind of took a detour to what they normally do, they kind of bumbled their way around selling cocaine. If you go back and watch, nobody even died in that season! So what we’re doing now is getting back to what we do best: Archer is a spy … and we’re going to go back to seeing his personal journey in this world.”
This back-to-basics approach means the end of Cheryl’s (Judy Greer) country music career, Pam’s (Amber Nash) weight loss and other recent developments. However, the biggest twist from Season 5 -- Archer learning he’s the father of Lana’s baby -- will be a major driving force of Season 6.
“We see Archer take one step forward to being a better father, and then maybe two steps backwards from not wanting to do that,” Thompson said. “In fact, in the season premiere he’s run away from being a father altogether, he’s off in the jungle somewhere fighting a Japanese soldier.”
Along with returning guest star Christian Slater as the team’s CIA handler, the new season will feature appearances by Coby Bell as uber-agent Conway Sterns, Kumail Nanjiani as a Pakistani spy, Rob Hubel as a “pretty funny mountain-climbing guy” and Fargo’s Allison Tolman as Pam’s sister Edie, a character often mentioned but never seen.
“We never had any intention of showing you Edie, until we got drunk with Allison at an FX party and listened to her great Wisconsin accent she did on Fargo, and that kind of convinced us to do it,” Thompson recalled.
Tolman isn’t the only FX actor crossing over to Archer: The Americans star Matthew Rhys will appear in an episode based on a story the actor told Thompson and Reed.
“This past Super Bowl … we sat next to Matthew and got a little lit,” Thompson recalled. “Matthew is from Wales, and he told a story … about this true thing from history about these Wales separatists who were battling the English in the ‘70s and they blew things up with a couple of bombs. But it’s such a good tale that he told, we went back and wrote an episode based on this. So for the very first time there will be a credit in this episode saying, ‘Written by Adam Reed from a rousing tale from Matthew Rhys!’ And Matthew plays the part of a Wales separatist.”
CCH Pounder and Keith David will also voice Lana’s parents, professors at the University of California Berkley.
“It’s fun to see Lana in a slightly different role as a child,” Thompson said. “Lana’s always telling us what to do and being our collective conscience, and now to see her deal with her parents is pretty fun.”
“I was at another Fox party, and I was having a drink with [Mallory Archer voice actress] Jessica Walter and she saw Keith David. Apparently they’ve known each other for a long time. And she grabbed me by the arm and she pulled me over to him and said, ‘If Keith David isn’t Lana’s father I will never speak to you again!’” Thompson said, doing on his best impersonation of Walter. “I said, ‘Yes ma’am!’”
If all that sounds as if the Archer producers make most of their casting decisions while drinking at parties, it’s only because, in Thompson’s words, “They do!”
“We’re in Atlanta, Georgia, we have a large company in Atlanta -- we have about 120 employees who do Archer and a couple of other things,” he said. “So whenever we come out to L.A., we get to go to these really cool parties and we meet all these people. It’s usually the people that we meet at these parties that we end up sitting and having a couple of beers with and we’re like, ‘You know what? Let’s do something!’”
Admitting that he keeps a list of potential guest stars on his desk, Thompson told reporters that he would love for Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein to appear on an episode, but he hasn’t been able to come up with a role for her. Also back this year are KGB heads Barry (voiced by Dave Willis) and Katya (Ona Grauer), fan favorites who were absent from Season 5.
Despite the high caliber of guests, Thompson said his favorite upcoming episode is one in which the core characters get trapped in an elevator.
“The show really works best when it’s all of our characters bitching at each other,” he said. “Because these characters feel real to me, just listening to them bitch at each other is great!”
Of course, the core Archer crew has grown with the addition of Lana’s child, whom viewers will see recklessly endangered along with the adult field agents.
“The baby’s out there, yeah!” Thompson laughed. “It’s not necessarily taking the baby on a mission, because I would hope that even though our people are pretty irresponsible they wouldn’t just put tactile-neck on a baby and go, but there are times when definitely the baby is in danger.”
All this serves to put a strain on single mother Lana throughout the season. “She’s conflicted,” Thompson explained. “She goes through times of wanting to quit, wanting to get away from it, there are times she wants a vacation from the baby...it creates a lot of stress on Lana and she doesn’t have a good handle on how to deal with it.”
The stress of having a child is also weighing on Archer, although Thompson cautioned the show isn’t, “Suddenly going to become ‘Archer and Lana baby series.’”
“The basic struggle this season is for Archer to take one step forward towards being a better person and father, and then one step back or sideways against being a better person and father,” he said. “I think the two are very intertwined for him now.”
Lest viewers think everyone will come out of Season 6 more mature, Thompson held up new grandma Mallory Archer as a counter.
“Abbiejean is the baby’s name, and she’s named after Adam Reed’s grandmother, but there’s a great scene where she [Mallory] is trying to convince Lana by giving her large amounts of money to change the name to Mallory,” Thompson laughed.
Mallory also believes Lana is fattening the baby, thus, “Whenever she’s in charge of the baby you see her giving the baby ice chips. She’ll be off camera and Archer will be on a mission, talking to his mom saying, ‘Goddamn it, you have to feed the goddamn baby!’ So, no, she is not becoming nicer and trying to get into grandma heaven!” Thompson laughed.
He defended the decision to leave the show’s spy premise in Season 5 by turning the main characters into an inept drug cartel, a move that garner mixed feelings from critics and fans.
“We needed to clear our brains out,” Thompson said. “We wanted to take a step sideways that was still a part of our universe, but just do it. It was more than anything else a palate cleanser. Internally we love it, we loved what that season was, we love that we made a country music album, we love that we did something very different without doing something different.”
Thompson also disagreed with the characterization of Season 6 as a “deboot,” because, “It was never designed as, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing from now on.’ It was never thought of that. It was just thought of as we want to go and take a small break from ourselves.
“At the same time there’s a reason why shows don’t change their standard formulae too hard because it does upset the apple cart a little bit,” he continued. “We do realize what we do best is stories about Sterling Archer, him being a dick but also being a somewhat-good guy, and some sort of spy/intrigue/people are going to die, and then insert jokes along the way. We do realize that is when the show is working at its best.”
Although the move may have been risky, FX allowed Thompson and Reed creative freedom and renewed Archer for two more seasons. According to Thompson, knowing the series would be on air through Season 7 immediately increased what they could do in terms of animation.
“Because it’s a cartoon, how good your cartoon looks is all based on money,” he explained. “Knowing we had two seasons left in the show for certain let me hire a particular amount of staff with very safe and secure jobs and say, ‘OK, I know I want to make this part right here look better.’”
This change in the animation pipeline allowed them to also get more ambitious, from big-action set pieces to better facial animation.
“You’ll see it directly affect Season 6,” Thompson said. “For the first time there’s a couple of animations you’ll notice are better than years past. There’s a promo of an avalanche that is on TV right now and looking at how that avalanche looks is direct to the fact of getting renewed for two seasons. I couldn’t have done that without getting renewed and knowing that was coming.
“As far as the storyline goes, I’d love to tell you we have this giant board where we make up everything, but we really just do it a season at a time,” he confessed, adding, “We don’t know what we’re going to do in Season 7 yet.”
Archer received additional attention in the fall with the announcement that it would eliminate its fictional spy agency, ISIS, because of the emergence of the real-world terrorist group with the same acronym.
“We watched it very closely for a long time and were just hoping we’d never have to comment on it, because there’s no way to win that situation,” Thompson explained. “It’s just a terrible, awful, awful horrendous situation.”
The in-world fix -- getting rid of ISIS and having the characters work directly for the CIA -- was one Thompson and Reed had been working toward for a while.
“We said, OK, that’s it, this is done, they’re contractors for the CIA -- and right when we did that, all that stuff went down with the CIA!” he said. “I was like, goddamn it!
“The best joke that I think Jon Benjamin made in a long time is, somebody asked him this the other day and they go, ‘Are you going to change your name from ISIS?’ And Jon said, ‘Yeah, after a lot of thought we decided to change it to something that hopefully people will like: We’re going to have the spy agency be called AIDS,” Thompson laughed. “We are basically contractors to the CIA now, for better or worse!”
Archer’s sixth season kicks off Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.