One of the things that makes animation the ideal medium for sitcoms, is that nothing ever need change. Bart Simpson has been ten years old for nigh on twenty-five years now, and Scooby Doo has lived many times the lifespan of the average domestic canine. It's a brave move then for the fifth season of Adam Reed's sharp spy-com Archer to completely shake things up. And shake it up it surely does, from the very first episode of the latest season.
In the season première it becomes clear that ISIS- the spy agency on which the show centres (no relation to the real life terrorist group of the same name) is not what it seems. In fact, it's been operating without any licence from the government whatsoever, and Sterling Archer and his colleagues are charged with treason. Rather than simply go their separate ways however, the ex-ISIS crew decide to embrace their new identity as criminals, and start an international drug cartel. As you do.
It's a pretty audacious opening, and it starts as it means to go on. Dumping the spying set-up for the entire season may be intended to keep things fresh, but it could have so easily backfired. The series was showing no signs of getting stale- on the contrary, it was only getting better- so we'd have easily eaten up several more seasons of espionage themed comedy.
While you may miss the Bond-style shenanigans, luckily Archer's biggest strength is it's characters. The interplay between them is as hilarious as ever, backed up by one of the strongest voice-casts in animation. Lead by the always excellent H Jon Benjamin, with (excuse the pun) sterling support from Aisha Tyler, Chris Cornell and Jessica Walter- channelling her Arrested Development character. Throughout the series, the character of Pam has transformed from a minor character to one of the show's greatest assets. Here, she gets to play her biggest part yet, and gets one of the season's best running gags to boot.
It's not only in the set-up that this season has evolved. While previous seasons have experimented successfully with multi-part episodes, in season five the whole season essentially forms one big storyline. This is much more ambitious than previous seasons, and not something the show has attempted on this scale before. And it pays off big time, making the show just as engaging as it gut-bustingly hilarious.
Archer has evolved from the relatively simple animation in the first season to become a really good looking show. As the series has continued the scale of the action set-pieces has gradually grown, and in this latest season they are the biggest and best yet. A few slightly iffy bits of CGI aside this looks fantastic, with strong and attractive character designs throughout.
Overall, any lingering disappointment about the change to the status quo is quickly dispelled as it becomes clear that this season is as funny as it's ever been- if not funnier. Creator Adam Reed and his staff deserve serious props for refusing to sit on their laurels and taking risks that paid off in spades. It's a great shame that Archer doesn't get more love, and in a just world this would be much bigger than Family Guy. But for those of us in in on the secret it's time to don your tux and head back into the Danger Zone. Roll on Season six!
ARCHER SEASON 5 is avalaible on DVD, BLU-RAY AND DIGITAL in the US from FOX. CLICK TO BUY FROM AMAZON SEASONS 1-5 arre STREAMING now on NETFLIX UK.