As the beloved animated spy comedy Archer prepares for its sixth season on FX (new episodes start January 8!), we caught up with Matt Thompson, who executive-produces the show along with its creator and writer, Adam Reed. And he told us how the show is coming back to the Danger Zone, along with a lot of inside info.
io9: Archer season five — the coke-fueled, Emmy-nominated Archer: Vice — shook up the show's established storyline considerably, transforming the characters from secret agents to drug-cartel operatives (plus one aspiring country star). What can we expect from season six?
Matt Thompson: On the business side, we're going to work for the CIA, which means the Christian Slater character — who's also played by Christian Slater, so we have to refer to him in a strange manner [laughs] — is bossing us around more. We're kind of like contractors for him. On the personal side, we're getting back to making sure that Archer and spying is kind of at the heart of everything, kind of how we were more in earlier seasons. It's a lot more going on missions and fighting and action and people getting shot and stuff. Last season, actually, no one ever died, and we kind of lost a little bit of danger.
The last big thing is Archer and Lana's relationship and what has happened to them since having a kid together. We're gonna see them become a little more involved, especially toward later in the season.
Every episode is so dense with references: to pop culture and obscure history, plus self-referential jokes, recurring gags, and one-liners (two words: "Danger zone.") What's the writing process like, and how do you keep continuity?
It's all my partner, Adam. He writes every single episode. Visually, we have people who inspect, and there's a checklist. It's been really difficult to keep track of tattoos around here. When somebody gets 'em, keeping 'em straight. Both of Archer's shoulders have tattoos, and now we have Pam's back tattoo. It's happened before, where we've just forgotten it and we'll just catch it later on in the animation process.
The one thing that we don't do is that we made a decision early on not to keep track of Archer's bullet holes. There was an episode in season four where he's climbing up the side of a tower and he goes off and recites all the different times he's been shot. Which meant we had to go back and look up all the different times he's been shot. We came to the conclusion early on in the series that we wanted to have very good continuity, but bullet holes ... simply impossible. He would just be one giant bullet hole at this point.
You guys clearly recognize that your viewers are smart enough to keep up with the pace of the show.
Yeah, they are. I did something for a magazine I think two seasons ago, where after every episode I would go through and point out references you may have missed. I had committed to doing it, so I couldn't stop, but I realized halfway through that, like, I'm ruining it! I'm ruining some of the fun of the show. If people are interested, they should discover on their own about what that reference that they just made was.
Do you have any favorite references from over the years?
Well, as I mentioned, Adam writes everything. There are frequently times when I don't know what he's referencing! I think Wikipedia is not only my best friend, it's his best friend. By now, the episodes should say "Written by Adam Reed ... and Wikipedia." Off the top of my head, a favorite reference is Bartleby the Scrivener, just 'cause it makes you feel smart. Anything that he does that's toward an overly educated bent are some of my favorites.
The show's unique sense of humor allows those highbrow references to mix with, like, boob jokes too.
I think that's when the show's doing its best! Somebody farted, and you learned a little about Einstein in the process.
The way Archer uses celebrity voices, like Christian Slater as you mentioned earlier, has been really clever. Do you basically have your pick of guest stars at this point?
Early on in the series, you had to kind of convince people, "Hey, do this!" We don't have a lot of money to give these people, so they do it out of the love of wanting to just do the show because they think it's funny. The last couple of seasons, what's happened is that I have a list of people on my desk whose agents have contacted us, like, "Hey, if there's a part for so-and-so, will you guys let us know, because he or she is a big fan of the show." If something comes up that we think they're a really good fit for, we have them do it. That's how Christian Slater got on the show. He's a legitimate fan of the show. He will quote shit back to me that I've forgotten!
In earlier seasons, Archer made use of the unfortunate acronym ISIS (on the show, it stood for "International Secret Intelligence Service"). At what point did you guys decide you had to distance yourself from the name?
For a long time we were just hoping that we wouldn't have to do it, or have to comment on it. Any comment I make is drawing attention to something that I don't want to draw attention to. Our style of dealing with modern-day stuff, whatever's happening — we don't make a lot of very timely references. You're not gonna see a Bill Cosby joke on our show. I love that South Park does that. I saw the promo for their Christmas special, and was like, "That's awesome!" But that's just not our style. We exist in our own little separate world. So the thing that made the most sense for us, and we were kind of already moving that way anyway, is that we now just work for the CIA. You'll see it in the first episode of this season, how we deal with quickly moving on.
Speaking of the new season, are there any more details you can divulge?
For people who are already fans of the show, there are some characters that are coming back that we haven't heard from in a long time. There was a character from all the way back in season one called Conway Stern, and he's back for an episode this season, played by the actor Coby Bell. We wrote a part specifically for Kumail Nanjiani, because we're big fans of him, and we thought having him as a Pakistani spy fucking with Archer would be pretty interesting.
Also, because of the baby, we decided we had to go ahead and meet Lana's parents. So Archer, Lana, and the baby go out to Berkeley, California and meet her parents, who are very liberal and educated, and are played by CCH Pounder and Keith David. They both have such amazing-sounding voices. My favorite thing about that episode is a scene where Lana's parents get into a hot tub with Archer. And it's awesomely funny and awkward.
One of the things I missed most in season five was, Archer's got this natural enemy in the cyborg Barry, who's also married to the head of the KGB, Katya. They're both back. Barry's episode is early on in the season and it's one of our best ones. We have, playing Pam's sister in that same episode, Allison Tolman from Fargo. Originally we were never going to see Pam's sister, because we talked about her a couple of times, and we always felt like it was similar to Norm's wife on Cheers, where he always talked about her but you never met her. It's a typical sitcom trope where you talk about that person but you never meet them. But we were having a couple of beers with Allison at an event, and it just kind of fit, you know? So we wrote that for her as well.
Most importantly, the season is about Archer and Lana, what they're gonna do with that baby, as well as CIA, more missions, more danger.
Top image via MstrRed on Deviant Art.