Archer 5.1, White Elephant Review

rating: 3

For four outstanding seasons, Archer has been one of the best-written animated shows on television. Its traditional espionage setting, we were told last week, would be totally upturned in the fifth season, and the first episode did not disappoint in delivering on that promise. It's definitely a transitional episode. The "new beginning" motif is implanted in you right from the opening seconds, with Rossini's Call to the Cows accompanying Archer's fantasy entrance into the ISIS office. It's a funny way to open a season to a show, cinematic and silly. That fantasy is harshly disrupted with a literal bang, and the episode starts off strong all the way around, but too much of it is focused too explicitly on transition. I'll start with the good, of which there is plenty. In the opening scene, the way it's revealed that the men who attacked ISIS are with the federal government is brilliant. It's a real talent of the show's writers, and it demonstrates their concern with making the show the full package. This isn't just a comedy, it's also a kickass action show with moments of real suspense and surprise. Lana's no-nonsense character often delivers the best reactions to harsh realities, and her mixture of panic and shock when she sees the letters "FBI" on the agents' uniforms is spot-on. The production values have also obviously improved. The camera swooping into Malory's office at the beginning of the episode really looks great. Despite the show's simple, Hanna-Barbera-style animation, it's always packed a ton of detail into every scene, and that's been maintained. Smoke lingers throughout much of the opening scene at ISIS headquarters, where smashed-up computers and paintings with bullet holes in them lie strewn about on the floor or hanging crooked on the wall.
Another definite highlight is the interview montage, where the office drones of ISIS spill any and all beans they have to spill. It's a gas reliving series highlights as the characters tell them, and arriving at the same time they do to Cyril's so-obvious-it's-genius conclusion, "Geez, when you list everything that ISIS has done, it sounds kinda bad." It's also a good showoff for one of my favorite aspects of the show, the tendency of one character to finish the thought of another in a different scene. So you get funny little moments like Ray saying, "Speaking of sexual assault," immediately followed by Pam, in a different room, asking, "Which time?" The music that plays in the background also adds to the manic, vaudevillian nature of the rapid-fire verbal jabs. Speaking of music, the intro music and video have been altered in numerous subtle ways. One of the most apparent changes is the addition of Lucky Yates, the voice of Krieger, to the opening credits. It's a move that's been long overdue, like adding Jamie Farr to the opening credits of M*A*S*H in its fourth season. But there's an awkward hiccup in the music over Yates's name that doesn't need to be there €“ as long as they're reanimating so much of it anyway, why not figure out a way to add Yates in without adding the clumsy extra measure? That's a minor complaint, but sadly, there are major ones. Pretty much the entire final act is a disappointment. As the characters ponder their lives without ISIS, too much about future episodes is revealed. In particular, there is a very long montage over Cheryl's rechristened character Cherlene performing a cover of Baby Please Don't Go. The performance is excellent, but the montage of previews gives just about everything away. It's a relentless onslaught of spoilers, and it's pretty unforgivable. Already White Elephant is a pretty short episode at under 20 minutes, and nearly three minutes of that total is devoted to this.
I understood the creators' decision to announce the spoilers that Archer would be changing from an espionage setting to a drug-dealing one. Such a drastic shift would surely be met with significant fan backlash were it not preempted in this fashion. I was enthusiastically on-board, eager to see what insanity the former ISIS team could get themselves into with their new professions as drug pushers. Now, I'm just disheartened that I've seen so much of what's to come. For what percentage of the episode is actually a proper episode of Archer, and not either relived moments or spoiler-heavy previews, it's pretty good. Archer and Lana's relationship continues to evolve. One of the show's most prominent secondary characters loses his life in a dramatic and shockingly abrupt (but no less amusing) moment. And there are plenty of funny lines. But it's such a utilitarian episode, serving primarily to segue into "Archer Vice," with the Twitter hashtag "#GoVice" even appearing on the screen at the episode's end. White Elephant €“ so named because the "elephant in the room" Archer wants to discuss at the end is a literal ton of cocaine €“ is essentially a 20-minute advertisement for the new season. The final five minutes are geared so strongly toward selling new fans that as an old fan, I feel a little betrayed. I'm sure there will still be plenty of surprises, but I didn't want to see as much as I did. You already had me hooked, Archer; just don't make such a desperate sales pitch at me anymore and I'm sure we will still be cool.

Kyle Schmidlin is a writer and musician living in Austin, TX. He manages the news blog at Follow him at or