Archer, the ribald and terribly funny animated spy series airing on FX, never ceases to surprise. There was the madcap insanity of Season 5, which saw Sterling Archer and his merry band of spies take the show on the road, forming a makeshift drug cartel in order to push “a literal tonne of cocaine.” Then Season 6 saw the show “unreboot,” drop the ISIS acronym, and return to the office where the dysfunctional espionage family is controlled by their CIA overlords.
Now, the fifth episode this season, “Vision Quest,” has upped the ante: an episode about nothing, set entirely in an elevator.
“Vision Quest” recalls “The Chinese Restaurant,” the 11th episode of the sitcom Seinfeld’s second season, in which Jerry, Elaine, and George wait for their table inside a Chinese restaurant. (Naturally, bickering ensues.) “The Chinese Restaurant” was co-written by Larry David, and NBC execs reportedly objected strongly to the material’s nonexistent storyline, but David threatened to quit if they altered the script. It’s now viewed as a Seinfeld classic.
Creator Adam Reed and executive producer Matt Thompson didn’t face the same pushback when they proposed “Vision Quest” to FX brass, as the network grants them full autonomy on the show. As far as the inspiration for the episode goes, Reed says that while one of his friends did fall down an open elevator shaft (he’s doing OK now, thankfully), he’s never been stuck in an elevator before or had a problem with claustrophobia.
“I don’t like being in places that I can’t leave,” says Reed. “I’ll never go on a cruise, for example. You’re just stuck on a boat with a chance of getting seasick or drowning! But this one just spewed out of my head. I wish there were more scripts like these that were easy to write.”
“Vision Quest” opens with Archer, Lana, Cyril, Pam, Krieger, and Ray entering the office elevator—housed, of course, in a Laundromat—before it gets stuck. Trapped without cellphone service, the gang soon begins to lose their respective minds. Pam attempts to get Cyril to masturbate. Archer fires off his gun—repeatedly. Krieger clenches his canister of “human being soup.” Ray busts out some serious double entendres. Cheryl screams. And Pam eventually can’t hold it in any longer and grosses everyone out by peeing into a just-guzzled 40 oz. beer bottle, spilling everywhere.
The episode took Reed less than two days to write, and the dialogue-heavy script was 40 pages long—or two pages of dialogue per minute. (The standard is usually a page a minute.) Since the characters on Archer are, by this point, so fleshed out, it’s basically an episode packed with what Thompson calls “character-based jokes” that align with each character’s specific, demented worldview.
“I knew how it was going to end, so you don’t really have to plot out any intricate whodunits, MacGuffins, red herrings, or anything,” says Reed. “It’s basically people bickering for 20 minutes, so it wrote really fast.”
Throughout the course of the episode, it’s suggested that one of Archer’s most celebrated sayings—“PHRASING!”—is being put out to pasture. Reed acknowledges that this may be the last we hear of “phrasing,” though it’s had a good run.
“It might be gone!” Reed says. “I don’t know what’s going to replace it, though.”
According to Thompson, “Vision Quest” is a shining testament to the genius of Reed, who not only serves as the showrunner of Archer but has also written nearly every episode of a series that’s midway through its sixth season. Whereas most comedy shows have a writers’ room packed with 10-15 scribes, Archer’s consists of Reed sitting alone at a computer.
“It kills me that my partner, Adam, doesn’t get recognition for his writing of the show. I don’t think he’s going to say any of this stuff because he’s not that guy,” says Thompson. “He’s written—by himself—at the very least 90 percent of what comes out of anyone’s mouth on the show. It’s an amazing feat. Tonight’s episode was really a writer’s episode because nothing happens! It’s people trapped in an elevator, and it’s really funny. How do you do that? This is all Adam’s skills on display at their highest.”
But don’t worry—the gang eventually gets out of the elevator. And future episodes of the show will see them embark on even crazier adventures, including a highly anticipated upcoming crossover with that other FX spy series, The Americans. In it, Archer takes Lana to Wales under the guise of a romantic getaway, but it’s really a top secret and highly dangerous mission. They get mixed up with Welsh separatists—whose leader is voiced by Americans star Matthew Rhys.
“It was based on stories Matthew Rhys told us about the Free Wales Army,” says Reed. “We have [Rhys] posing as a silly American with a wig on as a nod of the head to The Americans.”
The trapped in an elevator episode also provides a nice bookend to the two-part Season 6 finale that’s set inside the human body—featuring background animation decidedly more varied than the wood paneling of an elevator. For the finale, comedienne Carrie Brownstein guest stars as a scientist—following in the footsteps of her Portlandia co-star Fred Armisen, who voiced despot Gustavo Calderon in last season’s two-parter.
“We have the rest of Portlandia on!” says an excited Reed. “The gang gets shrunken down into a submarine and gets injected into a scientist’s body, so Carrie Brownstein plays a scientist and also a lover of the scientist whose body they’re in. It’s a total trip!”