If last year’s Archer: Dreamland was the animated show’s equivalent of a semester abroad—a fun but frivolous affair, enjoyable yet lacking the usual stakes to invest in—then Danger Island, the new season, is a follow-up spring break in Miami. There’s still pleasures to be had, but it’s all a bit hollow.
Part of the issue is that, nine seasons in, it feels like creator Adam Reed is casting about for new reasons to remain interested in making his most successful series to date. The A.V. Club’s regular Archer reviewer, William Hughes, noted in passing at the end of last season that when he spoke with Reed, the show’s writer/director/producer/polymath evinced little interest in fidelity to the narrative conceit the previous seven seasons had delivered, ending with Archer’s near-death coma that supposedly sparked these visions playing out in his head. So in the interest of conveying the main elements of the new season for both longtime fans and those curious to see what the latest iteration of the show is all about, here are five key things to know about Archer: Danger Island.
Note: There are some descriptions of Danger Island below, but nothing that reveals major plot points.
1. There’s no longer even a hint of the show’s previous cliffhanger story.
Last season began with an acknowledgement of the seventh season’s ending, in which boorish superspy Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) was shot and left for dead. And while “Dreamland” began with a scene of Archer in a coma, his co-workers hovering over him, it immediately left that behind, the rest of the season playing out (ostensibly in its title character’s head) like a straightforward 1940s noir murder-mystery—as straightforward as an absurdist show like Archer gets, anyway. Here, even the pretense of maintaining a connection with everything that’s come before has been stripped away, diving immediately into this new world, which takes place on some vaguely fictional South Pacific islands. The only oblique joke to acknowledge everything that’s come before happens in the first 10 seconds, as the premiere opens with a sleeping Archer, and a voice-over from Pam Poovey (Amber Nash). “Sometimes I wonder if he’s dreaming,” she says, “but then I remember that I don’t give a shit.” That undercutting of all prior narrative stakes is very Archer, but it’s also a little disappointing for those looking for any resolution.
2. There’s a real Indiana Jones vibe running throughout Danger Island.
Just as last season was a chance for the creative team to riff on noir gumshoe tropes, so too is the new story an opportunity to dig into the stereotypes of swashbuckling adventure serials, as established by the travails of Indy and his ilk. Here, Archer is reborn as a wastrel island pilot, working with partner Pam as a team for hire for guided tours and the like with their one (barely) functioning plane. Archer Airways is kept afloat thanks to investor Malory (Jessica Walters), still Archer’s alcoholic mother, but here transformed into the monied owner of a hotel on their home island of Mitimotu.
The plot kicks off during the buildup to WWII, when Archer and Pam take on a new pair of passengers for a tour above the dense jungle covering the rest of the island. Native Princess Lanaluakalani (Aisha Tyler) and businessman-who’s-obviously-a-German-spy, Siegbert Fuchs (Chris Parnell, and yes, the show gets some mileage out of the pronunication of his last name) want to go for a trip high above the foliage, ostensibly to scope out a location for a new resort, but it’s soon revealed they’re after something far more valuable: A mysterious idol hidden somewhere in the jungle.
3. Cheryl is downright normal at times—at least, compared to old Cheryl.
Continuing “Dreamland”’s renaming of Cheryl Tunt’s character as Charlotte Vandertunt (Judy Greer), the season begins with her New York society woman abandoned penniless on the island after her new husband catches her in bed with Archer and absconds with her passport. The local police captain (Adam Reed, turning Ray into a French officer, “Reynaud”) arrests her for vagrancy after the jilted husband departs, forcing Charlotte into a difficult position—specifically, one proposed by Malory, who bails Charlotte out in exchange for her considering a simple business arrangement: She wants the desperate woman to work as a prostitute in her hotel. (More of “a courtesan,” Malory diplomatically says.)
And while there are still some moments of Cheryl the sex-crazed maniac, especially during her time in prison or when she gets a few drinks in her, this is arguably the most sane the character has been since... well, ever. She’s a pissed-off newlywed whose husband has left her for dead on a remote Pacific island, and she’s just trying to figure out how the hell to survive.
4. The rest of of the returning characters? Maybe not so normal.
While everyone still has many of their usual character traits, specific personas and people have been scrambled in some rather unusual ways. Pam is still Pam, working alongside Archer while supporting and pissing him off in equal measure, the same of which can be said for Malory, too. But Lana has been reworked into the aforementioned island royalty, eager to help “Herr Siegbert” with his business to bring tourists and cash to their island—or so it seems, at least. (Herr Siegbert isn’t the most subtle Nazi spy in history.) When Lana mentions wanting to free her people from the colonial rule of France they’ve endured for more than a hundred years, Siegbert chuckles. “I think I can safely promise that soon you won’t have to worry about France.”
Aside from Cyril Figgis being reborn as a semi-incompetent Nazi, the biggest transformation belongs to Krieger, for one simple reason: He’s not even human. No, not an android, though that would be a reasonable assumption. He’s a macaw—as in, a talking bird. And this macaw (named Crackers) can converse with everyone just like a normal character, á la Stewie Griffin. The show hangs a lampshade on this bizarre change that’s large enough to cover a lighthouse beacon; when Charlotte calls out the unbelievable nature of Crackers’ verbal abilities, Archer brusquely informs her, “He talks, that’s just how it is, let’s not make a big thing out of it.” Some variation of this exchange is repeated multiple times.
5. The show’s love of oddball wordplay, silly non sequiturs, and sharp character beats remains intact.
While a lot of what originally made Archer the electric animated show that first drew in viewers (its hyperspeed riffing on James Bond and cracked workplace-comedy dynamics) is no longer in the mix, the storytelling, style, and stupid-smart sense of humor are all still in place. On one hand, you’ve got Pam farting in Archer’s face with a satisfied, “Hnnh, funny stuff,” and on the other, there’s Pam calling their pre-war predicament “a real Catch-22,” only for Archer to glibly respond, “I don’t think that’s a thing yet.”
While the mix of trivia-knowledge riffing and coarse humor still makes for a lively combo, the season also occasionally delves into extremely dark humor that doesn’t always land, including an awkward moment where an interrupted sexual assault is played for laughs. Part of the issue is that severing the series from any grounded reality, via the complete abandonment of everything that’s come before, means there’s less sense of real-world stakes that could give such pitch-black moments an emotional resonance. It’s fun to watch Archer yelling at his falling-apart airplane, sure, but coming from a series that was once bold enough to balance its dick jokes and action with an honest-to-god cancer subplot and have it land, Danger Island feels awfully lightweight, even before the talking bird appears. Surely there’s a way to balance the two again—the “Archer Vice” season proved it was possible to do a reset on narrative without sacrificing meaning—but until that times comes back around, we’ll take the South Pacific misadventures and just be glad Reed’s warped sensibility still has a prime-time outlet.