It’s 1947 Los Angeles. Or at least, that’s the conceit. In truth, it’s an imaginary L.A. made up of gumshoe noir tropes, from the femme fatale torch-song singer to the sharp-talking gangsters to the mysteries that grow more byzantine with each passing moment. Into this world of smoky nightclubs and back-alley double dealings comes a private eye, one hand firmly around a flask, the other on the handle of a gun. He’s got a single-minded purpose, and nothing will keep him from getting to the bottom of the case. Unless he sees an unattended cop car—then, he’ll take a little time from his zealous cause to draw a penis on the back of the vehicle.
That’s Archer: Dreamland at its essence: a chance for one of TV’s more outrageous comedies to indulge in its penchant for old-school tropes while doing something naughty with them. If it feels at times like the show is having more fun just riffing on the setting and era of its latest narrative gambit than it is delivering laugh lines, it’s because season eight is committed to providing a full-on hardboiled detective story, as messy and sprawling as Chinatown, albeit with more jokes about sex slaves. But even retaining the jet-black sense of wicked humor that so often characterizes the series, there’s an old-fashioned fondness for goofball vaudeville chicanery on display in this season, a playful and laid-back approach to the comedy that goes hand in hand with the retro world in which it’s set. Archer has always had a nostalgic appreciation for the antic paces of screwball comedy, and going back in time gives the show permission to alter its tone somewhat so as to follow that muse.
Dreamland begins with a somber reality check and a funeral: Archer’s long-suffering butler, Woodhouse, has died. It’s been three months since the events of season seven, and The Figgis Agency’s top P.I. is still in a coma after being shot in the finale. Mallory sits by his side in the hospital, drinking and waiting for her son to wake up. Lana comes by for regular visits. But we quickly swirl into Archer’s mind, where his brain has somehow processed hearing word of Woodhouse’s death, and turned it into a massive, presumably season-long dream in which Woodhouse, the partner of Sterling Archer’s gumshoe, has been gunned down in an alley, and everyone’s a suspect. All the series regulars from Archer’s real life are cast in different roles here, from Pam’s roughneck cop to Mallory’s crime boss (nicknamed “Mother,” of course) to Lana’s nightclub singer who dreams of expanding her performance to include stand-up comedy. They all retain their fundamental personalities; they’ve merely been dropped into the middle of a crime noir, and handle it with the precise lack of tact and subtlety you would expect. Especially Krieger—it’s not long before he’s handing out cybernetic body parts.
Still, it takes a little while for the show to settle into its newest conceit. The first episode starts slowly, introducing the world and everyone’s new role with barely a scattered joke here and there. The banter improves as the episode progresses, but it’s not until almost the end that it starts to find a rhythm. Subsequent installments fare better, mostly because the heavy lifting to set up this fictional universe has been done, meaning Archer can begin building anew the running gags and callbacks that constitute the firmament of the series’ comedic sensibility. Not being able to rely on pre-existing structures and character relations to deliver jokes forces Adam Reed and his fellow writers to mine humor from other sources, most notably the personalities of our team, in ways both successful and less so. Yes, Cheryl is a crazed masochist, but when she takes center stage (as in episodes two and three) and every other word out of her mouth is practically a non-sequitur of cruelty and/or sexual fantasy, it starts to get repetitive. But other tactics work marvelously, such as Archer’s perpetual exasperation with everyone else’s inability to carry out plans, or the way he’s reduced to a state of tongue-tied flop sweat whenever he tries to woo Lana. Speaking of which, Lana is mostly incidental in the first four episodes, but the show finds great humor in her effort to transform into an observational stand-up comic, who can’t seem to find anything but syphilis about which to crack jokes.
While there’s morbid and gross humor aplenty, up to and including the desecration of a dead body, the show actually finds some of its most reliable humor in the exploration of noir tropes and retro sight gags. From the way that Archer repeatedly provides tough-guy internal monologues while driving, only to reveal a different array of passengers hearing him talk, to a great recurring bit where the drummer of Ray’s jazz band provides a rimshot to any joke uttered in the nightclub regardless of how far away the speaker might be, there are moments when Dreamland feels as much like a Mel Brooks comedy as it does gleefully vulgar contemporary animation.
While having an entire season’s storyline be the dream of a man in a coma arguably makes for the lowest possible narrative stakes, it also allows the show to experiment with structure and form in ways even more audacious than the Vice season. An extended flashback for Krieger’s bartender/drug dealer lets Reed stage an entire World War II scientist subplot with nary a laugh for minutes on end, just for the sake of seeing where it leads. (Spoiler: To a dark but very funny joke.) Supporting turns from Jeffrey Tambor and Wyatt Cenac, as well as the return of Eugene Mirman’s sibling to Cheryl—here reimagined as a bored millionaire of a very different sort than the one we saw with a fondness for underwater laboratories—ensure there are plenty of talented people coming in and out of each episode to play off the ace cast. It may not be delivering a hyper-speed barrage of jokes, but Archer: Dreamland is an inventive fever dream containing pleasures all its own.