(Image: FXX)

Now that we’re more than halfway (!) through the show’s eighth season, the pressures imposed by Archer’s truncated episode order are really starting to poke through its laid-back noir veneer. For the first four episodes, Dreamland’s crazy premise, and the twists on familiar formulas and characters, served as a welcome distraction from that ticking clock, but “Sleepers Wake” feels like a show wasting time when there’s precious little time to waste. Or, to put it more bluntly: You only had eight episodes, and you spent one of them on this?

It’s not that “Sleepers Wake” is bad, per se. We’ve finally got Lana back in the mix—more on that later, though—Poovey and Charlotte are rock-solid as ever, and the show is making the most out of Eugene Mirman’s wonderfully deranged performance as taboo-breaking shrub-hater Cecil Vandertunt. But it also feels like the show killed a lot of time tonight on scenes that don’t play to its comic strengths.

Take Barry/Dutch, for instance, a character that Archer has used time and time again to simultaneously ratchet up tension and deliver laughs. Like so much of Archer’s cast, though, Barry is best when he’s playing with the core crew, whether he’s beating down our hero or making awkward small talk with Cheryl or Pam. His scenes with Krieger tonight are good—leading not only into a pretty great payoff to the cat-licking runner from last week but also a callback to “Robots sure can punch good”—but then he goes off on his own, for a Terminator/The Wild One mashup that nobody knew they were missing. (There’s a little Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in there, too, at the end.) It’s a fun fight scene, and I’ll never not enjoy listening to Dave Willis riff, but the Brando-looking biker gang Barry destroys just isn’t as interesting as Archer’s main cast. (The same goes double for Cyril’s adventures with the hot-dog-chomping morgue workers, even if “the zombie titular” and Danny’s lack of vision both helped justify that particular detour.)

The real culprit here, I think, is the show’s new focus on serialization. We’ve started every episode this season right where the last one left off (and with the same “So, what are we doing?” line every time, to boot), and the desire to show every piece moving into place is starting to feel a little obsessive. It’s clear that Adam Reed and his team are setting up something big—presumably when a crazy cyborg, a very tired detective, and a million-dollar ransom converge at Len Trexler’s place some time in the near future—but they’re struggling to find fun stuff for the characters to do without violating the semi-real-time conceit. It’s telling that Archer himself doesn’t show up until almost halfway through this episode; in a season with looser storytelling, the writers might have been able to get him involved in those earlier scenes, but the show’s keeping such meticulous track of its timeline that it limits the freedom for its characters to play.

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None of this is out-and-out bad. Structural problems aside, this is still Archer, and it only takes Poovey wolfing down a guinea pig, or Cyril getting briefly distracted with admiration for his soon-to-be-burning dick, to give a scene a suitable payoff. But it’s not living up to the potential that’s inherent in these characters either.

Which brings us back around to Lana, the person who’s been most poorly served by Dreamland’s trip into Archer’s head. After spending two episodes on the outskirts, the third in her own B-plot, and the fourth entirely absent, suddenly Lana’s right in the mix of things, doing… something? First, she lays the femme fatale routine on Archer, seemingly out of nowhere. Then, she follows him to the ransom handoff for no clearly explained reason. Is she planning to rob him? Or an undercover cop? We have no idea, beyond her snooping around Dreamland. And then she gets taken out of the big car chase at the end, after having no impact on anything tonight whatsoever. It’s all so incomplete and shoddy-feeling that it almost has to be setting up something for later, if only because it’s not like this show to leave an end so blatantly loose.

“Sleepers Wake” isn’t a bad episode of Archer, or an unfunny one. (Lana’s line about her blue lady balls and Cecil’s withering scorn for topiary pretty much justify the price of admission all by themselves.) But it does feel like the first time all season that Archer is pushing against Dreamland’s structural challenges, rather than working with them. Here’s hoping they get back in sync next week.

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Stray observations

  • “You know what happens to snoops?” “…They get poops?”
  • Sleepers Wake” (or “Awake”) is an old hymn that was adapted by Bach into a celebrated choral cantata. Presumably, it directly references Krieger waking up from getting knocked out and Cyril waking up in the morgue. On a less literal level, though, it’s also the name of an H.G. Wells novel about a guy who falls into a coma for 203 years; I’m not saying that means season nine will definitely be “Archer In The Future,” but if it is, y’all owe me a dollar.
  • On the other hand, some of the press materials for tonight have the episode as “Sleeper’s Wake”, which would imply something much darker about Archer’s fate…
  • Griffith Park Observatory looked lovely; the shot of Poovey grabbing the suitcase in smoke-bombed silhouette was pretty beautiful, too.
  • Cheryl’s line about her mom walking into a door might be the casually darkest joke this show’s ever tossed off.
  • Trexler gets two great lines in about 30 seconds of screentime. “How many women can one man lose?!” is good, but his diatribe about relish in potato salad is even better. (On the other hand, if he’s anti-mustard, I don’t think we can barbecue.)
  • Poovey’s only had cuy, congee, and salted duck eggs to eat today (the last two a reference to their ongoing Chinese-sister-wives situation).
  • Cecil Vandertunt on:
    Cuy: “Delicious… like all taboos!”
    Topiary: “My god, what rubbish! Shrubbish! Hehehe…”
    Economics: “What does one do with a $20 bill? Buy a single orange?”
    Loyalty: “I trust him! He brought me a finger!”
    I really hope the botched ransom handoff doesn’t mean we’ve seen the end of Eugene Mirman on Dreamland.
  • Hey, Trinette!
  • “Feels pretty good, huh, Dutch? Yes it does, Other Dutch.”
  • Obscure reference alert: Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym used to write the Nancy Drew books, very few of which feature the sorts of elaborate dismemberment situations from Charlotte’s story. (On the other hand, of course Ms. Vandertunt’s normal fascination with death and violence would give her a fetish for Nazi supervillain The Red Skull.) Cuy, congee, a pisco sour, and some salted duck eggs all sound pretty good right now. I Walked With A Zombie came out in 1943. And I noted all of the film references I spotted in Barry’s bar fight up above.
  • No matter what Ray says about diminishing returns, the rim-shot gag in the Dreamlands club will never not make me laugh.
  • Line of the episode: Carrying on the theme of one great line justifying a lot of surrounding rigmarole: Aisha Tyler’s resigned reading on “Now I have no liquor… just a big fat pair of blue lady balls” is the most Lana’s sounded like herself all year.
  • Archer has another war flashback tonight. These have to be building to something, right? Between the all-a-dream premise and the frequent references back to the war, it feels like Dreamland is pulling some kind of elaborate trick I can’t quite work out yet. (Or I’m jumping at narrative shadows. It’s happened before.)
  • Mobile report: Annoyingly, I couldn’t finish tonight’s case because of a bug with the bit where you’re sewing the guinea pig together. (*Shudder*) On the other hand, the writing refers to Poovey as “Pam,” so I’m starting to doubt how strictly monitored and canonical Archer P.I. might be.

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