In my day job on our Newswire desk, I spend my fair share of time watching aging film and TV franchises try to knock the dust off themselves in a desperate effort to stay vital. Reboots, remakes, resets, reimaginings, re-etc.’s.: There’s any number of different ways to describe the process, most of them beginning with re- and ending in disappointment. For four seasons now, Archer has kicked off every new season with a re-something of some kind, from the serialized experimentation of Archer: Vice, to the back-to-basics vibe of season six and the L.A.-based sojourn it took last year. And none of them have worked.
Don’t get me wrong; there are great episodes in those seasons, weird experiments like “Vision Quest” or simple, satisfying character pieces like last year’s “Double Indecency.” The characters still clicked, the plots stayed interesting, and most importantly, the show was still funny. But for all the time they’ve spent hunting for it, producers Adam Reed and Matt Thompson never found that fabled TV fountain of youth, the magic button that can make the eighth season of a long-running sitcom feel as fresh as the second or third.
Until now. Because Dreamland is Archer’s boldest re-whatever of them all, one that initially seems so bold that it might feel like an attack on the show’s whole core concept. But what seems, at first, like a complete clearing of the board, quickly reveals itself as a brilliantly surgical excision, cutting away the show’s accumulated baggage and leaving behind only those things that work.
First, though, a quick check-in for the most poignant of said baggage: the funeral of Arthur Henry Woodhouse and the lonely bedside vigil of Malory Archer. It’s been (almost) three months since Veronica Deane shot Sterling Archer and left him for dead in a Hollywood pool, and he’s yet to awaken from his injuries. Meanwhile, his faithful servant/torture victim Woodhouse has finally died, following in the footsteps of his voice actor, George Coe. A downbeat Lana notes to a clearly exhausted Malory that the one upside to Archer’s indefinite coma is that he won’t know that the closest thing he ever had to a father is gone. But she’s wrong, as we learn once we descend into the place we’ll be spending the rest of the season: the noir-drenched mind of Sterling Malory Archer, where Woodhouse is suddenly just as dead.
There’s something inevitable about Archer’s internal landscape configuring itself into a Raymond Chandler novel, with Sterling in the role of the down-on-his-luck gumshoe walking these mean streets and investigating the high-impact lead poisoning of his beloved partner. With its cynical hero, love of shadow, and anachronistic styles, the old-school detective tropes have always been lurking in the show’s DNA; in hindsight, the decision to finally embrace it just makes all of last season’s Maltese Falcon references feel like a trial run.
And so we meet back up with all our beloved characters, except it’s not exactly them we’re seeing. Lana is now a smoky-voiced lounge singer, with Ray as her irritating bandleader. Malory is a shady crime lord, the usual Oedipal overtones of her and Archer’s relationship coded into her pseudonym, Mother. Krieger’s a smartass bartender, Cheryl’s a mysterious heiress, Cyril is a cuckolded cop, and Pam, the greatest in any universe, is a morally conflicted police bruiser known as Poovey, whose gender is left deliberately unspecified.
There’s going to be a terrible temptation, throughout this season, to deconstruct these characters and these stories as Archer’s fantasies. On the surface, he’s creating a private universe in which Lana is a new and exciting conquest, Cyril is a perpetual laughingstock, and his mother is controlling, frightening, and just a little bit flirtatious. (In this context, Archer’s own mental image of himself as a battle-scarred, PTSD-afflicted war veteran is absolutely fascinating.) But that urge to psychoanalyze also feels like a critic’s trap. Aside from a few visual flourishes and the occasional stress-induced flashback, Dreamland is completely free of any of the trappings or logic of a dream, something that suggests Reed and Thompson are committed to telling this story on its own merits. For now, at least, the coma is less about tearing into our hero’s psyche, and more about serving as a tool to allow this particular story to be told.
The brilliant thing about the premiere’s approach—weirdly reminiscent of those old Newsradio episodes where the radio station is suddenly a space station or a sinking ocean liner, with the cast transposed into new but similar roles—is what it does to the characters. Everyone here is instantly recognizable as themselves, and yet, they’re shorn of the familiarity that breeds contempt in any show that stays on the air for a sufficient period of time. For seven years, Archer has told the story of the mother-obsessed man-child, the sighing voice of reason, the controlling parent who gets off on being withholding. We’ve seen every permutation of those relationships play out, watched the slow accumulation of backstory and past failures choke off interesting new directions and comedy (the Archer-Lana relationship death spiral, especially). And now, in a stroke of a pen, we’re free of them—without losing the characters themselves. Archer is still Archer (and Archer is still Archer), because the core of his character is more than just an accumulation of flashback and past events. It’s a voice, a point of view, and a comic sensibility, and all three of those things are on display in “No Good Deed.”
As Alex McLevy noted in his write-up of the season’s first four episodes, though, that humor is a little muted in tonight’s premiere. (This might be the lowest Archer’s jokes-per-minute count has ever been.) It’s not that it isn’t funny, per se, but that the style is often radically different from what fans of the show are used to. “No Good Deed” seems inclined to occasionally limit itself to the banter you might actually see in an old John Huston movie—take Sterling’s quick-tongued exchanges with Mother, for instance, or Lana’s line about the “semi-private” detective—in place of the show’s more traditional irony, meta gags, or callbacks. Not that there aren’t more traditionally Archer jokes lurking everywhere, too. Between Poovey and Archer’s attempting to parse the racial hurdles of the different kinds of slavery and Archer basically stealing a dog so he’ll have something to deliver hard-boiled monologues to in his car, the form is well-represented. But for once, the comedy takes a backseat to the story, as Dreamland puts all its pieces into place.
And, weirdly enough, that’s okay with me, because for the first time in years, Archer has a story worth telling and characters with a hint of mystery about them to tell it. Not just Woodhouse’s murder, which eventually sees Archer accepting a job from Mother that puts him in the crosshairs of notorious mobster Len Trexler and his acid-loving henchman, Dutch (a.k.a. Barry) Dylan. (Who ends up crippled, again, of course.) But also the wider story of who these “new” people are. What happened to Archer in the war? How dangerous is Mother? Where do Poovey’s good-natured brawling loyalties ultimately lie? It’s always comforting to be back, cracking jokes with this crew, but for once, Archer’s latest, most refreshing reinvention seems to have left it with something more exciting on its mind than waiting for the next chance to shout “phrasing” in a crowded room.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t point out, again, that the show is constantly topping itself in terms of the visuals. The ice cubes in Archer’s whiskey, the shadows in Mother’s office, the sight of Archer leaping into action—it’s a very far cry from where this series started in terms of its animation.
- Wyatt Cenac only gets a few lines, but he’s great, sarcastically rim-shotting every joke in the Dreamlands club.
- Is there an Emmy for telling someone to “scu-rew” in an old-timey way? Lucky Yates deserves it.
- Actually, all of the Krieger stuff is great: the fast-paced dialogue, the undercutting of Lana’s gloriously sexy exit line, and especially the discussion of where Archer’s “tip” might go.
- Speaking of Lana: I’m not sure what I can say about Aisha Tyler’s take on “Fever” that wouldn’t sound puerile, so I’ll just say, damn.
- Obscure reference alert: Gold Diggers Of 1933 was a Depression-era movie musical. Granville Sharp was a British abolitionist. And, most interestingly, “in defilade” is military speak for “behind cover.” Archer’s new background even leaks into his obscure references this week.
- No relationship on this show hits me in the feelings harder than the friendship between Pam and Archer, and its reluctant preservation into the coma dream is my favorite plot point of the episode.
- Line of the episode: I’m going to give it to Archer, if only because he’s had a hard day (or week, or life). “Now I get to report what I observed…then drove a truck over.”
- And now, for some baseless speculation: Did anybody else notice the way Archer rubbed his nose after every military flashback? Did he pick up a drug habit of his own in the service? (Hence the line about it being “stimulating enough” when he was talking to Mother?) And did it lead him to kill (and then forget killing) Woodhouse? In the real world, Woodhouse’s death is at least partially Archer’s fault, through neglect and cobweb poisoning if nothing else; it would be fitting for that to be the case in the dream world, too.
- And that wraps it up for this week. As my probably overly glowing review suggests, I’m incredibly excited for this season, and to see where the show takes all this new energy. I look forward to seeing what the rest of you think, too.