The eighth season of Adam Reed’s anarchic, sneakily genius spy-spoof animated series – and a bit of a gamble, this time around. Sure, the FXX cartoon has upended its central premise several times, and mostly just for fun. The fifth season was a Miami Vice pastiche in which the cast became hapless drug traffickers; the seventh moved the show (which had always been New York-based) to Los Angeles. But Archer: Dreamland is the most thorough reimagining the series has been treated to. Set in the late 40s, it’s an outright noir, which sees the familiar characters we know and love recast as genre archetypes with roughly the same sense of humour.
Didn’t the last season end on a cliffhanger?
It did, and this one opens with half a resolution to it – Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), the devilishly-handsome alcoholic spy, is alive after being shot several times at the end of season 7 and left face-down in a swimming pool. But he’s currently comatose, which allows Reed a whole season’s time to think about how he’s going to write his way out of this particular corner. Dreamland disappears straight into Archer’s unconscious brain, and doesn’t leave for the remainder of the season.
And what does Sterling Archer have on his mind?
Not exactly what you’d expect. This time, he’s a post-war private investigator; still with a weakness for women and liquor, and still as wonderfully acerbic, but also haunted by flashbacks of his time spent fighting in World War II. Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), Archer’s long-time love interest, is now a sultry vixen lounge singer in a club owned by Malory (Jessica Walter), who’s still drier than Ghandi’s flip-flops but is now one of L.A.’s most feared crime bosses. (She goes by the alias “Mother”, so all the old jokes still work.)
Meanwhile, Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) and Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) are unequally crooked cops; Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer) is the spoiled heiress of a publishing fortune; and Krieger (Lucky Yates) is finally the die-hard Nazi mad-scientist the show has always suggested he was. These are the characters you know, with many of the same quips, but they’re repurposed to fit the film-noir template, which is at once the season’s most difficult obstacle to clear, but also, when all is said and done, it’s most inspired twist.
What’s the story, then?
Well, it’s kick-started by the death of Archer’s partner, Woodhouse, who in previous seasons has functioned as his long-suffering butler, and whose voice-actor, George Coe, recently passed away. A lot of the season (particularly the very end, which I won’t spoil) nakedly plays as a tribute to the late Coe, and it’s a touching thing to witness in amongst all the depraved, slapstick chaos you might expect. Needless to say, Archer’s investigation has him run afoul of competing criminal bigwigs, crooked cops, undercover IRS agents, and robotic henchman. Because Archer.
Does the new style work?
Eventually, yes, but it takes a couple of episodes to find its feet. The major problem is that the new setup requires a certain amount of narrative legwork that the series isn’t used to; previous seasons – even those that qualify as “reboots” – generally made minor adjustments to the style and theme without altering the show or the cast’s roles in it. Dreamland isn’t just introducing a new aesthetic, but also a new tone, a new structure, and new versions of those old, familiar characters, and sometimes, early on, there are fewer jokes because there simply isn’t room for them.
But once Dreamland re-establishes itself – there are parts for Jeffrey Tambor’s Len Trexler, as Malory’s mob-boss rival, and Ray Gillette (Reed himself) as the leader of an otherwise all-black band – it begins to speed through its eight 22-minute episodes with an assurance that is slightly atypical of this series. The plotting here seems outlined beat-for-beat, and by the end the overall effect is of a two-and-a-half hour animated thriller, with all the attendant twists and turns.
But is it still funny?
Of course it is. Despite occasional missteps, Archer has always been good for a laugh, if nothing else, and Dreamland is no different. A lot of the gags poke fun at genre-specific wrinkles that weren’t there before, or the ridiculousness of the era – particularly in regards to race and sex, two taboo topics that Archer, as always, approaches with a daring intelligence – but there’s a decent amount of familiar material that has been running for all eight seasons, and it’s always funny to hear a joke about the size of Lana’s hands.
So you recommend it?
Yep. It’s important not to say too much when it comes to comedy, because nothing deflates jokes quicker than having them explained out of context. You’ll have to take my word for it, I guess. But, more importantly, what Archer: Dreamland has managed to do is teach an old dog a new trick; how to build an engaging, sometimes quite moving narrative out of the usual acidic jokes and filthy tangents.
And it’s still Archer, at the end of the day.
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