In this, the first episode of Danger Island, Archer returns as a seaplane pilot in the South Pacific of 1939, where the old cast is once again given a fresh lick of paint. But are we pleased to see them?
When we last saw Sterling Archer he was in a coma, imagining his life and friends as noir tropes in a gumshoe detective story. That was the show’s knowingly-subtitled eighth season, Dreamland, which was a funny reimagining of Archer that distanced itself from the show’s usual trappings, while retaining its characters’ shared history and bawdy sense of humour. Danger Island, the latest soft-reboot, seems to have forgotten about this. Throughout Strange Pilot, the premiere episode, we didn’t get a single attempt to frame the goings-on as remotely connected to the show’s seventh season shenanigans, making it a very strange pilot indeed.
Still, what can you do? The repeated reinvention of Archer is one of the series’ longest-running gags, which has been cropping up with regularity since the fifth season turned the spy spoof into a Miami Vice pastiche without any warning whatsoever. It’s strange to me this time, though. The show’s creator, Adam Reed, has said for a while that he’s going to call it a day on Archer after ten seasons, and Danger Island is the first time I’ve felt as though that’s probably a good idea.
Fresh from poking fun at hardboiled detective fiction, the cast of Archer now find themselves in 1939, knocking off adventure serials on a South Pacific island. Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is an eyepatch-wearing seaplane pilot working for a company sponsored by his mother, Malory (Jessica Walter). His co-pilot is a brutish Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) – a character who, along with Malory and the recently-wed Cheryl (Judy Greer), remains ostensibly unchanged.
But Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) is now an effete Nazi whose new name sounds like “*****”, and whose typically nefarious purposes require a seaplane pilot and include Princess Lanaluakalani (Aisha Tyler). Archer, now single, is predictably smitten with Lana – again. Resetting their relationship isn’t something I’m all that fond of, but at least Archer’s budding platonic pairing with Pam feels like a natural development; she has, after all, transitioned from a gossipy HR lady to a tattooed bareknuckle brawler without ever really changing her personality at all.
That’s the thing, though. Strange Pilot seems to suggest that just so long as Archer leaves its character dynamics more or less unchanged, it doesn’t strictly need to contribute to the show’s broader fiction. And it’s wrong. For all the times the show’s plot has been refreshed, it’s deceptively layered characters have continued to develop along the same trajectories. Because Danger Island doesn’t even spare a moment to check in on the comatose Archer we remember, it’s severing its connection to the show’s history. Without the weight of that, nothing that happens in Danger Island can really contribute anything worthwhile.
The question, though, is whether or not it can contribute anything funny. Which it can, of course – it’s Archer. Strange Pilot serves up a lot of the superficial elements that have made the show so consistently funny over the years, and it turns out they’re still just as funny now, bolstered by the freshness of the new pre-war Casablanca aesthetic and some easy-money gags like Ray Gillette talking in an absurd Ah, ze Eiffel Towair accent like one of the ******* Aristocats.
Also funny, and Strange Pilot’s most inspired reinvention, is that Krieger (Lucky Yates) is now a talking macaw named Crackers. And when I say “talking” I really mean it – he has sassy back-and-forths with the characters that repeatedly bring up his chattiness as being weird. Archer is usually on hand to insist that nobody makes a big thing of it, which he might as well be addressing directly to the audience as they wonder why the whole thing feels so distinctly aimless.
Not to put a downer on the whole thing, obviously. I love Archer, and I’ll continue to watch it even as it circles the drain of time-killing pointlessness, the engine of its hero’s seaplane perilously stalled above the titular Danger Island, waiting to crash. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the whole thing will be a ruse; another knowing wrinkle of cheeky genius that Archer has produced so effortlessly over the years. But I have my doubts, and if Strange Pilot is anything to go by, the greatest threat lurking on this tropical island is that the real Archer might never wake up after all.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.