Holy shit, Archer’s back.
Not that it ever left. Archer, FX’s flagship animated comedy, has run for eight years and racked up plenty of accolades and fans. It’s always been an excellent TV show and a good way to kill 22 minutes. Unfortunately, in the current television landscape “excellent” often means “eh, maybe I’ll get around to it after I watch these ten other shows that represent the height of the TV genre itself and will fundamentally change my life forever”.
The access we now have to truly transcendently great art and entertainment through our TVs, computer screens and phones means that sometimes excellent doesn’t cut it.
Thankfully, Adam Reed and the folks behind Archer seem to have understood that. Archer has reinvented itself every season since its fifth. Season 5 was the extended Miami Vice parody: Archer: Vice, in which the characters decided to become cocaine traffickers. Season 6 “unrebooted” the franchise back to its roots with some small differences. And then Season 7 rebooted them all over again by relocating the spy agency to Los Angeles to become private detectives.
All of those reboots and reimaginings were creatively necessary and certainly had their strengths but they all still fell short from the loony, quick-witted highs of the first few seasons. Season 8 comes with the series biggest departure yet and gains yet another subtitle. This is Archer: Dreamland, and it’s by far the best “rebooted” version of Archer yet and the only reincarnation that compares favorably with the first few seasons.
Archer: Dreamland begins where last season ends: with Sterling Archer riddled with bullets and facedown in an L.A. swimming pool. From there we get a funeral fakeout that confirms the year is “19….something” and then find Archer in a hospital bed in a coma. This is just a very brief frame narrative to this season’s main event. Save for the first couple of minutes, the entirety of the season (or at least the four episodes we’ve seen) takes place in Archer’s coma dreamworld.
Archer’s fantasy keeps the plot in Los Angeles like last season but instead of the present day, whenever that may be, it’s 1947 and Archer is a World War II vet turned private investigator. The death of his longtime partner, Woodhouse*, thrusts Archer into the criminal underworld where he’s soon dealing with rival organized crime families, kidnapping attempts and crooked cops.
*It’s a very nice touch that Woodhouse, Archer’s long-suffering butler, gets the send off he deserves. The characters of Archer: Dreamland are largely devastated that he is gone and it is a fitting tribute to the recently departed actor who portrayed him, George Coe.
Even in its down seasons, Archer has always been good for a laugh. It’s highly verbal sense of humor has translated across every single iteration. Archer: Dreamland is no exception.
Where Archer: Dreamland improves upon the formula is its story. I wouldn’t be surprised if Reed and his writers carefully plotted out each beat of the season before getting started as the ongoing film noir detective story is satisfyingly rich and twisty. The four episodes I watched represent half of the eight episode order and it truly feels like I’ve seen precisely half of one overarching story. By the time the series is finished, I will not be surprised if it feels like one, coherent two and a half hour animated comedy thriller.
The fact that Archer is dreaming up this world and presumably creating the roles in it means that the characters fall seamlessly into certain detective story archetypes. Cyril Figgis has always been an annoyance to Archer but still could have been charitably described as a comedic straightman or even the audience’s surrogate in this world. But in Dreamland, he is an out and out villain: a crooked cop working for mob boss Len Trexler (yes, Trexler is back and still voiced by Jeffrey Tambor). The new roles suits him perfectly.
As does Cheryl, Mallory, Krieger, Lana, Ray and Lana’s roles. Mallory is Trexler’s rival gang leader, known only as “Mother” and she does all of her criminal work out of the night club she owns, called “Dreamland.” Krieger is a bartender/Nazi scientist there, Ray is a band leader (though his all-Black bandmates disagree with that self-appointed title) and Lana is the sultry lounge singer she’s always been destined to be. As for Cheryl? She has yet another name and Archer’s unconsciousness has cast her in a role that she would undoubtedly be delighted in: damsel in distress.
The most important new characterization in Archer’s fantasy, however, is Archer, himself. There has never been a more heroic interpretation of the spy yet than in Archer: Dreamland. This Archer spends days awake, trying to avenge the death of his loved ones, assist the disenfranchised and struggle through his torturous WWII flashbacks. Of course it would make sense that Archer is the hero of his own fantasy but this version of Archer truly works within the context of the show. Having a real hero grounds the proceedings and makes the story work all the better. He’s still a flagrant, offensive asshole but he also really cares. And it makes the time investment in Archer: Dreamland all the richer.
Sometime between Archer’s debut in 2009 and today, half-hour comedies on TV fundamentally changed. It wasn’t just enough for half-hour comedies to be hilarious by any means necessary anymore, they also had to carry a strange, existential, melancholic weight. Shows like You’re the Worst, Fleabag and BoJack Horseman best illustrate this new concept of “melancholic comedy” (a term that to the best of my knowledge and research was created by The A.V. Club. But if you find someone else who got there first, I’ll be happy to credit them), a kind of comedy where instead of tragedy plus time equaling comedy, it’s just comedy and tragedy existing simultaneously as unlikely bedmates.
Comedy is hard enough already but somewhere along the way our culture decided to make it even harder by demanding that our comedies carry a significant emotional heft. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of that “Peak TV” present cultural existence I referenced earlier.
Regardless, eight seasons in, Archer is a very old dog that has finally learned this new trick. Archer: Dreamland belongs in the same conversation as BoJack Horseman and Fleabag as representing this new, exciting, yet incredibly difficult to pull off breed of TV comedy. It’s not melancholic comedy per se. It’s just comedy with an excellent, engaging story that enriches you in some elemental, indescribable way.
The experience of watching a logical story, told capably with plenty of laughs along the way brings Archer from the merely “excellent” neighborhood back to the “dude, have you been watching Archer?? Because you really should!” neighborhood where it belongs.