H. Jon Benjamin and Amber Nash in Archer: Dreamland "Jane Doe" (2017) (© 2017, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

Outrageousness Takes a Holiday in ‘Archer S8: Dreamland’

This may be a clever homage to classic hard-boiled detective fiction from the '40s, but Archer in Dreamland is not the wild man we've come to love/hate.

Archer: Dreamland
Adam Reed
20th Century Fox (DVD)
20 Mar 2018

He’s an arrogant, impulse-driven narcissist who treats women like playthings.

He uses largely inherited money to lead a life of pleasurable excess and self-indulgence.

He talks tough and takes delight in spouting politically incorrect language, because deep down inside he probably is a raunchy, racist, misogynistic white male who basks in his own sense of entitlement.

He thrives on chaos and does outrageous things, as if nothing gives him more pleasure than to shock or unsettle people.

He is reactive and doesn’t seem to think anything through, but somehow things manage to work out for him.

Even when he fouls things up royally, there are few consequences to pay; people love him anyway, though he doesn’t seem to care about them—this prodigal who seems perpetually on the brink of getting his act together, or not.

And Fox foisted him on us.

I’m talking about FX Channel’s irreverent and unflappable Sterling Archer, an animated anti-hero who debuted on 17 September 2009—though, of course, there are uncanny similarities to a real person Fox also helped to elevate in the public consciousness. The difference is that Archer, like his decades-earlier fictional predecessor, Archie Bunker, is able to have it both ways: Some people laugh with him, while others laugh at him. He’s the guy you love to hate … or just love.

Archer seems to exist in a non-specific time and place that has a Cold War meets Mosh Pit vibe, and his vulgar reality can easily satisfy a viewer’s fantasy. Politics aside, there is something cathartic in watching outrageous behavior that you know you couldn’t pull off yourself—whether it’s temperament or morality that’s holding you back.

In 2011, Entertainment Weekly asked readers to vote for their favorite animated series of all time, and Archer placed tenth, ahead of Scooby-Doo!, The Flintstones, King of the Hill, Adventure Time, and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, but behind South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and SpongeBob SquarePants. That’s probably a fair indicator of the show’s appeal. It won’t be for everyone, but its fast-paced dialogue, irreverent jokes, and outrageous scenarios make for a laugh-out-loud funny adult show. When I reviewed Season 1 for DVD Town, I called Archer “a curious blend of office humor and James Bond parody, with a little Arrested Development thrown in for good measure.” It felt over-the-top and spontaneous, ready to combust.

For the first four seasons, Archer worked with his cohorts out of the New York-based, for-profit independent spy agency ISIS (an acronym used before the Islamic State appropriated it, which here stands for International Secret Intelligence Service). They traded insults, indulged in Bacchanalian extravagances, talked filthy dirty, and shot the living hell out of the bad guys and each other. And all the while, the series’ namesake kept on bleeping on. Then in Season 5, perhaps to shed ISIS and avoid any confusion with the headlines, the agency was kicked to the curb and the whole cast went criminal, as in drug cartel criminal. Season 6 brought them back into the spy business and saw Archer become a father, though he was clueless—which well could be his sobriquet. Season 7 saw them functioning as a detective agency, and now in Season 8 the series goes full-blown retro noir.

“No Good Deed” episode (© 2017, FXX Networks. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

Season 8, aka Archer: Dreamland, feels like another complete series reboot, accomplished under the guise of a season-long dream sequence. Archer, left in a coma from the previous season and lying in bed still, re-imagines the gang as the players in a mystery set in what feels like the Los Angeles world of Philip Marlowe, circa 1947. It makes sense that Archer would finally morph into a hard-boiled detective in the noir tradition. He has a dark side, he’s tough talking, he’s a man of action, he’s got a dry/wry sense of humor, he’s a bit of a jaded fatalist, and he isn’t afraid to tangle with femme fatales. He also has the perfect name for it. Miles Archer, you may recall, was Spade’s partner in The Maltese Falcon, and Lew Archer was the name of Ross MacDonald’s hard-boiled detective from the early ’50s.

The show’s visual style is also well suited to the noir tradition, with characters outlined in thick and expressive black lines and rendered only slightly less realistically than the detailed backgrounds. It’s been the series’ style to complement minimalist animation with fairly lavish backgrounds, and this season the artists go crazy with Art Deco, which lends a visual richness to the production—a feast for the eyes.

All that said, Season 8 doesn’t seem to convey the same exhilarating sense of the artists and writers working without a net. It’s not as edgy, unpredictable or outrageous as some of the previous seasons, and I think that’s because the characters have been constricted a bit by the classic roles they’re now relegated to. There are expectations for this genre, and expectations, of course, run counter to the kind of spontaneity that characterized the first seasons of this TV-MA animated series.

Dashiell Hammett once described his detective, Sam Spade, as “a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would have liked to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) in Season 8 is the dreamer in this series and also quite like those private detectives. All business, when maybe we want him to be just a little crazier again for old time’s sake, he thinks he is more of a tough P.I. than he really is.

Like Spade, Archer tries to find out who killed his partner, and the trail leads through notorious L.A. crime boss “Mother”—played by Archer’s mother, the dominating, hard-drinking, caustic former head of ISIS (voiced by Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter). Along the way he gets involved with a kidnapping, a jailbreak, a ghostly encounter, robot dogs, and a berserk killer. Part of the fun this season is seeing where the old characters turn up in the metastory, so I won’t spoil it by revealing any more except to say that all of the regulars appear: Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), Ray Gillette (Reed), Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), and Dr. Algernop Krieger (Lucky Yates).

In the end, though, it’s hard to become as emotionally invested in what happens to the characters this season because it is, after all, Archer’s dream, and we expect he’ll wake in time for Season 9 and another reboot. Archer: Dreamland may be a clever homage to classic hard-boiled detective fiction from the ’40s, but Archer in Dreamland is not the wild man we’ve come to love/hate.

RATING 7 / 10