In addition to making a lateral move from FX to sister network FXX, Archer reinvents itself in season 8 by evoking the films of Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart, Samuel Fuller, and so on. Going noir is a natural fit for the sardonic animated spy series, which proved it could alter the theme of an individual season without losing everything that made the show work in the first place. That was back in season 5 when the series launched Archer Vice, a spin on the usual spy format that saw Sterling Archer and the other characters disband ISIS (for obvious and not so obvious reasons) and instead turn to crime. In this case running a cartel.
The genre shift quickly demonstrated its worth on a creative level, giving the writers a chance to play in another sandbox for a while without necessarily going out and finding new toys. This time, the shift is a little more dramatic, as the Sterling Archer, his mother, Lana, Pam, Cheryl, Cyrill, and Ray aren’t simply the same characters in a new, present-day situation; they’re reinvented slightly to embody the film noir archetypes they’re meant to represent. It’s not a complete re-imagining by any means – the entire impetus of the Dreamland season is that the story is unfolding within Archer’s brain, as he lays in a coma as a result of the injury he suffered at the end of season 7.
The premiere moves through explaining the set-up quickly – though the handholding is a little odd for a show that generally launches into some pretty obscure jokes and references regardless of whether or not everyone tuning in is on the same page. Still, if doing an entire season in a bygone era (and, more specifically, within a certain style of filmmaking) that also happens to be unfolding in the title character’s booze-soaked brain isn’t reason enough to provide a little clarity then nothing is.
What matters is that the new setting – or the episode’s effort to establish the setting – doesn’t take the viewer out of the moment but rather plunges them deeper into the world Dreamland effortlessly constructs. The series isn’t beyond playing with the audience a bit, though, as the premiere opens on a funeral that is eventually revealed to be for Archer’s butler Woodhouse (an appropriate move considering the actor who voiced the character, George Coe, passed away in 2015). The tribute to Woodhouse (and Coe) doesn’t end there, however, as the loyal butler’s death is transferred to Dreamland as the inciting incident that kicks the story into gear. This time, Woodhouse isn’t Archer’s manservant but rather his partner, with whom he ran Woodhouse & Archer a detective agency. Woodhouse is found gunned down in an alleyway, and his partner, vowing to solve the mystery and get revenge, ends up in the employ of Mother, a Los Angeles crime lord represented by Malory, Archer’s mother.
Though it’s a lot to take in, the premiere settles down and gets to the business at hand fairly quickly, meaning it sends Archer in almost the entirely opposite direction of solving Woodhouse’s murder within the span of a few minutes. As with any good noir, what at first appears to be a diversion or dead end winds up part of a looping narrative in which even the most tangential and seemingly extraneous plot threads eventually reveal themselves to be integral to weaving a much larger tapestry. That tapestry, of course, is filled with the same sort of rapid-fire jokes, sardonic humor, and priceless miscommunications (deliberate and otherwise) the show is known for. In other words, slipping on a three-piece suit and wearing a fedora works entirely to Archer‘s advantage.
Watching the first few episodes, there’s no waiting around while the show tries on its new skin; it just settles in and takes off. That might be the key to its success. None of the humor is altered – or lost for that matter – in order to appeal to the sensibilities of the new theme. It was the same with Vice and with the Magnum P.I./Hollywood detective agency riff the series did last season. Archer doesn’t call anyone “dame” and no one puts on any sort of affectation in order to assimilate to the style of filmmaking the show finds itself paying homage to and sometimes sending up. Even then, when Archer is playing into tropes normally associated with film noir, it does so without being a direct send-up of films, filmmakers, or actors. Dreamland really is another Archer story told through the lens of film noir, gangsters, and alcoholic private investigators who find themselves explaining the plot to stray dogs instead of narrating in voiceover.
While Dreamland has some fun tropes it can play around with, it also doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to explore the Dreamland version of its characters’ backstory. Archer is a war veteran likely suffering from PTSD, Ray is a crooked, two-bit detective whose partner, Pam, is a hot dog-scarfing bruiser with dreams of starting a very unusual family, and Cheryl is the heiress to a publishing fortune hoping to escape a weird familial situation that becomes a potent running joke over the first few episodes.
In all, it’s a new beginning for Archer and at the same time it’s the same old Archer. Dreamland is a clever, stylish, often laugh-out-loud funny detour from the road the series was traveling just a season ago. Knowing it’s all a dream reduces the stakes to a certain degree, but for whatever reason it doesn’t diminish the show’s entertainment value. In Dreamland, the entertainment is as high as it’s ever been.
Archer: Dreamland continues next Wednesday with ‘Berenice’ @10pm on FXX.
Images: FX Networks