Although Archer: Danger Island felt like a sure sign the long-running animated series about a caustic man-child of a spy, his perpetually pickled mother, and his dysfunctional co-workers had finally run out of steam, Archer: 1999 suggests the show’s ostensible creative nadir may have simply been the result of a concept that didn’t quite work. Since Archer has been living out its dreams of genre hopping for the past few seasons, the comedy has found itself malleable enough to deliver the goods in a variety of new settings, save one. In putting the characters in a what amounted to an old school adventure serial (minus the adventure, mostly) creator Adam Reed and his writers struggled to satirize the concept while also sticking true to the characters they’d been writing for the better part of a decade.
Archer: 1999, then, while not necessarily being a true return to form, is at least more successful in its efforts to lampoon a genre while still participating in it, and producing the sort of laughs and rapid-fire wordplay that’s come to be expected from the series. The setup is fairly simple — it was full established in the closing moments of Danger Island — as it re-imagines Archer and the rest of the gang as a collection of space-faring salvagers. It’s a little bit Alien and a little bit Firefly, with a hint of Battlestar Galactica and a number of other space-set films and television series mixed in for good measure.
A big part of what makes 1999 work is in how closely the concept hews to the series’ original conceit. What was once ISIS is now a ragtag crew aboard a space vessel, getting into the same sort of shenanigans they normally would, but, you know, this time they’re in the inky void of space. Whereas Danger Island shifted several key relationships around, turning Lana (Aisha Tyler) into an island princess in league with a Nazi-fied Cyril (Chris Parnell), thereby all but obliterating the unique dynamic those characters enjoyed with not only Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), but also Mallory (Jessica Walter), Pam (Amber Nash), Cheryl (Judy Greer), and Ray (Reed), and Krieger (LuckyYates), 1999 establishes right off the bat that the core relationships of its characters are mostly intact. There are a few superficial changes, sure, like the fact that Pam is a hulking rock-like alien and Cheryl is an ace fighter pilot with a death wish, but for the most part, Archer: 1999 is what it’s advertised as: Archer in Space.
With the series' sensibilities largely present, 1999 is free to seek laughs in a variety of scenarios filled with the sort of acerbic humor and extreme violence that have marked the series since it first premiered. The plot is still mostly thin - the series settles for a collection of science fiction-inspired scenarios that Reed and his writers can mine for comedy gold. But what Archer: 1999 lacks early on in terms of an overarching serialized story, it makes up for with a succession of misadventures featuring a crew of such staggering ineptitude they make Star Trek’s unlucky redshirts look like the saviors of the galaxy.
Much of the season’s success has to do with the breadth of concepts Archer has at its disposal this time around. The premiere largely concerns Archer and his crew as they deal with an extraterrestrial guest who needs a lift to his home planet. The little green guy soon proves to be more trouble than he’s worth, as the crew’s attempts to turn a tidy profit on his return result in Archer being tortured by a maniacal robot, while Cyril and Krieger must battle to the death in a gladiatorial arena.
Like most successful Archer adventures, it’s not so much the setup that’s important, but the absurd details and the endless string of quips from the characters as they remark on the ridiculousness of their situation. That level of awareness can be a fine line for any show to walk, and too often it felt as though Danger Island was on the wrong side of that line. The listless pacing of the go-nowhere plot last season seemingly carried over to the characters themselves, resulting in a cast of animated characters as bored as those watching. In contrast, 1999 is livelier on an episode-by-episode basis, with the first three installments covering everything from an alien rescue mission to a Star Wars-style space battle to a prolonged journey wherein the crew battles starvation by eating the eggs of a strange creature that was once Pam’s sandwich.
As Archer nears what is believed to be its end, this sci-fi installment of the series offers a welcome return of many of the show’s best elements. It’s also a fun and exciting change of pace for a show that’s typically much more terrestrial in its storytelling. It’s clear Reed and his writers are having a lot of fun with the space-faring adventures of Archer and his cohort, and though it’s not a complete return to form, 1999 does take Archer to absurd new heights.
Archer: 1999 continues next Wednesday with ‘Happy Borthday’ @10pm on FXX.