AnTV: Archer Dreamland Season Premiere + March 25-April 7 Recap

Archer: Dreamland

"No Good Deed"

Season 8, Episode 1

Grade: A-

***This review will be largely SPOILER-FREE with respect to the plot points of this episode. In order to properly discuss this episode, there will be some SPOILERS for previous seasons of Archer. Of course, as always, these will be sandwiched between  "[SPOILER]" and "[/SPOILER]"***

Amazingly, Archer has reached 8 seasons, with two additional (and final) ones coming in the next two years. Prior to this series Adam Reed, the show's creator, had never had the kind of luck his considerable talents truly deserved; his two series before ArcherSealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, both aired on Adult Swim and were canceled after four and two seasons, respectively. Reed (along with frequent collaborator Matt Thompson) has the kind of highly specific, idiosyncratic humor style that can appeal to some viewers but seem "dumb" or "silly" to others. A combination of farcical dialogue-based humor, clever turns of phrase, surprisingly literate references, and straight-up dry sarcasm, both of Reed's previous series seemed ahead of their times in terms of connecting with audiences. Further, while Adult Swim has always had a cult following, it was not exactly the kind of network that had a wide-enough reach to provide the sort of success those shows should have had. 

Fortunately for Reed, that all changed when he scored a deal with FX to produce Archer, an animated series taking several cues from the art direction of Frisky Dingo, combined with a perfect distillation of his humor translated into a narrative about an agency of spies who are simultaneously inept fools and surprisingly competent at their jobs. Over the course of four seasons, Archer served up rapid-fire, joke-a-second entertainment riffing on spy tropes, an anachronistic setting where the Cold War was somehow still going on in modern times, and outstanding performances from the show's all-star cast of comedic heavyweights. Honestly, the cast list reads as a veritable murderer's row of hilarious people: H. Jon Benjamin (Sterling Archer), Aisha Tyler (Lana Kane), SNL's Chris Parnell (Cyril Figgis), Arrested Development's Judy Greer (Cheryl Tunt), Amber Nash (Pam Poovey), Lucky Yates (Algernon Krueger), Adam Reed himself (Ray Gillette), and, especially the great Jessica Walter (Malory Archer).

Following season 4, Reed decided to switch up the premise, giving the world Archer: Vice in season 5, which saw the show's crew becoming cocaine dealers and the show's format switching away from episodic to serialized. In season 6, the show returned to the spy craft that characterized its first four seasons, although this time the crew became contractors for the CIA (spoiler alert: it did not go well). After being disavowed by the CIA, season 7 switched the show's premise yet again, this time moving everyone to Los Angeles so that they could form their own private investigator agency. [SPOILER] The Archer audience was left on a huge cliffhanger at the end of season 7, with Archer himself being shot by actress/femme fatale Veronica Deane and left for dead in a swimming pool [/SPOILER]. Having written himself into this corner, Reed had quite task ahead of him in coming up with a way to write the show out of this corner.

That dilemma brings us to this week's premiere. Re-christening the show "Archer: Dreamland," Reed decided to set the season inside of Archer's dream while he lies comatose in a hospital bed, recovering from his injuries at the end of season 7. Turns out Archer's brain in still very much active, constructing an entire noir-style narrative inside his head and recasting the show's characters into new and unfamiliar roles. Woodhouse, for example, was Archer's long-suffering butler in the real world and has become Archer's P.I. partner in Dreamland. Sadly, Woodhouse's voice actor, George Coe, died two years ago and the show finally wrote Woodhouse's death into the narrative, with him both dying in reality and getting murdered in Dreamland as well. Woodhouse's death in Dreamland is what sets the plot in motion. The rest of the cast's new roles are just as interesting and full of potential: Lana has become a femme fatale lounge singer, Ray Gillette her crotchety band leader, Malory a ruthless crime boss, Cyril a corrupt police chief, Krieger an eccentric bartender, and Pam a cop with uncertain loyalties and an unspecified gender. While the action is all taking place inside of Archer's head, meaning the stakes for this season seem exceedingly low at this point, seeing these classic characters in a new light lends some mystery as to where things are going to go over the next few weeks.

 The show has consistently upped its animation game since season one, incorporating more CGI elements in addition to its traditional 2D animation. The show has always had a distinct visual style. While, as I mentioned earlier, it did draw a ton of influence from Reed's prior series, Frisky Dingo, the animation on Archer is much crisper, with bold black outlines over everything and  somewhat retro-comic book-y look to everything. The characters have never been the most expressive in terms of body language, but the vibrant colors and detailed backgrounds, plus their highly-expressive faces, have always made watching Archer a unique visual experience. In this premiere, that is doubly true, as the show's animators have clearly embraced the new post-WWII setting with vigor. The glitzy, glamorous vision of late-'40s L.A. on display here is the perfect Archer-ization of that time period and expertly sets the mood for both the show's take on that side of the city and the grimy, dark underbelly it covers up. It's a treat to look at, honestly.

One of the most surprising aspects of this premiere, for me, was the tone. I assumed that the show would adopt way more of the noir genre's tropes than it did even last season, however I always expected those trappings to take a back seat to the traditional Archer humor, rife with the callbacks, references, and verbal takedowns fans have come to know and love. I was surprised, then, to see that Reed inverted the ratio I was expecting; this is probably the episode of Archer with the least out-and-out jokes that there's ever been. This isn't to say the episode was bad, far from it, it just feels different. There were a ton of laughs to be had, such as a classically Archer exchange between Archer and Poovey over racism, but overall this was a table-setting episode intended to introduce viewers to the show's new status quo and establish the season's central mystery of who killed Woodhouse. Most of the time, the phrase "table-setting episode" can be meant in a derisive or negative fashion, however here it is both entirely necessary and very well-done. Because this season is re-casting the show's characters into such different roles, the setup done in this episode helps to shade them in for viewers and give subtle hints at where the plot could be going. 

Ultimately, Reed's latest experiment with his beloved series is an ongoing question that will be answered only once the season's final episode airs weeks into the future. For now, this is a surprising and intriguing new direction for the show to take and, at least in this half hour, it works very well. I'm really looking forward to seeing where this goes and also just plain excited to have Archer back again.

"What Else Is On???'

In addition to Archer's much-anticipated return, there were a number of other notable television episodes this week. The Walking Dead (Grade: B) ended its season this week with an extra-long episode detailing the long-waited confrontation between Rick's group and the Negan's Saviors. The Last Man on Earth (Grade: B-) focused on the survivors' attempts to connect with the young child they found living alone in the previous week's episode. Feud: Bette and Joan (Grade: A) took viewers back to the infamous Oscar ceremony of 1963, in which the snubbed Joan Crawford exacts bitter revenge against Best Actress nominee Bette Davis; I really can't say enough how positively thrilling it is to watch Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon spar with each other every week, and I'm going to sincerely miss this season of the show when it ends in two weeks. Legends of Tomorrow (Grade: A) also ended its surprisingly excellent second season with an episode of time paradoxes, seeing the Legends having to travel back in time to WWI while avoiding their past selves in an attempt to prevent the Spear of Destiny from falling into the Legion of Doom's hands; I really loved this season of the show and thought it ended perfectly, leaving the door wide open to the already-announced season three and leaving fans with a huge tease on next season's direction. Detroiters (Grade: A) focused its episode on the unexpected return of Tim's father, and how the guys had to balance this development with their current project developing an ad campaign for a clothing store that caters to "husky boys." Finally, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Grade: A) returned from hiatus with the thrilling premiere of season 4's third act, taking place inside of the Framework, a Matrix-style virtual world where Daisy and Simmons have gone to try and rescue the rest of their team; much like Archer: Dreamland, the rest of the show's cast has been placed into new roles that drastically change who their characters have come to be, plus a returning cast member finally gets back on the screen after sadly sitting all of season 4 out up to this point.

It was a relatively light week this week, as nearly all of the CW's shows were off and several other shows had ended their seasons already. Next week will be a big one, however, with the highly anticipated return of AMC's etter Call Saul, one of television's very best current series. Until then, hit up the comments and let me know what you thought of this week in the world of television.