[Editor’s Note: “Archer” Season 7 ended with a cliffhanger: Is Archer alive or dead? If you don’t know the answer (despite it being revealed at Comic-Con in July 2016), the following review contains spoilers relating to his physical state in Season 8.]
Dreams are a tricky storytelling device for any show, but for “Archer,” Adam Reed’s sneakily ambitious spy movie spoof, setting an entire season within his lead character’s dream is the creator’s riskiest gamble yet. Sure, he’s trafficked in “Vice” and gone Hollywood, but dreams are a different story. If the episodes lack suspense because the dream has no real-world consequences — or they simply don’t live up to past episodes — it would be seen as stalling, or worse yet, a waste of time.
But “Archer Dreamland” tells an engaging, exciting story with a similar style to past seasons and freshly invigorates its familiar cast of characters by repurposing each modern spy archetype to the film noir era. Without spoiling too much of the set-up, I’ll just say what was formally announced last July: Archer is still alive, but in a coma. The season takes place in his dream, where he’s a late 1940s P.I. caught up in a complex assignment involving his partner’s murder and two rival mob bosses. Lana is a nightclub singer, Krieger is a bartender with quite a few dangerous hobbies, while Cyril and Pam play a pair of unequally crooked cops.
Yet more importantly than who these characters have become is what their story means to their original reality, and the first four episodes provide enough of an emotional foundation to make viewers buy into the new narrative. That it’s absolutely gorgeous, well, that certainly doesn’t hurt.
For those who forgot where last year left off, let’s actually jump back a few more seasons. “Archer” has always been about more than an arrogant spy who drinks all day and bangs all night (boom: phrasing), but the series took a turn toward the existential near the end of “Archer Vice.” It proved it could work as a biting satire and an emotional saga. Anyone ready to suggest the animated comedy doesn’t need suspense to succeed in its new season — “It’s just supposed to be funny!” — obviously hasn’t been keeping up.
“Archer Vice” (Season 5) may have seemed like a fun “Smokey and the Bandit” lark — because it was — but the season also began questioning its star’s mortality. Archer, faced with being a father to Lana’s baby, couldn’t spend his time running drugs or behaving recklessly without risking his family along with himself.
Such responsibility had never been forced on the world’s least secret secret-agent, and it was thoroughly explored in blunt discussions about whether or not Archer was immortal (of course, he thought he was), before the conversation culminated with last season’s L.A.-based adventure. Beginning and ending with Archer dead in a pool, we awaited a definitive answer all season as to whether or not an animated character who never ages onscreen could, in fact, die.
As soon as they announced “Archer Dreamland,” we knew the wait would continue, and with it, more risk was put into the decision of spending a year inside a reality without consequence. These worries aren’t entirely abated by the first four episodes. Never do we pull out of the dream and head back to reality (the most obvious technique to keep up with real-world events, and thus wisely ignored). But there are also no direct parallels between what’s happening to Archer, P.I., and how it affects Archer, In-a-Coma. Mysteries are set up that appear strictly germane to the dream’s plot, not reality’s.
Save one: George Coe, the voice actor who played Woodhouse and died in July 2015, is well-remembered in Season 8, as his character serves as an integral bridge between Archer’s dream and reality. A number of moving scenes, especially early in the first episode, are given extra weight because of Coe’s legacy, and one could argue “Archer” is working on three different levels because of it: “Dreamland,” “Archer,” and our live-action world.
Also helping to drive home the story’s emotional resonance is the series’ ever-improving animation. The lighting and design of “Dreamland” leave no detail unturned, as the new season feels ripped straight from “The Maltese Falcon,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” or “The Big Sleep.” Blacks are deep, enriching the shadows as characters move in and out with mystery and menace. Ice cubes roll slowly through a glass of scotch in an entrancing time-lapse transition, and even a new title sequence plays into genre expectations.
All of this combined with Reed’s mellifluous comedic dialogue help to make “Dreamland” an engrossing new endeavor. Anyone eager to find out the fate of Sterling Archer should find more than enough distraction, as Reed and his team have crafted another fascinating experiment. What, exactly, this dream conveys remains a mystery, but it’s one we’re eager to solve.
“Archer Dreamland” premieres Wednesday, April 5 at 10 p.m. on FXX.