Archer: Dreamland – Season 8

Archer: Dreamland – Season 8

The Long-Running Animated Spy Comedy Takes a Swing at Condensed Storytelling, With Mixed Results


Stagnation, in television, is always the final stage before death. This is especially true of sitcoms, and a good reason why few manage to maintain a consistent quality after three or four seasons. Once you’ve explored all the avenues available to your characters, and even busted out a few surprise traits or backstories to make them still seem fresh and exciting, it’s hard not to wind up in a rut. It’s a tricky paradox: a show establishes great characters that the viewer enjoys spending time with, so they reach a point where they can’t be altered too much or the audience’s investment is lost, but then these characters simply become predictable and staid. Once they’ve been spun in the same circle over and over again, the radius grows so small that everyone’s eventually just standing in one place twirling, repeating the same, tired old jokes week after week.

Adam Reed, the creator and often sole-writer of Archer, devised a way to offset the inevitable: every so often, he hits the reset button. To wit, in Season 5 the spy group formerly known as ISIS (Jesus, I know, right?) used the international contacts and literal mountain of cocaine at their disposal to become drug dealers. The show was redubbed Archer: Vice and, while it continued to operate on very similar comedic and storytelling rhythms as its earlier seasons, the crime intrigue, neon glow and forays into amusingly redundant tangents – like Cheryl becoming a country singer – certainly gave the illusion of forward momentum.

Of course, then Reed went and rejiggered the whole thing towards espionage once more for Season 6, before going all Magnum, P.I. with the private detective arc of Season 7. It’s up for debate how much any of this actually benefited the show, but you couldn’t accuse Reed (and his occasional co-writers) of not trying. Besides, a complete switch-up of location and plot is all but necessary for a show like Archer, which is so enamoured with its own history that entire episodes can sometimes be made up of nothing more than callback jokes and quippy, often fairly repetitive repartee.

Hence, Season 8 – aka, Dreamland – takes place in the now comatose Sterling Archer’s psyche, playing out like a noir-tinged L.A. murder mystery. It’s all sleepless nights, helpless dames, laconic henchmen, wry monologuing, intricate kidnapping plots and waaaay too much drinking. And yes, at least some of that describes Archer as it already existed, but the 1940s setting and altered character dynamics go a long way towards distinguishing this season.

As does the, uuh… the… wait, what were we talking about? (FXX)

In this world, Cyril and Pam are partnered detectives, known as Figgis and Poovey, with the latter’s gender remaining pointedly ambiguous throughout (though it’s pretty heavily implied that Pam is a dude in this version of Archer). Malory, meanwhile, is a crime boss and proprietor of the nightclub Dreamland known only as Mother, where Lana and Ray work as a lounge singer and bandleader, respectively. Cheryl is Charlotte, a wealthy heiress looking to fake her death in order to escape her quasi-incestuous family (“How quasi?”, you ask. “Four”, but out of what specifically, who knows…). Krieger is a mad scientist… uuuh, yep.

Finally, Archer himself is reliving his own version of the events of last season, playing the private-eye caught up in a continually thickening plot. Except, instead of some elaborate goose chase involving a wronged celebrity and stolen disc, the case this time around is that of Archer’s murdered partner, the ageing junkie Woodhouse. So yeah, this time it’s personal(!), and it’s a smart move to give the notoriously hardened, dick-ish Archer an actual emotional basis for his actions. Regardless of how often the show goes to this well, it always tends to be a lot more compelling watching Archer end up balls-deep in a life threatening situation for the benefit of someone else, whether that’s Lana, Pam or A.J., his infant daughter. It’s also a great way to explore his feelings for the now deceased Woodhouse – who was basically Archer’s sole father figure – in a way that prevents him from receding into some douchebag defensive posturing, seeing as all of this is taking place in his exposed subconscious.

Beyond that, one of the strongest choices the abridged, eight-episode Dreamland makes is to lean heavier on telling a contained story than any previous full season of Archer. I don’t wanna give it too much credit, ’cause Dreamland has its share of flaws, but at its best there’s an honest-to-God novelistic feel to how well this shit flows together. Every episode ends on something of a cliffhanger (some more successful than others), almost all of them kicking off with the exact same sentence: “So, what are we doin’? Are we just jumpin’ right into this?” The individual episodes, in their own way, feel like chapters in a hardboiled Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard book, a vibe that extends to every character wearing the bruises and wounds they sustain throughout the season’s run.

Though it’s mostly Archer who cops the brunt of it. Suitably. (FXX)

In fact, many of the running gags that have pervaded all of Archer are addressed and flipped on their head this season, chief among them being Sterling Archer’s apparent invincibility in real life. Of course, the whole of Dreamland is made possible due to the fact that the main character is now in a bullet and swimming pool-induced coma, but up to that point no substantial injury ever seems to have stuck to Archer’s ribs. In his own mind, though, he’s much more vulnerable than he’d ever be willing to admit, as by the end of this season he has sustained everything from a face so pummeled and bruised it resmebles Spyro the Dragon’s arsehole to an arm that has been manually bent in what is medically referred to as “the wrong way”.

Not only that, but Archer’s incessant codeine and scotch swilling, paired with a week without sleep, leads to one of the most distraught scenes in the show’s history, as he breaks down over his inability to solve Woodhouse’s murder and chastises his own stubborn recklessness. It’s the kind of self-awareness that has been sorely missing from this character for far too long, made all the more appropriate by the fact that having it happen in this context means he’s only really comfortably admitting this sort of thing to himself.

Oh, hey, and perennial heel Barry is here too (as henchman Dutch), which will be great news for those who dig his whole “schizophrenic cyborg” angle, and not so great for those who find it pretty tiresome (I am firmly in the middle). The best thing that can be said about the use of another robotically-enhanced Barry this time around is that Dreamland doesn’t let him off the hook for his murderous, psychopathic tendencies. Indeed, the most chilling moment of the whole season is when the core group wanders into the bloody chaos he has left in his wake, a gruesome tableau of corpses framed in the style of The Last Supper.

This… this wasn’t the best retirement party I’ve ever been to. (FXX)

And I’d be remiss not to mention the ingenious backstory gifted to Krieger in “Ladyfingers”, one of the show’s best ever episodes. Often the butt of many (admittedly hilarious) Nazi scientist jokes, this version of the unhinged, inscrutable creature known as “Dr.” Krieger finally gets something like a redemption tale. As told in flashback, it turns out that, not only is Krieger not a Nazi, he’s fucking Jewish! He did, indeed, work with the Germans during the war, but only in order to infiltrate and sabotage the horrific experiments that were being conducted on humans and animals alike, before turning his own cyborg dogs on his Nazi oppressors. Sounds kinda stupid, yeah, but so does Inglourious Basterds if you have to sum it up in a paragraph, but doesn’t mean it’s remotely less satisfying as an idealised revenge tale.

Where, then, does Dreamland fall off? It comes down to a very simple but pretty significant issue with the writing in that, unfortunately, Adam Reed has no idea how to tell a complete story properly. For sure, he’s great at the windup, establishing all of the character’s dilemmas, obstacles and vying factions they’re beholden to. Then, once we’re in the midst of it all, he’s in his element, letting everyone bounce off one another and introducing new details little by little to further intrigue us as to where he’s going with it all. This is part of the joy of the season in that, even with everything else that Archer gets tangled up in over the course of Dreamland, he’s always reminding us that he’s on the hunt for Woodhouse’s killer. That, along with the occasional flashbacks he has to his time as a soldier in WWII, is the slowly unfolding through line that seems to hold this entire shaggy dog story together.

Then, we get to the end and… look, I don’t wanna spoil anything or get too aggressive, but it’s plenty fucking underwhelming, to say the least. Woodhouse’s murder is explained in a throwaway line that couldn’t be less satisfying, while we never really get any indication as to what Archer’s many unnerving flashbacks mean at all in the grand scheme of things, and all of the characters’ various arcs just sorta… stop. Also, a few people die, but by that point it’s really hard to care. Some might say this is intentional, that Reed has written Dreamland in the vein of many noir films and books that end on ambiguous notes; although, at a certain point, pissing in a bowl and convincing someone it’s soup stops being impressive. If delivering a hurried and obviously unfinished conclusion was meant as commentary on the nature of these sorts of stories, he’s done a mighty shitty job of it.

You just know that the sky is basically the colour of Archer’s liver. (FXX)

When the characters in The Third Man or The Big Sleep finally unwind the sordid details of the mystery surrounding them, it’s a letdown for them, not for us. The answers may be inconvenient, tragic, unexpected or absurd, even, but they’re not lazy; they don’t smack of having been thought up in real time instead of planned out from the get go. And, no, it’s not such a devastating flaw that it will tarnish the goodwill of dedicated Archer viewers, but I doubt I’d be the first who’s now decided to take every attempt by this show at telling a serialised story with an entire bucket full of salt (and, also, tequila).

I mean, at the end of the day, everyone’s got their own reasons for watching Archer. If you’re just looking for a laugh, Dreamland’s mostly got you covered, though you might not know what to do with the darker excursions it takes. If it’s your love for the characters that keeps you watching, you’ll either be thrilled with this latest twist on their constant banter and internal squabbles or miserably long for the good old days of ISIS (not a great sentence, out of context). And, if you’re holding your breath waiting on Adam Reed to refine his skills as a longform storyteller, you’re gonna be holding that thing by yourself for a long time. And yeah, “phrasing“, obviously.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *