There’s something to say for getting weird as hell. It’s freeing, really, just throwing your plans and general structure out the window and doing whatever you want instead. It’s also one of the things I appreciate about Archer. The show was a smart, wickedly funny spy comedy for a few seasons, then it wasn’t because they started selling drugs. Then it was again, kind of. Then everyone became detectives in Los Angeles. I like to picture creator Adam Reed sitting at his laptop four hours into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, empty Starbucks cups all over the floor, looking at an entry about circus performers and seriously debating whether to make Pam a trapeze artist for a season. Archer is a fun show. That’s my point here.
All of which brings us to this: Archer returns for its eighth season this week, and after the drug-dealing escapades in Archer Vice and the team’s detective work last season, the show is heading back in time for Dreamland, a 1940s detective mystery that features Sterling as a hard-drinking private investigator, Lana as a lounge singer, and Pam as a… well, Pam is a man now. It’s a whole thing. And like the previous season-long tangents, it all actually does tie back into the main “they were spies and it all went to hell” arc of the show. As you may remember, last season ended with Archer face down in a pool, bleeding from a gunshot wound. The new season picks up after that, with Archer in a coma and his brain running amok. Hence, Dreamland. It’s all a little like the “International Assassin” episode of The Leftovers, but with substantially fewer murdered children.
Also, Cheryl Tunt is now “Cheryl Van Der Tunt.” Please make a note.
The thing is, it really works. The show needed to wriggle itself out of a corner going into this season because, cliffhangers be damned, Archer wasn’t going to die in that pool. I mean, obviously. And a character drifting off and dreaming up a fantasy world isn’t exactly a groundbreaking television premise, either. (See also: Leftovers, Sopranos, the one Saved by the Bell where Zack concocted a rockumentary narrated by Casey Kasem, etc.) But also, who cares? It’s fun, and when it’s done right, and a little tongue-in-cheek, it can make for good television. That’s what happening here. It’s a smart, fun take on the detective genre, with everything you love about Archer draped over top of it. Archer narrating his own story? Check. Malory as a shady nightclub owner, complete with that shot from every detective movie where the detective and nightclub owner watch the lounge singer perform from the luxurious office, which is located on the second floor and behind a huge window? Check. Cases brought in by leggy dames who might be trouble? See above, re: Cheryl.
(A bit of probably important disclosure here: God, I love a good 1940s-style detective story. Especially when it’s played for goofs. I’d need to think this through before I state it with any real conviction, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit? might be my favorite movie ever. Definitely in the Top 10. So when this new season of Archer reveals that there’s a bad guy who punishes his enemies by melting them in acid, well… I’m not sure if it’s an intentional tie-in or the 1940s were just lousy with acid-utilizing criminals, but I fell in the tank a little bit. I’ll cop to that bias.)
The gimmick — if we wanna use that word — even works better than the last two times the show tried it. I don’t know if I just got my expectations up too high for Archer Vice (I’m a sucker for speedboats and cocaine), but it wasn’t quite everything I was hoping it would be. (I should clarify: I meant I’m a sucker for “stories” about speedboats and cocaine. I am not a drug smuggler.) (I promise.) And the L.A. detective story was cool, but felt a little formulaic at times. Through the first few episodes, though, Dreamland remains inventive and weird and pretty much exactly what you think “Archer as a private eye in 1947” would be.
It’s funny, kind of. What started out as a goofy spy series has almost backdoored — phrasing — its way into becoming a limited series, with a new adventure and setting every season, like some sort of Ryan Murphy show. That’s pretty cool. It keeps things fresh, and let’s the creators explain that those days-long Wikipedia dives actually count as important work duties so no, they can’t mow the lawn right now, they have to read up on Nazi counterintelligence agents, it’s for the show, stop making that face at them. Part of me hopes they keep doing it forever. I really want to see Pam as a trapeze artist in the circus. It’s my fault for bringing it up, but it’s too late to go back now.