The show that bears H Jon Benjamin’s character’s name started out nigh-on eight years ago with a fairly simple premise. The elements that would come to define and elevate it—its pitch perfect editing, distinctive writing style, and flawless voice cast—were present from the start, but first and foremost the show was a spy spoof overlayed onto a workplace comedy. As the show slowly broadened its conceptual horizons—with occasional larger leaps like Archer Vice and last season’s toe-dipping into noir territory—it sometimes succeeded in delivering stories outside of its usual comfort zone, and at other times it faltered slightly.
The show has never really dipped below ‘very good’, but over the past few years I personally had been feeling that some cracks were starting to show. Signs of stress appearing in its fabric. Fatigue in its musculature. Don’t get me wrong: I would still prefer spending 20 minutes of—say—being stranded in a lift with Archer, Lana, Pam, Cheryl, Mallory, Cyril, and Krieger, listening to them bicker and yell over each other to almost any other option modern television has to offer; but things hadn’t been feeling nearly quite as vital to me for a few years. Not the way that they had in the first four or so when I would devour each episode hungrily as soon as I could.
Well kudos to Adam Reed and co. because after last night’s offering I have a powerful hunger for more.
‘Archer Dreamland: No Good Deed’
When last we saw Sterling Archer—erstwhile super secret agent, one-time drug-smuggler, and most recently LA-based private detective—he was floating face down in a swimming pool, his blood painting cloud-like patterns around his inert body.
That season’s noir trappings mixed with Archer’s oft-subversive tone had led me to suspect that there might be a lot of fake-outs and reversals in its plotting. The detectives might not be who they said they were; Veronica Dean might have a destiny other than the classic femme fatale; and that wasn’t really Sterling Archer, bobbing in the pool, lifeless.
But as Lana Kane would say:
Everything ended up being played fairly straight. And there’s nothing really wrong with that. But I was curious, even through my slowly (ever-so-slowly) thickening fog of indifference, to see where the show might go from having its star apparently teetering on the brink of death—if not already having plunged over. Sending his coma-bound consciousness hurtling back through time into the 1940s, fully embracing its noir flirtations and freeing itself up conceptually seemed an intriguing answer when it was first announced. I say that as a fully professed lover of noir. Now, having seen the show laying out its fedora-and-neon-adorned stall I can say that, should the season continue along its present trajectory, that shit isn’t just intriguing, it’s positively inspired!
But premise schmemise right? The real question on my lips as the opening credits smashed in with their jazz-infused take on the Archer theme was: How would the show recontexutalise its cast? What roles would this bunch of cretins, savages, and neurotics fulfill in Sterling Archer’s coma-conjured noir universe?
Roll call please!
We have Ray as a jazz club trumpet player (complete with a drum-playing partner who loves punctuating things with a rim-shot, much to Ray’s dismay—as well as my drink’s, seeing as it ended up shooting out of my mouth and on the floor every time the shot sounded in the background with Ray screaming a frustrated ‘Stop it!’ in return):
We have Mallory as the owner of said jazz club, shady as all hell and running any number of organised illegal activities. And who, by the way, still ends up telling Private Detective Archer upon their first meeting to refer to her as ‘Mother’:
Lana, as a sultry, witty singer at the same club, who will hopefully have plenty to do this season as I for one cannot ever get enough of Aisha Tyler’s delivery and back and forth with H Jon Benjamin:
Pam and Cyril are introduced as a pair of hard-nosed detectives. Well, one much more soft-nosed than the other (no prizes for guessing which is which there):
Krieger—ever my personal favourite—shows up, perfectly, as a drug-dealing bartender working out of
Mallory’s Mother’s club:
And, oh, is that Barry—why yes it is Barry—playing the head goon of Mallory’s criminal rival, Len Trexler (remember him?):
And then. And then there is Cheryl. Cheryl, who appears very briefly as a dangerous dame illuminated by corridor-light:
What does this avatar of seduction and intrigue ask of Archer upon appearing in his office out of the gloom?
‘I would like to hire you.’ [dramatic pause]. ‘To murder me!’
To which Archer: ‘Ok.’
And a distressed, shocked scream from Cheryl in return.
That last interaction sums up, in essence, what I hope this episode augurs. First and foremost it is very funny. The timing and character specificity makes things sing. But it also shows that Archer might be willing to commit quite carefully to its noir conceit—the gorgeous direction and lighting and truly stunning animation certainly selling it on a stylistic level—and through this achieve something that it hasn’t up until now. Yes, it lampoons the genre, and it never forgets what it’s actually about, but there is a great amount of potential here to be mined over the coming weeks. Archer—the show and man—has never really shown much growth. Sure he is now a father, and he has displayed signs of softening in certain areas. Some of that has been brought about by his newfound place in the tree of life, and some just through volume of experience. But really he remains, fundamentally, much as we had met him: a narcissistic, juvenile blowhard for whom other people’s concerns and feelings are, at best, secondary concerns when compared to his own impulses. Now, lying there in a coma, apparently aware of Woodhouse’s tragic death (rest in peace, George Coe), his mind playing out any number of scenarios via its noir-tinged fantasy, it may come to pass that he might actually—*gasp*—learn something about himself and others.
Judging by this episode, which starts slow and builds an emotional foundation before firing off salvos of funny, the show certainly seems to have done as much.
Future Archer Quotes Hall Of Fame Entries:
‘I don’t care who does the dissolving!’ — Archer, while discussing the finer points of body disposal.
Krieger’s response to Archer’s, ‘Hey pal, you got a second?’: ‘I do not, and I am not actually come to think of it, so scuh-reww!’
Lana: ‘I’m gonna leave you here, between hope and despair.’
Archer: ‘What the hell does that mean?’
Krieger: ‘Before you shoot a big salty load in your pants.’
The entirety of Archer’s apparent-voiceover-narration-turned-monologue to a definitely-not-Long-Beach-bound dog he picked up in his car.