I am a huge, rabid, slavering fan of noir.
More specifically I am a huge, rabid, slavering fan of noir tropes mixed into other things. Yes, I worship at the altar of The Third Man et al. just as much as everyone else, but take any of those stalwart elements of the genre — the dangerous dames smoking in doorways, the hard-bitten, cynical private eyes — and stir them into something else, something modern, and my legs have a tendency to turn to rubber.
I say all this because I feel that, in reviewing this noir-soaked season of Archer, my objectivity may be somewhat compromised. We’re now two episodes in to Sterling Archer’s coma-dream vision of the 1940s and the writers and animators of the show are having a whale of a time mixing up a cocktail of Archer and noir tropes — and I am having an equal whale of a time watching thus far. So I guess as the good doctor Hunter S. Thompson said, ‘So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here—not under any byline of mine.’
‘Archer Dreamland: Berenice’
We pick up this week pretty much exactly where we left off last week: With a pitch-perfect Cheryl playing the part of wealthy-noir-dame-but-still-totally-Cheryl explaining to P.I. Archer that no, she doesn’t really want to hire him to kill her. She just wants it to look like someone murdered her. And she’s willing to offer him $10,000 (and her body) to do it (Archer: ‘The [pause] ten grand is plenty.’ Cheryl: ‘I’m afraid this is non-negotiable. [rips open her dress] Do your worst.’ Archer: [sniggers] ‘I…will’.)
But why would the heir to the vast Vandertunt fortune want to fake her death? Because the family is a ‘seething cauldron of neurotic, alcoholic, narcissistic, quasi-incestuous megalomaniacs.’ Fair enough (though Archer’s query of ‘How quasi?’ must surely hang on everyone’s lips), none more reason needed, really. So, Archer, still technically looking for Woodhouse’s murderer but compelled by a hefty cash reward, barrels somewhat indifferently into helping the heiress Vandertunt with her plans. Plans that happen to end up involving the rather grim sight of a pale, trunk-stashed corpse of a maid with conveniently matching (read: nonexistent) dental records. And that also include lugging said corpse in and out of Cheryl’s hotel without anyone realising that it is, indeed, a corpse, instead of a normal, living maid named: ‘Berenice. Somewhat…obviously!’ (we see what you did there, Archer, and we like it.) Because of course the corpse has to be made up to look like Cheryl before being disposed of somewhere where it can later be found and (wrongly) identified.
This, then, is the A-plot of Archer’s second episode, and it works very nicely. This is partly due to the fantastic interactions that pairing Archer himself — with his inflated ego and occasional hyper-competence — with Cheryl — mad, twisted, rage-filled Cheryl — always results in, but also because it ties in well with the noir of it all; namely a dame dragging an over-his-head PI into a scheme that he feels compelled to take part in for some reason, despite his reservations. Hell, yes, the money’s good, but it’s not a stretch to say that it feels like he’d be along for the ride even if it wasn’t. The Archer/Cheryl strand also results in what was for me the biggest laugh of the evening. Cheryl and Archer are driving, Archer wearing a frown that would stop a bus, Cheryl fixing her hair in a mirror with a cheery smile on her face. Cue Cheryl: ‘Oh, don’t be such a pout! I think getting Berenice through the lobby went about as well as could reasonably be expected!’ Smash cut to:
And that’s just a portion of the camera pan.
Having established the main players in last week’s premiere, we get to see what they are all up to and how they fit in and around Archer’s quest. It turns out that there is a lot of connective tissue. Len Trexler makes an appearance, consoling a leg-deprived Barry in hospital, and raging about his abducted/stolen/liberated prostitutes. We find out that Krieger, bartender and drug dealer, may also apparently retain some of his skills with cybernetics (or prosthetics I suppose, considering the era). And the other major revelation is that Detectives Figgis and Poovey are on the take; specifically in Trexler’s pocket, who tasks them with getting to the bottom of what happened on the docks that night (Poovey of course, was there when it all went down, and in fact played a central part; and I for one look forward with relish to a clueless Cyril trying to hunt down the very person who is actually helping him do the hunting. You just know Pam is gonna be taking the piss and nearly spilling the beans pretty much continuously.) There are hints of wider conspiracies too. I won’t go into any detail about them here, but suffice it to say that the pieces, having been set up last week, are now fully moving, and if they continue upon their present trajectories then collisions are pretty much inevitable.
‘Archer Dreamland: Berenice’ is a satisfying, well put together bit of television. The heavy lifting having been done by the premiere, this episode can relax a little bit and begin to take us deeper into the show’s new world. Nothing particularly dramatic or revelatory happens, but it doesn’t have to. It runs through a satisfying arc while also gradually furthering the overarching narrative, and it delivers solid laughs throughout — through both Archer’s trademark dialogue rhythms and reliably impressive sight gags. Crucially, it continues to appear fresh, as if — after a few seasons of slight lag — the creators suddenly find themselves refreshed by the opportunity to play around with a new paradigm, letting the characters alternately go along with and subvert genre conventions. Hurray for noir. Hurray for Archer Dreamland.