There’s typically a shelf life for television shows, especially comedies. Part of a comedy’s potency comes from its ability to surprise its viewers, to leave them taken aback with some hilarious and audacious line, gag, or sequence. But as a show gets on in years, the characters become more familiar, and the rhythms of a show’s storytelling and humor begin to be recognizable. That, almost inevitably, leads to escalation, where characters grow more caricatured, events start to become bigger and more dramatic, and episodes turn more and more self-referential.
And yet, even as it enters its eighth season, Archer has managed to stave off much of this standard seasonal rot. Part of that stems from the fact that it’s hard to turn the show’s already exaggerated figures into caricatures. Right from the jump, Sterling Archer was already a version of the Bond-esque superspy with all the drinking, womanizing, and death-defying qualities taken up to eleven. Part of it comes from the strength of the show’s dialogue and clever, densely layered writing, which continues to crackle even as certain plots may spin out or grow unwieldy.
But a big part of how Archer has managed to stay fresh, even as it moves within spitting distance of the 100-episode mark, comes from creator Adam Reed’s consistent willingness to reinvent and evolve the series as it carries on. Reed, who in addition to creating the show has been a credited writer on every episode, is not afraid to shake up the premise of his series — the setting the Archer gang finds themselves in, the types of stories told, and the characters’ relationships with one another.
The easiest place to see that is in how Reed has rebooted, debooted, transported, and flashbacked Archer in recent years. Season 5 saw the advent of Archer Vice, a shift away from the spy missions that had sustained the show in its first four years, in favor of the former I.S.I.S. crew (no relation) becoming drug-runners operating out of Cheryl’s mansion. Season 6 returned the gang to spy missions under the disavowable auspices of the CIA. And Season 7 moved them to Los Angeles, turning the group into a collection of private detectives ensconced in a twisty case of blackmail. Each refresh helped give the show and its characters new places to go, offering new locales and story possibilities with each big shift.
Season 8 not only continues this flair for reinvention, but doubles down on it. Entitled “Archer: Dreamland”, the new set of episodes imagines Archer and company in a 1947 Los Angeles noir setting. While the time period for Archer has always been intentionally fuzzy — offering some combination of ’60s spy jaunts and present-day additions — the intentional throwback vibe in “Dreamland” takes the period pastiche idea up a notch. It allows the show to create new limitations for itself while also opening up new possibilities.
The most obvious way that’s manifested is in the show’s visuals. Archer has come a long way from the paper-doll flash animation look it started with. Fights are more fluid, characters are more expressive, and backdrops are more diverse. The strength of the show has generally been in its dialogue and the performances, with Reed’s trademark banter given life by stellar actors like H. Jon Benjamin and Jessica Walter. But as the show’s gone on, it’s become more adept at visual storytelling as well.
That’s evident in the car chases and explosions and big-action set pieces that have only gotten bigger as the seasons have gone on. But “Dreamland” excels when it uses that greater aesthetic inventiveness to establish mood, to interlay scenes that hint at how Archer is haunted by his past, and to create a gauzy hue that nods toward the dreamy confines of the season’s premise. The noir setup is not just a new coat of paint on the same old Archer, but a way for the show’s visual storytelling to accent its writing in a way that’s nearly unprecedented for Archer, working as the culmination of the continually improving art direction of the series.
The show’s also grown more ambitious in its character development and storytelling. Separate and apart from the different locations and missions, the main characters have grown in notable ways in the last few seasons. Archer and Lana have a kid now, and rather than a baby being a sign that a long-running series is out of ideas, Archer has used it to motivate the show’s lead to grow up, just a little bit.
Archer is still the drinking, immature, tactless guy he was in the series’ beginning, but he’s also grown up just enough to make it noticeable and meaningful. He cares about Lana, he cares about his daughter, A.J., and while he still lets his baser impulses take over and trip him up more than sporadically, there’s a sense that at least the guy is trying, sometimes even succeeding, at being a grown-up and a better man. It would be easy to let your main character, especially one as meme-able as Archer, remain a static manchild. But Reed resists that urge and lets his protagonist mature while maintaining his ingrained character traits.
“Dreamland” wipes some of those developments away, however temporarily, in the midst of the noir reimagining. But that allows Archer to preserve its characters’ personalities and temperaments while putting them into new situations and letting their relationships emerge and evolve all over again. Rather than retreading the same ground, it feels like a way to explore the characters anew and build on the dramatic irony of what we know about them versus what they know about each other.
The show has also, like its flash animation brethren on South Park, grown more serialized. While in prior seasons that’s taken the form of standalone episodes within a general theme — the drug running, the CIA oversight, the blackmail mystery — it’s also been realized in multi-part episodes that tell more continuous stories, some more successfully than others.
Though at Comic-Con in July, Reed promised the new season would be even more serialized, “Dreamland” largely splits the difference. It tells stories that build on one another and move the ball forward from episode to episode, but they also work as individual chapters of a larger narrative, enjoyable independently of their connections to the season-long mystery. It’s part and parcel with the show’s willingness to change the way it tells stories at the same time it changes the contours of the series’ premise.
Those reboots don’t always work, or at least don’t always manage to avoid the pitfalls that all long-running shows face at some point. Archer has been more apt to bring back familiar faces for round two (or three or four). It’s done the obligatory cameo from Kenny Loggins (of “Danger Zone” fame). Some of its larger plot machinations have been too jumbled and top-heavy and consequently crumpled under their own weight. And as self-referential as the show’s always been, it continues to embrace the series’ trademark running gags even as it attempts to put new spins on them. Archer in Season 8 is still recognizably Archer, with nothing so radical or avant-garde as to shift the series in an entirely new direction.
Still, Reed and company have proved themselves not content to let Archer coast on a familiar style and reheated versions of the formula that spurred it to early notoriety. Archer himself still goes on weekly adventures, his compatriots still crack wise and make inappropriate (or “inappropes”) jokes, and there’s still the madcap, patter-filled atmosphere that originally made the show distinctive.
But by moving the series to new places and giving it new purpose, letting the characters evolve with the show, and taking chances with the type of storytelling it employs, Archer has managed to feel new and different each year. For a show that sent its foul-mouthed spy protagonist barreling out of the gate eight years ago, that’s no small feat, and “Dreamland” fully embraces the show’s reimaginative spirit.0