What started off as a straight Bond spoof about a spy agency for hire set spoof in an alternate Cold War universe, the organization formerly known as ISIS has seen itself become a drug smuggling operation for the CIA, a private investigation firm in L.A., and saw their top agent (briefly) become the king of a pirate colony.
But the new season, dubbed Archer: Dreamland has blown up the premise of the show far more any season has before, setting it in the seedy noir-tinged world of post-World War II Los Angeles that itself is the imagination of the comatose titular character.
As convoluted as that set up sounds, this is probably the most beginner-friendly season in years, giving each character a reboot with new, era-appropriate back stories and roles.
In his fantasy Sterling Archer imagines himself as private eye straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel who discovers his partner Woodhouse (whose real life voice actor, George Coe died in 2015) murdered in his office.
Archer’s quest to find the murderer and exact his revenge gets immediately sidetracked when femme fatale Charlotte VanderTunt (heir to the immense VanderTunt publishing fortune) walks into his office and demands he murders her.
Or at the very least, fake her death to get her out of a quasi-incestuous family situation. (“How ‘quasi’?” “Four”).
Along the way they encounter a pair of dirty cops, Figgis and Poovey, the sultry club singer Kane, and her mysterious and conniving boss, who is simply known as Mother.
This is the most serialized season of Archer yet, with the first four episodes beginning taking place over only a couple of days and each episode beginning exactly where the previous one left off.
As a result the episode-to-episode pacing seems better fit to weekend binges on Amazon or Netflix rather than something you would tune into every week.
But even with the shift in structure and time period, the core of Archer’s humor sensibilities remains the same.
After eight seasons with these characters it’s easy to take their snappy, character-driven banter for granted, but the writing (and especially the plotting) is even tighter and funnier.
Archer’s best moments (as in previous seasons) are when he’s bouncing off Poovey (voiced by Amber Nash), who constantly reminds Figgis in excruciating detail that Archer had sex with his wife.
Adam Reed and his writing staff really took advantage of the setting, playing around with 40s slang and period and genre-specific jokes.
Even the throwaway gags produce some gutbusters, specifically Charlotte casually popping codeine pills like candy, and Archer’s film noir “monologues” to whomever is sitting next to him in the car.
The past two or three seasons became too reliant on running gags and the writers seemed to have some sort of competition to see who could make the most obscure referential joke.
In Dreamland the jokes are not as numerous and the characters have been toned down just a bit.
Over the course of seven seasons Cheryl (voiced by Pam Grier) gradually grew more insane and became a broad caricature of herself from season one.
Dreamland’s Charlotte offers up a much more grounded and compassionate version of the character while keeping her trademark naivety and kinky quirks.
She shines in the fourth episode titled “Ladyfingers” which flips the premise of a season two classic “El Secuestro” where Mother and Figgis each try to fake Charlotte’s kidnapping to receive a ransom from her quasi-incestuous brother Cecil (who seems all too eager to cut off his sister’s finger).
The darker noir setting creates morbidly comedic situations like this, but also gives us more dramatic and weighty moments than we’re used to seeing from these characters.
Dreamland Archer is a World War II veteran haunted by post-traumatic flashbacks that trigger violent outbursts.
For a character previously known for his near-sociopathic self-centeredness, this Archer actually has a moral conscious that constantly puts him at odds with the crooked world around him.
In many ways he’s a perfect reflection of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett noir protagonists.
Quite a bit of depth from a show that started off as yet another Bond spoof.
But if there is one thing that Archer Dreamland excels at beyond anything else is the visual design and animation.
Sharp shadows, smokey chiaroscuro lighting, and the art deco architecture of the city set a mood straight out of a Fritz Lang film.
There are even visual nods to classic noir like Double Indemnity and the Big Sleep scattered throughout the first four episodes.
The animation took a noticeable bump up in quality in the fourth season and has only steadily improved since, but this is on a whole other level.
Movement is subtle but dripping with detail from high speed car chases, to Charlotte seducing Archer, to smaller moments like Poovey scarfing down a hot dog.
I’m not sure how the animators pulled this off, or if they used a form of rotoscoping, but it’s some of the finest animation currently on TV this side of Samurai Jack.
Halfway through Archer Dreamland and I’m ready to call this the best season of Archer yet.
If it can make up for the lack of Lana Kane and Gillette in the final four episodes, this may even rise up to one of the greatest single season of an series.