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Review: ‘Archer’ post Dreamland

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A look into missed opportunities and a potential future for the ‘Archer’ series.

Adam Reed’s animated adult spy series first debuted from the FX network in 2009.[1]  The story primarily revolves around the work based exploits of self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest secret agent’, Sterling Archer, his constant squabbles in the field and his primary love interest Lana Kane (yes she is just a cartoon and no those thoughts aren’t natural).  The cult spy sit-com has gone from strength to strength in its general reception over its so far impressive eight season run, and with a season nine already trickling out plot details and season ten hitherto confirmed[2], fans of the series can continue to expect the mix of meta-satire and crude wit for another couple of years at least.

Throughout its span the series has undergone many structural changes to its initial model. The earlier seasons offered episodic windows into the lives of the agents at ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) cast onto an almost 1960s cold war aesthetic, despite the constant yet amusing anachronisms. From the fifth season onwards however these snapshots are exchanged for a tighter season-long story-arc, a welcome decision that allowed for far greater character development in a series with an already invested fan base. It was also at this point in 2014 that the palette was changed for a more 1980s Miami Vice visage, marking the start of several season-concomitant stylistic changes.   With each individual progression, archer has distanced itself from the “paper-doll flash animation look it started with”[3] allowing for more grandiose set pieces and general improved fluidity in its animation.[4] Season six saw the agents working under contract for the CIA and season seven saw them blacklisted from espionage, working as detectives in a 1970s style Los Angeles locale.  The plot of season seven saw Archer trying to accrue the necessary 2,000 hours of investigative work to obtain his Private Investigator’s License,[5] but left things on abrupt terms as the final episode closed with his body floating in a swimming pool.

Archer’s most recent adventure Archer: Dreamland explores the most thorough reboot of the series and characters that audiences have seen to date. As Archer lays in a comatose state brought on by the injuries inflicted upon him in the previous season’s finale, Mallory and Lana discuss the death of Woodhouse at his bedside. It is at this point when the series is transferred into Archers subconscious as he explores a noir 1940s cityscape trying to solve the murder of his PI partner Woodhouse.   It is at this point where the first problem with this season becomes apparent. The ‘it was all just a dream’ trope can be an extremely unsatisfying resolution for some audiences. Whilst it does have its place in genres such as horror as an especially useful device for creating terror and heightening the intensity of a scene,[6] for the most part it massively lessens the stakes, leaving the character in no real danger at any point. Now, to be fair to Reed, the show is clear from the outset about exactly where Archer is and why all of the characters are behaving… uncharacteristically. The concept of ‘the dream’, in this instance, is not a surprise ending or a last minute twist on the audience essentially taking away anything of any worth over the prior eight episodes. However, if this is going to be the case, the dream needs far more real world ties for people to emotionally invest from the outset.

From the opening of the first episode of season eight, Archer’s dream and the outside world are seemingly instantly tied by the common denominator of Woodhouse’s death; the premise of the eighth season is indeed for Archer to solve said mystery surrounding his partner’s death. But that’s it. That is the only factor tying the two storylines. And this creates both a problem and a missed opportunity. There have been eight seasons now of both character and plot development. The series has managed to stay fresh, innovative and remained consistently relevant to the universe it is set within and the storylines in which the viewers are devoted to. However now, the two most recent season arcs are connected by just one exceedingly stressed thread. This is made somewhat more unsatisfying by the glaring missed potential for narrative; have Archer solve Woodhouse’s real world murder from his coma.

The show already establishes that Archer can relay information he is exposed to from his hospital bed. Mallory and Lana are discussing Woodhouse’s death when Archer’s subconscious takes him to that exact situation. Why not have more scenes like that dispersed throughout the eight episodes? Archer could potentially overhear clues from the case his colleagues are working on and put the pieces together in his dream only to finally expose the murderer upon his recovery. One could even go as far as to say that solving this case would count towards the hours needed to qualify for a PI license, much to Cyril’s dismay. In fact it could be strongly argued that both solving a murder and qualifying to be a PI in one’s sleep is the ultimate move for the self confessed “world’s greatest secret agent”. It was to much disappointment that the series instead opted for a more generic succession of twists with the ultimate pay off not carrying nearly as much heft as it potentially could have. Archer’s butler cum (phrasing) manservant has been MIA since season five and this could have not only saved the connection between season eight and its predecessors but also given some much needed closure as to the fate of the character.

As mentioned, FX has already made some plot points from the up-and-coming ninth season publically available at Comic-con 2017. Titled Archer: Danger Island and set in 1939[7] the creative forces show no signs of bringing archer back from the brink any time soon, instead opting to set the series on a “remote beach locale in the South-Pacific”.[8]  Maybe this could be the new direction for Archer as a television series, an anthology series doing away with the increasingly murky inter-series ties. Or maybe there will be some plot development tying his comatose delusions to the outside world, the potential is still there. Either way, it is clear that Archer, as a series, is hurtling towards an ultimatum; a clear-cut decision needs to be made at this point as it remains uncommented on as to whether Sterling will still be trapped in his coma for the next seasons run.[9] None of this has been to say that the eighth season wasn’t an enjoyable watch; Archer still makes for superbly compelling storytelling and still possesses some of the sharpest writing in adult animation currently on television. Ultimately fans of the series will have to wait with bated breath as they look optimistically towards spring 2018 to satisfy speculation surrounding the series’ return and finally get some concrete answers as to the fate of the characters.

Timothy Windsor