‘Archer: Dreamland’ Review: FX’s Beloved Animated Series Goes Full Noir & Hits a Wall
If you talk to any fan of The Simpsons that was born before the series premiered, they almost all have a breaking point: an episode, or a season on the whole, that made them stop watching regularly. My breaking point was Season 13 and though I’ve seen most of Season 14 and 15 through reruns over the years, I’ve been able to stay away from much of the last 13 seasons and have done so with good reason, as far as I’ve been told.
The reasons for giving up on The Simpsons after a certain point are myriad and often subjective. Some will say that it just stopped being funny, while others say that the series became overtly concerned with being timely over timeless. Others say that the political and societal references have gotten far more cheesy and obvious, but that strikes me simply as not liking a show for trying to relate to a younger generation/demographic. These are all understandable arguments to be put forth and they all skirt around what made me finally give up: exhaustion. I just got tired of watching the same show with its familiar dynamics every week and its not like The Simpsons is a show that’s now for grand acts of maturation or upheaval in its narrative. Maude Flanders falling to her death is about as radical as it got for Matt Groening.
All of this is relevant to the eighth season of Archer, entitled Archer: Dreamland, in that Archer has also hit a breaking point with me and for similar reasons. The latest season of Adam Reed‘s new animated classic sends our self-important, self-indulgent super-spy, voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, into a illusory pastiche of 1940s noir style, a place for his psyche to hide while he fights to get out of a coma. With his trusted butler Woodhouse (originally voiced by the late George Coe, now Tom Kane) passing away around the same time he went into the coma, the dreamscape becomes a place for him to investigate Woodhouse’s death, as well as a place for Reed to shuffle the deck a bit and cast his characters as classical femme fatales, crime bosses, bartenders, and police officers working in the underworld.
The laughs come as much from one-liners and out-of-nowhere references as they do from well-timed pauses, stutters, mispronunciation, and guttural noises, but for whatever variety this affords the series, its also become a bit predictable. The changes in coloring, design, and era keep the series visually interesting but the story structure of each episode remains relatively similar, as is the dispersal of the aforementioned jokes. It’s come to a point where Archer has a greater predilection for making one smirk or grunt out a single “ha” than big, roiling belly laughs and guffaws. Heck, in the first two episodes of Dreamland, there’s a continued off-screen gag where a drummer gives a rimshot to random jokes from the main characters and is subsequently chastised by the bandleader, and even that gets old quick.
This is not a hit against the unimpeachable voice cast, which continues to include Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Lucky Yates, Judy Greer, Jessica Walter, Amber Nash, and Reed himself, a masterful vocal performer. This is more an issue with writing and conceptualizing, which has become more about leaning on tested and proven material than further exploring the narrative world of Archer over the last few years. In the case of Dreamland, even the story feels flatly familiar and written on autopilot with Lana playing a secretive, dangerous lounge singer, Malory playing a crime boss, and Pam and Cyril playing cops. There’s no expansion or even mutation of the noir style beyond an increase in humor and a moderate amount of self-awareness, neither of which is strong enough to override how plodding and unadventurous this all feels. And unlike The Simpsons, one cannot accuse Archer of trying to more appease a youthful crowd by tailoring the new narrative world to films like Night and the City, Underworld U.S.A., or Out of the Past. Instead, Archer: Dreamland feels like just more of the same, and for the first time in the show’s run, that’s not what I’m looking for.
Archer: Dreamland premieres Wednesday, April 5 at 10 p.m. EST on FXX.