No Good Deed
Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin).
In the months between the conclusion of Archer’s seventh season and this week’s premiere, I decided the time had come to revisit Adam Reed’s previous show, Frisky Dingo. As I burned through the two seasons’ 25 short episodes, I was struck by what a staggering amount of narrative ground Reed covered in such a brief span of time. In the blink of an eye, characters die, un-die, gain and lose superpowers, give birth, and vanish without warning. For the second season, Reed completely abandoned the core premise of the show — the clash between media-savvy superhero Awesome X and the hulking albino alien villain Killface — so that the main characters could run against each other for the presidency. (That bit, by the way, has aged scarily well.)
Dumping threads of plot the moment they began to bore him is pretty much Reed’s M.O., and he’s brought a similar ethic of constant reinvention to Archer. After last season’s L.A. noir routine and the brief, glorious reign of Archer Vice, Reed has once again started over in a new milieu with a new set of pop-cultural reference points. The move from neo-noir to classic noir raised two major concerns: that the difference between the two narrative traditions wouldn’t be significant enough to differentiate one season from the other, and that Reed has begun to lose steam and is compensating by stealthily converting Archer into an anthology series. The season premiere “No Good Deed” assuages both fears, and though the episode begins with a thoroughly false step, it sticks the landing by breaking with reality completely instead of trading one for another.
The opening of season eight could be one of the darkest, most emotionally weighty points in the series — if it wasn’t directly preceded by cheap misdirection to coax an easy response. Cutting from Archer lying in the pool to a funeral at which he is conspicuously absent makes a clear implication, and the sneaky little reveal that everyone’s crowded around Woodhouse’s grave as Archer lies in a coma elsewhere comes off as manipulative. Nobody wants to be played like that, and especially not when Woodhouse’s death would elicit an emotional response on its own. The move doesn’t just yank the viewer’s chain more shamelessly than should be expected of Archer, it trivializes the death of one of its beloved supporting characters.
At least it’s in service of a worthy storytelling gambit. The episode begins in earnest as we enter the inner workings of Archer’s comatose mind, where it appears the majority of this season will play out. As his loved ones crowd around his hospital bed, he’s entered a fantasy plane of pulp detective fiction. This season represents a reboot with more totality than anything the show has attempted before, where the characters get entirely remade instead of merely transported to a new location. Archer’s a hard-boiled cop, Lana’s the jazz singer he instantly falls for, Ray’s her trumpeter, Mallory runs the town’s criminal underground under the moniker “Mother,” and the final lines of the episode reveal the magnificently named Charlotte Van Der Tunt.
We end up in a gangster Wizard of Oz, where elements from Archer’s life get filtered through the logical discombobulation of dreams and re-manifest as part of his Dreamland. Mother’s still domineering, Lana’s still the apple of his eye, but they’ve all been displaced and redirected back into a story freighted with symbolic significance. The most exciting aspect of Dreamland is how the porous divide between dream and reality allows for one to bleed into the other; the intermittent PTSD flashbacks that Archer’s veteran character experiences represent a rupture in his constructed reality, and could very well become a conduit through which real life starts to seep back in.
The strange new universe in which Archer will play out has yet to establish its rules, or its relationship with the more urgent and meaningful question of Archer’s coma. It’d be frustrating if the season took place entirely in Dreamland and left Archer atrophying in that hospital bed for a year — a bit of crosscutting between dimensions would be welcome. But the dream state appears to be an overall good, having created new comic dynamics and offered an opportunity for the occasional stylistic flourish. (The two ice cubes dropped into a glass of bourbon melting into next shot is a nice oneiric touch.) Anything that gives us Pam sold into sex slavery after beating on Cyril, her namby-pamby partner, can only be good news.
And that’s not even taking into account the twisty yarn the in-dream narrative has in store, a one-two punch of madame Van Der Tunt putting out an order on her own life and Mother drawing Archer into the middle of a gang war with rival Lex Trexler. If the goal of an Archer season premiere is to get the audience invested in the antics to come, “No Good Deed” accomplishes that and then some. But this is a risky gambit, and risks can spiral out spectacularly with one unfavorable change in the wind. Noir homage is good, clean fun, but leaving Archer to spin his wheels in a coma for a season would be a tacit admission that the show has begun to lose steam. There’s a big difference between constant reconstruction as a means of remaining vital, and just taking the easy way out.
• Archer: Dreamland arrives with a snazzy, jazzy new title sequence and an era-appropriate arrangement of the theme tune. It’s the little touches that make all the difference, like the clock’s hands turning into a period biplane instead of a spy jet.
• Archer makes mention of Granville Sharp, and while a crafty viewer could probably use context clues to presume that he was a historical figure who had something to do with abolition, a bit of research reveals that specifically, he helps spearhead black resettlement in Sierra Leone.
• Archer delivering what we assume to be a classic film noir voice-over to what turns out to be a dog riding shotgun in his car is a sight gag both dumb and brilliant.
• Archer’s recollection of the scattered German he picked up during his service in the Great War has a perfect rattled-off delivery (“Don’t shoot. I surrender. Hitler’s the tops, stuff like that.”) but Krieger lands the first episode MVP title with the sublimely incredulous, “I mean, who tips their dope dealer?”