What happened to Sterling Archer? It’s been a long time since we last saw the incorrigible superspy, a dense casserole of Oedipal angst and intimacy issues and self-sabotaging arrested development, and not just “break between seasons” long, either. The show has been overtaken by men named Sterling Archer, who bear strong resemblances to Sterling Archer and share many of Sterling Archer’s key characteristics. And yet these men are not Sterling Archer, and more to the point, they do not possess the complexity he has built over time.
The rough-riding sea captain who awakens in the opening shot of the new Danger Island season is not Sterling Archer. Neither is the booze-soused gumshoe who spent last year tromping around a hazy Los Angeles in an extended film noir homage. They’re not people at all; these men are dreams, figments informed by the wisps of thought in the “real” Archer’s comatose subconscious. The bona fide Archer is still in bed, though we can only presume that much. The new season doesn’t even bother checking in with him before it’s off and running in its own fantasy.
His brain having apparently reset itself since the Dreamland arc, Archer has now cast himself as the resident playboy on a small island in the South Pacific circa 1939, a pilot short one eye whose predilection for splitting up honeymooning couples remains very much intact. The jungles of this idyllic paradise are rife with danger beyond the walls of Malory’s hotel, where she’s able to keep a close eye on her feckless son and a closer eye on the well-sculpted backside of the houseboy Manu. Everyone’s got a new role a hop and a skip from their usual schtick: Pam is burlier than ever as Archer’s sidekick, Lana plays the object of desire as an indigenous princess, and Cyril is the butt of the joke as an effete German whose name sounds a whole lot like “fucks.” (In the episode’s most inspired reinvention, Krieger now inhabits the form of a sassy talking macaw. Bird Krieger could easily commandeer his own spinoff program once Archer wraps following its tenth season.)
But what does it all amount to? This critic spent the entirety of last season waiting for the events of Archer’s imagination to have a tangible effect on his life. To recycle a previous comparison, The Wizard of Oz only comes together once Dorothy wakes up with a renewed appreciation of her life and the people in it, and if the writers insist on playing the “it was all a dream” card, there had to be some net gain of insight, something to make it all worthwhile.
This episode posits that there doesn’t have to be an “it was all a dream” moment at all, that the show could feasibly hop between milieus with all the disjointed self-containment of an anthology series. This “strange pilot,” as the title cheekily goes, has only the loosest connection to the larger fabric of Archer. The character dynamics are largely unchanged — except for Krieger, who is, again, a parrot — but all the weight of their shared history has been erased. Both Archer and Archer have proven themselves malleable without the complete untethering of the dream-state, as Archer Vice imagined the gang in ‘80s Miami and the subsequent seventh season sent them to L.A. for a ‘70s vibe. These seasons refreshed the plot while advancing the trajectories of these deceptively layered characters. Danger Island, as matters currently stand, has no channel through which it can contribute to the show’s grander progress.
And for many viewers, that might not be a problem. The prewar Casablanca aesthetic will be fun for a while — we’ve already gotten to watch a French-accented Ray mutter, “I am shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on in here!” — and then once it’s not anymore, the show can move on. Most of the superficial elements that make watching Archer such a consistently pleasurable experience haven’t gone anywhere, either. Adam Reed’s apparent joy in the quirks of language lives on, as one character describes Charlotte as “Redhead? Kind of flibbertigibbet-y?” Those viewers that consider Archer a fun show about a wisecracking a-hole who banters with his co-workers will be unbothered by the gradual shift in narrative mode.
But to the faction of the viewership that sees Archer as a show about a deeply dysfunctional alcoholic attempting to disrupt his patterns of self-destruction, this turn robs the show of its structural spinal column. Sterling Archer can’t grow or change if there is no Sterling Archer, and neither he nor anyone with access to him has been seen on the show in years. Everyone’s floating through an unreality removed even from the unreality of the main show. Last season, it was unclear as to whether the show would eventually jump back on track and pluck Archer from the unconscious limbo in which his body was trapped. The opening image of this season teases the viewer with the image of Archer, unshaven and with his eyes closed, as if we’re all back in his hospital room. For a moment, we wonder if everything’s gone back to normal. Then comes the blithe dismissal: “He looks so peaceful. Sometimes I wonder if he’s dreaming. Then I remember: I don’t give a shit.”
• The intro sequence has been custom-fit to the theme of the season once again, really working the tiki aesthetic in its font and production-design choices. Still, I’m a bit nostalgic for the crisp bongos of the original.
• The latest entry in the “That Counts As a Frisky Dingo Reference!” Files: the single turnip that Charlotte Vandertunt gets to gnaw on harkens back to a similar stint in a dingy prison cell from Adam Reed’s previous series, in which our heroes Awesome X and Killface were made to subsist on one radish between the two of them, high as it was in potassium.
• Charlotte has not lost her talent for extravagant insults way, way over the line of good taste: “The only thing I want in this world besides for you to die from some heretofore-unknown form of eye-hole cancer is to get off this godforsaken island!”
• The mention of “consensual buggery” refers to what I was surprised to learn is a specific and very real legal term in the British judicial system.