Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise for a show whose characters constantly change their identities, but “Archer” has evolved into a fascinating chameleon in its later seasons. While its first four years focused on a spy agency (the unfortunately named “ISIS”), the FXX series has changed its overarching narrative in the following seasons. Its fifth season, subtitled “Vice,” found the former would-be government agents selling cocaine in Miami; season six saw the removal of the name ISIS for obvious reasons; and last year moved the show to Los Angeles as the characters worked as private detectives at the Figgis Agency. The last moments of the season seven finale left Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) floating, presumed dead in a pool after being shot.
The season eight premiere “No Good Deed” picks up three months later, with Archer alive, but in a coma, doted on by his mother Malory (Jessica Walter) and visited by Lana (Aisha Tyler). The first four episodes available to press move almost all the action to inside Archer’s dreams, using the hospital as a brief framing device. But Archer doesn’t dream about his own life or even in the present; instead, he puts everyone he knows into a ’40s noir.
The central mystery is around the death of Archer’s partner, whose present-day counterpart is Woodhouse, voiced by the late actor George Coe. But it wouldn’t be a noir if there weren’t a crooked cop (Chris Parnell‘s Cyril Figgis), a sultry singer (Tyler’s Lana), an heiress (Judy Greer‘s Charlotte Vandertunt) and a crime lord (Walter’s Malory, here called “Mother”). As in previous seasons, “Archer” isn’t afraid of serialized stories, but the larger murder mystery isn’t really a concern — nor is Archer’s comatose state.
Instead, the ’40s setting serves more as a new sandbox for showrunner Adam Reed to play in, and there’s plenty of fun to be had for both him and the audience. Though these episodes aren’t quite as funny as the show at its height, it’s still endlessly silly and obsessed with wordplay and, of course, phrasing. Throughout its run, “Archer” has consistently been one of TV’s most purely enjoyable shows, offering throwaway gags, random pop-culture references and inside jokes that reward fans for watching from the beginning. With the change in setting, the show’s already obscure references get even more arcane. I was pleased to understand the mention of “Gold Diggers Of 1933,” but others (Granville Sharp?) had me grateful for Google. Keegan-Michael Key, Jeffrey Tambor and Benjamin’s “Bob’s Burgers” costar Eugene Mirman return as guest voices, with Wyatt Cenac and Wendell Pierce joining for multi-episode appearances as well.
Whether it’s the cinematic inspiration or advancements in technology, “Archer” has grown more visually impressive in its eighth year. While the show is in color, there are nods to the noir genre, and the animation is sometimes surprisingly beautiful, particularly in its backgrounds. A show this funny could be content to rest on its humor, but “Archer” has upped its game, showing that Reed and his team’s ambition isn’t just limited to comedy.
Despite the change in setting, “Archer” is still “Archer.” Its characters may be different people, but what we love about them at their core still remains. Unsung MVP Amber Nash‘s Pam Poovey is a suit-wearing police detective, who is simply called “Poovey” in this dream world. But Poovey still knows how to scarf down a hot dog, so all is right with the world. [B+]