Another season. Another reboot. The powers that be behind Archer have figured out that the motley collection of personalities the show’s crafted over the past eight years are now officially commedia dell’arte characters — distinct enough to be recognizable but malleable enough that you can plop them into any variety of new stories and situations and trust that they’ll fit right in.
Enter “Archer: Danger Island”, the show’s latest seasonal refresh. Season 9 offers a new backdrop for our favorite band of former secret agents/private detectives/drug runners/noir gumshoes/astronauts/submariners/alcoholics — a Casablanca-esque, French-occupied island in the South Pacific named Mitimotu. The action takes place in 1939, with references to the looming war and a winking vibe that tracks with the characteristically wide-ranging cultural pastiche of an “American abroad” island adventure.
“Danger Island” reimagines Sterling Archer as a seaplane pilot as he teams up with Pam — his partner in crime and co-pilot — to fly locals and tourists alike around the area. Together they run “Archer Airways”, a nascent business owned by the acid-tongued hotelier Mallory, who’s once again in her motherly guise. Lana is recast as a local princess, scheming with “Danger Island”’s version of Cyril — a secret-keeping German named Fuchs — to find a way to protect her homeland. And along the way, there are glimpses of Cheryl as a disgraced New York socialite, Ray as a local constable, and, in an inspired turn, Dr. Krieger as a wisecracking parrot (well, macaw — it’s a long story).
The folks behind Archer are rightly confident in their ability to meld the show’s sensibilities to these new environs. The former ISIS crew’s trademark patter is outstanding whether it takes place in semi-modern New York City or a pre-war island paradise. The colorful characters involved are so distinctive that whether they’re infiltrating KGB hideouts or roaming through the Polynesian jungle, their scenes still work without anyone missing a beat. You can channel Archer’s inherent Archer-ness in any number of modes and settings and still have it feel true to the ribald, literate, and motor-mouthed spirit of the show.
Despite that, this evergreen-by-reboot approach also creates a sort of season-length cul-de-sac, one that keeps the show from ever truly progressing.
Each “alternate reality” season of Archer is fresh because it’s new. But it’s also a bit elliptical — not just because of the implied “dying dream” conceit but also because the “what if” switch to noir or pacific-inspired escapades prevents any of the characters from genuinely growing or changing. Any progress they’ve made before in the “real world” or make now in these elseworld adventures is, if not necessarily swept away, then at least mushed into the nebulous background history of the show rather than actually used to advance anyone or anything.
There are heady ways in which Archer rambling through a noir mystery or traipsing through the jungle works as metaphor and a means for the character to subconsciously process all the insane incidents and even more insane (if unassumingly dear) people that have led him to this point. During one tense moment in “Danger Island”, Sterling muses that he might be immortal, and there’s the hint of that kind of fourth wall-winking, mildly existential grappling. But for the most part, it’s all a means to reset the show without really resetting it.
That means Archer is always fun. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar — with just enough of a new twist that it doesn’t feel stale. But it’s also deceptively static.
Despite that, “Archer: Danger Island” is good – damn good in fact. The show’s trademark repartee is back in full force. In season 9’s first stretch of episodes, there are clear goals and obstacles that connect all the characters and promise a few twists and clashes to come. And with Archer’s preexisting fondness for a fuzzy timeframe, the show blends its modern stylings and the French Polynesian setting into a delightful roux (not rue) of a setup.
The show also continues to advance visually in its ninth season. It’s too good to spoil, but “Danger Island” features one of the show’s best and most ambitious setpieces. The characters are more fluid and expressive, and the animators aren’t shy about showing off the splendid detail in the different slices of Mitimotu we see. While Archer has always been a writer’s showcase thanks to creator Adam Reed’s unique style, it continues to push the limits of its paper doll aesthetic and finds more and more ways to craft images that match the heights of its writing.
And in all the show’s rebooting zeal, particular attention must be paid to the sideways-but-brilliant decision to reimagine Dr. Krieger as a smart-ass bird named Crackers. I never knew I wanted Sterling Archer to have a sass-mouthed animal sidekick (a la Iago in Aladdin or Salem in Sabrina the Teenage Witch), but damn if Crackers isn’t the perfectly bizarre and appropriately ridiculous complement to Sterling’s beachside misadventures. Between clones, robotic doubles, and glimpses of him as an actual (if sabotage-minded) Nazi doctor, Archer had seemingly exhausted all the places to take Dr. Krieger. But this new, feathery makeover breathes new life into the character, and Crackers is a hoot every time he’s on screen.
If “Archer: Danger Island” were a new show (and in some ways it is), I would keep watching on the strength of its first few episodes alone (and I will). The dialogue is still fast-paced and cleverly sophomoric. The humor is as sharp as ever and fits nicely with the tropical climes. And there are some superb visual thrills that ensure the show keeps the action in “action-comedy.” Excise a few series-long running gags, and “Danger Island” could seem, to the uninitiated, like an exciting new series all its own.
But as a long-time watcher, I’m also ready for the show to move forward, despite how enjoyable these flights of fancy can be. With an end to the series looming in Season 10, these coma-induced journeys to 1940s Los Angeles or the 1930s South Seas are a deft way to temporarily reinvent the show and prevent it from spinning its wheels while Reed & Co. wait to pull the trigger on the series’ end game.
And yet, one of Archer’s hidden strengths is how it subtly managed to advance and develop its cast of characters, particularly its eponymous lead, over the course of the series. With its collection of oft-ridiculous, always-outsized main characters, Archer was (aside from some of its fellow foul-mouthed cartoon brethren) perhaps the last show a viewer would have expected to plumb the depths of its key figures and let them grow and change.
But prior seasons of the show saw Archer himself mature from his booze-guzzling and skirt-chasing in subtle, surprisingly believable ways. He became a dad twice-over. He showed enough decency and care in that to make a relationship between him and Lana seem like a plausible move and not just a late-era ploy. He even realized/admitted that Pam is his best friend. (And one of the other quiet boons of the last third of the series is how it gives Ms. Poovey more to do and puts her team-ups with Archer in the spotlight.)
There’s a trajectory here. The show’s sputtered and stalled along that path on occasion — much like Archer’s ramshackle seaplane in “Danger Island” — but it’s still made undeniable progress despite reboots, de-boots, and major shifts.
That progress can’t happen when the show’s having its characters play-act in L.A. or Mitimotu some other tributary from the main river of the series. Archer is still fun, funny, and action-packed, which is a surfeit in and of itself for a series entering its ninth season. And “Danger Island” promises to be a fun side-adventure with lots of great things to come.
The show just used to be a little bit more than that. Even in the rush of these sun-baked escapades and imaginary stories (aren’t they all?), it’s hard not to wonder if it ever will be again.