Probe around in Sterling Archer’s subconscious and, logic would dictate, there will be beautiful women in stylish clothes, a steady flow of pills and alcohol, and trouble, plenty of trouble—much of it imposed on him by his mother, the rest by his own stubbornness and sangfroid. The series’ eighth season, Archer: Dreamland, explores the comatose mind of Archer, who was last seen doing his best William Holden, face down in a Hollywood swimming pool.
Adam Reed, the mastermind behind the animated series, has created an inspired season that takes the obvious presumptions about life in Archer’s brain and warps it into something wholly new yet quintessentially Archer. Even the opening credits and music have been re-worked, and yet remain instantly identifiable, with the silhouetted images reflecting each character’s new persona (Aisha Tyler’s Lana Kane is now a jazz singer, for instance).
“Adam is great at finding a way to keep the narrative going and at same time changing everything up,” says H. Jon Benjamin, who voices Archer, tells Paste.
Previously, the show was purposely vague about time, sometimes seeming to be set simultaneously in the present and in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. Dreamland takes Archer to 1947, where he is a private eye.
“Writing for a specific time after always being out of time was part of the fun,” Reed says. He concocted the concept for the season at the same time that he conceived last season’s move from New York to Los Angeles, which re-imagined the secret agents as private eyes. Reed chose 1947 because he wanted Archer haunted by PTSD from World War II. He also loves the clothes, the “great standards,” and especially the fact that “this is when film noir really has its roots.”
In this new world, Archer is investigating the murder of his partner, Woodhouse (who in real life was his butler). He catches Cyril (Chris Parnell) and Pam (Amber Nash), who have become corrupt cops in Archer’s mind—plus, Pam may really be a man—smuggling women into the country to be prostitutes for mob boss Len Trexler (Jeffrey Tambor.)
“I don’t ever have the expectation of Cyril being a hero, so it’s fun getting to be a bad guy,” Parnell says.
Archer then ends up being manipulated by an ambitious rival mobster, who owns a club called Dreamland: That mobster is named Mother and is really Archer’s mother, Malory (Jessica Walter). Archer is also caught up in a fake suicide and several real kidnapping attempts involving Cheryl (Pam Greer), who is now a femme fatale and the heiress to a great publishing fortune.
Ray Gillette, voiced by Reed, is the bandleader at Dreamland, where Lana sings, and Krieger, played by Lucky Yates, is still a mad scientist, though his storyline has one of the most surprising plot twists in TV this season.
There are numerous references to classic noir films: One early episode features a perfect parody of the greenhouse scene between Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe and General Sternwood in The Big Sleep.
“Everyone from the actors to the designers to the illustrators was excited about working on this new scenario,” Reed says. “They liked the challenge.” He concedes, however, that since he’s the boss, “they could have been lying to me when they said, ‘This is so great.’”
Jessica Walter, who plays Archer’s domineering, self-absorbed mother, Malory, backs him up. “I was fascinated by this. I love that period and I love watching the old noir movies that play on TCM.”
Despite all the changes, the essence of Archer remains in the characters and the universe Reed has created.
“When we start a season like this with a quasi-reboot, I always think I’m going to bring something else to my reading but I never do,” Benjamin says. “I’m a big noir fan and a big Bogart fan so I made a small attempt to sound Marlowe-y but I gave it up after two sentences.”
Since the season really exists in Archer’s mind, Reed says, “we wanted to bring back the other characters who would be bouncing around in his brain,” which means guest appearances from Patton Oswalt, Keegan-Michael Key (who previously played Los Angeles detectives) and Tambor. The latter is a classic Archer touch, since it’s conceivable that Trexler is Archer’s father and because Tambor and Walters were famously paired up as the heads of the dysfunctional Bluth clan in Arrested Development. “I can’t shake him and he can’t shake me,” Walter says of her frequent co-star.
Reed jokes that “we recorded in period costume,” but Walter says the thing she loves most about doing animation is “you don’t have to worry about makeup and hair and costume. I would not want to dress up for this.” (And, of course, each cast member records on their own.)
When asked which cast members would actually look good in 1940s clothing, Parnell names Walter and Tyler and, oh, everyone except… he stops before listing Benjamin. Pressed about that, he says, “I think he would look terrible. It’s hard to find any clothes he would look good in.”
Benjamin is dismissive of the slight, pointing out he has heard this type of talk before. “He’s in love with me and it’s his way to try and get closer to me. He’s not my type—he’s too dull for me. Chris Parnell may have a wild side, but it’s one that I don’t want to see.”
Parnell does hint at darker moments—after pointing out that Benjamin has to do the most work of any cast member because “he is not nearly as cool and suave as Archer,” he’s asked why he says Cyril is not that big a stretch for him, when Cyril in Dreamland is crooked and violent and involved in trafficking immigrant women. “It’s not a big leap,” he says. “I wish I could say more but I can’t, except that it’s a world I’m frighteningly familiar with.” (This from a man who had to postpone the interview by a few minutes to get his infant son ready for his nap.)
One thing that Parnell, Benjamin and Walter agree on is that they’d love it if Reed changes his mind about ending the series after the tenth season. (He plotted out the last two years at the same time he wrote this season.)
“I want it to never end,” Walter says. “It will be a very sad day for me. I don’t even want to think about it.”
Parnell says that maybe Reed will read this story and change his mind, but if not, he’d like to put in for a Don Draper-esque ending of beatific happiness (or maybe Parnell just wants to look like Jon Hamm). However, he confesses that “Adam will just do what he wants and I’m fine with whatever he does.”
Benjamin says that the one reason for hope is that there was initially “scuttlebutt” that Reed was going to call it quits after seven years, but then came up with the Dreamland concept and the plans for the two subsequent seasons. “He had the idea just come to him and that extended the show’s life. That could happen again.”
Archer: Dreamland premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FXX.
Stuart Miller has written about television for the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Guardian, The New York Times and others. He lives in Brooklyn and has been letting his teenage sons watch Archer since it started, much to his wife’s chagrin.