A Hidden Life
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How do the writers of FXX animated hit “Archer” keep it fresh into its tenth season? By radically altering the tone and genre of the show, with recent installments building off different genre templates, under the idea that their comatose lead character is literally dreaming entire seasons. It really started with the fifth season, subtitled “Archer Vice,” which took the Cold War spoof of the first four years and grafted it with a “Miami Vice” spoof, but the show then reverted to the traditional superspy genre before jumping the rails entirely with the eighth season in 2017. Titled “Archer: Dreamland,” the action took place in Archer’s mind, and worked off tropes of the noir genre. The next season, “Archer: Danger Island” was an old-fashioned serial adventure. Where could they go now? Space, of course!
With a title that riffs on the classic British sci-fi show “Space: 1999,” “Archer: 1999” is science fiction with the “Archer” sense of humor. The characters are loosely based on what was developed over the first several seasons in that the voice actors fill similar roles without being directly the same characters. So, H. Jon Benjamin’s Sterling Archer isn’t the coolest spy in town anymore, but he is the charismatic captain of the M/V Seamus salvage ship, a group of space-traveling mercenaries and misfits who get into wacky adventures. If you’re imagining the “Archer” characters in a “Firefly” spoof, you’re really not that far off, although the first stretch of episodes available for press also openly riff on sci-fi classics like “Alien” and “Battlestar Galactica” without ever feeling like straight parody. As they did with the noir season, the writers use sci-fi classics without directly commenting on them. One imagines they watched hours of the genre and then wrote their own, allowing what they watched to influence without directly mimicking.
The “Archer” voice cast is still at the top of their game. The always-working Benjamin has been underrated for years—my kids, “Bob’s Burgers” fans, are fascinated every time a commercial for Arby’s or this show comes on—and the overall ensemble on this show never quite got the credit it deserves either. What’s been fun about the genre playfulness is that the voice actors can imbue what we remember about the original iterations of these characters with just a line reading. Jessica Walter brings the same acidic tongue to a ball of energy as she did to the hard-drinking form of Archer’s mother; Chris Parnell conveys his life-loser energy in this version of Cyril too. The show has worked its way through these genre games because the voice cast keeps it grounded in something familiar. It’s amazing that the writers can get away with character-based, recurring jokes across genres and seasons.
While I admire the ambition of recent “Archer,” this one is the least effective so far just in terms of laughs, which may be all that really matters to fans. The four episodes don’t crackle with the wit that was in “Dreamland” or the playfulness of “Danger Island” or “Vice.” The writing just doesn’t feel as sharp as it once did, although I’ve only seen a small percentage of the season, and even that sampling had some laughs, if not the standard batting average of the overall series. When you choose to redefine your show every season, there’s going to be a season or two that just doesn’t work. “1999” may be that season for “Archer” (although they could just easily right the ship and have a great second half). If it is, at least they got it out of the way before they head to the Wild West.
Four episodes available for press screened for review.
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