One of the defining characteristics of FX's longer-running comedies is their ability to try new things in the name of staying fresh and keeping things interesting. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia hasn't employed anything as drastic as a straight-up format shift, but the last four or five seasons have seen an interesting amount of experimentation, metacommentary, and sharp narrative callbacks, all working to use the show's rich history in its favor while also making sure that, simply enough, things don't just get boring.
Archer has approached this exact same problem with the characteristic irreverence of an animated series: the lack of live-action limitation means that Archer can shake things up in ways that wouldn't be possible in another, more costly medium. Creator and showrunner Adam Reed has served up a season of Miami Vice-esque drug running, a season of spy work for the CIA, and now a season where the show's setting is magically transformed to a 1940s Los Angeles detective noire story.
The simple explanation? Archer is in a coma, his unresolved death from last season paying off in a pretty unexpected way. Maybe one of the best running jokes in Archer's quiver is his apparent immortality. Sterling Archer is repeatedly injured within inches of his life, but seemingly can't die, and always appears to make a speedy and full recovery. Ending last season on a cliffhanger that revolves around his apparent death was in interesting move, and the choice to start this season with Sterling in a coma — as opposed to maybe just lampshading the fact that we don't see his recovery, a la Rick and Morty — keeps things appropriately dark as a follow up to the last season, without letting that darkness override the start of this season's proceedings.
Instead, Archer's coma is used as a way to give the show a season-long format shift, moving the action into Archer's mind and entering his coma dream. Appropriately enough, it's a version of 1930s Los Angeles, in which Archer is a private eye who's just found out that his partner Woodhouse has been murdered. Detective Figgis warns him to keep from getting too close to the case, while the apparently genderless Detective Poovey is a bit more sympathetic.
"No Good Deed" has a lot of work to do as it has to serve as a kind of pilot for the season's new format, introducing new roles for each character (as well as a newbie or two) in addition to kicking off what looks to be a twisting, turning detective noir story. Archer gets hired by local bar owner and mobstress Mother (you can take a wild guess as to who fills this particular role) to stake out and gather info on what turns out to be rival gangster Len Trexler's human trafficking operation, and when Detective Poovey joins in, things get particularly fun.
As with each season before it, Archer: Dreamland marks a step up in the animation, the sequence with Archer and Poovey tracking — and then fighting — a series of gangsters at the Long Beach harbor looking particularly gorgeous, awash with greenish blues and jet-black silhouettes. Of course things go wrong, and of course there's a highly-kinetic action sequence as Archer and Poovey take down said mobsters and set a group of trafficked women free. It's Archer doing what it does best, and the change in scenery — and the depth added by Archer's intense combat flashbacks — works to make the best things about Archer work even better.
The episode ends with Archer, having been hired for a stakeout, instead seeming to have sparked a war between Mother and Trexler, which means he finds himself indebted Mother just as his investigation of Woodhouse's murder takes an unexpected and complicating turn.
Dreamland looks like it'll be a particularly labyrinthine season of Archer, and appropriately so. The choice to turn the show into a detective noire for a season is a smart one, and a big part of what makes "No Good Deed" so much fun to watch is seeing each new role that all of our favorite characters get to occupy, as Archer checks off every box on the list of hard-boiled detective noire tropes. Krieger retains just about all of his backsass when he's recast as Mother's dope-dealing bartender, and lounge singer Lana infuses her typical brash delivery with a syrupy smoothness that doesn't always work for her despite the fact that it adds an interesting and watchable new dimension to the character.
Adam Reed loves his characters like you read about, and he knows exactly what he doing as he translates each one into a film noire archetype for "No Good Deed." It looks like we're just starting to scratch the surface in terms of a season-long arc, but things are off to an unquestionably promising start.
Oh, and also...
• I can't wait to see how Charlotte VanDerTunt figures into the picture.
• If Archer had a spirit animal, it'd be an ocelot.
• "I don't even know where you're going! Long Beach, I hope." Not only is Archer's dialogue with the dog perfect, but it's a great example of the show playing with noire tropes in a very Adam Reed kind of way.