Archer: Danger Island sees the plucky spy gang hard at work drinking and snarking on a tropical island full of jungle peril and cannibalistic natives, and…and…it’s a shame. Really, it is. It’s not as if it’s completely execrable now, there’s no one specific awful thing that ruined the rest of it by association, but the show as a whole is a pale shadow of its former glory.
The formatting decision to have Danger Island (and the previous series, Dreamland) take place inside Archer’s coma is a fine excuse to have it in different, exotic settings. But the fact is, the show never needed an excuse. It always played fast and loose with the timeframe – something which itself became a rich source of comedy – and saw the characters travelling literally all over the world from the word go (a decision that’s a lot easier to do in animation). Dreamland was full-blown noir, but didn’t even necessarily have to be a period piece, and it seems as if Danger Island only is to have the Nazis knocking about as go-to villains, in the same way as what sometimes feels like 90% of all media.
(This pre-WWII setting has also necessitated the Archer gang’s marvellous mad scientist, Algernop Krieger, being retired, with voice actor Lucky Yates serving instead as – sigh – a wacky talking parrot. People keep telling him to ‘shut up, bird’, which is either a misfired It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia reference, or not a joke at all.)
Danger Island was promoted on the strength that, after Dreamland bafflingly included Jessica Walter’s Mallory as a mob boss who was merely called ‘Mother’, we would once again have Mallory cast as Archer’s actual mother – opening the door to more of their uniquely dysfunctional relationship. Something like Hamlet with even more mutual resentment and sexual neuroses. Sad to say, Danger Island completely dropped the ball here, giving Mallory far more interplay with Cheryl, with their dynamic – Cheryl works for Mallory, to Mallory’s disgust Cheryl suddenly has more power than previously thought – being basically identical to what’s been covered previously. And both Cheryl’s avenues of power here – being treated like a goddess by a Nazi platoon, being actually viewed as a goddess by the native islanders – had plenty of comic potential, yet were relegated to offhand references before quietly fizzling out.
(A great number of threads were forgotten about through Danger Island. Luigi, the proprietor of the island’s pathetic other restaurant, could have been hard-edged tragicomedy. Instead he tastelessly aped the late Woodhouse before never appearing again. And Dudu, the more effective half of the island’s police force, literally disappeared.)
While Pam (Amber Nash) has more than earned her role as hero’s sidekick over the years, it feels like it’s come at a cost. Fart jokes, drawing out Archer’s vulnerability purely to riff on it, even the cannibalism, it’s all small potatoes compared to the king-hell vulgarity of a line like ‘I swear to god, you could drown a toddler in my panties right now’ – which, granted, is a tough act to follow, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t even try. Pam was one of the ensemble’s latest bloomers, it took a while for her to find her niche as a disgusting bare-knuckle fighter, but once she did, she became such a vital piece of the puzzle that anything which detracts from it is borderline blasphemy. Pam and Archer’s past as a duo is also reduced to fairly tepid stuff – their service in the Spanish Civil War, easily the best part, is smoothly glossed over like it’s half exposition and half inconvenience, and the rest is the utterly pedestrian tale of their snack bar folding.
Lana, meanwhile – the previous second banana of the gang – has seen her role shrink dramatically, and this is particularly noticeable in Danger Island, where she serves mainly to let the rest of the cast know there’s a sacred idol to seek out. Despite this, the finale tries to shoehorn the sexual tension between her and Archer back in. This makes sense purely as an invention of Archer’s fevered brain, but on no other level – and it’s a far cry from her being a voice of reason who, when pushed, could be just as neurotic as the rest of them.
The island is somewhere in what was then French Polynesia, but really, let’s not get technical with it. The writers didn’t, after all. When it’s not being ersatz Indiana Jones, a good chunk of it is reworking ideas and plot elements from season 3’s ‘Heart of Archness’ trilogy – but nothing beyond the surface level. There’s no exploration of the sheer grotesque depth of Archer’s id, but there’s a plane called ‘Loosey Goosey’, and Noah turns up again to translate and be shat upon by everyone else present. Rip Riley, however, doesn’t reappear, possibly because his role as a father figure-y foil for Archer might have threatened to introduce actual character development. (Though there’s something telling in that Archer seems to be imagining himself as Rip, eyepatch and all.)
It’s a mystery as to why the show decided to keep leaning so heavily on its established canon. The Watsonian answer would be that it’s all in Archer’s coma, that what isn’t made up of old films and TV shows is made up of Archer’s own memories. Perhaps – but it’s fairly empty reasoning considering that the coma framing always seemed like a way to start with a blank slate, for fear of the show getting bogged down by the weight of backstory (which animated shows seem understandably wary of). Archer and Lana had broken up and got back together who knows how many times, they had a child together, and Archer used the line ‘as Ripley said to the android Bishop from Aliens’ so many times that the words lost all meaning. The coma was the perfect way to start afresh – as, indeed, they did in Dreamland – and the central ensemble should be robust enough to work fine in uncharted waters.
The first experiment with the format came with season six, Archer Vice, which saw the gang try their hands at trafficking cocaine. But the real sea change came with season seven, set in Hollywood, when it became apparent to even the most casual observer that the show had reallocated a good chunk of its budget towards art and animation – at the cost of reducing the season to ten episodes (Dreamland clocked in at eight, as did Danger Island). This was also the season when, hovering nervously out over the shark, they had Archer and Lana get back together for not much comedic return.
Don’t get me wrong – season seven was gorgeous. You could tell they got their money’s worth. And looking back, yes, the earlier seasons are crude and stiff by comparison, but this is splitting hairs. As art quality goes, the show was always outclassing most other cartoons (and that aspect wasn’t even its main strength). More broadly, though, one could even make the argument that the earlier seasons are more impressive for having depicted spy stories – with the requisite gunfights, car chases, and scenic backdrops – with such limited resources.
Take season one’s ‘Diversity Hire’ as an example: near the end, when the Cuban hit squad turns up and Conway takes them out, there’s very little actual movement, yet this isn’t to the detriment of the story, it still gets across what’s going on with the minimum of fuss. In fact, had they devoted more animation to that sequence, had they had it play out in more detail, it wouldn’t necessarily have been a good thing. In the show’s salad days, the action elements were blended seamlessly with the dialogue’s wit and wordplay. They would never have thought to have the characters stop riffing simply because they’re in a gunfight.
Contrast Danger Island, where Archer landing the plane on main street – all beautifully drawn and animated, granted – stops the narrative dead. It takes up far too much of the episode, and since the move into each season being one long story (as opposed to the more episodic early seasons, which might see the occasional two- or three-parter at most), each episode’s been far too drawn-out anyway. Similarly, the first big action scene of Danger Island involved Pam, Lana, and Cyril joylessly mowing down Komodo dragons, which frankly just seems cruel, especially compared to Archer’s relationship with Babu the ocelot. Plus, Komodo dragons do not attack in squadrons of twenty. This isn’t Far Cry, guys.
The season finale saw Archer sacrificing himself to beat the main baddy – the kind of straightforward, black-and-white morality that is utterly incongruous with both Archer the character (an antihero to beat all antiheroes) and Archer the show, which, with its glory years set during the Cold War, tended towards murky, greyer, le Carre-ish ethics. Still, this was the perfect opportunity to have Archer rise from his coma, return to the real world and all the plot threads dangling there – but instead, he woke on a spaceship. An Alien-inspired spaceship. Which isn’t a particularly promising development given that season 3’s ‘Space Race’ two-parter was also drawing on Alien’s aesthetic – or given that Mallory is now a floating energy orb, possibly called ‘Mother’ again, that remains to be seen.
While I may have cheerfully brought my knives out for the past thousand words or so, I maintain that my thesis statement here is not ‘what were they thinking’, it’s not ‘the show’s gone to shit’, but ‘it’s a shame’. On the face of it, the Archer gang screwing about doing Indiana Jones – or the very similar Tales of the Golden Monkey, which was fairly openly capitalising on Raiders of the Lost Ark’s success – was a fine, promising concept. The issue is fairly clearly at production level, and by all accounts, Adam Reed, creator and lead writer of the series, is sick of doing it – his contract covers one more season, after which he’s been fairly open that he’ll be gone. And as he’s been at it for nine years now, it’s hard to blame him.
(Reed’s mindstate may also explain why, of late, Archer has seemed distinctly angrier than in previous years. No longer the laissez-faire approach to spycraft where he met most situations with a laugh, now he seems genuinely resentful, as if everything that happens on the show is a hurdle between him and a halfway enjoyable life – I should specify I mean Archer here, not Reed.)
Reed had previously stated that the show would wrap up after the tenth season – though in a recent AV Club interview he walked back on this slightly, outright stating ‘Archer may keep going without me’. Once his contract expires, the show’s future will be in the lap of the gods, or rather, the network, and from their elevated perspective there isn’t a particularly rosy picture to be had. The show’s viewing figures have been flagging, with only the premiere of Danger Island breaking half a million US viewers. On the critical side of things, Rotten Tomatoes places Danger Island on a lukewarm 56%, a shocking score given that no other season, even the similar Dreamland, had been rated beneath 85%.
Despite everything, I will be tuning in for Archer in Space. How could I not? I still remember the Mexican standoff in the first episode being resolved when Archer became physically aroused at the idea of his mother dying – I remember the tensest situations being fodder for smutty double-entendres – I remember all the times he abused spy equipment and Lana judged him for it and Pam was disgusting and Cheryl was shithouse crazy and Krieger was a mad scientist – and I remember thinking, all too clearly, that this show blew everything else on the market out of the water. The cultural references, the profanity, the dysfunctional relationships, all of these were wielded with scalpel precision. And against that? ‘The gang does noir/jungle adventure/space travel’ simply can’t compare, not on its own. I’m sorry, I really am. For the cast, for the crew – for me, for you.