That’s the question I keep coming back to as I look back over this lumpy, fitfully brilliant season of Archer: What was so compelling about science fiction as a genre—and specifically, this very ’70s, used-future, Ridley Scott-ish version of it—that Adam Reed and his producers felt determined to spend god knows how much money blasting their cast and crew off into the black? And why—I can’t help asking as a follow-up—did so little of that enthusiasm or wonder ever make it onto the screen?
For instance: Give or take a holodeck—itself mostly just an excuse to indulge in genre shenanigans of another sort entirely—there’s very little in “Robert De Niro” that couldn’t have been done back on Earth. In brief: The rest of the cast put Archer on trial for his attack on Lana, Archer goes even crazier, Barry attacks with a horde of generic mooks, he and Archer kill each other, fin. And even though Dave Willis’ endlessly, delightfully smug voice (sorry, Barry haters) was coming out of a 100 percent robotic face, instead of merely a mostly-robot one, the actual dynamics weren’t any different then they would have been planetside—especially once Archer’s mind begins shuffling back and forth between the details of the real world and the dream one. (Shout out to Framboise!)
To be fair, there are episodes of Archer: 1999 that have taken full and joyous advantage of its fantastical setting, contrasting the Seamus’ crew’s endless, self-destructive bickering with such high-concept conceits as mind-altering ova and cheerfully nihilistic bombs. But where the show’s other two coma seasons, Dreamland and Danger Island, felt both like Archer and the genre stories they were mimicking, 1999 has come off far more like “Archer but with just a new paintjob” than anything that’s come before. And maybe that ill-fit makes sense: “Noir” and “jungle adventure” are all about mood and aesthetic, things that Archer can nail in its sleep at this point. (Coma pun only semi-intended.) Science-fiction has always been more about big ideas, and 10 seasons in, those can feel like they’re in slightly shorter supply. (The shift back to an episodic format after two seasons of more serialized material probably didn’t help.)
So maybe it’s a good thing that Archer is waking up.
“Robert De Niro” does, indeed, end with Sterling Archer’s return to the land of the living after three long seasons (and in-story years) away. But before we get to that sad, strange, unsettlingly Oedipal finale, there’s plenty of good stuff to get through first. This episode might be middling-to-crap as sci-fi, but it’s still pretty great Archer; the standout, obviously, is the trial, which sees the entire cast firing on all cylinders, from Krieger the sketch artist, to Cyril’s prickish joy at prosecuting his nemesis, to a very welcome callback to the old joke about Ray’s improbably prestigious, endlessly expanding backstory. Archer’s purest joys happen when these eight characters get stuck in a room together and commence to bouncing off of one other, and watching the cast deal with a deeply crazy Archer (supported with a reluctant assist from TV’s Michael Gray) is exactly as fun as it should be. Reed is careful to give every member of the ensemble at least one really great line, and the cast—who are never less then exemplary pretty much ever, but who still manage to surprise with their deliveries—nail it in full.
Eventually, though, Barry shows his evil faceplate, and the plot, such as it is, kicks off. It’s here where we get the thesis statement for this season (and maybe the coma seasons as a whole), as Archer lays out exactly what he wants out of life for once, stripped of all half-assery and irony: To keep his friends safe, and to be seen as a hero for doing so. (Elements that come into sharp contrast when Cyril actually manages to save the day for once.) This is also maybe the clearest reason we get for the 1999 setup, period: It’s a world that allows him (as co-captain) to be responsible (ish) for his friends’ lives, while also interacting more closely with Lana than he has since the dreams began. None of this is necessarily complex or surprising—this is the second season in a row to end with Archer dying for his buddies, and he ended up in the coma in the first place because he was trying to stop Lana from being framed for murder—but the rare burst of clarity into our hero’s motivations is ultimately welcome.
Less so: The “waking up” montage of past clips that follows the Seamus’ destruction. Not to be critical of a man’s hard-won internal ephiphanies and all, but Archer’s subconscious could really use an editor here; the whole sequence goes on for far too long, and with too many unnecessary tangents muddling its messaging. It all has the cadences of sentiment—and parts like Archer’s frequent (false) reflections on his own immortality, or his memories of his daughter, all manage to hit. But it also feels a bit like a mid-episode “Previously on,” a dose of not wholly earned emotion that loses the plot even as it tries to remind us of, well, the plot. (It strikes me that maybe this was also Reed’s way of saying goodbye to the show himself, but if so, it’s forcing the sequence to do double-duty, between Archer’s awakening, and some kind of Archer farewell.)
Contrast it with the final scene of the episode, which brought a genuine tear to my eye—not something I normally associate with this show—as it becomes clear how much of herself Malory has poured into Archer’s care over the last three years. From her lived-in dialogue with Gladys the nurse to the slow, heart-rending pan over her makeshift little apartment in the corner of his hospital room, it’s heart-breakingly sweet in a way that this show almost never does. This is an Adam Reed script, though, so nothing so warm can stay uncurdled for long: Malory’s final, slightly manic description of her and Sterling’s relationship as “a love story”—and his discomfort with same— is a perfectly queasy note on which to end this chapter of the show’s long, weird life on.
I liked Archer: 1999, because I like Archer—I’m on the record as someone who could happily go on listening to this voice cast issue cleverly written one-liners at each other pretty much forever. But it’s also easy to see this season as the point where the show finally became the thing its harsher critics have been calling it ever since Archer got shot: A no-longer-inspired revisiting of past themes and character dynamics, propped up with a whole lot of very pretty animated glitter and a bunch of frequently funny dick jokes. And while I know I’ve harped on this point a lot over the last nine weeks, much of that ennui seems to stem from Reed, who went from writing (with a few assists, but no actual writers room) every episode of the first nine seasons of Archer—an extremely rare feat in the world of TV comedy, and one that’s been so key to the establishment and maintenance of the show’s voice—to only writing a handful of scripts this year. (He’ll write even less for Season 11, reportedly on the hook for only a single episode.) The highlights of this season have proven that other writers can take the world Reed has built here and run with it—and if they’re smart, producers Matt Thompson and Casey Willis will keep writer Mark Ganek’s number on speed-dial—but the overall course of 1999 suggests that one of TV’s most accomplished acts of perpetual motion might finally be running down.
Sterling Archer is awake. But after years of exploring his own somewhat self-indulgent fantasies, he’s now broken, weakened, and largely forgotten by all but the most ardent (and possibly crazed) of supporters. He has a long road ahead of him if he wants to earn back some trust and respect, one that might tragically still end with everyone telling him “Sorry, you’re just too worn-down and old for us to care.” The parallels to the show’s own fate come easily, early, and with an overwhelming sense of sadness.
And that’s how you do space phrasing, folks!
- Before we get into anything else, let’s take a second to acknowledge—not for the first time—what a truly precious resource this show has in Jessica Walter. Malory has to cover an enormous range of emotions tonight, from snark to utter despair and desperation, and she hits every note on the scale as easily as breathing.
- Archer protests the trial: “It’s presided over by a male prostitute!” “Courtesan!” “Po-bo-bot!”
- Carol/Cheryl would love to know why the Seamus has a dedicated courtroom, instead of the 2.5 squash courts it could have.
- Archer consults with counsel: “What are you, hourly? “I think I would be, if I were a lawyer.” (Michael Gray’s send-up of his own non-persona continues to be a delight.)
- “Are the People okay with him not having an imaginary lawyer?” “They’re great with it.” Chris Parnell has a great night tonight, too, as Cyril switches between smug and cowardly at the drop of a rakish little beret.
- We’re not doing space metal or space phrasing, apparently.
- “It’s howmever.”
- Obscure reference alert: As Krieger notes, the sentry gun scene is a direct callback to a similar set of cut scenes from Aliens. Clarence Darrow was one of America’s most famous litigators, while Eddie Waitkus was, indeed, shot by an insane female fan. (A plot point Archer also touched on with the woman who ended Sterling’s lacrosse career in the flashback in “Once Bitten,” directly referencing The Natural, which was partially based on Waitkus’ life.) ) Meanwhile, I can’t for the life of me figure out if Krieger’s “derivative” courtroom sketch is based on any particular image, or what the song that plays over the montage is. (And trust me, I tried.) And while someone could certainly annotate every costume Archer flashes through right before he wakes up—they all seem to be from the show, including the Chinchillada suit from last year—that person will not be me. (At least, not today.) (Oh, and, obviously Witness For The Prosecution was in there, too.)
- Update: A number of people—most notably Domirillo down in the comments—have informed me that the song in question is “Robert De Niro” by Queen Sarah Saturday. (Hence, presumably, the title of the episode.)
- Dave Willis gets legitimately chilling as “Barry” responds to Archer’s assertion that his friends are safe. “Are they? Are they safe?”
- Also: This is the first time Archer’s directly kicked Barry’s ass since he went cyborg, right? Which is interesting—if we want to get analytical here—in so far as the show usually uses him as the only obstacle Sterling can’t beat by force.
- Line of the episode: Fitting that it goes to Reed, whose judicial take on Ray made me laugh out loud with “Order, or I will hold you all in a different kind of contempt!”
- Hearing H. Jon Benjamin’s slightly altered Archer voice from the pilot during the montage is incredibly weird.
- Aw, Burt Reynolds.
- Overall, I think Archer: 1999 is going to tie with Dreamland in my assessment of the coma seasons; fun enough, but Danger Island remains the show’s best attempt at breaking out of its mold.
- And that is a wrap on another very weird season of this very strange, amazing, shockingly long-lived show. As always, even when the episodes haven’t been great, I’ve enjoyed trading quotes and criticisms of my Alien-reference-spotting skills in the comments. I’m also cautiously excited for what comes next; watching Sterling Archer fuck up everyone he loves’ lives all over again is probably going to be a lot of fun. Later, folks: Don’t let the old-timey 50 cent blowjobs hit ya on the way out!