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‘Archer’ Creator Adam Reed on the Show’s Surprising Move to Dreamland

Variety logo Variety 4/6/2017 Sonia Saraiya
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The following contains plot details from the Season 7 premiere of “Archer” (“Archer: Dreamland”) and teases a few hints for upcoming Season 8 episodes. Reader discretion is advised.

Season 7 of “Archer” ended with one of the show’s biggest cliffhangers: Main character Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), floating apparently dead in a swanky Los Angeles swimming pool. He’s not dead, we discover in the first few scenes of Season 8, which debuted Wednesday night on FXX. But his faithful servant Woodhouse is; and Archer, while alive, has been in a coma for months. The shock is so great that Malory (Jessica Walter) and Lana (Aisha Tyler) are even being cordial to each other as they take turns sitting by his hospital bed.

But while they wait, Archer’s dreaming. “Archer: Dreamland” leaps from the show’s timeline into its protagonist’s dreamscape, in which Archer is the jaded noir detective some part of him always wanted to be. The year is 1947, for some reason, and the rest of the gang is scattered throughout the primary roles of a classic noir film — the femme fatale, the crooked cop, the rich heiress. Some of the changes are unsurprising — Cheryl (Judy Greer) becoming “Charlotte VanDerTunt” seems par for the course — but others are really fascinating. Pam (Amber Nash) is a man named Detective Poovey in Archer’s dream, while Ray (Adam Reed) is a bandleader and Krieger (Lucky Yates) is the smack-dealing bartender.

For a longtime fan of the show, “Archer: Dreamland” is weirdly fascinating. It’s not exactly speaking to the show’s strengths, which make a bizarre workplace comedy out of life-and-death spy missions. But it does find a completely new angle on Sterling Archer. Show creator Adam Reed, who also voices Ray, has been historically quite ambitious with “Archer,” elevating it from a buddy sitcom to a show with surprising depth, warmth, and flexibility; “Archer: Vice” made the crew into cocaine dealers for a season-long arc, for no particular reason except a desire to keep things feeling fresh. In “Archer: Dreamland,” setting the show entirely in Archer’s mind allows for a surreally intimate view of Archer’s peculiarly fractured subconscious, which is both extremely preoccupied with being devastatingly cool at all times and occasionally troubled by a vision of doing the right thing. Variety spoke to Reed about what led to this venture into dreams — including how Pam became Poovey, whether or not Archer will wake up this season, and how Reed initially pitched this season as a straight drama.

Variety: Season 7 ended with a big cliffhanger. Now, in Season 8, we are in literally dreamland. How did this happen?

Adam Reed: I’m not sure how I came up with the idea, but it’s been in the works for a long time. I don’t know how the genesis for the idea happened. Those sort of, I don’t know, they pop into my head doing other things like when I’m mowing the lawn or something or driving in the car. But it was a long time ago. The reason that the previous seasons spent so much time on the movie set — a movie set in the ‘40s — was to key a bunch of things up and get ready for this season taking place in 1947.

You’re thinking about things that far in advance, too — like two seasons from now. You want to use Season 6 and its location to set up for Season 7 and presumably thinking about something in Season 7 setting up for Season 8, too.

Ideally, yes. [Laughs.] Sometimes we have to go back and retrofit and say, “Uh, that’s what we were thinking about the whole time!”

It’s kind of a gimmick, in some shows, to have an episode that is a dream sequence. Here it’s a whole season that is an extensive dream sequence. Why the whole season as opposed to just an episode?

I think the noir detective was the main driving thing behind that. There’s so many — obviously there’s the serious take on the noir anti-hero detective, and then there have been so many great comedic takes on it — that I wanted to, I don’t know, I guess try my hand at it. It was so great just to — We have a full-time costume designer dressing models up in these great clothes. And our character designers really worked their butts off to make sure all the clothes were right. The guys who do the cars, our 3-D automobiles — everything was sort of brand new. I joke about this with my partner Matt Thompson,  when I pitch him ideas like, Hey, what if we forget everything that we’re doing right now, and give yousomething totally new that will take all new drawings and all new backgrounds and be really expensive to do. [Laughs.] What do you think? And [Matt] says, (exhausted voice) “Okaaaay. Let’s do that.” Everybody that works on “Archer” just really gave it everything they have, and I think it looks beautiful, and that’s all because of the talented folks at Floyd County.

Even the way the action is storyboarded is an homage to films from the ‘40s.

Yeah. It’s such a talented and hardworking bunch of people. They’re not like, all right, let’s just slap a fedora on Archer and go with it. You know, they spend their free time watching tons and tons of old black-and-white movies to learn and internalize  — where is your light source, what’s the lighting like, what makes this different from what we’ve been doing. We just feel so lucky to have that bubble of dedication and hard work.

This season also starts off, at least, on a much darker note in terms of the story. Is that a part of the homage to this genre? There isn’t really a joke in the cold open, which doesn’t happen very often in “Archer.” And partly because there’s all this setup — Archer’s not dead, but he’s in a coma, Woodhouse is dead, Malory and Lana are so upset that they’re actually being nice to each other, and it’s all a dream. That’s a lot of things all at once.

The goal for me was to — hopefully by midway through the first episode — to have the viewer forget that we’re in a dream. I wanted it to seem so real that you totally forget about that. We had talked earlier on about popping back and forth, between 1947 and the present day in the hospital. And I wrote some stuff like that. But it quickly was self-defeating, because if you keep doing that then you’re constantly yanking people out of the setting and their suspension of — their second level of suspended disbelief — is sort of messed with.

I actually pitched FX the idea of doing this season as a straight drama. And they laughed and hung up. And then a couple days later I called them back and said, “No, I was actually serious. What if we did this as a drama?” [Laughs.]

I won’t be able to think of a good comparison, but the way they said no was like — it was just like, What are you talking about? [Laughs.] No. That’s not what we do. Your show’s a comedy, make it funny. Otherwise people will think it’s just an unfunny comedy.

There are some darker bits in the season. I guess overall it’s probably — I don’t know, I think it’s pretty funny, but there’s also a lot of sort of hard-boiled dialogue, and [the] subject matter is sort of dark. It also gets pretty dark as the season progresses. Before I started writing, I injured my shoulder pretty badly. And then early on in the season I had pretty major shoulder surgery. So I was typing most of the season with one hand, and also in a fair amount of pain. And trying not to get addicted to painkillers.

That’s very period-appropriate of you.

Yeah. A lot of that sort of found its way into the script. Like Archer starts gobbling pills. And I was like, oh my God. I’m spilling it all right out onto the keyboard, but I think it’s because I was in sort of a dark place all season that sort of, I guess, fit pretty well with the darkness of some of these scripts.

Certainly even the crime — as we find out at the end of the first episode, it’s sex trafficking. It took me a second to realize that’s what it was, and then I was like — that’s not a cartoonish plot to destroy the world. This totally could’ve happened, it probably still does happen, and prestige dramas are set around things like this.

That’s a pretty serious crime. Detective Poovey — that’s sort of maybe the overarching B story to the season, is how Poovey interacts with these crime victims.

It’s really interesting how you’ve changed some of the things from real life in the dream — in Archer’s dreams, the woman he knows as Pam is a male detective named Poovey. Where were you coming from with that?

It seemed like a natural fit for Pam. I was trying to fit people into this clichéd character slots that’s defined in a film noir movie. Lana was a perfect fit for this femme fatale lounge singer, and it made sense for Cyril to be this shady cop, and I kept thinking about, oh my God, Bud White, the Australian guy from “L.A. Confidential.” Russell Crowe. I was like, I want to have that character, you know, like these two characters can be partners as police sort of working against Archer. And Pam was just like a perfect fit for that.

And then I was like, “Well, it is 1947. There’s not going to be necessarily a female homicide detective, so we need to cut Pam’s hair.” In the season nobody ever says, well, Pam, you’re living as a man now, or, hey, you’ve always been a man. It just — we sort of don’t talk about it, which is probably not the most enlightened thing. It doesn’t really come up. Although Pam — or Poovey — has a lot of flash forwards throughout the season that takes her into old age. And she does go bald and have a mustache. It was a thing that was like, I didn’t set out to make a statement — and hopefully whatever statement is made doesn’t offend anybody, because she’s still a total badass.

You can interpret it in a lot of different ways. You could interpret it as now that character is just male for this season, or in Archer’s dream, or you could interpret an entire backstory for her, or for him. There’s a lot left to the audience.

Yeah, like if this character is living as a man, but was born a woman in 1920, but in 1947 is living as a man. Or it’s just in Archer’s head: suddenly blink, and Poovey is now a man, for now. So I don’t know. I just say she’s great at punching.

Playing with perspective like that, in Archer’s subconscious, must have been really interesting.

It was. We easily have a long list of amazing guest stars. This season we also have amazing guest stars — but there are very few of them, because it’s quite self-contained, I think, with the core group of “Archer” and the main characters. Because they’re all meeting each other pretty much for the first time, so they become the guest stars in a way, if that makes sense — here’s this new person, who’s now a catalyst for a new case or adventure, that we’ve never met before, even though we have. Now here’s this new thing about them — if they are living as a man, or if they were high up in the German army, or whatever. [Note: Reed is referencing Krieger’s backstory, which is explored in episode 4.]

We talked about that throughout the season, like: Hey, here’s this song you chose for Lana — and Aisha [Tyler] did her own vocals and she’s amazing — but some of the songs we chose were like 1951 or 1954, and it’s like, well, Archer would still know that song in his subconscious, even though it’s not necessarily period correct. So we sort of drilled down and geeked out on that level, but for the most part I think we do keep pretty closely to period correct things.

One of the things that struck me is that in his dreams, Archer’s just not cagey at all about his attraction to Lana.

Yeah, he just comes across like a goofy school boy. A lot of these things were like, what would be a fun new thing to write? and that’s one of them — if you just had Archer with his tongue hanging out, and Lana not really interested, that would be fun. That’s sort of formed a lot of the choices — what haven’t we done, or what’s a new twist.

Are the other characters of the show ever going to find out what Archer imagined them as?

That’s a good … Well, yeah. [Laughs.] One of them will, yes. The people that stuck by Archer in dreamland are going to have an easier time of it than the people who were not nice to him. He’s going to hold a coma grudge.

That sounds like him.

He’s going to feel totally justified in it.

My takeaway from the episodes of “Archer: Dreamland” I saw is that Archer sees the world in a much darker way than I anticipated from the first few seasons. After spending many seasons about his fantasies colliding with his reality, we are literally in his head — it’s sort of psychologically interesting. Am I reading too much into it?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. I guess probably at first glance you would think Archer’s subconscious would be like a beer commercial.

In this [lens], yeah it is [dark.] He’s pretty angry deep down, and he doesn’t have his fallbacks, like Malory is not his mother here to make sure that she can always get him out of trouble.

Another big aspect of it is, Archer’s character is just two years home from World War II and has pretty intense PTSD throughout the season.

What was behind that decision?

I was trying to think of things that were different for Archer, and I guess in real life Archer’s such a loner and not a team player. So I wanted to make him part of something really big. So we find out in the first episode he was a full on war hero, which you might not necessarily think of Archer as having the makeup to do that, really. He doesn’t strike me as somebody who would run out and volunteer for the army.

But he does still save lives in this casually badass way.

He’s still infuriatingly good at his job.

Is it possible Archer is having a nightmare?

Oh, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a nightmare, or even how long it lasts. I know how long his coma lasts, but this little interlude could be just one night, or much much longer — or this could be, I don’t know, the tail end of it and this could be the last week of his coma and the previous 51 weeks was the war. Or whatever. That’s what I’m scribbling in spiral notebooks right now.

Can you tell me if Archer wakes up at some point during the season?

Uh… [Laughs.] He does not wake up in this season. I guess that’s a spoiler. If people are like, I’m not going to watch it until he’s back in the present day, they probably shouldn’t go ahead and pre-order the season.

Are you expecting that kind of reaction to it?

Yeah, there probably will be some sort of reaction. I hope it’s good, or at least more good than bad, but it’s a tricky thing. And it’s a bit nervewracking to try something new and then read the comments after these episodes air. [Laughs.] Some people really like it, and some people really don’t like their formula being messed with. They don’t want the New Coke. At least it’s not like, yeah, saw that and it had no impact on me one way or another, so I guess that’s good. People feel something.

Being in Season 7 of a beloved animated sitcom is a unique position.

My whole fear for the past seven years has just been I don’t want to bore anybody.

Is that why we don’t do “phrasing” anymore?

Yeah, it is. You can just throw that in there — and even if you do a little variation on it, you’ve got yourself a page closer to the end of the script. But at some point it’s like, that’s just a lazy crutch, and as a writer you sort of need to slap yourself out of it.

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