Thursday, May 30, 2013

Arrested Development (Season 4)

 The framing device behind Chuck Palahniuk's book Haunted is that a group of people have agreed to be part of a reality TV show. Each of the characters are introduced through a short story that's not really related to the "plot" of the book as a whole. As the book continues, we learn more about the circumstances that brought each character to this point as they dissolve into madness for attention. It's doesn't do a particularly good job tying everything together, in a large part because Palahniuk isn't a great writer, but it's still an interesting framing device.

The key to enjoying the brand new fourth season of Arrested Development, which in case you are living in a hole premiered on Netflix streaming this week, is realizing that it's not a TV show. It's the continuation of a TV show, perhaps the funniest TV show of all time. But it is not one itself. It's not quite like anything I've really ever seen before. The closest equivalent would be a miniseries on HBO, but that's not right either. It's more like Haunted, a collection of moments from each character's lives that build and tie together into a greater whole. Thankfully Mitchell Hurwitz is not Chuck Palahniuk, and the result is a winning series, one that tries to be as ambitious as it can and just about reaches that goal.
The story that unfolds is a convoluted one, catching everybody up on what the Bluths have been up to since the original series' end while presenting a whole new comedy of errors for them to embark on. Michael has just been kicked out of his son's dorm room, where he's been living after Sudden Valley failed to sell. George is living on the Mexican border with Oscar, where he's scamming rich CEOs out of their money. Lindsay has run off with a radical leftist activist who runs an ostrich farm. Gob is part of a Justin Beiber-like singer's entourage. Lucille is in jail. Buster is in crisis mode because Lucille is in jail. Maeby is still in high school at 23 years old, having been fired from her studio job. George Michael is making a start-up tech company. Tobias is a sex offender.

As you can see, everybody has pretty much sunk to the bottom, with the exception of George Michael. This is in tone for the season as a whole, as it's story is much darker then it's predecessors, though the overall tone is about on par with what we expect from Arrested. But as I said earlier, it really is a total different beast then what came before it. The first 3-4 episodes are a bit of a disappointment, not only due to our enormous expectations but because we have to reteach ourselves how to watch the show. It's like watching The Wire for the first time, trying to understand all the characters and shorelines that are going on. There is a lot of exposition to cover and, quite honestly, not a whole ton of plot to go along with it. Each episode turns its focus onto one character at a time, so we miss a lot of the quick interactions between the cast that defined the original series. Each episode is also longer then the original run, ranging between 28 minutes to a whopping 37 minutes. This has lead to a lot of critics calling the show flabby, and that this approach ruins the careful pacing set up by the original.

Which is why it is so essential that you realize this is not a TV show, as the original was. This is entirely new territory, an experiment in web released content that's pretty much unlike anything that has come before it. This isn't House of Cards, a TV show that was just released all at once on the internet. This uses the medium it's in and the advantages that come with being released all at once. As you go through the show, it builds and builds in a way that a television show, fearing that they may turn off viewers if they don't like an episode or two, could never do because of the medium it's in. Yes, the first 3-4 episodes aren't as good, but this is because after episode 5 all those layers the show is built upon begin to come together, and you understand why things happened as they did in the previous episodes. It gives you context and, on the rematch, what seemed unfunny or overlong ends up becoming hilarious. It's brilliant in a totally different way then the original run.

More importantly, it's distinct. It would have been easy to treat the Netflix series like a glorified reunion special, nothing but pointless references and callbacks to the original series. There are still plently of callbacks, sure, but it's definitely a different beast, one that is willing to tell it's own new story and not just rehash what's already been done. For that alone it deserves commemoration. But it manages to add on to that as well. There are a whole slew of new motifs in this series and, pretty seamlessly, the fit into the big mix that is the history of Arrested Development pretty effortlessly. It's ambitious but never really feels labored, running for a conclusion that they know will make the fans happy.

In fact, it does the opposite. (Mild Spoiler Alert) The season is pretty clearly all setup for the eventual movie Hurwitz has been talking of all these years, which I imagine will directly follow the mystery that is revealed towards the end. The season, in my opinion, stands fine on it's own when compared to what came before it, but secretly it's all just exposition, setting up pieces so it can knock them down with whatever it is that comes after, be it a movie or (I hope) another season like this. Yet though it is mostly exposition, it tells an interesting story all it's own, one of failure and family, the ties that bond us and break us apart. There's no true emotional core as there was in the series (Micheal and his son) but there is a thematic one; the disappointment that comes with selfishness.

The season ends on a literal punchline, and the last 30 seconds or so (discounting "On The Next") is one of the series finest moments. It wouldn't be so without that build up to it, all the messy moments that finally come together to form one big beautiful picture. I'm beginning a rewatch of the season as my sister tries to catch up and already the earlier episodes I discounted look better a second time around. Seasons 1-3 of this show relied on it's quickness, the endless parade of jokes that had you laughing so hard you would miss 2 or 3 gags you won't catch till round 2. This season, however, utilizes time, allowing a slow build into a hilarious and beautifully constructed piece of media, one that is meticulously and ingeniously constructed. It's not perfect, and compared to the impossible standards of it's predecessor it can't possibly hold up to the hype around it. But when watching Arrested Development, don't look at it as a show. It's brand new, and it's a thing of beauty.

Other Things (Spoilers are in here, so you've been warned)

-My favorite episodes were both of Gob's, Maeby's, the first Tobias one, and Buster's. My least favorite was the first George Sr. one, which even on a rewatch wasn't that great.

-Everytime they cut to Gob staring off wistfully as "Sound of Silence" played I just about died of laughter. Then I had a conniption when the Mongol did it too.

-As far as guest stars go, Maria Bamford and John Slattery fit in effortlessly with the rest of Newport Beach. Honestly, how great is it to see Roger Sterling huffing gas and laughing at lizards? Ilsa Fisher was good too, but Chris Diamantopoulos didn't really do it for me. Terry Crews felt a little out of place but is so funny that I really don't mind.

-AHHHHH GENE! He got me again!

-"Daddy needs to get his rocks off!" instantly goes in the pantheon of great Tobias double entedres.

-I'm glad Tony Hale is doing so well with Veep, but I'm sad that he didn't get more to do because of his schedule. He made up for it with his dance in the security room though.

-Of course Gob would mistake friendship with being gay. 

-Seriously though, who pushed/possibly killed Lucille 2?

1 comment:

  1. Arrested Development: Winner of the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy its first year out, Arrested Development is the kind of sitcom that gives you hope for television. It's one of those shows where you can watch over and over and still laugh at every joke.Arrested Development Seasons 1-3 dvd box set follows the fictitious Bluth family, a formerly wealthy and habitually dysfunctional family, and is presented in a continuous format, incorporating handheld camera work, narration, archival photos, and historical footage.