Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #8 - Arrested Development


This is the story of a TV show unlike any other that was one of the best sitcoms ever made, and the one season that almost destroyed it all.  It's Arrested Development.

Like the characters on Seinfeld, there is a lot that is unlikeable about the Bluth family, the ones at the center of this insane show.  The only semi-sane ones appear to be Michael (Jason Bateman in a career reviving performance) and his son George Michael (a doughy Michael Cera).  But over the course of the series, all of the cast memebers with their quircky and crazy ways somehow become endearing.  As you do with family, you look past a lot of the flaws to the affection that lays dormant underneath.

In terms of writing, the show was amazingly crisp and effecient.  By that I mean that every 22 minute episode crammed enough jokes and stories in for a 90-minute movie.  The plotlines of each episode were incredibly intricate, with many dangling threads that would all somehow mash together at the end for some insane comical explosion.  The show also did a great job of playing with time and perspective, letting you see old scenes from new perspectives.

The performances were spot on.  They knew when to go big and over-the-top and when to pull it back and ground it in a stronger reality.  The big standout is Will Arnett as Gob is both infuriating and endearing as an older brother constanly jealous of the more competant Michael (Bateman).   Some of the show's best and most insane jokes come from that fragile ego.

The humor ranged from witty, to broad, to absurd.  But at the end they would tend to deliver that "schmaltzy ending" that was just enough to get you to feel great affection for the cast, despite any horrible thing they had done.  There was something in that Catholic perspective of Man.  We acknolwedge the sin that is there, but we love Man anyway and see the good that is there because of who Man is.

Like Seinfeld, this was a show that rewarded you for paying attention.  The inside jokes slowly built from the first episode on.  And the setups were long.  Look at how many episodes in advance they set up the joke about Buster's hand.

But that quality of the show was also its biggest ratings downfall.  By the time it came to the 3rd season, nearly half of the jokes were inside jokes.  Hysterical though they were, it became very difficult for anyone new to jump onto the story without saying, "I've made a huge mistake."  Any fan of the show could immeadiately get stung with humor at the oft repeated lines: "Come ON!" "Mr. F!" "Bob Loblaw." "There's always money in the bananna stand." "No touching." "Her?"  "There are DOZENS of us!" "Steve Holt!" "Annyong."  "Hey, brother."  "My eyes are up here, Michael."  and of course, the chicken dances.

The show was cancelled prematurely after 3 seasons.  But then Netflix revived it last year for an unprecedented 4th season.

And it was a disaster.

They changed up the format so as to accomodate the cast's schedules.  Each episode centered on a different member of the Bluth family rather than feature everyone at once.  This in and of itself was not a problem and actually led to some very clever twists and turns.  The problem was that once the producers left the bounds of network television, they felt that they could push the boundaries of manners and good taste.  By episode 7 of the 4th Season, my wife (who loved the show too) gave it up.  Up until then, the show had gentle ribbed Christians, which is fine by me as we should all have a sense of humor about ourselves.  But in that episode Christ and religion were directly mocked.

And it got worse from there.

By the time the season ended, all of the good will built up towards the Bluths was completely gone.  The stories felt disconnected and empty.  Ironically, instead of using the Netflix deal as a chance to grow, the show reverted to immature shock.  It was Arrested Development.

"Key Decisions" (1x04)

The pilot hit the audience with its fast and furious humor.  But there was a still a lot about the famillial relationships that did not feel strong and genuine.  But in this episode, not only did they intricately lace a plot that involved a prison break, Spanish-language Daytime TV awards, and a staircar, but it did it with great humor and a strong sense of affection.  Michael falls for his brother Gob's girlfriend and is torn on what to do.  And what is great about this episode is that it is the first time that you as the audience member realize that you also have come to have affection for Gob and the rest of this strange family.


"Colony Collapse" (4x07)
This was the worst episode of the entire series and it soured everything that came after it.  In this episode, Gob decides to do one of his tricks- I'm sorry- "ILLUSIONS" in a church where he gets up on a cross and says he's going to reenact what Jesus did.

It was distasteful and disgusting.

The show had already been on a downswing by really destroying the Michael character.  One of the fun things about the show in general was that Michael would try to bring sanity to his family, only to be caught up in it himself.  But in the end, he would recognize this problem and resolve to try and be better.  But that was gone this season and he only became worse and worse.  By the time the season ended, you hated everyone.  And it started with this episode.

"Development Arrested" (3x13)
The original series finale was the best episode of the series.  It was the best of what the series had been up until that point.  It was strange and quircky, but it had just the right amount of heart.  It resloved most of the dangling plotlines in a fairly satisfying way,  but it stopped in a way that left you wanting more.  Bateman's performance was particularly great as you see the crux of the entire show rest on his final decisisions.  And the main story ends on the perfect note: "It was Arrested Development."


Sometimes a show is just lightning in a bottle and you cannot recapture the magic.  Maybe that's the case with Arrested Development.  The show was executed with incredible skill and talent.  But the self-indulgence of the writing, particularly with the desire to be "edgy" in the 4th season, only left a sour note on the whole process.  I try not to let the degredation of series affect what was good that had come before.  But the corruption of the characters and the story was so precipitous, that I believe my judgment of the show may become more critical as time goes one.

But for now, I would like honor the show for what it originally was before what it then became.

No comments:

Post a Comment