overthinking the idiot box

May 16, 2005

Arrested Development: Season One

by Jeff Stone

When Arrested Development first premiered in the fall of 2003, I, like most of the nation, ignored it completely. Sure, I read the reviews that proclaimed it the best new show of the season, but I didn't believe them. After all, these were the same critics who still maintained that The Simpsons was one of the best shows on television. Besides, Arrested Development was a sitcom, and the sitcom, to me, was a television format that had lasted long past its sell-by date. Surely creator Mitchell Hurwitz, a former writer for The Golden Girls, wasn't going to reinvent the wheel here.

Yes, I did take notice that Jeffrey Tambor and David Cross were in the cast. But those two, so funny on The Larry Sanders Show and Mr. Show, respectively, still weren't enough to get me to pick up my remote. They were just supporting players, after all. The main stars seemed to be a former Teen Wolf and an Ally McBeal vet. I'd stick to watching HBO, thanks, where my favorite shows could be full of swears.

Finally, a friend of mine foisted the DVDs of the first season upon me, and I settled down to watch the pilot. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. Here at last was a sitcom that defied conventions, that shot on location with a single, hand-held camera, that threw off the shackles of the dreaded laugh track, and that, at long sweet last, was actually funny. Not just funny enough to elicit the occasional titter, but laugh-out-loud, rewind-it-to-see-that-gag-again funny. And it had swears! Bleeped swears, yes, but those are good, too.

One big happy family...
For those coming in late, Arrested Development centers around the wealthy Bluth family, whose fortune dries up when their scheming patriarch (Tambor) is arrested for corporate malfeasance. Holding the family together is son Michael (Jason Bateman), the only Bluth who has anything resembling a moral center. Hindering his efforts is his opportunistic family: his boozy mother Lucille (Jessica Walter), falsely charitable twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), and her mincing husband Tobias (Cross), as well as his two brothers, Gob (pronounced like the Biblical Job and played by Will Arnett) an underachieving stage magician who rides a Segway everywhere, and Buster (Tony Hale), an emotional repressive who can barely dress himself. As Michael attempts to successfully run the family business in the midst of rising chaos, his son George-Michael (Michael Cera), develops an ill-advised crush on his cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat), in a one-joke subplot that still somehow manages to be consistently funny.

The show effectively manages to juggle the large number of characters in complicated comic plots that wouldn't seem out of place in a British farce, or at least on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It also has an airtight sense of continuity. Clues about the nature of George Bluth's actual crime are scattered throughout the season, paying off with the full revelation in the season finale. In addition to its crack writing staff, the show also boasts an impressive list of directors, including Paul Feig (creator of the cult-classic show Freaks and Geeks), and Jay Chandrasekhar (member of the comedy team Broken Lizard and director of the upcoming Dukes of Hazzard movie).

Father and son: comedy gold.
A great deal of the show's success can be attributed to its cast. Bateman, in particular, is a revelation. The straight man to a family of eccentrics would appear to be a thankless role on the surface, but Bateman infuses it with a streak of vicious wit, tossing deadpan barbs at his shiftless family members that half the time they don't even comprehend. About halfway through the pilot, Michael announces, "I'm moving to Phoenix. I got a job." When his proclamation is met only with blank stares, he continues, "That's something you apply for and they pay you to ... never mind, I don't want to ruin the surprise." Tambor and Cross are as good as you'd expect them to be (I think "NO TOUCHING!" is a new millennium catchphrase we can all get behind), and Arnett's Gob is probably the best existing argument for the invention of the Segway, as Arnett gains alarming levels of comedic momentum just by wheeling into frame. Particularly impressive is the 16 year-old Cera, who, with his infectious nervous energy, more than holds his own against a particularly talented comedic cast.

A signature aspect of the series is the voiceover narration provided by executive producer Ron Howard. Unlike voiceovers on other series (a certain highly-rated Sunday night soap opera springs to mind), Howard's narration serves not as an anchor but as a buoy, keeping the plot bouncing along with a minimum of setup, allowing the maximum amount of humor within the show's brief running time. Howard is also not above a spot of self-parody. When a vindictive publicist refers to George-Michael as "Opie," the action pauses as Howard cheerily intones, "Jessie had crossed the line, and had best watch her mouth."

The show also has fun with an endless parade of guest stars. There are regular appearances by Liza Minnelli as Lucille Bluth's social rival, the vertigo-stricken Lucille Austero, or Henry Winkler as the Bluth's sleazy and incompetent lawyer. There's a particularly inspired guest stint by Carl Weathers, playing himself, who is ostensibly Tobias' new acting coach, if only he could stop talking about stew. Even local LA news anchor John Beard shows up as himself, often to report another poor showing for the Bluth family on the nightly news. Beard's turn is both tongue-in-cheek and hilarious, as he reports scandal rag-worthy news with an impish gleam in his eye.

This may be heresy in light of Arrested Development's constant "nearly-cancelled" status, but the show plays better on DVD than in weekly installments.
This may be heresy in light of Arrested Development's constant "nearly-cancelled" status, but the show plays better on DVD than in weekly installments. Seen in extended stretches, the show is allowed to gain comic momentum without the hindrances of commercial breaks, and the anxious, weeklong anticipatory waits between episodes are eliminated completely. Don't be surprised if you sit down to watch the DVDs and find yourself breezing through six or more episodes without ever once checking your watch.

Whether Arrested Development will have a third season is currently up in the air. Fox, displaying a strange sense of what they view as charity, shortened the second season by four episodes, so the show wouldn't be clobbered during May sweeps. In that same vein, Fox has launched a Web site where fans can rally in support of a third season. Whether Arrested Development will be back on the air or not, its longevity is assured thanks to its sharp writing, spot-on acting and the technological wonder of the digital versatile disc.


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