Thursday, June 30, 2011

Arrested Development Is A Ballsy Concept Show That Never Captured The Attention Of The Masses.

The Good: Very funny, Very well-performed, Interesting characters, Decent enough DVD bonus features.
The Bad: Basic bundle pack, Characters are unlikable, Series has some unsuccessful arcs.
The Basics: For the three seasons in the Arrested Development Seasons 1 – 3 pack, viewers get an exceptionally funny serialized mockumentary that has some real highs and lows.

Last week, my wife and I did a marathon. She got a bit tired of watching The West Wing (reviewed here!) and wanted something more consistently funny. So, we decided this was a good time to give Arrested Development a chance together. There are very few comedy series’ in my permanent collection, but Arrested Development is one of the few. Rewatching the series, I was struck by both how funny the series was and by how wonderfully the series commits to itself. The three seasons of Arrested Development are heavily serialized and when the show works, it works for the entire bundle of episodes focused on the idea or plotline.

But when the show misses, it is mired in those failures.

Fortunately for those just looking to discover and enjoy Arrested Development now, in advance of the oft-rumored feature film, there is much to enjoy in the series, as represented by Arrested Development Seasons 1 – 3. It is worth noting up front that this is not a true “Complete Series” boxed set, but rather a bundle pack of:
Arrested Development - Season One
Arrested Development - Season Two
Arrested Development - Season Three
with no additional discs, bonus features or incentives in this bundle. One suspects if the film ever gets made, there will be a proper set, either before or after (perhaps including said film).

For those who are unfamiliar with it, Arrested Development is the story of the Bluth family. Told as a documentary (narrated by Ron Howard), the series is a record of the scandal-plagued Bluth Corporation and Bluth family that starts with the arrest of George Bluth, moments after he turns the company over to his wife, Lucille. This forces Michael Bluth, middle son of the pair, to remain proximate to the family in Orange County, California and try to restore the reputation of the Bluth family and Corporation.

In the first season, Michael Bluth visits his father frequently in jail in an attempt to learn why the federal Securities and Exchange Commission is after the Bluth Corporation and George Bluth. Discontent for being passed over to be the head of the company, Michael is trying to balance his work with raising his son, George Michael. While trying to unravel the webs of lies surrounding George's business practices, Michael has to house his twin sister, brother-in-law and their daughter, deal with the antics of his slighted older brother, a magician named Gob (pronounced “Job,” like the Biblical character, and deal with hassles from his mother. Lucille is discovering life without her husband more stressful than she imagined because her youngest son, Buster, whom she has coddled (smothered!) begins to try to stretch his wings to leave the nest.

In the second season, Michael works even harder to hold the family together after George Sr. manages to successfully break out of jail via the hospital. With Tobias still trying to act and his daughter Maeby working at a movie studio (as a fifteen year-old), the family is constantly getting into scrapes. Lucille is baited into signing Buster up for the army, completely unaware that the U.S. is at war at the time! And while Michael begins to date again, he becomes increasingly concerned with the girl George Michael is dating, a boring Christian fundamentalist named Ann Veal.

The third and final season of the show falls into two weird arcs, one where Michael finds himself involved with a mentally retarded British woman who may have ties to the forces that got the Bluth family into trouble in the first place and a desperate attempt to finish the overall storyline by bringing George Sr. to trial. Almost immediately, Michael realizes that George's twin brother, Oscar, is in prison in George Sr.’s place. And the open marriage between Lindsay and Tobias continues to be an issue when Tobias goes off to join the Blue Man Group. While George Michael and Maeby resolve their uncomfortable romantic tension, Buster deals with the loss of his hand.

Episodes of Arrested Development are about twenty-two minutes in length and one of the things that sets the show apart from virtually every other comedy series is that the show is heavily serialized. This means that each episode is not necessarily concerned with a single event or easy-to-describe plot point. In fact, many of the most significant moments come in blurbs at the end of an episode with what claims to be in the next episode – like Buster losing his hand to a seal. But the next episode will not actually have those scenes and instead feature reactions and the progression of the unseen plot event – like the family visiting Buster in the hospital and Buster returning home after being outfitted with his new prosthetic hand. The serialized nature works very well because it makes the episodes flow from one into another as a complete story and allows the mock-documentary to develop.

Unfortunately, it also leads to an incredible amount of repetition. Arrested Development, when viewed as one cohesive narrative, has an incredible tendency to repeat information. So, while doing the marathon of watching the complete series, my wife began to get more and more annoyed with the show because they spent so much time recapping and I am forced to agree with her. It is off-putting to have a show that engages more frequently in highbrow satire and wit that spends so much time repeating information. In other words, the audience that is going to be smart enough to get the jokes – like a cutaway to Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein after a comment about how pictures of George Sr. with the dictator would ruin his name and career if exposed – is savvy enough to recall what happened in earlier episodes. I understand that the writers and producers had to accommodate for those tuning in this week instead of last, but the sheer volume of information repeated is annoying.

Like most of the best comedies, Arrested Development is about characters and that is where much of the power of the series lies. The principle characters are:

Michael Bluth - The most sane, decent and realistic of the Bluths, Michael believes in family above all else and is a widower raising his son alone. When his father is imprisoned, he sacrifices his ambitions and plans to take over the work of running the company, while taking most of his family in under his roof in the model home he lives in,

Gob (pronounced Job) Bluth - A magician who has been isolated from the Alliance of Magicians (a union of sorts that he began) and who has been down on his luck since. He is dating a Spanish-language soap opera star he does not much care for and trying to maintain his lifestyle as a sponge,

Lindsay Bluth - Michael's twin sister, she has arrived from the East with her husband and daughter and is finding living away from the charity events and without the ability to buy whatever she wants whenever she wants it to be a strain,

(Former) Dr. Tobias Funke - Lindsay's husband, an eccentric psychologist who lost his medical license by performing unnecessary CPR. As he searches for something else, he becomes determined to become an actor, though he might not have the talent for it,

Maeby Funke - Daughter of Lindsay and Tobias, she is rebelling with the intent to get either of her parents to notice her. As a result, she finds herself working with her cousin George-Michael at the banana stand,

George-Michael Bluth - Son of Michael, an awkward teen who finds himself hopelessly attracted to his cousin Maeby. To distract himself from her, he often finds him emulating his workaholic father by taking his jobs (which include working at the family frozen banana stand) overly seriously,

Buster Bluth - The youngest brother of Michael, Lindsay and Gob is a directionless, often-clueless socially maladjusted man who is fixated on his mother. His fixation is broken when he falls in love with his mother's best friend, a woman with the same name as his mom,

Lucille Bluth - The scheming mother of the Bluths, she often sets one against the other to keep herself relevant in their lives. She is alone for the first time in her life as George is in jail and Buster's rebellious relationship leads him to abandon her,

and George Bluth - The patriarch of the family who opens the series by going to jail for shady bookkeeping. He soon discovers he enjoys life in prison and has an active disincentive to get out of the joint. Instead, he finds faith, manipulates the company from behind bars and occasionally meets with his witless lawyer to find out what the strategy for beating the government's case against him is.

Arrested Development also succeeds because it has a sterling cast who are amazing in their roles. Jason Bateman proves he is a master as Michael Bluth. He has a dry wit which has since gotten him quite a bit of feature film work and on Arrested Development, he truly honed that. Michael Cera was also noticed from his portrayal of George Michael on Arrested Development and here is where he first landed in the niche of quiet, smart, nice guy that he has been stuck in almost exclusively since. With a cast rounded out by Will Arnett, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor and Portia de Rossi, Arrested Development is a masterstroke classroom for those looking to study deadpan and zany comedy performances. Moments like the one where de Rossi, Walter and Tambor all do their cowardly animal noises to goad Michael are absolutely hilarious.

But what Arrested Development doesn’t have are likable characters. In fact, the Bluths are homogeneously unlikable, which becomes a source of many jokes as Michael struggles to save the family. This doesn’t mean that they are not fun to watch, but it does mean that no one in their right mind is watching this show with the hopes of emulating the Bluths.

On DVD, the eight discs that comprise the complete series come with a handful of commentary tracks, a blooper reel for each season and a handful of deleted or extended scenes that one might wish had been kept in the show instead of the constant recaps. There are featurettes on the making of the seasons, as well, which are bound to keep die-hard fans happy.

All-in-all, Arrested Development is a fast series and if the producers and writers could do a film featuring the Bluth family right, it would be wonderful. But the dry wit, serialized nature of the show and sheer number of main and supporting characters who would have to be serviced in such a movie makes its success – mainstream, critical or for the fans – unlikely. Instead, fans might want to pick this set up, watch it every few years and just be happy with the resolution we have as opposed to risking illustrating what came after the series finale.

For other shows that originally aired on FOX, please check out my reviews of:
The X-Files
Family Guy Presents: It’s A Trap!
Glee - Season Two, Volume One
Fringe - Season Two
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.


For other television show reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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