Friday, June 24, 2011

Self-Absorbed Individuals Performing For Our Benefit: Arrested Development Season One Satisfies!

The Good: VERY funny, Good acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Concept does not always work, Repetition of some jokes that fall flat.
The Basics: When George Bluth is arrested for shady business practices, his son Michael reluctantly takes over as hilarity ensues in the first season of Arrested Development!

When speaking of Arrested Development, one of the actors involved with the project states that the best thing about the show is how completely self-absorbed all of the characters are and I have to admit, that is a large part of what makes the television show, on DVD in three discs for the first season, so funny. Frequently on the show, characters are not so much talking with one another as talking at each other. Some even just seem to talk to bounce ideas off the wall without anticipating any human reaction or interaction.

When the head of the Bluth Company, George Bluth, Sr., is arrested for crimes up to and including light treason, it falls to his middle son, Michael Bluth, to hold the family together and keep the business afloat. He has his work cut out for him, however, as the family has become dependent upon the company for money and is not accustomed to working. Equally important, it seems the whole family is crazy, making life very difficult for Michael.

Over the course of the twenty-two episodes, Michael tries to instill a work ethic in his son, the same in his twin sister, avoid his older brother's girlfriend with whom he is secretly infatuated, avoid his annoying mother-dependent younger brother, and expose the machinations of both his mother and his father. While Michael does all that and try to keep the Bluth Company in business, George spends his time in jail keeping alive, keeping control and finding himself.

What works best is that the show is funny. This is an honestly, consistently funny television show. The characters are quirky and the visual technique of the show works to make the series feel very real. Arrested Development is show using handheld cameras, as if it were a documentary. This means, the camera will make abrupt pans and wobbles occasionally and holds on subjects for awkward amounts of time. That, combined with excellent editing, creates a "voice" for the series that is unique.

Like all great series', Arrested Development plays off a cast of characters that are distinctive. Here is who they 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.

The characters are brilliantly played by the actors who portray them. This is a very talented cast that is working like a well-oiled machine right out of the gate. From the first episode, the viewer has the impression that the actors have been at their parts for some time, so organic are their presentations. As good, the guest stars seem to fit seamlessly into the ensemble. So, recurring characters played by Liza Minelli, Henry Winkler, and Carl Weathers fit right in with the zany antics of the regular cast.

Portia de Rossi is given a great role as Lindsay. Unlike the emotionally cold character she played on Ally McBeal, in Arrested Development, she is given the chance to be overtly funny by playing a character who is utterly self-involved. Portia often is given the task of playing off others in such a way that indicates she is never truly paying attention to them. And she pulls it off wonderfully.

David Cross, similarly, is asked to play an energetic but oblivious character in Tobias. Cross brings his amazing sense of comic timing to the role and almost every scene he is on screen is golden. Jessica Walter, who plays Lucille, also dominates her scenes with a grace that would make one suspect she is the most natural conniver in the world. Walter delivers in each episode the impression her character is utterly distanced from the realities of being poor.

Jeffrey Tambor rounds out the cast quite well as George. Sadly, Tambor is also quite underused. In the commentaries, he revealed that his character was only intended for the pilot and it's a wonderful thing he fought for the role to be included throughout; it would not be the same series without Tambor's presence. He is completely convincing as a spiritually reawakened prisoner and his sense of comedy is brilliant.

But as much of the show focuses on Michael, much of the work of the show falls on Jason Bateman to sell the audience. Bateman (who I had only seen as a child on The Hogan Family) is extraordinary as Michael. The former teen-star has matured and has a great presence on Arrested Development. He times his lines perfectly and delivers them with the innocence of normalcy so he never appears as cruel or uncaring as any of the other characters. Bateman is at the heart of the show and it is the humanity the actor brings to the role that makes his character resonate with the viewer.

On the DVDs, there are decent bonus features. There are extensive deleted scenes, commentary tracks on three episodes (I would have preferred more!), a behind-the-scenes featurette, and stuff about the music. There are some dud bonuses, too, though. The Museum of Television and Radio "discussion" is terribly edited (there are only about five questions presented) and seems very poorly put together, when such things have been known to be brilliant (the one for Strangers With Candy was one of the few things I enjoyed about the boxed set for that series). Similarly, the footage from the TV Land Awards manages to edit out several of the actors on stage and the exploration of whether or not Arrested Development is a classic is pretty much witless. Finally, Ron Howard previewing Season Two is vague and unsatisfying, especially after watching the season finale.

Overall, though, this is a solid investment in entertainment. The episodes are funny, quirky and hold up over many viewings. If you want an experience that will make you laugh without a laugh track to tell you when, one that is intelligently written, Arrested Development Season One will do it for you.

For other works with Jeffrey Tambor, please check out my reviews of:
The Hangover, Part II
The Hangover
How The Grinch Stole Christmas


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

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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