Thursday, February 9, 2012

Encounters With the "Arrested"

So how do I describe "Arrested Development"? After declaring my intentions to watch the series, I dove right in and marathoned a bunch of episodes from the first season. I was expecting it to be unconventional, but I wasn't ready for how biting the satire was or how nicely it turned the usual sitcom tropes against themselves. At its core, the show is farce. Larger than life characters are forced to deal with unlikely and improbable situations that cause them to clash in entertaining ways. But while the usual family or workplace sitcom exaggerates eccentricities for laughs, it's generally understood that the characters that appear are meant to represent mostly normal, average, functional people. This is not true of the Bluth family.

Michael Bluth (Jason Schwartzman) is one of the four adult children of George O. Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), a wealthy real estate developer who has just been tossed into prison by the SEC. His mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) is an extravagant snob with a penchant for furs. Older brother George O. Bluth II, known as Gob (Will Arnett), pronounced like the biblical Job, is a second-rate magician. Younger brother Buster (Tony Hall) is an extremely well educated introvert, who has never left home and is reliant on his mother. Finally there's Michael's twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), a spoiled shopaholic who likes taking on various social causes she knows nothing about. Her husband, Dr. Tobias F√ľnke (David Cross), has given up a successful psychiatry practice to pursue an acting career. They have a teenage daughter, Maebe (Alia Shawkat), pronounced "maybe," who only has rebellion on her mind. Michael is the only one who has his head on straight and any sense of duty and moral uprightness. With George Senior's company in peril and the money funding everyone's extravagant lifestyles gone, it's up to him to take charge and save his family from themselves. Oh, and he also has to be a good single father to his own teenage son, Geroge Michael (Michael Cera), who is nursing an awful crush on cousin Maebe.

"Arrested Development" is shot in a documentary style and set in Orange County, California – the real one that has Latinos and Asians living there, not the bizarro one from "The OC" that was the bane of my adolescent existence. Well no, that's not right either. The "Arrested Development" version of Orange County is a place where wildly improbable things happen on a weekly basis, but where the nutty characters suffer real world consequences like prison time and foreclosures and unemployment. It strives for a certain degree of realism, which serves to make the characters, who might otherwise seem like merely exaggerated stock types on a regular sitcom, come across as exactly what they would be in real life – a pack of glorious looneys. And it also serves to heighten the deadpan visual gags like Michael driving around town in the "stair-car" that was used for boarding the family's private jet. I can't even think of another American comedy prior to this one that had deadpan visual gags.

I love all the subtle digs that the show gets in at sitcom formulas, and how it plays with the standard components of a television show. "Arrested Development" employs a narrator, an uncredited Ron Howard, who gamely delivers all the necessary exposition to catch an unfamiliar viewer up on the story so far at the beginning of each episode, and also presents the occasional flashback or historical tidbit. Eventually nearly all of the Bluths end up bunking together in the model house for a new housing development, a totally contrived arrangement that only reinforces how dysfunctional the family is. Most episodes end with a fake preview of a fake next episode, reallt the ending gag that would normally play with the credit roll repackaged in a clever way.

It's easy to see why the show is so beloved and is so influential. The mockcumentary is practically its own genre on television right now, with more recent entries like the American version of "The Office" and "Modern Family" all owing "Arrested Development" a big debt. The show also tackles the theme of prolonged immaturity that has been so prevalent in comedy over the past ten years, and puts it into context, deals with it in every single episode as Michael struggles to help his parents and siblings to adjust to a world where they can't use money to cover up for their own inadequacies anymore, and have to face reality. They're funny and entertaining to watch, but it's acknowledged from the very beginning of the very first episode that nearly every member of the Bluth family is also a terrible mess of a human being. Michael is the hero by default, and even he isn't immune to the self-delusion and denial that his relatives cling to so desperately.

And I guess that's why the more heartfelt and sincere family bonding part of "Arrested Development" works too. And that has been the biggest, most welcome surprise of the show so far.

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