Friday, May 31, 2013

You Can Binge The New "Arrested Development" But That Doesn't Mean You Should

Finally, a reason to draw another breath
Like Macarthur returning to the South Pacific, like Jordan coming back to the Bulls, like Christ crawling out of his tomb, Arrested Development has returned for its triumphant victory lap, in the form of a fourth season on Netflix, seven years after the show was canceled. Everyone (or at least everyone on Twitter) gobbled up all 15 new episodes in the hours after they were released last weekend, in what appeared to be a race to a) watch it all and b) be the first to have an opinion.

The fevered anticipation of this event outgrew what one could reasonably expect for the return of a mostly great, sometimes very good, occasionally not so good TV sitcom, to the point that with each new advance clip, with each bit of news on the show's progress and format and new episode count, it seemed Netflix was going to fill the yawning chasm at the core of all of our souls.

But then the episodes were released, and the chasm remained, and even the most reverent Arrested fan was reminded that even the greatest TV comedy ever made is still just a TV show. It doesn't give your life meaning or repair your marriage or help you hide a dead body you may or may not find yourself in possession of. So began the inevitable backlash, with reviews from the lukewarm to the savage actually bringing Netflix stock down several points on the Dow.

I was a big fan of the first two seasons of Arrested Development (the third not as much) and like everyone else was glad to get more. To me, the great thing about the show was that every time I watched an episode, I came away with a new favorite character. One minute I'd be saying "George Michael is the greatest, nobody can touch him," and 22 minutes later I'd be all "Lucille is amazing, best mom character of all time," then 22 more minutes later I'd be president of the Lindsay Bluth fan club, and so on and so on.

Because the show (quite rightly) put all of its castmembers in much higher demand for other projects, and (I guess) because Netflix couldn't make a Godfather offer to lock all nine principals down to shoot at the same time, this dynamic -- a new favorite character every episode -- is turned into an actual format for the new episodes, with each focusing on an individual character's part in a much larger story, kind of like Rashomon meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (Every exit is an entrance somewhere else.)

I didn't start watching the new episodes until Tuesday night, and I was only able to get through three of them before I remembered another aspect of my relationship with the show in its original run: it is so dense with jokes, moving so fast that you daren't laugh too long at any one of them for fear that you'll miss the next one, that I can't watch more than a couple of them at once before my brain gets tired and I start to kind of glaze over.

He might as well change his real name to GOB at this point
This is where I think the new episodes are suffering in the eyes of critics. In everyone's haste to mainline the whole eight hours of the fourth season into their eyeholes, the fact that the thing is even more densely plotted than it was on Fox, and thus requires a little more time to let each episode sink in (at least, it does for my small brain), may be affecting people's ability to enjoy it.

This is not to say that the new season is perfect, or even great. It's a big change in the show's format, one that I'm not sure I can evaluate even having watched the whole thing-- given the interlocking nature of the episodes and plot points and callbacks, I'll most likely have to watch it again.

But that's not really important. What's important is, is it funny? We didn't love Arrested Development for its format, or its themes, or its social commentary, or its ability to marry so many different tones into one -- we loved it because it made us laugh. So will the new episodes make us laugh?

Um... some of them?

First, the good: The actors have not forgotten how to play their characters, or how to make them funny. They are every bit as self-absorbed and oblivious as before, and every bit as facile with hilarious, quotable lines. If you were a fan of the show before, this new season won't do anything to sully your memories.

Also, there are a lot of great guest stars: Ben Stiller packs more funny into his spot as GOB's magician rival Tony Wonder than he has in his last 12 movies, Maria Bamford gets a great turn as a junkie actress named DeBrie, Roger Sterling John Slattery gets one of the best lines of the season as a "disgraced anesthesiologist," to name only a few. Kristen Wiig does an amazing job as the younger Lucille, but it's kind of ruined by the fact that most of her scenes are shared with Seth Rogen as the younger George Sr., who neither looks, sounds, or behaves at all like Jeffrey Tambor.

Kristen Wiig is terrific. And Kristen Wiig is terrific.
But it does have a few problems. One is that the interlocking plot, while not exactly complex, requires quite a lot of exposition, so Ron Howard's narration is a much bigger presence than ever before, to the point that at times it feels like you're being read a bedtime story occasionally punctuated by one of the actors saying a line. This feels like more of a problem if you're watching all the episodes in one fevered 8-hour marathon, when you're being reminded of plot details you just got a few minutes ago. However, this is another thing that becomes a joke in and of itself as the episodes go on, and the narrator's throat-clearing in the opening moments of the first episode makes more sense once you know how much he's got ahead of him.

Also, I don't know if Netflix severely curtailed the budget or what, but there are places where the actors are obviously standing in front of a green screen, with the appropriate set or scenery filled in later, like Daily Show correspondents. The sound mix is all over the place, so that sometimes all the audio shifts to one side or another, and the actors looped (overdubbed) lines are pretty obvious, so the overall product at times seems like a YouTube video.

Along the same lines, Hurvitz let slip in one of the 7,500 interviews he did over the last couple weeks that for certain scenes, the actors were shot separately at different times (because of availability issues) and then put together with digital magic later. It's cool that they were able to do that, but Hurvitz shouldn't have let that cat out of the bag because I've spent the entire time I've been watching the new episodes looking for these scenes, and it's distracting. There are other scenes where I'm half-certain that they put a wig on a body double and shot over their shoulder to create the illusion that both actors are in the same shot, the way they do with "twin brothers" George Sr. and Oscar. It's a lot harder to laugh when I'm looking for the wires.

This is as expressive as she gets in her first episode
Speaking of distracting: Lindsay's first episode, the third in the series, was hard to get through, but not because of bad writing or anything like that. I love the character of Lindsay and I think Portia Di Rossi is a vastly underrated comic actress, in the same league as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but she seems to have had a facelift or something because her face looks like the Madame Tussaud's version of Lindsay: tight and shiny and motionless. Ms. Di Rossi is (or was) a very lovely lady, but that is not the issue -- I'd have the same issue if it were David Cross or Jeffrey Tambor with the obvious facelift.

(Actually, I'm not sure it was a facelift-- it may have been severe Botoxing coupled with dramatic weight loss, because in later episodes Lindsay's face seems to relax and get back to normal, and because there is a scene in a later episode where Lucille berates Lindsay for having so much work done. Is it possible that she got so severely Botoxed on purpose, just to make that joke work? If she did, my hat is off to her, but it's not made clear enough in the show to have been worth it -- it's just distracting.)

Anyway, some of the episodes are better than others. The George Sr. episodes are a little dull, and I was surprised how little I liked the Michael episodes. I love Lucille but her episode wasn't all that compelling, and Lindsay's wasn't so great either. I always found Tobias and GOB and Buster to be best in small doses but I can't deny that I found their episodes the funniest. The Maeby and George Michael episodes are great. In general, the season gets better as it goes along, as the plot details start to fit together and odd moments in early episodes are explained by later ones. I wasn't in love with either of the main MacGuffins-- George and Lucille's scheme to build a wall on the Mexican border, and Michael's quest to make a movie about the family-- but some of the smaller arcs, like George Michael's Fakeblock project and Tobias' Fantastic Four musical and GOB's, um, everything with GOB, were really funny and exactly the kind of thing I want from this show.

Overall I enjoyed these episodes but I have a feeling that if and when I watch them again I'll enjoy them a lot more. I'm not sure the reviews would have been much better if these episodes had been released on a traditional one-a-week schedule, because the season would have taken a critical beating on the second and third episodes its reputation might not have recovered from. But it's worth remembering that just because you can watch all the episodes in one sitting doesn't mean you should -- I spread them out over four nights and I still feel like I rushed it.

One last note: Some of the actors from this show have had a hard time finding good projects since it was initially cancelled, probably because it's hard to see Will Arnett as anyone but GOB and it's hard to see Tony Hale as anyone but Buster and so on. This new season is going to compound that problem, because while Tony Hale has been great on Veep and Arnett has been great on 30 Rock, neither of them is remotely as good anywhere else as they are with the Bluth family. So for the sake of their careers, I hope there is a fifth season, and a sixth. (I am puzzled by Hurwitz's often-stated desire to turn this thing into a movie, though. Each of these episodes is 50% longer than they were on Fox and the initial order for 10 episodes swelled to 15 as he grappled to fit in all the story he wanted, so how is he going to fit everything he wants to do into a 100-minute movie?)

If you are one of the many people out there complaining that this new season isn't good enough, try to remember that your favorite TV comedy came back from the dead, seven years after it was cancelled. That is UNPRECEDENTED. Even if the first two seasons were a 10 and this new one is a 6, to complain about it is insane, and speaks to a level of entitlement that would make the Bluths proud.

p.s. i have sifulus

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