Friday, May 31, 2013

They've Made a Huge Mistake: Arrested Development- Season 4 (2013): Mormon TV Review

We are lucky to feature today a Guest Post from Geoff Openshaw.  Some of you might recognize Geoff from his attempt to woo the Mormon Bachelorette, but you can how find him as the co-host of the popular LDS themed Podcast This Week in Mormons!  It is a weekly show discussing news and cultural items relevant to the Mormon community during any given week.
(You can also find Geoff if you Google image search "Virginity, I Choose You!")


**Warning - light spoilers below**

Experimentation is the vehicle by which society moves forward. Without experiments, there is no progress. Seen through that lens, the resurrection of Arrested Development  after being sent to pasture in 2006 should be a template for the future of television. Netflix seems like an ideal medium to demonstrate our streaming, commercial- and restriction-free, future. However, not all experiments yield good results, and while the new approach to Arrested Development is certainly bold, it is an exercise in the experiment disproving the hypothesis.

I wanted to love this season. I am a huge AD fan and have been since its Fox days. The hype surrounding its return has grown to near-mythic proportions, which certainly couldn't have done the revival any favors. But what has been regularly regarded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time falls on its face in its new format.

You see, Arrested Development is/was great because of the following things:
  • Lightning-fast pacing
  • Terrific ensemble chemistry and scenes
  • Plot-focused stories
  • A general sweetness beneath all of the ridiculous awfulness of the Bluths
  • Trusting in the viewer to tie threads together, making what's not said even funnier than what is
The list could go on, but these five points are what is missing from the new Arrested Development. Whether it was due to the constraints of commercial-funded network sitcoms or by design, Season 1-3 of the Bluth travails benefits from tight pacing. Jokes come at a frenetic pace, building upon layer after layer of previous material. It was outstanding. 

Season 4 is slow. Some episodes are nearly 40 minutes long. And the new format - focusing on one character at a time - also makes things drag. I could deal with 40 minutes of Season 2-level comedy. But this new incarnation just drags and drags.

Regarding the ensemble scenes, there basically are none. Much has been said about this, but to the uninitiated, the nine principle cast members are now known quantities, which wasn't the case in 2003. As such, Mitch Hurwitz decided to work around the busy schedules of the cast members. This prohibited great ensemble scenes, as one or two principals share a scene together at a time. And that's it. We even resort to green screens at some points, people. GREEN SCREENS. I kid you not. A huge blowup between Lucille Bluth and Lucille Austero is all captured using the cutting-edge technology of... green screens ... because the two actresses couldn't be scheduled to act together at the same time.

Now because of this new format, the fifteen-episode season does not involve a long arc over the course of a typical sitcom year. Instead, we get to see the different stories of the nine principals all surrounding the same few days and events. The result plays out more like an eight-hour whodunit or Choose Your Own Adventure than an actual season of a show. The "season finale" is less a wrapup and more a setup for a perceived AD film. I'm not sure I want to see this film now.

Also, the parade of celebrity cameos wears thin. It is obvious that anyone who had a chance to say, "I was in Arrested Development!" took it.

The comedy itself is also weaker. While longtime fans of the show will appreciate the countless references to episodes of old, these moments play out more like a knowing wink than anything organic. Favorite moments of Seasons 1-3 seemed like a funny little inside joke for the few of us that watched it, but in this age of virality and hype, the new seasons seems all too self-aware. And how is it that a smartly used plot device from Season 3 involving "forget-me-nows" (roofies) is now everywhere in Season 4? This isn't to say Season 4 doesn't develop some of its own gags. It does, but they just aren't as good as the ones from the past. But I'll give loads of credit to the smart usage of "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel. Also, "Stay Away Get Away" is pretty great.

Season 4 is also much meaner than seasons past. The Bluths, by and large, are awful people, including Michael. But there has always been a redemptive quality to many of them; or perhaps the characters are such idiots that their misdeeds can be forgiven. Not so now. Fathers fight with sons. Everyone sleeps with everyone else. It seems that no one has a redemptive quality. 

Even key side characters from the past are suddenly evil (Sally Sitwell, anyone? Seriously, what the heck??) I understand that people would naturally grow and change during a seven-year break, but when Michael has devolved into a GOB knockoff, we have a problem.

And for one of my final gripes, the plot and comedy are force-fed this time around. Ron Howard, the amiable narrator of the past, is back to his narration duties, but this time, there is way too much exposition. He talks over the on-screen characters and goes out of his way to explain jokes and situations, thus leaving unsaid humor totally... said. It is one of the biggest problems with the new show. That and Ron Howard also plays a perverse version of himself on-screen in a side plot that is as pointless as it is annoying.

While I imagine we might look back on Season 4 of Arrested Development as a bold experiment, and perhaps better than it seems up front, it is easy to miss the things that made the original run of the series so great. If I were going to resurrect a gone, but not forgotten, franchise, I would wait until I could get the actors together with the time to do it right. The new Arrested Development is definitely an impressive piece of work from a technical standpoint, and while it is interesting, being interesting is not the same as being funny. I giggled myself silly maybe... half a time? Yes, that means not once but half of once.


Many of you might wonder if the non-FCC-encumbered Netflix world would mean an end of its censorship. Arrested Development has never shied away from pushing boundaries, but the new format largely adheres to the style of the old one. Profanity is still bleeped. Most of the potentially raunchier content is still alluded to instead of addressed head-on (we even get a quick Pete Rose flash on the screen for Season 3 lovers). However, given the darker, meaner nature of the show this time around, none of the potentially lewd content seems as benign as before. 

Also, it's clear that a slight lack of censorship has opened up the show to more openly PG-13 fare than before (there's a flipping the bird gag, some pixelated lovemaking, etc.). Also, there is way more sex this time around. I can't stress this enough. There is not a single episode that does not involve some form of debauchery.

During the original run of the series, for example, Tobias and Lindsay try and fail to have an open marriage, with very comedic results. Neither one is able to as much as make out with someone else. In Season 4, Tobias and Lindsay sleep with others. Maeby even pimps out her mom at one point. Infidelity, unwed pregnancy, and drug use are rampant in this season and every character is tainted. There is no moral to this story. It just involves self-involved people doing self-involved things. But perhaps that is the moral right there. After all, no one loves Holden Caulfield, but we surely learn from him.

Random Observations (more spoilers):
  • Loved seeing Tommy Tune as Argyle Austero.
  • No chicken dance! I did love "Chicken Dan's," though. Watch for that.
  • No banana stand. Anywhere.
  • The references throughout to an "anonymous" Google are pointless. And the Google car subbing for the stair car falls flat.
  • The best episodes belong to GOB. And Ben Stiller's work as Tony Wonder is about the only celebrity cameo that doesn't seem force fed.
  • Didn't love Kristen Wiig or Seth Rogen as Lucille and George Sr. 
  • Portia de Rossi looks all messed up. Lindsay's episodes were also the worst of the season.
  • Face blindness - not as funny as you would think it is.

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