Arrested Development, season 1

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ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, (clockwise from center, bottom): Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, David Cross, Will Arnett, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Michael Cera, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, (Season 1), 2003-, photo: F. Scott Schafer / TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved / Courtesy Everett Collection

So I just got done watching this on DVD. As with Lost, it was one I decided to just wait for on DVD. Also as with Lost, I had some trepidation about watching it, given how it was supposed to be The Greatest Comedy In Years etc. I saw bits of it, and it seemed funny, but I was a tad sceptical – especially seeing how brilliant Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm has been for the four seasons I’ve seen it (can’t wait for season five to come out).

Seems I just needed to watch A.D. in less isolated fashion. Seinfeld was a comedy that really benefited from seeing wodges of; seeing just one episode here and there is not enough to get a feel for the characters or story arcs, and so it was here. In isolation, it seemed an unusually intelligent US sitcom, but without being especially funny.

Seeing what the characters are actually like, and how certain scenes play into the grand narrative, definitely opened my eyes to the true quality of this show. Hey, I did watch the whole season in essentially a day; and that was with watching the two extremely tense football matches (Brasil! Noooo!).

Err, anyway. I think the first really funny moment for me came about three episodes in. One of the brothers, GOB (Will Arnett, magician who rides an ever-present Segway scooter), had “rebelled” against main character Michael (Jason Bateman, son of George and father of George-Michael) by throwing a letter he’d been told to deliver into the sea. Episode ended when Michael and George-Michael (Michael Cera) did an insurance job on their banana stand.

When Michael asked GOB if he’d sent off the insurance application, he was met with silence, and the great visual gag of GOB slyly reversing out of picture on the Segway. That seemed to be some sort of comic (not “comedic”, for I hate that word as much as “envision”. It’s “envisage”!) opening of floodgates, as the next nineteen or so episodes had me variously cackling and howling throughout.

I’ve just got season 2, and had promised myself I’d finish this post before I started watching it, but it was too tempting. Anyway, it’s interesting to see where comedies go these days in terms of taboo. Society being the way it is at the moment, there’s not much scope for offending people, or even for testing what is good or bad taste.

Extras managed to push things pretty well in its most toe-curling episode (the one with Les Dennis in it); there was a very strange relationship between closeted choreographer Bunny and his daughter that peaked with their rendition of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Making Your Mind Up’ on her birthday, complete with skirt-ripping. It was a very awkward episode, though not particularly offensive.

Headless doll 1
Larry David flew the flag well with his excellent Curb Your Enthusiasm. Highlights there included a convoluted storyline that ended in a young girl running from the toilet shouting that there’s a man in the bathroom with a bulge in his pants. The ‘bulge’ is actually a doll’s head, but… that’s not really much more wholesome anyway.

Headless doll 2
There was also the episode where Larry accompanied an old friend to an incest survivors’ help group. Not wanting to mention to those present that he was just there with a friend, he then made something up about his uncle. This being Curb, the uncle and the old friend ended up crossing paths, with grim results.

The point of this is that one of my favourite elements of Arrested Development is the inordinately awkward comedy that emanates from George-Michael and his love for cousin Mae ‘Maeby’ Fünke (Alia Shawkat). Thrilled when she suggests they make out to show their parents that the family gets together so little that they don’t recognise each other, George-Michael is a disturbing boy in love from the kiss onwards.

Maeby GM
What’s funniest is the way he deals with this forbidden love. Whenever father Michael suggests they ditch the rest of the Bluths and move away, George-Michael will mention how he loves his ‘family’, or wants to do things with ‘the family’; of course it’s all just code for Maeby.

There was a moment on a similar tack that plays into my next point on the programme. See, Arrested Development is much like Frasier, in that it is a very slick, sophisticated take on a very old-school comedy format. While Frasier was a very traditional sitcom, the quality came in the writing, in just how good the one-liners and especially comic timing were.

A.D. is very similar in that, for all the plaudits about how original it’s supposed to be, the key to most of the jokes lies in the comedy of misunderstanding. It seems as though almost every event stems from someone overhearing someone else say something out of context, or someone missing a phone call that offers crucial information etc. Of course, it’s handled in an expert manner, but it is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

A prime example of this in the first season is when George-Michael falls in love with his teacher. Michael misunderstands and thinks GM wants a new mother figure, and that Michael should go out with her. Michael tells this to sister (George-Michael’s aunt, Portia de Rossi) Lindsay, who gets the hump that she’s not valued as a mother figure.

Lindsay GM
So she has a chat with George-Michael about how she can fill the void that he was thinking of filling with his teacher. Of course, the programme is so well written that her dialogue just makes this misunderstanding that much worse, and George-Michael gets very scared.

In fact, I’ve been watching the second season (perhaps too much – started watching it yesterday afternoon and I’m on the last disc), and I’m quite amazed at how they have managed to stretch this system out. Amazed not because the system is especially stretched at this point, but precisely because it doesn’t seem stretched.

Of course, the system is somewhat masked by the generous heaps of surrealism in the show. Often not really story points, these surrealist moments are decoration, and really help to add depth to both the comedy as a whole and the characters themselves.

Let’s see if I can think of a example off-hand. Right, there is one episode (‘Pier Pressure’) that features numerous flashbacks to when George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) would play tricks on his sons, utilising his associate, one J. Walter Weatherman. Weatherman only had one arm, and these tricks were increasingly convoluted scenarios in which Weatherman would pretend to be someone else, and ‘accidentally’ ‘lose’ his ‘arm’ in an accident ostensibly triggered by the sons.

So there’s one where George Sr. wants his sons to stop ‘yelling’ at each other. He sets up a situation where said yelling results in a man’s cries going unheard and losing the arm. As the children freak out, Weatherman confronts them with the moral ‘and that is why you do not yell’. Obviously not as funny when written here on, err, indigo and rose? But trust me, it’s great.

Hot Cops
Especially so, when Michael deigns to teach his own son a lesson, in a method echoing that of his dad. God, this post is getting long. In short, George-Michael is getting some weed for Buster (Tony Hale) to give to his paramour Lucille II (played by the ever-unsettling Liza Minelli). Michael gets GOB’s stripper ex-colleagues (Hot Cops) to pretend to bust him on the deal, when real dealers turn up.

A gunfight ensues, the Bluths cower in fear, and a man loses an arm in the melee. Then he tells Michael – now terrified after his ‘lesson’ went so disastrously – ‘this is what happens when you teach your son a lesson’.

And that would seem to be as good a time to stop as any.

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