July 20th, 2005

Bananas

Arrested Development? More Like "Tennessee"!

So Arrested Development was like the comedy version of Veronica Mars: the low-rated-but-critically-acclaimed show with rabid, gushing fans who wouldn't shut up about how great and awesome and totally superior it was to everything else on television ever. I did try out two episodes (that turned out to be "Staff Infection" and "In God We Trust"), and while I recognized the excellent writing and plotting, I didn't find it all that funny. I had been told, of course, that this was a show heavily steeped in continuity, and it was best to watch it from the beginning.

Thus, I bought the DVDs. And to my surprise, the show was actually funny when you started from the beginning.

The reason AD is confusing and off-putting to a newcomer is because the majority of the comedy comes from the characters. It comes from knowing who they are, what they do, what they've done, how they react to certain things. Sitcom is short for "situation comedy," which implies that they're about characters stuck in wacky situations. And, well, they are.

Arrested Development is the story of a family whose life just happens to be a sitcom. And by "the story," I mean that literally, since there's a narrator (Ron Howard), who delivers some of the best jokes. I also think there's a bit too much expositional narration, though, which becomes more annoying when you're watching on DVD without commercials and without a week between episodes. Besides the "this just happened" stuff, there are too many times where the narrator describes exactly what we're seeing on screen (with no joke) or tells us what the characters are feeling or planning, even though it's terribly obvious. I'm hoping that sort of thing is network intervention, because I love narration humor. I mean, even in George of the Jungle ("Are you arguing with the narrator?").

But what is the story about? Well, the basic plot is that George Bluth, Sr., is arrested (get it? arrested!) for some sort of illegal business dealings, and now his family has to try to get the company back on track while also cutting back on their extravagant lifestyle. Throughout the two seasons, we learn more and more about what these illegal business dealings actually were or may have been, and we watch the government try to make their case. This doesn't sound very interesting, I know. But let's take a look at the characters.

George Bluth, Sr.: The patriarch of the family, he's never been a particularly good father to his children, and now he's put a huge burden on his family to try to get him out of jail, even though he may actually be guilty of his crimes. It doesn't help that he lies a lot, or maybe he just conceals the truth, as in the case of the banana stand. Yes, in addition to a large housing company, the Bluths own a frozen banana stand. Because...why not?

Michael Bluth: The one who now has to try to hold the family together. He's a good man, a nice man. He's probably the only adult Bluth with morals. I like Michael, obviously, because I identify with the nice guy character. But, like me, he's also aware that he can't just be the nice guy all the time, and he does have a not-nice side. The narrator is aware of this as well.

George-Michael Bluth: Michael's teenage son, whom he's trying to reconnect with. And totally one of my favorite characters. He's like a more socially inept Louis Stevens. Totally adorable. Everything he does is funny, and he doesn't even know it, but it's not like a mean "Ha, what a dork!" funny but a—okay, there are definitely some "Ha, what a dork!" moments. At one point, I realized Arrested Development kind of had a male Gilmore Girls thing going on, with the three generations of Bluth boys, and while the relationships aren't exactly the same, they're rather similar. He also has a mad crush on his cousin Maeby, and it's hilariously adorable. For serious. I don't even ship, but I'm a George-Michael/Maeby shipper.

Gob Bluth: Michael's older brother, a magician, and also one of my favorite characters. I honestly didn't expect the whole magician thing to last more than a few episodes, but it's an integral part of his character, and it continues to provide fodder for laughs. He's also terribly insecure since no one takes his career seriously (which, now that I consider it, I can also totally identify with). He's pretty sex-crazed and will [bleep] just about anyone. Also, he rides a Segway. Just because.

Buster Bluth: Michael's younger brother, the mama's boy in every sense of the word. He's kind of like a man-child, and he's hilarious. Watch him struggle to free himself from his mother's grasp, and then run back almost immediately! The latter half of the second season provides Buster with one of the funniest plotlines I've seen on a sitcom, but I'm not going to spoil you.

Lindsay Bluth Fünke: Michael's sister, who is hot. Her thing is charity events, though she doesn't really pay attention to what she's supporting. She's trying to keep her marriage together and remember she has a daughter.

Tobias Fünke: Lindsay's husband, who is a nut. A former psychiatrist, he soon discovers his calling as an actor. Well, not so much "discovers" as...decides. He's probably the strangest and quirkiest out of the bunch, though, really, it's a tough call.

Maeby Fünke: Lindsay's teenage daughter, and another of my favorites. A professional underachiever, she lives to rebel against her parents, if only so they'll notice her, but not so much that they'll actually spend time with her.

Lucille Bluth: Michael's mother. Emily Gilmore and Lucille Bluth would have a field day together. No, honestly, if there isn't Emily/Lucille crossover fic out there, there really should be, because they're practically the same person. Controlling, manipulative, overly concerned with appearances, and completely unaware of the first two traits.

The show is entirely Bluth-centric, so it relies on the character dynamics of this horribly dysfunctional family. Each episode is always fast-paced and never boring because the story keeps moving from one character to another, and the narrator gives it all a connected flow. The plotting reminds me of Seinfeld in the way that unrelated plotlines will end up unexpectedly intersecting at the end, and the continuity reminds me of Friends in the way that storylines will continue across episodes. But that's not really the continuity the AD fans always crow about.

You see, Arrested Development is in love with the running gag. I believe they are, in fact, married. If something funny happens in an episode, it is fair game to be used over and over and over and oh, we've gone ten episodes without—ooh, there it is again BOO-YAH! Some of them are more successful than others, some are more subtle than others, but it's one of the most rewarding aspects of watching the show in order. What AD does is craft this little world all its own, where all these things have happened, and thus they are bound to happen again.

Oh, and I love the visual style. It's shot like a documentary, as they say, so there's that, but beyond that it's full of quick-cut flashbacks á la Family Guy, except they're real flashbacks. You'll get quick cuts to Amazon.com listings and Google searches. Quick cuts of imagined photos. Quick cuts of fake movie posters. Often, with little arrows pointing things out. I love it when a medium makes full use of its resources. Oh! And the "next time on" previews aren't actually previews for what happens in the next episode, but they're hilarious and still part of the show's continuity.

And finally, the show has guest stars up the fucking ass. Here is a short list: Richard Simmons, Liza Minnelli, Judy Greer, Patricia Velasquez, Henry Winkler, Carl Weathers, Heather Graham, James Lipton, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Amy Poehler, Thomas Jane, Martin Mull, Ben Stiller, Andy Richter, J.K. Simmons, Rob Corddry, Christine Taylor, Martin Short, Dave Attell, Ione Skye, Alan Tudyk, Zach Braff, and Dick Van Patten.

There you have it, folks. Arrested Development really is as good as they say. It's clever and hilarious. If you haven't watched it, do so immediately. If you have, listen to some of my spoilery thoughts.

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And that's why you watch Arrested Development!