Arrested Development

Arrested DevelopmentI’m not much of a fan of sitcoms.  Though I grew up on watching Full House ad nauseum, I started to realize in the middle of my high school years that something just didn’t sit right with me when it came to situational comedies.  The inane punch lines, extremely predictable joke setups, and worst of all, the canned laughter (it’s as if the TV is telling me “You’re too dumb to realize when something is funny…so we’ll tell you when to laugh!”) really started to grate on my nerves after a while.  Some time during college, possibly when one of the worst sitcom offenders of modern times, Friends, was hitting its apex (or as I would say, its nadir), I virtually swore off sitcoms altogether.  Even now I can hardly sit through a 22-minute episode of any given sitcom with a laugh track–it’s a dead giveaway that the characters were spawned after many a focus group session, and I can see the jokes coming a mile away.

It was with this vestige of trepidation that I approached Arrested Development.  During its short run on the airwaves a few years ago I heard a few online critics sing its praises, and a handful of my friends told me they liked it, but I thought it was another cookie-cutter sitcom and dismissed it outright.  But oh, how wrong I was.  How very, very wrong.

George Michael Bluth, played by the venerable Michael Sera.

Having just finished the entire series on DVD a week ago, I still find no other way to describe it than to simply say it is quirky.  Sometimes it’s funny, as in ha-ha funny, and other times it’s odd, and on a few occasions its downright uncomfortable.  But it is not, in any way possible, guilty of the sins of its forbears:  formulaic plots, cardboard cutout characters, predictable punchlines, or a laugh track.  The premise of the show, which revolves around the Bluth family, is neatly explained in the opening credits:  And now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together… It’s Arrested Development. The family in question, though, is far from normal, and its this collection of odd characters that makes the show so downright endearing.

To list off the members of the Bluth family does not do their characters justice, and this space does not really allow for an adequate summary.  Suffice it to say, though, that the family is very very odd.  From the manipulating, womanizing, but somehow lovable patriarch George, to his sneaky but charming wife Lucille, to their grown children Gob, Michael, Lindsay, and Buster, the cast is as strange as they come.  But strange due to circumstances:  a life of wealth and luxury has resulted in a virtual growth stunt for all involved, and hardly any of them know how to function in a world where people need jobs, goals, and gumption to succeed.  Each family member is seriously flawed but ultimately lovable, and its these characters, not necessarily the situations they find themselves in, that form the basis for one of the best shows in recent years.

Lindsay's husband, Tobias Funke (David Cross), who provides some of the more memorable character moments.

Any show can claim to have a cast of eccentric characters, and simply putting these people in a given situation does not guarantee quality.  Rather, its the combination of odd individuals, strange situations (the family vehicle is an airport stair car, the side business is a frozen banana stand, George Michael may or may not be in love with his cousin Maeby, Buster’s hand gets bitten off by a rogue seal that escaped from one of Gob’s magic shows, etc.) and solid writing that raises Arrested Development above the level of so many of its would-be peers in Sitcom World.

Each episode is more or less anchored by Michael, the one member of the family who has any sense of real-world gumption, direction in life, or moral fortitude.  As the rest of his family struggles to correct their lives, all the while oblivious to just how stupid their various ideas and plans are, Michael strives in vain to bring order to chaos, meanwhile trying to be the kind of father that he never had.  In most episodes, a host of odd conflicts are introduced and play out in various unpredictable ways, until being (mostly) tied up at the end–often through the use of a plot device that seemed trivial at the beginning.

And that’s where the genius of the show comes in:  not in one-off punch lines or cheap sexual innuendos, but in using eccentric characters to drive the interesting conflicts, and bring things to a logical (if sometimes far-fetched) conclusion by the end of each episode. And through it all is the omniscient Narrator (voiced by show creator Ron Howard), a character unto himself, who often speaks the things that we the audience are thinking, and provides bits of insight into the situations at hand.  It’s the icing on an already delicious cake that makes the show even more enjoyable to watch.

I wonder how things would have played out had the show not been prematurely canceled by FOX.  But I do appreciate that during the final episodes the creators knew they were faced with cancellation (at one point the Narrator actually begs the viewers to “tell your friends” about the show) and brought the many plotlines of the show back together for a brilliant final episode that is the very definition of the literary concept of bookending.

Some have talked of a movie based on the show, and others moved on to similar shows like 30 Rock and Scrubs, but I am just looking forward to the opportunity to watch the existing series again.  It was a gem of intelligence and wit, and broke the Sitcom mold to become one of the best shows on TV.  It was Arrested Development.

The Bluth Family: Gob, George Sr., Lindsay, Tobias, Michael, Lucille, George Michael, Maeby, and Buster.


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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen came out this weekend, and in almost every conceivable way it is the polar opposite of 2008’s Frost/Nixon. The former is, from what I have read, a typical Michael Bay exercise in excess: explosions, lightning-paced editing, the hottest young stars, blazing weaponry, insane chases, and more explosions. The latter has none of these, and its leads are virtual unknowns–especially compared to the headlining actors in Transformers: RotF. But it is this limited canvas with which director Ron Howard paints a very interesting, engaging, and (dare I say it? Yes, I dare!) entertaining movie about…well, about little more than a series of TV interviews between a talk show host and the former president.

Movies based on plays are a tricky proposition for today’s audiences weaned on the theatrical bombast of directors such as Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and the Wachowski Brothers. Not to mention their forebears, the great Lucas and Spielberg. Whereas movies often employ special effects, realistic audio, blaring soundtracks, and a host of other tricks to enhance the viewing experience, plays instead offer, for the most part, only dialog cemented by good ol’fashioned acting. And this is why adapting a play into a movie is a somewhat daunting task for any director, but Ron Howard manages to pull it off quite nicely.

In many ways, Frost/Nixon is the spiritual successor to Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. Both are based on plays. Both are about well-nigh untouchable political figures brought down by unlikely young spitfires. Both feature extended dialog-heavy sequences with no changes in setting. Music and special effects are used sparingly, characters are well-defined and interesting, and yes, both movies feature none other than the estimable Kevin Bacon. But whereas Reiner’s 1992 movie was a largely fictionalized account of military justice loosely based on the experiences of young military lawyer Donald Marcari, Ron Howard’s film is about the verbal toppling of none other than Richard Nixon himself.

Frost/Nixon follows the tale of David Frost, a talk-show host who hatches a plan to get Richard Nixon to admit to wrongdoing while in office and apologize, on camera, to the American people. His preparation and interview methods are better suited to the theatrics of a boisterous TV personality, and I enjoyed seeing him come face to face with the political powerhouse that is Mr. Nixon. What kept me entertained through the dialog-heavy film was the constant sense of awe and wonder with which Mr. Nixon is portrayed–not awe for his politics, but a healthy respect for the type of man he was: an extremely savvy politician who was not to be trifled with. Michael Sheen’s portrayal of the young, eager David Frost who is forced to come to grips with his own shortcomings and find a way to, as in A Few Good Men, get an extremely powerful man to admit to his own wrongdoings, even though it will cost him dearly, is impeccable. The two men eventually come to a mutual respect for each other, and it is this character journey that makes Frost/Nixon as entertaining as anything Michael Bay could ever do.

Well, not that a few explosions wouldn’t have helped a bit…

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