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July 29, 2013 | by  | in Arts Film |
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I Just Blew Myself

“I just blew myself: excitable and partisan fanboy waxes lyrical about the apex of comedy as we know it”

Let me begin by divulging something personal. Listen close: Arrested Development—the frantically paced, frenetically structured and consistently ingenious television show that lasted three seasons before an oft-lamented demise—is partially responsible for the person I am today. I would say it shaped my sense of humour but that would be appallingly hubristic, as well as a disservice to the genius of the show. So when it was announced the fourth season, for so long thought apocryphal, had a definite release date, it felt like my heart was hard.

With this announcement, however, came strange tidings; prophecies of a season shaped not around interaction, but with each episode designated to a particular character, with occasional intersections and scenes shot in the Rashomon (hire it out and watch it or the ghost of Kurosawa will haunt you) study of perspective. I awaited the new season under the influence of a great deal of emotions (including ‘hunger’)—excitement, of course, and giddy joy (taste the happy!), but also a fair amount of trepidation and confusion.

My expectations were—of course—subverted. The new season of Arrested Development is unmistakably a different beast to the one that was shown on Fox all those years ago. Netflix has allowed the show’s creator Mitchell Hurwitz liberties that would have been impossible on mainstream television. Some of these work; that all the show’s episodes were released simultaneously is a tremendous boon. Loathe as I am to admit it, I can see how audiences would have been turned off by week-long interims between the dense hilarity and recurrent jokes (if there’s any television show that needs to be consumed in a binge, it’s Arrested Development).

Other don’t; almost all the episodes are an excessive 30 minutes long, which means some episodes drag and jokes take too damn long to resolve. The agony of an unfunny set-piece is exacerbated if it lasts for minutes on end. That said—despite the qualms I proffer, I genuinely think this is an innovative and important piece of experimentation, and will undoubtedly result in mimicry and the invigoration of a medium that has for a while nestled on the ‘tried-and-true’.

These structural differences are matched by differences in style. The ensemble cast are largely left flying solo (scheduling conflicts :(), to the detriment of the show—especially when weaker characters, such as George Sr, are left to valiantly try and mine laughs for 30 minutes at a time. The one scene that features them all together (which is staged over several episodes) is absolutely riotous, and including it feels like a cruel blow to an audience which NEEDS those acerbic and confused interactions, the personal spats and feuds, to make it the Arrested Development we know and love.

The season’s first handful of episodes are almost unanimously agreed to be its worst (although I’m in the minority that adored the pilot). A number of critics made a huge mistake—prematurely shooting their wad, if you will—by judging the season on the merits of the first three episodes. Some publications even sheepishly rescinded their reviews. The reason for this? Three words: George. Oscar. Bluth. The first Gob-centric episode made me belly-laugh like a bull seal, spit flying everywhere at every recurring “hello darkness my old friend”, my disgusted viewing companion staring at me in horror. Imagine my pleasant surprise when the second Gob episode was even better; the way he attempts to deadpan “I’d love to have sex with you but I, uhh, just drank a lot of water,” should damn-well get Will Arnett an Oscar (and not the herb-lovin’-Uncle kind).

Aside from Gob (who is the season’s MVP), the other two biggest assets are—surprisingly—George Michael and Maeby. Michael Cera’s character archetype may be overdone, but he has it utterly perfected (and there’s a badboy edge here too; not only is he ‘overtly sexual’ but he’s drinking Pepsi—FOR BREAKFAST), and he contributes to some scenes of pathos among the puppy-dog-eyed awkward hilarity. Alia Shawkat’s newly discovered knack for comedic timing and don’t-give-a-shit delivery, meanwhile, are a wonder to behold.

Unfortunately, other characters suffer. Tobias’ storyline manifests, I suspect, Hurwitz’s cynicism and frustration, with some downright cruel humour involving drug addicts (the glorious ‘Method One (acting) clinic’ gag excluded), and a fucking stupid subplot involving paedophilia. The pro lapses, as it were (I’ll leave all innuendo to Hurwitz from now on, promise). The narrator intrudes too much. Annyong only shows up once, and Franklin not at all (BLUNDER OF THE DECADE, HURWITZ). Lucille Bluth is tragically underused (although the reality TV show she stars in, Real Asian Prison Housewives of the Orange County White Collar Prison System is a wonderful piece of absurd satire).

The most unfairly warped characterisation, however, goes to Michael Bluth—or, rather, the facsimile of what Michael Bluth once was. Here he is desperate, loathsome, oblivious, cruel and pathetic all at once, and though I’ve been instructed countless times to “watch the first season again bro, he’s always been like this!”, I still dissent: Michael made mistakes, sure, and often let his self-satisfied demeanour get the better of him. But he was essentially good, hard-working and caring, willing to learn from his mistakes and show humility. Essentially, the love (however begrudging) he once showed has disappeared in a void of Hurwitz’s bitterness, and this is symptomatic of the season of the whole. While the head’s never been better, the heart has been lost somewhere along the way.

The good news: because this season of Arrested Development is so wildly different than the three that preceded it, as a viewer we have the option of treating it like a different show altogether. Elucidation: the new season is the second-best thing I’ve seen all year (behind the absurdly gratifying Bunheads, which is a whole different article), and I will froth at the mouth at the prospect of a fifth season and even a movie. But for me, deep down, Arrested Development will always conclude elegantly with Michael and George Michael on a boat headed for Cabo and my imagination filling out the rest. It’s what they would have wanted.

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