by Osi Aken’Ova
After a seven year absence from television, Arrested Development finally returned not to our TV screens but laptops on May 26th, with 15 episodes each centering on a main character in the Bluth family. Social networking sites blew up announcing its return on the eve of the premier: friends planned staying home to enjoy all episodes in one sitting, others had themed/watch parties, a few burnt bananas in effigy, mirroring pagan rituals (also not true), and the spiteful continued making passive aggressive statements towards each but used references from the show like “her?”
With all the hype and pomp generated by loyal fans carefully waiting to receive “the greatest television show ever” after days of its release, nothing happened. I have not heard anyone brag about the new season or discuss it as much as the old ones since the premier, which is surprising. I avoided official reviews because I didn’t want to taint my impression of the show but expected devout fans to cave in and drop a few hints but that did not happen. I feel the return even silenced the show’s fandom quite a bit and it does not feel like it’s from satisfaction. This made me a little nervous but piqued my interest, so I asked some friends what they thought about the new season and they were either disappointed or thought it was average. They didn’t seem to care about the rumored movie or supposed next season, they finally got the show back but it might not have been what they wanted. Was it ever about the show or just people wanting to protest and complain its absence? After all the best thing to happen to Arrested Development was getting cancelled similar to how the best thing to happen to Fox News was having a democratic president elected with a suspect middle name and the wrong skin tone.
If we’re being honest, how many of us loyal fans watched the show during its original three year run? I know I didn’t. I don’t mean to challenge the show’s comedic prowess or strong writing, but would we have watched the show if it hadn’t been cancelled? The cancellation enhanced the appeal and strengthened the resolve of its devout fans, you know, the guys that watched the show before it was canned.
All the questions I had were silenced after I finally sat down and took a weekend to watch the new season. I’ve come to the conclusion that either I’m an Arrested Development Stan -listen to the Eminem song if you’re lost- or simply willing to forgive the writing staff for the risks they took this season, but I love it.
Arrested Development is about the affluent and dysfunctional California Bluth family that is marred by scandal after scandal when the patriarch George Bluth Sr. is arrested for too many things to remember, but conspiracy and treason are definitely among them. The Bluth tribe is made up of George Bluth Sr. a manipulative and shrewd business man determined to make a buck despite the cost; his wife Lucille a mean, sarcastic, and equally manipulative status seeking shrew; first son G.O.B -pronounced “Job” – an inept magician; Michael, the not so straight man of the show, struggling to keep his family together while enhancing his position within and trying to stay away from it; his twin Lindsay, the rich left wing activist without any real ideals, her husband Tobias Fünke, an ex-therapist turned failed actor with homosexual tendencies he is completely unaware of; Buster the youngest, with mommy-issues and the most literal representation of a man-child ever; George-Michael, Michael’s awkward son that both suffers from and is a product of the overbearing nature of his father; and finally Maeby, Lindsay and Tobias’ daughter that yearns for her parents attention and whose attention seeking habits drive her to achieve phenomenal goals with a lack of morality.
With characters this solid and complex you can do anything and go anywhere; the possibilities are limitless and exciting. Themes of incest, power struggles, upper class racism, American government policies, family, deviant sexual behavior, the ever present American dream, greed and a whole lot more are all explored and taken to ridiculous lengths without seeming out of place for the characters. Even with characters this intricate the writers do not skimp on anything else in the least, they have absolute control of the mise-en-scène which is manipulated meticulously to give the show a holistic feel. This creates a viewing experience close to watching a Kubrick film, nothing is taken for granted. Nothing.
To say the humor hits so many different levels is not a thing uttered when trying to appear clever but fits perfectly. It’s created an obsessive fan base that has people rewinding episodes to look at a banner, or listen to a seemingly throw away piece of dialogue, it’s all worth it. Scenes that might just feel like establishing shots or simple jokes have meaning and connect to an entire episode’s arc. For example, the loose seal that ate Buster’s hand is actually a seal G.O.B was keeping for a magic act that happened to escape. Keep in mind that loose seal sounds a lot like Lucille, Buster’s helicopter mother, that wasn’t fond of his idea of joining the army and is actually “arresting” Buster’s development. Typing that I’m scared a random reader might think I’m someone that comes to conclusions like the Kanye West/Kim Kardashian baby is an Illuminati princess bringing about the ExxonMobil sponsored apocalypse because I looked at the eye on the pyramid of a dollar bill for a little too long, but fans know I’m straight. The average television viewer might not be interested in wasting time looking for tedious payoffs to a joke, but the show still works without that research. It is still entertaining to watch and if you feel the need to explore, go for it. The only people that will judge you for not doing so are not limited to college campuses and coffee shops but reside there where they can read giant books that give the air superiority.
The new season is far from perfect but it still retains the core values of the characters while stepping them up a notch similar to the improv rule of “Yes, and?” G.O.B in his selfishness and narcissism ends up having a same sex sexual encounter; Tobias gets arrested on a To Catch a Predator style show for unawareness of his innuendo and what I’ll just label sexual ignorance; Maeby, in a mixture of attention seeking and blind ambition finally “turns out” her mother, Lindsay and also has sex with a minor, both reflecting negative traits of her parents and grandmother; speaking of which, the conniving Lucille has a genuine human moment born out of misunderstanding a simple statement Tobias’ makes.
Michael and George-Michael are the only two whose move into darker waters might surprise few viewers but given detailed and established character histories, it’s believable albeit a little surprising. Michael might have given into his family’s pettiness a little over the original course of the show, but he never crossed any lines. In this season, he blossoms into a full Bluth with his overbearing nature and sense of deserved respect giving excuse to startling transgressions. It’s almost the same with George-Michael but it’s swirled with his coming of age, love of Maeby, and migration from his father’s ever present shadow. His move is more acceptable because we’ve seen the lack of respect and suffering he’s had to deal with at the hands of his family. George-Michael’s transformation almost feels like Walt’s in Breaking Bad just not as extreme; he turns into an absolute monster but we completely understand where he’s coming from and it’s a place we could see ourselves faltering in. Michael’s change might be a little problematic since he is the moral compass of the show, representing one of the only senses of normality in the Bluth family for watchers to relate. But I have faith in the writing staff – they have yet to disappoint me – and I’m actually curious to see where this all ends up.
The biggest problem with this season is the choice to have each episodes centered on a singular character. The humor is still there but most of the punch lines are set up and left hanging till a viewer completes the entire season which can be a bit tedious especially if you forget what the joke was initially. This makes the first half of the season slow when the joy of seeing your favorite characters dissipates. Instead of opting for the original set up – where everything was self contained within an episode peppered with season spanning running gags – the writers took a risk on viewers’ binge watching all 15 episodes and this is where they lost people. The show’s inbuilt and loyal fan base was probably expected to have complete devotion to the series willing to accept this change, but it’s been rather polarizing. People don’t have the patience for it while others like myself are willing to understand/forgive this move and just relax while seeing where it’s going.
This new season feels like it’s setting up something big for the next chapter of the Bluths. No one is sure if there is a movie in the works or a new season but as with most seasons of Arrested, the plot does not really matter, it’s serves as frame for the characters to work in. Wasting time on this set up can be a little tedious especially when trying to re-watch the season to get it’s subliminal or running jokes, they’re still there but makes something that was once absolutely enjoyable hobby a mild task.
That said, the guest stars are amazing. Sally Sitwell, Tony Wonder, Carl Weathers and a whole lot of past characters return without overstaying their welcome. Along with the success and what some would call a cult following of the show, it’s attracted famous personalities that were probably fans themselves. Terry Crews stars as a Herman Cain parody, Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig are George Sr. and Lucille Bluth in flashbacks respectively, Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recs Jean-Ralphio) is a member of a celebrity entourage G.O.B gets stuck in and the list goes on. Everyone plays their part well without stepping on toes. The two most outstanding guest stars are Kristen Wiig and Maria Bamford. Wiig mimics Lucille’s mannerisms to perfection while blurring the lines between acting and outrageous parody. While Bamford breathes life into a crumpled paper bag of a character that has indulged in every drug and illicit activity on the West Coast you’ve ever heard of, I can only hope this role finally gives her the recognition she’s deserved over the course of her career as a comedian. The only black mark in this respect is Seth Rogen as George Sr. Rogen just plays it cool and does his best Seth Rogen which isn’t a problem but when paired with Wiig it does not look good.
The show is filled with current cultural references and makes up with more for the time it spent off the air. Everything from the “hacktivist” group Anonymous to the failure of the “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” musical is touched upon and old gags are thrown away only to be replaced by new ones that fill those voids perfectly.
All in all, the format of our beloved show might have changed substantially, taking viewers through the lives of the Bluths episode by episode which might ruin the self contained nature of the series but gives more room for character development. As I said earlier, I love the new season and was able to move past the new arrangement and see bright spots within the episode while acknowledging its faults. Some die hard fans might see the new arrangement as a sort of betrayal and leave the show, but I implore you to check it out after a while, the same characters, gags and soul of the show are retained. Watch it again, I’m sure you’ll like it and if you don’t, there’s always that Julie Bowen show, you know, Modern…something or the other. I’m sure if you like Great Value Cola as opposed to real-sugar Coke, it should be your thing.