Family Ties: Season 4 of Arrested Development
I hate to start off any article like this, but, “So, after seven years of waiting, Arrested Development is back and…” Of the plethora of articles regarding Netflix’s revival of Arrested Development, there have been primarily two angles: the “binge watching” angle and the “fan control/pandering” angle, the latter of which permeated discussion when the equally short lived and similarly cult enjoyed Veronica Mars got “Kickstarted” for a feature film. Reeling the two together is, at least with regards to previously existing material, fan expectation. It does not necessarily boil down to whether the wait itself was worth it, but if any of it was worth it. And I can say is, with some bumps down the road notwithstanding, that the fourth season of Arrested Development is mostly a pleasure.
Fox’s short lived sitcom about “a wealthy family and the one son who had to keep them all together” was notable for its critical praise, its unique structure, its pop culture commentary, its deliberately lucid style that often oscillated between straight forward and self aware, and its depressingly low ratings and subsequent early cancellation. With a stellar cast and some of the sharpest writing on a sitcom ever (Tina Fey has said that the show is, something along the lines of “exhaustingly funny”), it quickly gained cult status. We have since learned, with the advent of Twitter, Tumblr, and other online communities of that ilk, that cults are demanding. The fans, who can quote every episode and reenact running gags, balk at the premature cancellation of the series, and thus demanded a film or a revival of some sort. Rumors of a film adaptation or continuation floated around for years (and still continue to do so), but it was finally announced that a new season of the beloved show would return, airing exclusively on Netflix.
Neither the exclusivity of how the show was airing, nor the “all at once drop” of 15 episodes, helped temper people’s expectations or even my expectations. Devotees of the show were up at the early hours of the day (3am EST), ready to see if the show they had rewatched thousands of times was really coming back the way they’d hope.
The answer to that “un-question” is “Sort of”. There are fifteen episodes, each focused on a specific character’s story arc, often catching the audience up on what they have been doing since the show ended in 2006. So, while the show is now all focused from episode to episode on various primary characters from the series, the structure itself is very “Rashomon like”. It all leads up to one event, Cinco de Cuatro. And therein lies one of the primary issues of the new season.
Leading everything up to one event as well as playing catch up with all of the characters inherently creates narrative problems when it isn’t done well. And with a sitcom, the show’s quality is prone to even more problems. Thus, the new Arrested Development is primarily plot focused, with something so intricate that one might consider not binge watching. With the various connections that are made between characters, events, timelines, etc., time is needed to fully digest and perhaps even revisit later (something I will surely do over the summer). This isn’t a bad thing, but the plot focus and the multiple perspectives give a very specific type of pacing that makes it feel as if the jokes were kind of second thought. But this new focus on intricacy creates, what feels to me, like a very different feeling than one we are usually used to when watching Arrested Development. The show was always kind to its plotting, with a nice quick pace, but the focus was more on running gags, both verbal and visual, and tying those jokes into the plotting so it seemed complex and exhausting. The plots themselves were hardly all that complicated, but the show was so well written that you would never realize it. In Season Four, you become very aware of how plot focused the show is and how much effort that’s being put in making it the “revival to end all revivals”. And that self awareness, which is completely different from the usual meta quality the show has, is something that undermines the season’s quality. It’s like have fifteen different starting points all going to the same destination. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it becomes unwieldy and cumbersome.
With the character focused episodes, it provides a rather uneven experience. Character based episodes often mean that not all of the characters will appear in all of the episodes. This is and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but the character focus specifically shows, again, that the writing, as complicated as it is, is all about the destination. The labyrinthine path it takes to get there has bumps in the road, which means that there are a few episodes (perhaps more than a few) which are disappointingly weak. Tone, structure, and jokes. But the great episodes in the fourth season, the ones that remind you why you love the show so much and why you’re such a cultist for it, pepper Season 4’s episode run, thankfully.
The show’s gloriously meta quality seems to have changed ever so slightly. Aided by camera work, “flashbacks”, nods to other shows, self awareness, and the general style of the sitcom, time has allowed the show to soak in some different cultural juices. It feels self aware, but a different self aware, like a very close cousin to the show. New technology, changes in political atmosphere, and even the shift in how sitcoms themselves are structured on television have created something a little new and refreshing, if slightly jarring. Of course, the longer running time and the nods to Netflix as an entity at all certainly are factors of the mild shift in tone, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
One of the interesting things about coming back to a universe you know so well but haven’t been to in a long time, at least in terms of new stories, is that it feels like coming back to a town or your high school for a reunion. I felt this way about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: same place I enjoy visiting endlessly on DVD with the trilogy, but it seemed so different seeing the film in theaters. Something similar happens here: you know all the characters, but they’re doing something new and unexpected, and for that I commend show runner Mitch Hurwitz and the writers. All the actors slip into their roles as if they were part of their skin, so that is certainly a joy to see. In its ability to feel like something new, Season 4 succeeds. Sameness and something that would inevitably pander to longtime fans would be just that: pandering. It would be nothing to give the show new life. It would be, in essence, frivolously dull.
However, as aforementioned, the show’s weakness is its focus on plotting and it seemingly second thought jokes. The jokes are, at times, just not that funny. Occasionally they’ll underplay their hand, losing a good beat or punch line, and other times they’ll overplay it, going too far when the horse is dead and the punch line bombs. But, what Season 4 does superbly is utilize the familiar jokes in new ways. As writer Alexander Huls noted, the jokes serve dual purpose: fan service and compounding of “what the show has always done”. One of the greatest things about Arrested Development, aside from its postmodern approach to the sitcom, is how it uses it running gags. They’re not just for ha-has, but the running gags are linked to the characters, not exactly giving them significantly more depth, but giving the characters senses of place and specificity. From “I blue myself” to “I’ve made a huge mistake”; these jokes are indispensably linked to the show and the characters. With the running gags appearing again in Season 4 in new ways, it proves once again that the Bluths aren’t just well written characters, but flawed, funny human beings.
The evolution of the well known characters is certainly interesting: for instance, this is the first time I have not loathed Will Arnett’s G.O.B. Playing out the show in real time has really allowed the characters, and the writers, to flesh out the characters in different ways, allowing them to mature in others, and keeping them in… arrested development. Of the stand out performances, Jessica Walter’s unscrupulous matriarch Lucille Bluth and David Cross’s oblivious and sexually ambiguous Tobias Funke are especially the highlights.
After such a long wait, how does Season 4 size up? Temper and adjust your expectations and you should be fine. It’s not a reproduction of the first three seasons, but something new and fresh. There are some considerable weaknesses, such as the structure and pacing, but Arrested Development is once again a culturally fundamental staple of sitcom history. Binge watching, though, is not totally recommended. With a new, enigmatic narrative, digestion is needed to really enjoy the show. This time around, the Bluths may not have nailed it, but it still remains a satisfactory experience.
P.S. Someone should really do a medical study on what binge watching does to the mind. You know, besides melting it.
Game On: Review for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”
The introduction of the “videogame aesthetic” – hyper kinetic editing, ultra-somewhat cartoonish-violence, ear splitting use of sound effects – in mainstream films has been rightfully condemned by critics. Let’s face it; it’s a chore to watch those movies. As “exciting” and “adrenaline pumping” as they are, it’s actually hard to keep up. If I wanted to watch a video game, I’d go over my friend’s house and say “Oh, no, I don’t want to ruin your kill-death ratio” and just watch him play. Video game aesthetics, or what one person called “chaos cinema”, are endless hogwash of attempted excitement that are generally used to cover up and distract from the mediocrity that is everything else.
Allow me to sound somewhat like one of those guys on infomercials and say, “But what if I told you there was a movie that used ‘video game aesthetics’ to its advantage?” The difference being that the video game aesthetics that the film emulates are retro, so to speak, and resemble something more along the lines of arcade games than first person shooters. Nevertheless, you still get a similar kind of adrenaline thrill from this iteration of graphics and editing style that you may encounter elsewhere.
The film in question is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), which was adapted from a series of comic books. The fact that it is based on a comic book, one that also tries to emulate arcade style, is telling about the film’s visual style. Not only does it feature that amusing 8-bit sound occasionally (especially in for the Universal Studios beginning), but it feels like a comic book. Sometimes the camera pans from a panel to another, other times there are clear descriptors of characters or actions or cuts in the edit that feel like a comic book. The last time something vaguely similar was pulled off well was in 2005’s Sin City, which utilized the original Frank Miller graphic novels as the actual storyboards. Scott Pilgrim does just as well, creating that same kind of nerdy, almost hipster vibe, without alienating the viewer.
I’ve babbled on long enough about technical details. But what about the film itself? Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy, kind of awkward 22 year old Canadian kid (Michael Cera playing Michael Cera again) who falls for an aloof American girl named Ramona (Mary, Elizabeth Winstead). But before he can date her, he must battle her Seven Evil Exes. Which is exactly what it sounds like.
Melding varying genres generally found in comic books, while it’s not the most premise I’ve ever seen, it is pretty interesting considering. Not only does the aesthetic make this very niche-made film work, the performances and script add more power to the punch. The witty and fast talking screenplay was written by director Wright and Michael Bacall, a script that never lets up. It’s speedy and fun, and I’ll probably get some crap for this, but it’s reminiscent of the fast talking screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. Did I mention it’s hilarious and quotable?
Michael Cera…well, he plays Michael Cera again, which is fine. It works for the character, who is, as per usual, dorky and a little awkward. Scott Pilgrim isn’t actually as awkward as Cera’ characters tend to be. It’s a fine performance, but nothing to rave about. The film pretty much rests on his shoulders, and one does come out surprised that he could actually battle those Seven Evil Exes.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, however, is a revelation. Playing the slightly broken, rather impulsive Ramona, her character is definitely reminiscent of Kate Winslet’s broken, impulsive Clementine from Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The character could have been perceived as fairly one dimensional, but her comedic timing is great and she gives the character a tender fragility.
The supporting cast is also great. From Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, Audra Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as the sharp and foulmouthed Julie, and the Seven Evil Exes themselves, it ends up being a supporting cast that makes the film.
The thumping, probably hipster-esque music is a highlight of the film. Partly compiled and written by Beck, it thumps, throngs, and shakes with powerful bass and a dynamic sound that is, while completely self-referential, completely fantastic to listen to. It not only fits the generally hipster feel of the film, but also its Canadian locale.
Generally speaking, almost every element of the film is rendered perfectly. It does exactly what it is supposed to do and it’s a fast and fun film, a ride that is totally original and memorable. It’s the kind of film that, if it were a game, you would definitely be scrambling for more tokens so you could play it again.