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‘Bees and Birds and Bluths, Oh My…’: Arrested Development Season 4

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by drayfish

arrested-development-season-4-full-cast

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Sick B Colony

In 2006, freshly cancelled by the Fox television network, season three of Arrested Development ended on a note of dispersal.*  With the series-long unifying through-line of father George Bluth Sr.’s criminal trial for ‘light’ treason finally resolved, the revelation that daughter Lindsay was adopted, cousin Maeby no longer biologically related, and mother Lucille running from the feds by trying to sail a theme restaurant into international waters, son Michael Bluth finally decided to let his family take care of themselves for once, dislodging he and his son from the self-imposed burden of shepherding this narcissistic flock into order.  The show seemingly let the ties that held this universe together go slack.

After three years of being bound together through mutual obligation, these final moments were about freedom; ironically, for a show overburdened with self-involved characters, it was about Michael allowing himself to be selfish for once, finally deciding to put his and his son’s own happiness above everyone else’s.**  It literally ended (not counting the epilogue) with an image of the protagonist and his son riding into the sunset, limitless possibility ahead of them.

Over the intervening years, just as its name ironically implied, Arrested Development hung in a kind of suspended animation, waiting to be reborn as a new series on HBO or Showtime (both metatextually referenced in the Hail Mary ‘Save Our Bluths’ episode), or as a feature film (signalled in the series epilogue, in which Ron Howard, upon hearing the pitch for the show, observes that he cannot picture it on television, ‘But maybe a movie…’)  Its writers, directors and actors – all highly sought after – moved on to other projects, and the dream became progressively less likely.  Nonetheless, in a fervent, almost irrational passion worthy of the Bluth’s themselves, the show’s creators and their still-growing fan-base remained committed to the cause of bringing this family back together, continuing to keep hope alive.

And then, in May of this year, rising impossibly from the ashes like a phoenix (once again, self-referentially acknowledged in the title of its first new episode, ‘Flight of the Phoenix’), Arrested Development did indeed finally return.  Specifically developed for and screened upon the burgeoning content platform of Netflix as a simultaneous, fifteen episode release, the once-thought-impossible fourth season began with Ron Howard’s unnamed, omniscient narrator casually clearing his throat:

‘It was May –’

(*ahem*)

‘It was May 4th…’

It was a playful nod to the relative silence that he, these characters, and the audience that awaits them have had to endure for the several years previous, and it proved to be symbolic of the relative ease with which this communication between text and audience could be resumed – indeed, arguably enhanced – by the time apart.

Because rather than simply returning to pick up exactly where they last left off, Arrested Development chose to transform itself into something greater.  For a show that was once justifiably beloved for never taking its viewers for granted – celebrated for constantly embedding layers of subtle call-backs, searing social satire, and deep foreshadowing amidst the all the frivolity; that had already proved it could mix dadaesque absurdism into the collision of some identifiably human (if exaggerated) characters; that had consistently managed to deflate the saccharine with snark; flipped and back-flipped narrative convention and made it look effortless – Arrested Development once again proved its capacity to reshape the very fabric of comedy, to challenge what the television medium itself can ultimately achieve, and to offer what is perhaps the most transformative and culturally reflective work of literature for the twenty-first century.

When fans explored this resurgent new season, what awaited them proved to be one of the most audacious, revolutionary, and compoundingly hilarious evolutions in episodic storytelling ever conceived.  Instead of the lightning-paced episodes that had defined its first three years, in which nine characters constantly vied for screen time, all circling Michael’s ringleader straight-man, this season chose to respect the sense of familial drift with which the previous season had concluded, and concerned itself with following each of these figures individually, every episode tracking one character through a personal journey as they try (and most often fail) to satisfy some longing within themself.

By tackling this multiform narrative, choosing to recount the period of time between this family’s disbandment and the eventful night of Cinco de Cuatro through multiple viewpoints, the show devised a form of asynchronous, organically overlapping storytelling heretofore unseen in television.  Evoking the experimental narrative shifts in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the contextual point-of-view revisionism of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the tonal and referential density of Joyce’s Ulysses, Arrested Development utilised its nine characters and fifteen episodes to remake the conventional form of storytelling, tying this dislocation and cultural diffusion into the very fabric of its theme and narrative.

The show thus developed even more elaborate interlocking plotlines, with each of these character’s apparently individual storylines proving to feed directly into one other, their actions impacting upon each other’s experiences in myriad, imperceptible ways.  With each return to an already viewed scene the show expanded the ramifications of these events with new context, the comedy compounding exponentially, the narrative becoming endlessly more than the sum of its composite parts.

And alongside these larger, intricately woven plot threads, the new season also employed several adaptive metaphors that likewise operate across multiple character arcs.  This poetic colour acts as more subconscious imagistic connective tissue, dynamically refracting from episode to episode when placed into the wider context that only the organising principle of the narrator – and eventually the viewing audience – can offer, able to reason out the implications of these bonds.

Perhaps the most expansive systemic analogy utilised this season is triggered in the episodes ‘Double Crossers’ and ‘Colony Collapse’, in which Lucille goes to ‘Plan B’, ordering son GOB to meet his father in the desert to help with their border wall project.  Instead of providing assistance, however, ‘gentleman honey farmer’ GOB accidentally unleashes his newly invigorated colony of sick bees, consequentially tanking his father’s Sweat and Squeeze fundraising scam in a flurry of stings and screaming.

Soon it becomes clear why the letter B is so ubiquitous throughout this season.  From George Sr. becoming a phony guru called ‘Father B’, to Michael calling himself ‘Michael B’ while assembling his ‘B-Team’ movie production staff.  From Baby B. Buster, to GOB awakening after his new excursion into B-level Hollywood celebrity to find a message on his mirror that reads, ‘Hey Joe Withabee’; and most revealingly, Lucille becoming known by the prison moniker ‘The B Word’, or ‘Queen B’.

They are Bees – literal Bs – and with their Queen B out of action, and their communal bond dissipated, the Bluths do indeed fall apart.  And so, as George Sr. stands amidst the chaos of ‘Plan B’ wearing a beekeepers hat and blouse, hearing GOB describe the symptoms of CCD, it is clear that this is a diagnosis that the Bluth family itself shares.  George Sr.’s wall-building scheme swiftly falls apart and must be bribed undone; GOB’s marriage into the Veals and revenge scheme on Tony Wonder each go spectacularly awry; Buster tries to replace his mother with a terrifying home-made mannequin and a stint in the armed forces that proves he can make even a desk job personally hazardous; Michael’s career as a movie producer dissolves into a flurry of judgemental tantrums, petulantly tearing up the releases that he requires and kicking everyone else off the project; Tobias’ continued attempt to pursue his delusion of stardom leads him to cling to a piece of discarded Hollywood debris – a woman actually called DeBris – who he eventually leaves collapsed in a pile of garbage, while his theatrical copyright infringement proves to be chum in the water for circling lawyers; Lindsay’s attempt to reconnect with her inner, protesting liberal ends with her becoming a waspy conservative career politician; and Maeby’s search for validation from her parents leaves her adrift in a cycle of perpetual non-graduation, her natural talents of producing directed toward spruiking a product that ultimately does not exist.

Having spent three seasons growing closer together in a kind of dysfunctional but loving interdependence, the past several years are revealed to have splintered them apart again, a theme played out in the very structure of this season and its isolated character vignettes.  Gone their separate ways, often only unknowingly intruding upon each other’s lives, they are a family without cohesion and purpose – drifting, no longer able to validate themselves or each other as they journey on alone.  Just like GOB’s sickly hive, the Bluth Bs suffer their own Colony Collapse Disorder, their cross-pollinating storylines ironically failing to germinate anything productive.

arrested joe withabee

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

‘I’ll Put Up A Wall’

Just as the Bluth family were originally symbolic of the dissatisfaction lurking at the heart of the American dream – a family of entitlement, rocked by flagrant corporate embezzlement, forced to renegotiate their hollow narcissism and excess (although almost never successfully) – in this latest season they continue to reflect contemporary culture.  Consequentially, the narrative is loaded with references to the modern political and social climate, offering the most comprehensive and dense satire of the early twenty first century yet conceived.

Since the Bluths disappeared from television screens the subprime mortgage crisis has erupted, almost collapsing western civilisation into a new depression, the casual application of drone warfare and the revelations that spooled out of WikiLeaks have darkened US international relations, political discourse has degraded into partisan hysteria and fear-mongering sound bites, celebrity culture and the rise of social media have mutated our conceptions of privacy, and systematised social inequity has given rise to rallying cries like the Occupy movement.  If anything, familial and social bonds have become only more diffuse and contradictory in the intervening years, and Arrested Development loads these issues into the framework of its tale, allowing each of its characters to exhibit aspects of this social dissemination.

Buster becomes a drone pilot for Army, mistaking the brutality he is inflicting for the detachment of a videogame.  Tobias and Lindsay purchase a palatial estate on the cusp of the housing industry’s collapse, literally losing one another amongst its needless, empty square-footage.  We see members of Anonymous lurking in the shadows, trying to threaten George Michael (Mr. Maharis) away from his goal of creating the world’s best wood block musical app.  A right-wing Herman Cain substitute (Herbert Love), like his real-life counterpart, runs on a family values platform while secretly engaging in an extramarital affair, and spouts endless, hackneyed Tea Party slogans, demonising government corruption while negotiating his own lobbyist bribes.  And in a culture where demonising illegal immigration through the language of ‘invasion’ and ‘otherness’ runs rife, the hot-button issue of building a wall on the Mexican border threads through all of their tales, utilising this impulse for isolationist ‘protection’ as emblematic of the culture at large.

Feeling alienated and abandoned by their loved ones, exposed in the glare of a daunting world, this season finds the Bluth family – much like the world at large – attempting to construct new walls, both literal and figurative, to fortify themselves from harm.  Thus, in lieu of communication or change, they barricade themselves away.  George Sr. tries to swindle the US government by exploiting the hysteria of illegal immigration, offering to build a wall on the border with Mexico.  Tobias laments the universe putting up all sorts of walls between he and his dreams and tries to build his own little musical theatre haven in the Austerity Rehab Centre.  GOB flees the closeness and sincerity of marrying into the Veal’s welcoming family, a group so devoid of emotional walls that they all live together under one roof and collapse into communal hugs when they hear good news; he is likewise unprepared for the effects of being open with rival Tony Wonder, the first person with whom he finds he can share an empathetic bond (they are the ‘Same… Same…’), and immediately resorts to sabotage, again barricading himself away from a human intimacy that is all too confronting.  Not to mention poor Steve Holt (sorry: ‘STEVE HOLT!’), a son yearning for connection, relegated to the role of the ‘boss’ that is ‘on [his] ass…’  Even George Michael, struggling to assert himself and desperate to impress, stumbles into promising to build a privacy-blocking wall of electronic software, while, Maeby, heartbroken at being abandoned by her parents and run out of show business, likewise devotes herself to this ‘Fake Block’ system utterly.

And in one of the most revelatory cross-purpose conversations ever orchestrated, when Tobias’ is eliciting Lucille to join his doomed Fantastic Four knock-off, he leads her to the realisation that she feels like an ‘invisible woman’, creating ‘force field’ walls to protect herself from harm.  Indeed, it is in her audition for the part of Lucia – singing a song she wrote herself – that Lucille exposes this fear and desire for withdrawal most acutely:

‘My children despise me, my husband defies me,

It doesn’t surprise me, to hell with them all.

I’ll put up a wall.

You think I’m a villain, a villain I’ll be

My heart is in pain, I just want to flee,

from me…’

This is a family that has been emotionally broken, and while the anarchic exploits that spool from this sense of loss and abandon are hilarious, there is a sombre truth to hearing ‘The Sound of Silence’ play as GOB loses himself down a bout of self-loathing reverie, or watching Buster stammer through juice-stained lips as he realises that the security blanket of his mother is being torn from him.  And there is most certainly a shockingly revelatory bite to hearing Lucille, the family’s matriarchal centre, their Queen B, who has famously ignored self-assessment throughout her life (‘If that’s a veiled criticism about me, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it’) finally exposing her self-loathing, and a desire to wall herself away from sorrow.

The great irony of these attempts to isolate themselves, however, is that despite their boasts for autonomy, this family proves incapable of escaping each other’s influence, their storylines bouncing off each other unknowingly as a product of their inexorable gravitational pull.  Glitter-bombs are stymied, bags are switched, dead doves turn up in freezers, cheques and beehive-shaped caves and red wigs and the brotherhood of Andy Richter, all float between these tales, repeatedly thwarting their plans – literally breaking down walls – as the tale unfolds.  Although they appear to be alone, although they seek to isolate themselves utterly, as the season progressively reiterates, the one thing that can break down these fearful barriers is family.

arrested ostrich

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Head in the Sand

For all of the recurring images of Banana-Grabbers, Blue-Men, sad-sacks, and hop-ons that have become signatures of the show, the most ubiquitous recurring image this season was that of the ostrich.

In the first episode, returning from Phoenix to remake himself once again, Michael was run over by one in the wrecked Bluth penthouse; Lindsay believed that the Indian guru who placed her on her spiritual path transformed into one, and follows her face-blind lover because he owned an ostrich farm, and that couldn’t be coincidence; George Sr. was visited by what he thought was an ostrich spirit in a desert hallucination; Maeby was attending a school that had an ostrich as their team mascot (Go Ostriches!); Lucille 2 was amorously savaged by one;  in lieu of the family stair car Michael was driving a vehicle described as one (a Google street camera)***; Buster fails to read the cartoon warning of one on his juice box; and when GOB swerves to avoid an ostrich he unleashes his box of bees, sees a decorative statue of one in Tony Wonder’s storage room, and hears one speak to him at his lowest moment (at rock-bottom in the bottom of a rock) informing him that if he does not dare to open himself up to others, then the treasures within him would never come out…

Pretty deep advice for a novelty drinking bird (…or the host of Locker Hawkers, who it is revealed was actually the one speaking).

Flightless, gangly, somewhat absurd in appearance, the ostrich shares a good deal of traits with the Bluths themselves – but it is the bird’s reputation the proves to be most revealing. Proverbially, the ostrich is a creature famous for sticking its head in the sand.  When they see danger, it is said that they bury themselves underground, oblivious to the world around them and ironically still open to attack.  It is a cliché that Maeby even expresses to her mother while disguised as the shape-shifting Indian guru: ‘Pull your head out of the sand’ – advice that both Lindsay, and Maeby herself, choose to ignore.

And fittingly, this utterly erroneous myth perfectly encapsulates the behaviour of almost every member of the Bluth family this season.  Troubled by a sense of loss and bewilderment, they foolishly choose to abandon their familial bonds and indulge selfish pursuits that more often than not further obscure rather than inspire self-awareness.  They bury their heads in the sand.  Indeed if the metaphor were not overt enough, we even see that whenever an ostrich appears it being directly aligned with some kind of wisdom – observed in a vision or as a spirit, uttered by a sage or a motto.  But every time that such a message is conveyed it is ignored by the wayward Bluths, who rather than heeding its advice – opening up to one another, seeking for validation and support – instead dysfunctionally continue to push people further away, compounding their misery in a roofie circle of de-actualisation.

And the most egregious example of this self-destructive blindness occurs in the most deceptively impactful scene of the entire series…

The narrative conceit of Arrested Development’s season four is intentionally misleading.  The show initially sets itself up as something of a noir mystery, purporting to slowly answer the mystery of what happened on one dark, debauched night at Cinco de Cuatro (a celebration long ago created by the Bluth’s themselves to peevishly undercut Cinco de Mayo).  In each episode we appear to be unravelling the truth about this literally explosive evening, travelling back in time to contextualise a night where people are going to be threatened, led to question their identity and sexuality, hospitalised, morally compromised, and possibly (although let’s face it, probably not really) murdered.

But while the narrative does gradually disentangle Cinco de Cuatro’s elaborate knot, dancing across the ingeniously interwoven experience of a family that seems cosmically fated to intersect, these revelations are ultimately proved less impactful than a deceptively innocuous scene that is dually being gradually unpacked in every episode: a gathering of the entire family in one of the most familiar of the show’s locations, the Balboa Towers penthouse.

In its earliest appearances in the season, the scene is appears to be little more than a company briefing between Michael and his parents, an exchange in which he declares that he is out of the business, and out of the family, for good.  As each episode continues to build upon the one previous to it, the scope of that scene literally widens, however, the camera angles shifting to reveal that more and more characters are present when this event take place.  Lindsay and Tobias have announced they are giving their marriage another try.  GOB declares that he will be marrying Plant  …I mean, Mouth  …I mean Egg  …I mean, Ann.  Buster is workshopping his testimony for the trial.  Maeby is looking on ignored.  And significantly revealed last is George Michael – for whom, ultimately, the whole gathering is taking place.  Because, as the banner above the door reveals (‘Look at banner, Michael!’), this is a farewell party for George Michael on the eve of his moving to college.

We therefore come to see that in the midst of this fractured series, this is chronologically the last time that this family have gathered together, and they are there to celebrate the boy who originally brought them together at the beginning of the first season – the young man who was the reason that Michael decided to stick around when his father’s business had dissolved into a legal quagmire.  George Michael has grown into a young, aspiring man, and (despite the fact that everyone eventually starts thoughtlessly singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him by mistake) they are there to celebrate whatever future lies before him.

And so, Michael’s once clichéd storm out – declaring that he has had enough of his family’s selfishness; that he is leaving them all behind and taking his son with him – suddenly takes on a whole new and disheartening dimension.  Because for once his exit is in fact successful. The family does indeed implode, causing far more damage than he had foreseen.  As part of his selfish exit, Michael forces George Michael to tear up a gift just given to him by his grandparents, a gift of money that would have set him up to pursue his studies on his own terms.

Although Michael has always considered himself the most altruistic of the Bluth clan, in truth he has always skirted the edge of the rational himself.  Seemingly the uber-straight man to the panoply of madness around him, he is actually just self-deluded enough to believe that he is the only normal one in a family of spoiled egomaniacs.  In reality, he reveals himself to be just as self-involved as any of them, blind to the smothering relationship he has cultivated with his son.  For all his indignation and pomposity, Michael too has his head buried in the sand, his pride preventing him from appreciating the line that he has crossed in imposing his own issues upon his son’s life.  Consequentially, the tearing of that cheque symbolically echoes throughout the remainder of the season.

From that point on, although George Michael still tries to be the dutiful son, he finds his father’s presence and expectations a progressively choking imposition.  He wants to go by a different name than ‘George Michael’, given the pop-culture baggage that it carries, but is guilted into relenting.  Having stretched his wings in Spain he tries to reinvent himself at college as a young, sexually confident man, but ends up finding his father crashing on his top bunk, passive-aggressively convincing him to shave off his new moustache, and literally not willing to give him any space.  And most damaging of all, he tries to outgrow his childhood crush by dating someone else, only to find that his father has actively tried to steal this new girlfriend for himself.

This season ultimately proves to be about severing the final, previously most stable bond that this family has managed, in spite of itself, to maintain.  In the end, in his selfish efforts to divorce himself from his own family, Michael has managed to accidentally build the only successful wall amongst the many proposed but never brought to fruition this season: he has managed to drive a barrier between he and his son.  After a season of Michael licking the wounds of being voted out of George Michael’s dorm room in the first episode – a course of events that he still hubristically wants to believe was due to everyone else misunderstanding the ‘plan’ – the revelation that Michael was knowingly pursuing Rebel Alley behind his son’s back leads to the real emotional and literal blow that stops this rollicking, spritely story in its tracks.

And so, as the final scene of the episode (not including the epilogue) hangs in the air, George Michael having punched his father in the face, and both men left standing staring at each other, one seething with betrayal, the other numb with shame, both shocked by the new distance between them, there really does seem to be a divide where once there was unity.  Finally Michael and George Michael – like the audience itself – must acknowledge that this is a different world into which they have grown, and it is one that will require selflessness and trust if there is any hope to heal.

arrested love each other

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Love Each Other

Selectively blind to their own realities, the members of the Bluth family repeatedly miss the most important advice that the universe tries to impart to them.  Through broken walls, the preponderance of missed avian counsel, the inevitable, spectacular collapse of each of their selfish pursuits, there is a message that they keep overlooking, shouted at them from every conceivable angle, one that – like the proverbial ostriches, heads buried in the sand – they are unable to see.  Written on the tags of dead doves, gasped by a dying mailman, seared across the back of a sacrilegious magic spectacular; mumbled out as rambling romantic advice from a lecherous uncle (who means it as an excuse for promiscuity) to his befuddled nephew (who re-interprets it as a call for integrity and respect):

‘Love each other.’

It is even offered as the very last piece of dialogue in the season, in what is chronologically the final moment to which everything else has built, in the earnest sign-off of television presenter John Beard, who wishes his audience well as he bids them goodbye:

‘This is John Beard.  Remember: love each other.’

And despite the Bluth characters’ inability to cherish this instruction (even George Michael soon abandons his revelation by mistaking a threatening letter for an offer of enthusiastic lovemaking), it is here that we in the audience, with our metatextual perspective, can get the most out of the line.

Like the program Arrested Development itself, which swam in a kind of production vacuum until finding its voice again in its triumphant return on Netflix, newsreader John Beard is shown throughout this season similarly displaced.  Popping up all over the media dial in a variety of formats – naff morning talk shows, airport cable news networks, Catch-a-Predator gotcha specials, gas station update reports (seemingly geared around ‘pump’ puns) – by season’s end he eventually finds his home on Ron Howard’s burgeoning and remarkably personalised (there is a reminder to go to the doctors in the newsfeed crawl at the bottom of the screen) news network.  And it is from this new home, finally secure, that Beard stares out at us, through Howard’s television screen and though ours too, to offer his new mantra.

As has always been its style, when Arrested Development gets sincere, it does so in the most metatextual, subversive way possible – after all, this is the show that could go cornball while ‘cornballing’ it in the same second, that turns heartfelt hugs into an opportunity to ‘taste my tears’, to ‘taste the happy’ – and here, through Beard’s rote but heartfelt counsel, we have a statement as much to the fans as to the characters that keep missing its implications.

‘Love’ in the Arrested Development universe is bizarre.  It can be competitive, blind, asexual, occasionally incestuous and frequently borderline polygamous, but it is deep, and it is messy, and it is real.  For all of their fleeting fancies and fruitless passions, the Bluths do care for each other, and profoundly need each other; and over the span of these four seasons and across all of the madness of the past few years, when the Bluths could barely take care of themselves let alone nurture this bond of family, the show has been a series long meditation upon what exactly it does take to unite television’s most anarchic family.

Arrested Development began as a series about a group of marvellously oddball characters who (although oblivious to this truth) required each other to stay grounded.  As such, the primary organising factor for their past adventures at first appeared to be Michael, ‘The one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.’  But in this season he too is clearly adrift – feeling alienated by his son and so desperate to reclaim the sense of control he has lost that he spends his subplot play-acting being a Hollywood producer and trying to gather the permission to remake a film fantasy about his past.  At times it may have seemed to be Lucille, through whom the money and influence was ultimately said to be funnelled.   She could certainly scheme and manipulate her loved ones into servitude, but as a consequence eventually pushed them all away.

From a more abstract viewpoint, as the show went on it revealed that the unnamed, faceless, but ever-so-earnest narrator was something of a tenth character amongst the bunch.  The shaping of the narrative offered by Ron Howard’s detached voice – all-knowing, omnipresent, something of a proxy for writer/creator Hurwitz himself – was not just a structural crutch, he was actively trying to follow these now (seemingly) disparate plotlines and wrangle them into order, frequently undercutting and commenting upon the absurdity of these characters behaviour with a dry sincerity.  He was essentially the text itself, an amalgam of the writers, directors and their fictional universe, looking in on this strange little family and trying to puzzle it out.

But as the show has progressed, his objectivity too has gradually been brought into question – from his irritability when faced with lesser examples of television narration (he declares the Scandalmakers guy’s work, ‘Real shoddy narrating.  Just pure crap’), to his reluctance to attend Maeby’s sixteenth birthday after being invited (‘And a lot of us didn’t want to drive to Orange County’), to his spruiking the show for desperately needed ratings (‘Now that’s a clear situation with the promise of comedy.  Tell your friends about this show.’)  And now that Howard himself appears this season as a character within the narrative, a man with his own agenda and allegiances, the narrator seems compromised even further – from the way he proudly commends Rebel (apparently Howard’s illegitimate daughter) for knowing that the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop, to the way he lingers a little long on the Opie statue, noting that it must be an honour to have such an award named after you…

Instead the show is now saying that this family was held together by more than just these compromised individuals and their peculiar loves, bound in fact by something outside of the text itself.  With this fourth season, there is suddenly a new, profoundly necessary character in the mix: we the audience.  In its new viewing format Arrested Development literally requires the viewer to participate in connecting the pieces together, asking that we have the devotion and trust, throughout these unfolding episodes to make connections, to see patterns, to draw this family together – often even in spite of themselves – winding each story back into the whole that they have naively abandoned.

And so, in splintering this family apart, following their dissolve and lonely explorations of self, Hurwitz wrote a broad, interlocking, demented love note to the fans of the show, and the faith they showed in believing and hoping and begging for it to be granted more time.  By blowing open the way in which this show is now consumed, by adapting the very narrative itself so that the viewer literally has control over how this asynchronous story is absorbed, Arrested Development reveals that it was ultimately the fans, the viewers, those who dared to believe that this family could be brought back from oblivion, who kept the love for this show alive, even when its prospects looked most bleak – even, it seems, when the characters themselves had given up hope.

Where last season the show concluded on a state of freedom and abandon, this season ends with a desperate yearning for reconnection.  Torn apart, but narratively stitched back together through the affection of its fans and creators, the Bluths, and Arrested Development itself, hang suspended in a moment of disrepair, the beating heart of their sorrow exposed, but yearning always to reconnect.  As the strains of Lucy Schwartz’ track, ‘Boomerang’ assert over the closing credits,

Waitin’, waitin’

Heartbroken and frustrated

Hard to get around without your love.

It is a fitting note on which to end, a summation of the emotion fans felt when the show was first cancelled, and a resonant message for the characters within this narcissistic little menagerie, who will now have to shake off their self-involvement (at least temporarily) to gather back the unity they have lost.

To love each other – so that perhaps they can finally learn to love themselves.

arrested development hug

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* For my thoughts on seasons one through three see here.

** But since it was still Arrested Development – a show that always stirs the sour into the sweet – there was perhaps a bit of cowardly running away in the mix too.

*** The use of the Google maps car as an ‘ostrich’ has a lovely additional layer of metaphor due to that company’s own hypocrisy.  For, as Ron Howard’s narrator observes with a stinging bit of snark, Google – as a company that posts the address details and photographs of every address in the world without anyone’s permission – does not allow themselves to be identified freely because that name and logo ‘is their property.’

‘I’ve Made a Huge Mistake’: How Critics Failed Arrested Development

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2013 by drayfish

Michael Bluth and Vultures

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

After a brief wait before being able to dive into the Phoenix-like return of Arrested Development, which two weeks ago released its fourth season over the streaming service Netflix, I have now finally made my way through the labyrinthine genius of this wondrous, multifaceted behemoth, and have been scrambling to try and unpack its splendour in words.

In the next couple of days I hope to inflict my sprawling (admittedly happy-ranting) take on this unprecedented marvel, but before I even get started trying to pick apart its every nuance and ramification (spoiler alert: it does involve me droning on and on about how much I love this new gift of a season), I have decided to add to my already punishingly long treatise by speaking briefly to the mystifying backlash this season seems to have received from a selection of critics in the first few days after its release.

To those who actually did bother to watch each of the new episodes, who got to see what the show was intricately building, experienced its breadth, but nonetheless felt that the show was lacklustre: well to them I will say that although I respectfully (vehemently) disagree, at least they were diligent in their duty as critics. (…But I cannot restrain myself from suggesting that they might want to give it another watch without the press of a crushing, arbitrary review deadline hanging over them – just to give the show space to breathe a little).

However.

To all of the ‘professional’ critics that stayed up until three in the morning on the day the show went live, who watched only a handful of episodes and then hurriedly bashed out snide copy that dismissed the show as a poor shadow of its former glory in order to fish for search hits on the morning of release (I’m looking specifically at you, New York Times television reviewer Mike Hale*), they have every right – indeed, if they take their occupation seriously, the responsibility – to feel ashamed of themselves.

To those critics, who despite now having plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the whole series, still write speculation about the entire season based on only slivers of the tale, they too continue to embarrass themselves.  To take but one example, Sydney Morning Herald commentator Giles Hardy wrote his review for the whole season (in which he declared the show only ‘semi-familiar’, ‘disappointing’, and lacking the ‘reflexes’ it once sported) weeks after release – but clearly after having only viewed the first episode.  His observations about the ‘strange’ new relationship between father and son Michael and George Michael revealed that he had utterly failed to even glean the context of this one moment in the greater narrative (the nature of that ‘new’ relationship is central to the entire season’s conceit), but he was still comfortable pompously deriding the entire exercise as a failure.**

Because even though these reviewers tried to justify their flippant invective, claiming that as this new version of Arrested is still technically labelled a ‘television show’ it can thus be reviewed like any other episodic text, one-at-a-time, with no idea of its place within the larger season’s arc, in reality it is cheap excuses such as this that reveal just how negligent critics like Hale and Hardy have been in their duty.

Firstly, most obviously: this is not a regular season of television.

It was devised and written as a single, cohesive piece, filmed altogether, and released into the world simultaneously.  Hurwitz and company did not take the Netflix model lightly.  They built it into the very DNA of their storytelling and humour.  As a consequence, they have created one of the most intricate, interlocking narratives ever crafted (in all of serialised fiction, let alone the sitcom form); and have offered one of the most inspired commentaries upon comedy, narrative universe-building, and audience investment, ever put to film.

Picking and choosing singular episodes to judge isolated from the whole defeats the very purpose of this viewing experience.  Despite what these critics might claim in order to justify their laziness, it literally is like watching part of a movie, reading half a book, or listening to a couple of tracks off an album, and then scampering back over to their computer to bash out a complaint that the whole work didn’t feel ‘finished’.  The failing is not in the text – it is in the overt hypocrisy of critics who presume they can get by only doing half of their job.

Similarly, it is asinine it is to condemn the show for no longer slavishly sticking to the 22 minute, commercially-oriented-act break format to which it was once forced to abide in its days as a product of broadcast television.  To happily, blatantly condemn a text for what they fantasise it should be, or what they have unjustly presupposed in their heads – rather than actually addressing the form in which it currently presents itself – is embarrassing.  It is the most fundamental mistake that any critic can make.

And secondly: have critics really become this petulant and cynical an audience?

Have they legitimately become so arrogant and eager to voice their opinion that they cannot even be bothered to fully form one before opening their mouths?  In the desperate need to be the first person to speak – to say something before everyone else – do they really have to scramble up to the podium of hyperbole to declare something dead (literally describing it as murdered in the example of Hale) before properly experiencing what it is that they are tearing down?

I mean, no doubt it is fun to shout, ‘Hey guys: that thing you like… it sucks now’ (after all, most every adolescent wallows for a time in that kind of reactionary scepticism), but in this case, actually taking the time to watch the show immediately proves just how inept such a statement is.

Yes, the show is different – that cannot be denied.  The program itself repeatedly leaves the viewer with no illusions that this is a new format, now capable of exploring new themes, a new tone, and new depth.  The necessities of wrangling a group of very talented actors who are all now in high demand (and under other contractual obligations), the need to work at a reduced budget, and the duty to the story itself, mindful of where we left these characters several years ago, required an entirely different method of presenting this season – and creator Mitch Hurwitz, his actors and crew, have found an innovative, creatively inspired, and thematically resonant means through which to do so.

Arrested could so easily have come back as some kind of anodyne reunion special – a three episode ‘mini-movie’ rehash of the old show’s format, shamelessly serving as a taster for a proposed movie.  It could have been a lazy regurgitation of the old, shouting ‘Hey, look at us!  Getting the team back together again!  Remember these gags?  Remember back when we were funny?’

Instead it chose to answer the faith of its audience by providing a season long arc that captures the spirit of the original, but one that has grown, that actually alludes to its potential going forward, one that deepens its characters in unique and legitimised ways, and that performs what is inarguably (whether you agree that it worked or not – and I am going to argue strenuously in the coming days that I thought it worked stunningly well) the most revolutionary leap in the production and delivery of television that has ever been conceived.

By getting cancelled from broadcast television, spending years in production limbo, working around budgetary constraints and a production schedule that must have looked at times like a disassembled Lego set, Arrested Development returned on an entirely new broadcast format and has managed to evolve the whole medium of episodic narrative in heretofore unseen ways.  The Bluth family might make crappy homes (both figuratively and literally), but as this season shows, they make hilariously bulletproof experimental television.

And while this article may all just read like the predictable screed of a die-hard fan who feels that something he loves has been jilted, I do want to reiterate that my indignation does not stem from people disliking the show – they are of course free to think whatever they like.  My issue is with those critics who contemptuously believe that they have the right to fundamentally refuse to respect what a text is asking of them as a viewer, and yet still consider themselves justified in condemning it as having ‘failed’ their fantasised requirements.

The petty part of me hopes that someone is cataloguing all of the negative reviews that have been spilling out over the past two weeks.***  I will enjoy watching those nay-sayers, so eager to leap ahead of their predicted ‘I liked it when it was cool’ clichéd backlash, scrambling as the success of this season and its gathering critical acclaim leave them behind.  Because there will be a certain kind of (admittedly petty) schadenfreude in watching these critics – who claim to seek out and foster the innovative and new, who presume to eschew the predictable and stale – have their reactionary, knee-jerk responses revealed for the lazy pessimism it was.

Indeed I will be curious to see how many of them, in the build up to what I hope will be a season five (please, universe, please…) try to swing back around to the ‘Hey, I always loved it too…’ catch-cry, casually sweeping aside their own words as if they had never been spoken.

Because when those commentators can finally put their egos aside and actually finish the job they were presumably paid to do, they will no doubt find something original and utterly revolutionary awaiting them.  And for a group that likes to bleat on about how they once bravely defended Arrested Development when no one else was watching, it will surely sting for them to realise that a more savvy, evolved audience than they has left their tired conventional thinking behind.

 arrested characters thumb

 IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* Indeed, I notice that Hale’s review is nonetheless still being counted on the Arrested Development (season 4) Metacritic page, despite the fact that he himself admits to having not watched the whole season, and as of this writing, has not amended his initial, un-contextualised thoughts.

** Giles’ review, although included in their paper edition, is conspicuously absent from the Sydney Morning Herald’s online review section – one hopes indicating that perhaps even his editors knew it to be an insufficiently considered response to the season.

*** At least Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix is willing to call them out and keep their inattentive response in context, even if he only means it playfully (http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-chief-rips-new-york-times-over-negative-arrested-development-review-1200489764/).

‘Come On?!’: Thoughts Before the Return of Arrested Development

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2013 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Arrested Development cast (Netflix)

It seems a tedious understatement to say that the return of Arrested Development (due to release its entire fourth series in Netflix streaming this very weekend) is creating something of a media frenzy.  Indeed, it’s such a predictable observation to make, it would be like beginning this article with the phrase, ‘Unless you’ve been living under a rock…’ – something I’ve sadly read far too often this past week.

So unless you are in a share-rent arrangement with some sedimentary or igneous housemates (or trying to pay down your mortgage to a scorpion – what do I know about your lifestyle?) you are no doubt well aware that a minor miracle has occurred in the world of television land, and – for better or worse – a spectacular show once cancelled before it’s time is about to lurch back to life, stagger out into the night, and growl ‘Michael!‘ one more time.

For those who are themselves not fans of the show – looking on nonplussed as everyone around them tweets about ‘blueing themselves’, shares awareness PSAs about ‘never-nudes’, references bags of dead doves and seemingly arbitrarily spouts the word ‘Her?‘ – it might appear that a certain slice of the human populace has suddenly been indoctrinated into a manic cult, all staring at a Netflix countdown as if it indicated the return of their Grand Leader, come to whisk them off to a promised land on a low-flying comet.  No doubt those mystified few look forward to the day they can scroll through websites without seeing references to a one armed man preaching ‘And that’s why you don’t [insert subject of internet meme here]…’

Personally, I’m with the crazies.

I too am simply rocking in place repeating the word, ‘Annyong’ to myself while I wait.  After all, watching Arrested Development get choked to death by Fox (who even went so far as to passive aggressively burn off their final episodes months late, scheduled against the opening of the Winter Olympics) was up there with the cancellation of Firefly (also Fox) in the pantheon of Pop-Culture-Outrages-That-Jerks-Like-Me-Drive-Their-Loved-Ones-Insane-Complaining-About.

…Although, if I’m honest, that’s a long list.

I’ve already spoken (did I say ‘spoken’, I meant ‘ranted gleefully’) of my enthusiasm for this upcoming season (here), but I’m by no means alone in my anticipation.

This past week, fans have counting down the hours, revisiting all of the old episodes, swarming promotional Frozen Banana stands the world over (here), trying to reason out how exactly they will watch the episodes given that all fifteen episodes will be available in one immediate glut, no longer restrained by the network schedule.

Forbes contributor Dorothy Pomerantz reasoned that rather than devour them all in one binge, she will restrain herself, watching them one at a time, week by week, reluctant to let the experience end (here).

I know precisely what she means – having lived through those early years of Arrested Development when the show was perpetually teetering on the edge of cancelation, wondering why no one else was watching something so sublime, I too would savour each episode, knowing every week that it could be the last…  However, while I know in theory that I want to follow her lead, and space out my viewing, I know I’m going to hear that little ukulele riff as the end credits roll, and not be able to stop myself firing up the next one…  Truly, I won’t be able to stop.  It’s an addiction.  It was the same sensation I had after each episode ended when they were played live to air: ‘Give me the next one! I just want to see one more, and then I’ll switch it off.  Really, I’ll definitely stop then.  Probably.’

After all, it was that very (slightly obsessive compulsive) moreish longing from fans that allowed the show to live on and resurrect itself so long after its unjust cancellation.  And thankfully Arrested is one of those spectacular shows that actually encourages and rewards multiple repeat viewings, revealing itself all the more hilariously dense and interconnected with each run through.  You can blast through it in one go, but that’s really only a skim-reading.  As the cliché goes, ‘There’s always money in the banana stand’, and if you don’t go back and look for it, you’re missing half the fun.

But just as predictable as all the excitement and frivolity, the return of Arrested Development has also resulted in some cynical critical blowback.  Before even a single episode of the show has been viewed some members of the media are already trying to leap to the front of the hipster naysayer wave and downplay the fun.

On the lower end of the scale, the A.V. Club, after spending literally years fanning the speculation and anticipation of Arrested’s return, recently ran a roundtable discussion with its contributors to somewhat ironically warn against hoping for too much, and opining the culture of hype and fandom that has been gleefully celebrating this event – a fandom that has arguably defined their own editorial ethos for the entire span of their publication (and I say that as a great fan of their site) (here).

On the higher end, one of the worst reactions to the return of the show has been from critics like Mary McNamara, television writer for The Los Angeles Times, who has gone on the offensive in an article titled ‘Arrested Development kicks critics in the teeth at its own peril’, openly decrying Netflix and the creators of the show for what she considers to be the arrogance of refusing to send out preview discs of the first couple of episodes to reviewers (here).

In one of the most extraordinary and petulant screeds I’ve seen published in a newspaper, a critic throwing a hissy fit because they feel that their role as bastion of critical discourse has been usurped by the lowly rabble, McNamara declared that she felt personally slighted to be left out of the traditional exchange of textual dispersal.  See, traditionally, the creators send the critics previews, they give their interpretations, and the audience take their cues from them, deciding whether or not to watch on the day of release based upon what they have written.

Netflix was violating this tradition, she felt, and so, in perhaps the most ineffectual of boycotts ever, McNamara declared that perhaps all critics should just start reviewing show ‘whenever the heck we get around to it.’

Sure, the show is a love note to the fans who brought it back to life, and so it was a stated priority that fans should see it first; sure, it is no longer dependent upon the advertising and timeslot constraints of its network brethren, so it does not actually require critics to applaud it and direct people to watch it; sure Mitch Hurwitz has already called this fourth ‘season’ a 700 minute movie, and slicing a couple of episodes out to put on a critic taster plate defeats the whole purpose of devising the show in that way…  McNamara wants to watch her free show early, and it is a moral issue that she has been denied.

I mean, I agree with her that history has not shown un-previewed material to have a great track record – there is a reason no one got a glimpse of The Adventures of Pluto Nash before it opened – but this is a uniquely, fundamentally ensemble work, that is said to truly require this all-encompassing format.  Asking it to bend to her will because she is a critic and must be satisfied is a little asinine.  And I acknowledge that, as she says, there is a purpose for critics and reviewers, that in some cases, their writing has helped keep shows like Arrested Development on air even in the face of low viewing numbers – but they are not gods.  It is not their responsibility to help audiences form into lines and nod or shake their heads in the way they dictate is appropriate.

Thinking such things – that it was solely critics who helped save this program, injured little bird that it was, from death; that it is critics who should sit at the adults table of analytical discourse while the regular folk squabble and fight for the scraps at the kiddies bench – is not only demeaning to the virtues of the program itself, but disrespectful of the program’s creators and their devoted audience, all of whom were actually responsible for keeping interest in this project alive.  As a critic who should be able to discern when their ego has clouded their vision, McNamara might well have failed at her duty this time around.

In any case, Arrested Development is once again upon us.  Perhaps not in its familiar form.  Perhaps not through familiar channels.  Perhaps not at the whim of critics who demand more devotion.  All I know is that on the brief teaser I let myself glimpse I saw GOB call himself a ‘gentleman honey farmer’, and watched his father get attacked by a swarm bees from a limo.  I have no context for any of it.  It all remains an exquisite mystery.  And yet I am all in.

I’m still rocking in place.  Still waiting.

Annyong.

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

EDIT:

It’s now only hours after the episodes went live, and already some of the knives are out.  The New York Times reviewer Mike Hale, despite admitting that he has not actually watched all of the episodes yet, has declared the new season a dud (here).  Plodding, interminable, an exercise in plot at the sacrifice of comedy, he went so far as to literally declare the show ‘dead’:

‘Chalk one up for the internet: It has killed Arrested Development.

Yikes.

The internet ‘killed’ Arrested Development?  Good thing the internet doesn’t encourage ludicrous hyperbole.

He pronounced the show dead, while admitting that he had only seen eight of the fifteen episodes, and had already written off the intricacies of an entirely new narrative style – specifically designed for this format – without even having seen how it all plays out.

Gee, I wonder why Netflix didn’t want to release screeners to reviewers ahead of the show’s launch?  With such level-headed and fair critique awaiting them as is on display here, I bet they feel like fools now.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to stay locked into the expectation of what once was.  Arrested is a show that has always been experimental, and ahead of its time.  If it wants to expand its potential in such a way, to take risks with the format and perhaps revolutionise the way television program and narrative is consumed, I look forward to taking the ride with them.

If it fails, so be it.  But – unlike the professional reviewers at The New York Times who are apparently paid to do this for a living – I’ll wait until I’ve seen all fifteen episodes before I call time of death.

‘Franklin Comes Alive’: Arrested Development and Communal Delusion

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2013 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Arrested Development (from Entertainment Weekly)

Much can and has been said about the impending, miraculous return of a little show called Arrested Development – the fourth season of which is currently being filmed and is scheduled to be screened on Netflix later this year.*  Admittedly the majority of what I would offer to such a discussion consists of me descending almost immediately into gleeful, froth bag hysterics, or winding up into a rage at the idiocy of the show’s premature cancellation – but that fact notwithstanding, much can be said.  For those unfamiliar with the series, however, those perhaps looking on in curiosity as fans like myself squee with joy at every detail dribbling out of the production of the new episodes, it is probably quite difficult to comprehend how a failed sitcom could overcome such a protracted hiatus to make its Lazarus return (six years is an eternity in television, with every one of the principle actors moving on to new projects) – and even more, why at this point anyone should care this much that they have.

It is a simple truth that it is always difficult to summarise humour.  Explaining why something it funny usually results in dreary treatises of clinical description that utterly strangles any possibility of joy from comedy.  Nonetheless, when discussing a great sitcom, one often speaks of the moments that capture some truth about the series, a moment that can be seen to lift the show from hilarious to sublime.  Perhaps the first paintball episode in Community where Chang enters in a John Woo blaze; maybe the moment of unspoken forfeit when Kramer slaps down his losings on the kitchen counter in Seinfeld’s ‘The Contest’; possibly meeting Dr. ‘Space Man’ in 30 Rock’s ‘Tracy Does Conan’; or having David Duchovny go all Basic Instinct on Larry in The Larry Sanders Show episode ‘Everybody Loves Larry’In each of these instances, what is depicted on screen is so funny, and so perfectly encapsulates the sensibility of the larger text on so many different levels, that the show becomes immortalised as one of the defining works of narrative humour, and frequently they spring to mind when trying to explain that program’s charm.

For Arrested Development the show’s mercurial narrative overflows with such comparable beats, offering flashes of orchestral  comic genius that leap out from the screen: GOB theatrically crying, ‘Return from whence you came!’ before hurling a dead dove into the ocean, for example; watching Charlize Theron ‘magically’ walk on water, only to have Tobias, on fire, unable to sink in that pool moments later; the family trying to run a fundraiser to combat the scourge of the disease ‘TBA’ (literally: ‘To Be Announced’); the many lessons one can learn through pranking with a one armed man; Buster’s run-in with a ‘loose seal’; watching the nation scramble to war at the threat of WMDs, only to ultimately deflate the conflict with Henry Winkler delivering the finest line-reading of his career: ‘Those are balls…’**

But personally, when I look back at the span of this series, the moment that cemented the show into a work of comedic transcendence, that symbolises everything that this anarchically imaginative narrative can accomplish, occurs in the third to last episode of season two, ‘Meat the Veals’.  Here, at last (how did the show ever function without him?) we are introduced to another son of this eccentric family: a little man they call Franklin.

Mr. F.

But first: some history to help put this show’s miraculous return into context, and to justify its unique capacity to bring the dead to life…

As those already familiar with Arrested Development and its first three tumultuous years on air can attest, Arrested is the panacea of hope for every beloved televisual narrative that has been snuffed out before its time.  For every Firefly unjustly ripped from the air; for every Deadwood that never got to play out its final beats; for every Law and Order that was smothered in its infancy (only twenty years?!  Are you crazy NBC?!), there are precious few Futuramas and Star Treks brought back from oblivion.  But Arrested Development – thank the almighty television gods – has now proved, against all odds, to be one.

In its original run (2003-6) it mystified the executives at Fox who seemingly looked on in abject horror as this award-winning, critical darling, with a rabid (if small) fan-base, underperformed in the ratings.  For three seasons it skimmed along the edge of cancellation, each season’s order of episodes getting scaled back, from 22, to 18, to 13… to 0, with Fox itself eventually giving up trying to promote it completely, waiting over a month after it bothered screening the program regularly to callously dump the final four episodes in a glut all on one final night: Feb 10th, 2006, directly up against the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

Throughout this battle to stay alive, however, Arrested retained its acidic wit, even masterfully integrating the issues of the show’s gradual downscaling and flagging ratings into the subject matter of the narrative: the truncation of the studio’s episode order was referenced in the series two episode ‘Sword of Destiny’ when Michael is seen arguing on the phone with a client who has suddenly decided to reduce the amount of housing they had ordered the company to ‘build’ from 22 to 18 (‘You initially told us to design and build 22 homes, now you’re saying 18 – that doesn’t give us enough capital to complete the job anymore.  We’ve already got the blueprints drawn up and everything’); and in that same episode, the idea of moving the company to a new floor in the building is also raised – an idea perhaps referencing the show’s proposed timeslot change (moving them to a new floor in the building that ‘costs less’).

More overtly still, the brilliantly titled ‘Save Our Bluths’ (or: ‘S.O.B.s’) – an episode that had the family scrambling to save their business with a fundraiser awareness campaign – sarcastically contained every conceivable television grab-for-ratings staple possible: gratuitous celebrity guest-stars (Andy Richter played himself and his four identical brothers); extraneous 3D effects (put on your glasses now so that Gob can throw a tomato at you for no reason); a hyped-up, ultimately arbitrary ‘Which of these beloved characters will die?’ mystery (spoiler alert: it was the perfunctory extra who had only enough lines to establish herself as an unsympathetic racist); and contained several reminders of the narrative’s new primary mission statement, which sounded (as they almost certainly really were) like studio notes on the script: characters were repeatedly reminded that they had to appear more sympathetic, and have identifiable problems that could be easily resolved through a series of frivolous, ultimately heart-warming escapades.  The episode even began with the masterfully earnest Ron Howard, narrator of the series, breaking the fourth wall by reminding viewers to ‘Please, tell your friends about this show…’***

Ironically, however, for a program that exhibited this kind of acute, snarky, meta-textual self-awareness, much of the comedy within the narrative stemmed from the characters remaining blissfully, hysterically unaware of their own foibles and failings.  From oldest son GOB’s (George Oscar Bluth’s) cocktail of inferiority complexes that manifest themselves in overcompensatory pageantry (a stage magician with a penchant for travelling via Segue and wearing ‘Seven thousand dollar suits – Come  on!‘), to youngest son Buster’s sheltered, indulged life (a man in his thirties who still wants to wear matching sailor outfits with his mother, and whose dating history stretches little further than his mother’s best frenemy and a torrid affair with his Roomba).  From daughter Lindsay’s need to overcome her self-esteem issues through protesting and activism – no matter how ill-advised or contradictory (in one episode she advocated both for and against circumcision, in another for her brother’s right to ‘die’ via fake-coma), to granddaughter Maeby, a fifteen year old rebelling against her mother’s rebellion by landing a job as an enormously influential movie producer responsible for multimillion dollar budgets (her adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea, The Young Man and the Beach, surely lost nothing of the original’s pathos…)

Even central protagonist Michael, a figure who in any traditional comedy would play the straight man amidst this menagerie, is in fact a figure so distracted by his longing to be a ‘good guy’, to appear selfless and benevolent, that he is blind to his own selfishness and false sense of superiority.  …And all of this is before one even touches on a character like Tobias Funke (never-nude, graft-versus-host sufferer, cross-dressing British housekeeper, ‘analrapist’, who repeatedly prematurely blue himself).

On every level this is a show concerned with its characters’ incapacity to see the truths of themselves, revelling in their escapades a peculiar subverted narcissism that borders on the demented.  What truly set the show apart, however, was its capacity to revel in the fantasies of these characters to borderline delusional extremes.  And it is at this point, in one of the series’ most absurd imaginative allowances, that Franklin appears.

GOB, it is revealed, created Franklin Delano Bluth in an effort to liven up his magic act with some light ventriloquist banter.  He was a puppet, loosely ‘inspired’ by the somewhat controversial Sesame Street character Roosevelt Franklin.  But unlike his muppet namesake, who it has been argued skirted the edge of racial sensitivity, Franklin Bluth blindly stampedes right over it.  And so, moments after his ‘birth’, Franklin is offering GOB’s mother some ‘brown sugar’ and laying down some truths ‘whitey’ apparently wasn’t ready to hear.  (…Although, as GOB admits, ‘African American-y’ wasn’t ready to hear them either.)  Soon enough, GOB and Franklin are recording duets about being both ‘brothers’ and ‘not heavy’ (Franklin with his own microphone and headphones), and crooning witless, self-penned lyrics like:

It ain’t easy being white…

It ain’t easy being brown…

All this pressure to be bright.

I got kids all over town…

Like a surreal homunculus, Franklin immediately embraced his gift of life and began seemingly acting independent of his creator.  Indeed, by the third season Franklin is so assertive that he is instrumental in helping solve a court case, and undertakes a bold new business venture that puts another (this time literal) feather in his cap…

To the outsider it might seem ludicrous that a puppet could be so imbued with life, or that anyone could fail to delineate between themselves and the inanimate object strapped to their wrist, but one of the defining attributes of GOB is that he is so starved for a kind of egomaniacal gravitas that he fully invests in this skewed anthropomorphism.  What is even more extraordinary, however, is that everyone else invests in the reality of him too.

People talk to Franklin.  They speak about him when he’s not there.  George Sr., offended by a crack that Franklin has make about his wife, Lucille, reacts by strangling the puppet – not the incompetent ventriloquist who artlessly mouthed the comment.  When Buster puts him on, Franklin lets out a swift tirade at matriarch Lucille, shouting: ‘I don’t want no part of your tight-assed country club, you freak bitch!’ – an outburst that takes Buster himself by surprise.  Even Michael, the character most disinclined to encourage GOB’s flights of fantasy, periodically acknowledges the puppet’s individuality.  While trying to get off the phone with GOB, he gives in to this bisection of personality (despite the fact that at this moment the character is literally nothing more than a voice on the line), saying: ‘No, I don’t want to talk to…  Heyyyyy, Franklin.’

Franklin becomes symbolic of all the illusory excesses at work in this family’s dynamic, every impossible longing that they project upon the world, that obscures their reality: Tobias’ acting career; GOB’s desperation to be the new David Copperfield; Lucille’s life of entitlement and excess (her stomach cannot ‘handle’ curly fries).  Franklin presents for them an imaginative focal point, a communal delusional indulgence in which they can all hubristically embolden their own fantasies.

But the moment in which all of this coalesces into the perfect nonsensical epiphany comes when GOB, desperate to please his escaped convict father, agrees to sneak him past a condo security guard in the back of a limousine.  When the guard wanders closer to inspect the cabin and offers a friendly greeting, GOB offers a nervous hello, one that is followed immediately by Franklin leaping up and shouting, ‘I ain’t your daddy!!  Hey, brother!!

The guard – who is African American – looks down at what appears to be an offensive racial stereotype perched on the blithely ignorant rich Caucasian man’s hand.  He tells GOB to pop the trunk and roll the windows down.  For a moment everything stops a beat.

In the front of the limo, the nervous GOB fidgets desperately, and the camera zooms in on his face.

In the back of the limo, the fugitive George Sr. looks terrified, and the camera zooms in.

On GOB’s hand, his expression unchanged, Franklin Delano Bluth stares unblinking.

…And the camera zooms.

Throughout the entirety of the series, Arrested Development knowingly cultivated a mild cinéma vérité aesthetic.  Ron Howard narrates the interactions of this family in a sincere, detached tone, as though describing the behaviour of snow leopards or water buffalo; boom microphones swing into view; editors insert footage and clippings that reveal salient information (the cutaway to Tobias’ ‘Analrapist’ business card remains a haunting warning against abbreviating occupational specialties).  Despite being pushed further into the background of the viewer’s attention than in a show like The Office or Parks and Recreation (where people talk directly to camera), Arrested frequently used this documentary presentation to inform and propel the narrative, sometimes to speed up the exposition, sometimes for a swift gag; but here, in this one fantastical lens shift, this style reveals something far more.

Not only had the characters invested in the ‘reality’ of Franklin – ballooning out from GOB and his duo enterprises (duets; double-acts), through the family at large (‘Heyyyyy, Franklin…‘), to the wider public (Franklin is called as a witness in a court case, and is another time handcuffed as a hostile suspect by police) – but now, in that one ingenious zoom, the documentary crew invests in him too.  This interlaced hallucination is so absorbing that it pulls others into its gravity and we watch them eschew the objective truth of this world and embrace the skewed irrationality of this deluded family, further endowing their imagination with substance.

Franklin was no longer an ill-proportioned Muppet copyright-infringement – he was suddenly a character with his own motivations and fears – one to be scrutinised with the ‘journalistic’ lens of the camera along with the other participants of this strange docu-drama.  No longer were we watching GOB with a colourful sock on his hand; this was now GOB and Franklin, together again on another mismatched buddy caper, each with goals and motivations and a rich personal history.

Franklin – much as his self-titled album of duets suggests – comes alive.

Further, by laughing at the audacity and mania of this directorial decision, we, as the audience, seal the deal: this is Franklin.  Mr. F.  Worthy addition to the Bluth family bonanza, connectively given life by the collective comic unconscious, now left staring down the lens of the camera, shivering in fear lest he be discovered for the hysterically deluded fever-dream that he is.

And when a show has the capacity to breathe life into the wholly inanimate – to give sensation and autonomy to an ill-stitched glove with no anatomical scale – it has moved beyond simple farce and satire, and waded headlong into Dr. Frankenstein’s anarchic lair, so overabundant with imaginative fervour that it can defy such a simple inconvenience as ‘cancelation’, and reanimate the old in a blaze of the new.

So I very much hope to see Franklin back in the mix come the broadcast of season four.  Hopefully, as I type these very words, his name is being etched on the filming call sheets.  So come on, internet!  Where are the real spoilers?!  I already know that Liza Minnelli is confirmed to return, and Scott Baio is back; but have we heard anything from Franklin’s representatives?  has his agent been approached?  Pay him whatever he asks for producers!  He’s worth every penny.  And those tiny tracksuits aren’t cheap…

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Fox)

* In what has recently been confirmed to be a longer run of episodes than first announced.  Glee…

** And while we’re at it: Henry Winkler merrily jumping over a shark?  Priceless.

*** Indeed, beside the live-to air episodes of 30 Rock (which I intend to speak on sometime soon) there has probably never been a more elegantly self-reflexive moment of television than this episode, with more of a statement to make about its own purpose, and the mind-bending recursive descent that can occur when that window into the text’s production is explored.

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