Archive for metatextual

‘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.’

‘And you were there, and you were there…’: The Dream of Community Season Four

Posted in literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2013 by drayfish

community series 4

IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)

At the end of last year I wrote about the upcoming, as-yet unseen season four of Community with a kind of mournful hope (here).  The mystifying firing of creator, showrunner, and guiding auteur Dan Harmon was looming large over the production, and fractious behind the scenes conflict with the notoriously irascible Chevy Chase had put the production under a cloud.  However, while things seemed irredeemably grim, the series had developed a tradition of repeatedly proving itself capable of exceeding dire expectations  time and again.

It was a show that lived under the perpetual shadow of cancellation and reduced budgets, but each week fought on bravely, continuing to tackle daunting narrative conceits that have bewildered multimillion-dollar films.  It had, after all, managed to repeatedly legitimise seemingly impossible shifts in theme and genre and tone: from jumps into clay animation, to exploring alternate dimensions through the delivery of a pizza; from making a pitch-perfect  Ken Burns documentary around an intractable pillow-fort conflict, to building the gravity of a Law and Order murder case around a sabotaged yam.  A tenacious, ingenious mockingbird, Community had masterfully weathered countless storms, continuing to offer television’s most consistently rewarding and rich examination of a group of beautifully broken characters who realised they needed each other to survive.

And so, having now watched season four (in which new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port faced the program’s most daunting prospect: continuing on without the voice that has defined and guided every moment of its brief span) I’d like to look back upon this final, truncated season and explore how these episodes fit into the larger structure of a show that I have spent the last few years dearly, deeply, and almost irrationally, loving.

And sadly, the most revealing way to start is by flashing forward to the end…

A dream.

We ended on a dream.  With the prospect of the show never returning for a season five, the show decided to end on an episode that took place primarily in the confines of dream, localised in the mind of the central protagonist.

Wow.

Frequently considered one of the laziest, most undercooked scriptwriting conventions in television, ‘It was all a dream…’ has become a cliché for hackneyed narrative twists.  From the writers of Dallas retroactively abolishing a year’s worth of sticky narrative, to MacGyver travelling to King Arthur’s court, to Rosanne throwing the whole reality of her show under the metatextual bus for a trite farewell, while there are, of course, exceptions*, too often ‘It was all a dream…’ exists as a rote means of granting writers free license to indulge their fancies with the logistical and consequential conventions of narrative abandoned.  Romances can suddenly blossom between characters without the sacrifice of their sexual chemistry back in the ‘real’ world; central players can die while being free to over-emote again once the dreamer awakes; irrational tales can be played out with no need to clean up the resulting mess; the dream episode asks its viewers to detach themselves from their investment in the logic of the fiction, and to follow the writer on an excursion into the inconsequential vagaries of ‘What if…’

Which in this instance, given the significance of the day and episode in question – central protagonist Jeff Winger’s graduation from the community college around which the show is centred, and the potential finale of the series – is asking rather a lot.  This is the last time that these characters will be depicted relating to each other on an interpersonal level, and we are asked to spend that time lost in the transom of fantasy.

Even more unfortunately, Community’s finale not only relied heavily upon the whimsy of its absurd premise – alternate versions of the Greendale gang are imagined crossing over into the real world to prevent Jeff from abandoning his original dickish, self-involvement – it is also designed to be a half hour of uninterrupted pandering fan-service, with every second line operating as obscure call-back to gags and subplots and asides from the first three years of the show.  From Abed’s obsession with The Cape, to the fake-Dean, to the Starburns memorial,  to paintball, to the words ‘Six Seasons and a Movie’ scrawled on a background blackboard.  The show was so busy recalling all that it was, literally losing itself down a fantasy of recollection, that  it forgot to ground itself in the interactions of these characters – the glue that has defined the show from the beginning.

In the first episode of this last season, ‘History 101’, the writers made a big point of how the show was going to ‘change’.  It was the primary thesis of the episode, and voiced to be the guiding principle of the season – a mission statement that literally declared the show was going to grow and evolve in new and exciting ways.   Abed even leaned into the show’s fourth wall until the supports groaned and gave a speech about it:

‘I was trying to hang on to this moment because I was so afraid of the future.  Then I realised: all of this was once the future.  And it was completely different from all I’d known before.  And it was all happening so fast.  But in the end – or in the now, I guess – it turned out great.’

The show promised – both to characters and audience – that even though the past was great, even though the show would necessarily be different without Dan Harmon at the helm, good things can come from change, and emotionally, ideologically and textually, the show had to move on to new great things and find its own fresh groove.

And yet how did they use the season to build up this promise of a new bold vision for the show?  By spending every episode referencing what once was: the darkest timeline; the air conditioner school; a Dr. Spacetime convention; the Dean’s wardrobe obsessions…  on and on and on.

And seemingly every time they tried to expand upon the fertile but unexplored ground Harmon left tilled they underplayed the possibilities there, too…  We met Jeff’s dad – in a plot that felt like a B-story afterthought.  We had Britta and Troy get together – and proceeded to forget about their relationship for the whole season, until it was expedient to try and milk the breakup as a profound, emotional trial.  We actually remembered that Pierce now has a half-brother with whom he might cultivate a newfound familial relationship – and had him appear for only ten seconds one time, never to be spoken of again.  And we’ll still have Leonard.  And ‘Pop-Pop’ Magnitude.  And Other Annie.  And Fat Neil.  They won’t do much, or contribute anything.  But they’ll be there because…  well, whatever.  Why not, right?

Indeed, looking back on this season, the only new, ongoing concept I can point to that these episodes contributed to the canon was ‘Changnesia’, a concept and execution that has made me long to erase the whole character of Chang from the show.  …That’s right.  They turned me against the sublime lunacy of Ken Jeong because the way his arc was handled was riddled with inconsistency and wasted potential.  Beyond immediately blowing the reveal that he was faking his memory loss the whole time, truly: where did his entire storyline go?  His scheme to help the villainous Dean of City College just cut off midway through, no mention at all of how it apparently resolved, or where it was supposed to be going.

Perhaps the only real highlight of the season was the episode penned by Jim Rash (Dean Pelton), ‘Basic Human Anatomy’, a riff on Freaky Friday, in which Abed and Troy pretended to switch bodies so that Troy could avoid the uncomfortable duty of telling Britta that their relationship was over.  On the plus side (unlike every other episode this season) Community superficially sounded like itself again – the characters (with the rather unnerving exception of Britta) felt reinvigorated, and had dialogue that snapped and crackled with energy; there was a lovely absurdism rumbling away in the background of Greendale once more (the Dean channelling Jeff’s personality; the conclave of murder-mystery janitors; even the return of the anti-Die Hard waiter (damn that guy!); and there was a depth and intelligence in the spine of this script.

Having Jeff and Britta tandem unlocking the code of Troy and Abed’s regressive fantasy, talking to one character while actually tapping into the fears of the other – was admirably ingenious, and went a long way to justifying the leap asked of the premise.  Jeff’s final advice to Troy – that trying and failing is still an act of bravery – was a welcome nod to the emotional gravitas that this show once made look so effortless.  It was an episode the was worthy to stand beside those written under the guidance of Harmon (and I can offer no higher praise, given the context).

However, this welcome return to a more polished script and dialogue could not disguise the extreme logical and thematic jumps that the narrative asked of its characters and audience in order to try and achieve its intended emotional denouement.  Trying to manufacture strain in a peripheral romance Z-plot (even to the point of bending space-time: they were dating for a year?), and leaving Britta to be resignedly cypher-dumped by Abed were jumps that completely disrupted the suspension of disbelief, and rather undermined her character.

Rash’s script did try to paper over this rift in Britta’s behaviour by having her firstly, numb with surprise, and secondly, coming to understand that she had ‘always’ been aware that what drew her to Troy – his innocence and immaturity – was what would ultimately doom their relationship (and to her immense credit I feel Gillian Jacobs tried to sell it that way in her delivery).  But ultimately this is meeting the show way more than half way, because the framework for such a realisation was not established at all, merely regurgitated in a glut of exposition.  Simply put: the rest of the season didn’t support this premise enough for it to work.  It was a lively, imaginative script, but the story it tried to tell had not been nurtured, or really even established enough by the season-running plot to land as it should.

Ultimately, though, the episode that I found really weirdly irked me the most was the penultimate episode, ‘Heroic Origins’.  Effectively ‘part one’ of the season finale’s ‘Greatest-Hits’-remember-when-athon, the audience was invited to explore how each of the characters unknowingly influenced one anothers’ lives before they had even met, once again using this as a thin pretext to call-back on all the gags that couldn’t be crammed into the finale…

Remember Troy’s keg-flip?  Remember how Annie freaked out and ran through a glass door?  Remember how the Dean once said ‘I hope this doesn’t awaken something in me…’  Yes?  You remember it all clearly and don’t need to be reminded in such a shameless way?  Well too bad, because here you get to see it all.  Even to the inanity of discovering where Magnitude got his catchphrase, or where Annie’s Boobs the monkey originally came from.

The episode was, as it declared itself to be, an ‘Origins’ story, an excuse to flash back on everyone in the year before they decided to come to Greendale – comical dental-gear, letter jackets, Obama t-shirts and all.  And wouldn’t you know it, the story reveals that each of these characters all unknowingly influenced each others’ existence in profound, life-altering ways: Jeff’s life choices impacted upon Britta; Shirley was an influence on Abed; Annie made a difference to Troy; Pierce was… apparently already being written out of the show.  Round and round in a neat ouroboros.

Indeed, the episode eventually declares that their friendship was inevitable, that they were all bound together by some unknowable causal web, an interdependence from which they could not disentangle themselves, even if they tried…

Except you know what?  To hell with that.

To hell with suggesting that these seven misfits were always bound to be thrust together no matter what – that they have no free will, and that the universe knew what was best for them, bringing them together no matter how hard they fought against it.

For its first three years of life, the most precious, spectacular thing about Community (for me, anyway) was the revelation that no, these people did not, and do not, have to be friends.  Nothing is forcing them.  The universe isn’t holding a gun to their heads.  At any moment, any one of them could get up from that table, walk out the door, and never come back.  Indeed, that premise – that realisation that what they have is transitory; that it needs to be cherished and protected – has been the driving force of a good number of episodes in which it truly did seem that the group might implode: that Pierce was leaving; that Jeff had screwed them all over; that Abed might just be too alien to be accepted…

And what was always most important about that concept, what was reiterated again and again in every narrative that mattered, was that their friendship was based upon a choice: a profound, beautiful, messy, and scary choice.

They agree to try.

They choose to fight for something impossible and special; to believe that there is something worthwhile in struggling to remain friends, even in spite of all their disparate life experiences, even in the face of all their internal squabbles, their fears of exposure and rejection.  They agree to do the difficult, complicated thing, and keep coming back to that table; to keep sitting down in that shared space and allowing themselves to be open with each other.

To become a community.

…But no.  ‘Too bad; it was fate’ works too, right?  Really captures the poetry of it all.

And now, after fighting so impossibly long to stay on the air, it’s over.  (Probably.)  And we got a season that by any other program’s standard would be solid, but by this one’s heritage was anodyne.  There was one standout episode (I would have loved to see a Rash script in an earlier season), but the rest of the season, despite spruiking change, regressed into trading on nostalgia with nothing new to say.

So, instead of celebrating what was most unique and central to the show, the showrunners this year chose to overload the episodes with rehashed reminiscence.  We sure were great once, they seem to be saying.  Remember that joke we said that one time?  Remember how we laughed?  But in spending all that time looking in the rear view mirror they forgot where and why they were driving the car in the first place.

How such a majestic, quirky, loveable show could be turned into something so conventional (not bad, I should add, just bland), has, as this rant no doubt makes clear, made me quite sad.  Despite the exceptional work of its extraordinary actors (with the possible exception of Chase, who really did seem to be phoning it in this year) and the devotion of its talented staff, I guess ultimately I will have to accept that, for me at least, Community ended in season three.

While there were moments that fleetingly reignited the spark of its greatness, by abandoning its most precious truth for a needless self-referential illusion, this final season revealed itself to be just well-produced fan-fiction that has perhaps overstayed its welcome; the metatexual fever dream of a dying series watching its own life flash before its eyes.

Community cast

IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)

* As a random aside, I would gladly offer Batman The Animated Series’ ‘Over the Edge’, and Angel’s  ‘Awakening’ as fine examples of how one can use a dream to great effect.

Burning Down the House: Cabin in the Woods and Genre Immolation

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by drayfish

[Seriously, DO NOT READ IF YOU EVER INTEND TO WATCH CABIN IN THE WOODS ever… and I do encourage you to watch it.  SPOILERS AHOY.]

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

Joss Whedon – finally the world recognised uber-director/writer his fans always knew he was destined to be thanks to a little bohemian art-house film he made recently called The Avengers (you’ve probably never heard of it) – began the first television project he created on his own, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*, with a two minute sequence that kicked the legs out from under one of the most firmly established, and frankly tired conventions of horror.  Within the sequence a young blonde girl and a larger, muscular young man are wandering down a dark corridor, trying to find somewhere to be alone.  The girl, giggling as she sashays coquettishly in her school uniform,  grows suddenly timid, ruminating on what dangers might be lurking in the shadows around them…  The young man, amorously predatory, skulks closer, leering over her, telling her not to worry about it, that there’s nothing she needs to fear, as he looks her over hungrily and snuggles closer to her neck…

The darkness closes in, the boy towers over her, his frame eclipsing hers as they linger in this lonely alcove, cut off from the world, unable to escape, the viewer knowing that the trembling girl is wholly at his mercy…

And at that point, she spins around, revealing herself a vampire, and rips into his throat to feed.

Whedon took the sexually-promiscuous-blonde-girl-who-gets-moralistically-devoured-by-the-monster motif common to the history of the horror genre, and before the opening credits had even run, flipped it wholly on its head.  In the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as if the title wasn’t enough) it was made immediately evident that women were no longer to play the rote damsel-in-distress roles, and that weary conventions of schlock cinema were going to be fundamentally shaken up and subverted.

For seven years Buffy was a malleable catch-all for revolutionary genre pastiche, blurring fantasy, horror, comedy, romance, sci-fi, and effortlessly manifesting the heightened emotional turmoils of adolescence with literalised demons and a handful of apocalypses.  In his more recent collaboration with fellow Buffy writer Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods (Goddard co-wrote and directed the film), the two have sculpted an even more focussed, and arguably more acerbic, exploration of the horror genre, offering one of the finest examples of textual self-assessment I can think of, capturing a sense of homage, parody, and unapologetic embrace of traditional genre conventions all in one cohesive narrative salad.**

Yes, Cabin in the Woods lays out the mechanics of the horror narrative and riffs on them with a metatextual self-awareness; but rather than simply tear them down, or satirise them as repetitive drivel, it finds a legitimate means of validating their perpetuation.  It argues that there is a reason we let these clichés play out, a synchronicity that explains why this group of kids looks like a corporeal Scooby-Doo Gang as they drive onward to their doom; because these narratives tell us something about ourselves, about our communal psyche and the traditions of storytelling that define us.

We can laugh at it – just as we laugh at all of the things that we love – but what is embraced or emboldened is more important than what is derided.

The central conceit of Cabin in the Woods revolves around the dissonance between two depicted worlds that rub up against each other and eventually collide in a spectacular, chaotic eruption by film’s end.  Throughout the tale a group of teenagers travel to a cabin in the woods (the most clichéd location for any specious tale of dread), and begin living out the machinations of any number of urban legends that have become hard-wired into our communal human psyche (mutants; cannibals; escaped psychotics; werewolves; clowns…  ergh…  clowns), gradually getting picked off as this evil is unleashed upon them.  This is the first level of narrative.  The second level concerns a group of technicians, seemingly working in a sterile office space, who are in fact looking on at this horror playing out.  It is revealed that these men are in fact orchestrating the monstrous fate that is befalling these young people – trapping them in a snare from which the only escape is gratuitous, theatrical death.

Some have justifiably seen this structure as a fictionalised commentary upon the making of horror films – the dreariness and contemptuousness of the men in their ties a statement on the rote production of these films, playing out hackneyed, predictable narrative beats with overly familiar gore: the technicians complaining about tight schedules, broken pyrotechnics, and having to deal with that weird actor who takes his role as crusty old harbinger of doom a little too seriously – it definitely appears to be a glimpse into the behind the scenes machinations of these tired narratives and their restrictive mechanics.

However, while this is a valid way into analysing the work, in truth, I didn’t read the movie as an analogy for the production of horror films so much as the viewing of them.  To me, those observers were not solely ‘writer’/’director’ proxies, but rather mirrors.  The guys in the button down shirts and the sensible ties; the figures whining about home-repairs and pressure from their bosses to meet quotas; looking on through the observational detachment of television screens as the young hot teens die; betting on the outcomes; hoping to see boobies; scarfing down snack food and yawping with disappointment as the comely young lovers get interrupted before the sexy stuff gets too carried away – they are us.  We viewers.  Both revolted and delighted at the ritualised narrative sacrifice playing out before them.

Sure, they engineer the scenario that will be enacted – but ultimately they are just as surprised as the audience at which kind of tale will play out, and how exactly it will go down.  Will it be the zombie cannibal story about buried histories of familial abuse resurfacing to brutalise the innocent?  A fiction about fantastical creatures of legend that intrude upon the rational?  The werewolves that expose (both metaphorically and in sprays of viscera) the beast within us all?  And what do these desires say about them that they long for one more than the other?  …Why is that one guy so enamoured with the thought of mermen, already?

Then, eventually, this natural human curiosity of the onlookers is answered by that same natural human curiosity of the victims caught in the snare: several potential fates await, but it is the most inquisitive personality that dictates what tempting bauble will trigger which sacramental plotline…  And again, we get to ask: why were they so attracted to that particular bait?  Why go for the dust-speckled diary?  Why not the shiny trinket, or the mystic prophesy?  Why not continue to unravel that puzzling curio, or finish latching that antique, cursed trinket around their neck?  But of course, in this world of Saw sequels and knock-offs, we had to go for the gruesome torture-pit…

On every level of the movie – both in the kids at the cabin and the sterile overseer hub – the movie speaks to that recurring inclination to explore our own, subliminal motivations and terrors by sublimating them onto a screen soaked with gore.

Traditionally we human beings explore ourselves in these morality-play genres, repeatedly punishing the aspects of ourselves that are too prickly and antisocial (lechery; stupidity; cowardice), and manifesting the fears that plague the darker regions of our communal consciousness (the unknown; the repressed; the injustice of the past), so that we can ultimately try to confront and overcome them.  Hence, of course, the revelation scene at the end: the explanation for the ritual that is said to appease the demons lurking below.  We feed them examples of human frailty, and maybe a chaste young heroine or two survives.

And here too, contemporary humanity does triumph in this film …if only briefly, and stupefyingly self-destructively.

In the end, when a randomised agent is thrown into the mix – the Shaggy-proxy, swimming in his impenetrable weed-coma – a cog is thrown, the machine spits, and the pressure lets loose in a sprawling, chaotic self-immolation.  As they show in the live feeds from other failed attempts at appeasement from around the world (damned Japan and those resourceful kiddies), the world is outgrowing the hackneyed old beats of these repetitious tales – J-horror, jump-scares, psycho-thrillers – we’ve seen it all already, so we know what’s coming; and people aren’t just ‘Jocks’ and ‘Cheerleaders’ and ‘Virgins’ anymore.  The ‘classic’ archetypes of these fictions no longer apply in such arbitrary ways – so trying to unimaginatively cram characters into boxes, and serve up conventional, predictable colour-by-numbers plots won’t work anymore.

Thus, both the viewers – and the characters in the Cabin – start to react, to begin shaking out of their stupor and literally attempt to escape the restrictive paradigm they find themselves within: ‘I am not a meathead – I’m freaking Thor.’ (Okay, bad example…)  How about: ‘I am not some helpless damsel – I’m the woman who flips the switch and turns the whole power-structure on its head…’

And then – Well then you have a movie; and potentially a rebirth of this genre that both embraces, and transcends the old.

That moment where the lever is thrown and anarchy unleashed – where every source of human dread, literalised into monsters, pours out of their cages to mutilate and destroy – that instant is a definitive call to arms for this genre and its viewership.  Yes, on one level it is declaring the historical need for these genre fictions: if the psyche does not have these spit valves for the release of these psychological undertows, if surrogates cannot be sent to the altar to analogously purge ourselves of our more detestable aspects, then we may well (psychologically) implode.

But more than that, it was saying that if all we are doing, as viewers and moviemakers, is watching these films for cheap thrills – if it is all just to catch a glimpse of some flesh and watch a pickaxe get buried in a dude’s face – if there is no deeper interrogation of ourselves being offered even if not actively embraced, then truly it all does just become a geyser of farcically eruptive blood.

And in that case, we may as well just burn it all down.

So when that demon hand bursts out of the earth at the end (in all its suggestively human dimensions), it is either the harbinger of doom for this genre, or the birth of things to come.

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

* Itself based upon his earlier attempt at telling this story as a film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with which he was apparently not satisfied).

** An argument could most certainly be made for the masterful works of Messrs Pegg, Frost and Wright in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, however…

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