Archive for Seinfeld

‘In the Vault’: Seinfeld and the Language Game of ‘Nothing’

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

I have been sinking back into some older television of late – classic Simpsons (to ameliorate the collective scar tissue of the last decade of that seemingly un-killable show), Law and Order (McCoy!  I love you, McCoy!), and Larry Sanders (how exactly can Jeffrey Tambor play despicable, pathetic and adorable at the same time?!  …What, is he, a witch?)  But the show that has leapt out at me most profoundly, that I have been able to view on a whole new level in this welcome return, is Seinfeld.

Widely considered to be the greatest sitcom ever made, Seinfeld has spawned a parade of imitators that have sought (and frequently failed) to emulate its deceptively simple chemical composition.  Following on from Seinfeld’s template, but injecting a little more saccharine romance, Friends similarly concerned itself with the lives of young adults surviving New York in a state of arrested development; and it likewise revolved around a group that meets to yammer about their day at the local coffee shop, frequently getting distracted by the particulars of dating and relationships.  Shows like How I Met Your Mother have drawn inspiration from Seinfeld’s playful vocabulary, trying to engineer terminology like ‘suit up’ and the dating ‘Lemon Law’ and the many governing strictures of ‘The Bro Code’.  Always Sunny in Philadelphia has proudly declared itself ‘Seinfeld on crack’, steering characters already skewed toward selfishness straight into the abyss of a destructive, deluded chaos.

But to me, Seinfeld at its best has always worked under a wholly different dynamic than the rote summaries people sometimes use to encapsulate it would suggest.  It rather operates at a level of discourse and play articulated best in the discussions of the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was …okay, to be honest, not such a funny guy.

The cliché is to describe Seinfeld as a show about nothing.  Indeed, it is a description that the show itself mischievously encouraged in its fourth season, when George and Jerry conceive of the sitcom pilot Jerry (a show-within-a-show that, ironically, came to be geared around by a zany sitcom plot about a court-ordered butler).  They refer to their invented program, itself inspired by their ‘real’ life in the fiction of the sitcom, literally, as, ‘A show about nothing’; as George explains to the baffled NBC executives:

‘But nothing happens on the show.  You see, it’s just like life.  You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read, you eat, you read, you go shopping…’

Often considered ‘anti-television’, Seinfeld seemed to subvert all the sitcom conventions of character and narrative.  Revolving around four rather narcissistic people, figures locked together in a strange interdependence that would, according to show creator Larry David, contain ‘no hugging’ and ‘no learning’, it observed the moments in-between the usual sitcom ‘moments’.  In Seinfeld, no one’s boss was coming over to dinner; no one delivered a baby in an elevator; no one had a zany wedding, and needed to be talked out of their cold feet with a syrupy ‘awwwww…’ from the audience.  (Indeed, one gets the sense that had the audience said ‘awwwww…‘ to anything that was depicted on that soundstage David would have had them forcibly removed from the studio and hurled into a ditch.*)

Instead, its episodes frequently revolved around scenarios in which (at least superficially), the plot appeared to be happening elsewhere, and this quartet are left distracted by the little stuff: waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant; trying to find a lost car in a garage; taking a subway ride; bickering over the size of a salad; trying to get the hell out of Florida while arguing about a gift pen; trying to make it to a dinner party with a marble rye.  It was the show that concentrated on the ‘nothing’ going on behind the conventional television ‘somethings’ that had grown tediously stale.

But while ‘nothing’ is a snappy summation – one that hints at the inimitable tone of its plots – it belies the genius of the real subject matter into which the show delved: the connective tissue at the heart of every episode.  Because in actuality, the whole of Seinfeld , and the wellspring from which it draws its masterful comic sensibility, is about grammar – about testing the application of language amongst a circle of like-minded language users.  George, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer each play out the normative social influence of behavioural and ideological concepts.  They test words and play out their meanings.  They perform, in a very real sense, comical versions of the language-games proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher concerned throughout his life with the way in which language functioned, came to see human communication as an endlessly expanding, continuously fluctuating organism governed by use – by grammar.  In his second major work, Philosophical Investigations, he described language like a city, constantly expanding, being built upon, renovated and remade:

‘Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.’**

Whenever new terminologies are introduced (scientific and medical terms, new forms of technology, slang and definitions) our language – like a city – grows and adapts to make room for these words, and their new applications.  But we have to know these terms and their meaning; see them applied, to learn the grammar of their usage.

Otherwise, as Wittgenstein notes, we are so alienated from this grammar that we will fail to understand what is being said.  As he observes later in the book in one of his most famous statements:

‘If I lion could talk, we could not understand him.’***

What Wittgenstein is essentially saying here – using the example of a beast given the power of speech – is that language requires more than just knowing the definitions of a list of words.  It’s about being attuned to their context, to the subtleties of their use.  In the case of the lion – magically granted the power of human speech or not – his grammar, his frames of reference (or in Wittgenstein’s terms, his ‘forms of life’), would nonetheless remain so alien, so divorced from our own experience, that we would still be unable to comprehend one another anyway.

It would, on a much smaller scale, be like getting dropped into the middle of a Seinfeld episode, suddenly witness, with no establishing perspective, to a bunch of people jabbering about ‘Mimbos’, ‘shrinkage’ and being ‘anti-dentite.’  Without the necessary back story, we would, like the lion, suddenly have no idea what these words meant – recognising their sounds, but oblivious to their unnatural applications, seemingly locked behind an abstracted code.

Wittgenstein therefore came to argue that the only means to explore the way in which language makes meaning was to examine its grammar – to look at how language is being applied at the very moment of its use, in localised examinations of speech that he called ‘language-games’.  One such example of these games was an examination of various uses of the word ‘blue’.  After all, the word ‘blue’ could be an adjective, a noun; it could be one of (or all of) a series of colours; even a state of mind:

‘Is this blue the same as the blue over there?   Do you see any difference?’–

You are mixing paint and you say ‘It’s hard to get the blue out of this sky.’

‘It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.’

‘Look at what different effects these two blues have.’

‘Do you see the blue book over there?  Bring it here.’

‘This blue signal-light means . . . .’

‘What’s this blue called? – Is it “indigo”?’****

‘Blue’, Wittgenstein reveals, is not simply a label applied to a physical or conceptual object.  It can have a myriad of meanings in a multitude of circumstances, all defined by its grammar and discerned by language-users familiar with these uses effortlessly in the moment of its utterance.

And it is precisely these kinds of explorations of language that are undertaken in every episode of Seinfeld, as each week we watch these characters explore – through the myriad potential for meaning that they can engender in their discussions – their own linguistic suburb in the city of language.

Indeed, it helps explain why the show has created such a wide and ubiquitous lexicon.  From ‘Yadda-yadda-yadda’, to putting something ‘in the vault’, to ‘re-gifting’, to ‘close-talkers’, ‘high-talkers’, and ‘low-talkers’, Seinfeld has arguably contributed more definitions and turns of phrase to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.

And the reason that these definitions catch on – when other programs that try to mimic this style fail – is because Seinfeld scripts do not simply label some social phenomenon and expect the viewer to look on with a distanced, wry smile – they play it out, exhibit how applicable it is for its given circumstance.  The show’s stories build their momentum by rolling around a premise and allowing its validity or otherwise be tested through application.  The characters tease out its possibilities, with the viewer themself drawn into this conceptual exploration, invited to participate in the interrogation of social norms and pondering the foibles of human behaviour.

When is it appropriate to pee?  Only in the bathroom, or in the shower of the YMCA?  (And indeed, do pipes all go to the same places?)  Can ‘You are sooooooo good-looking’ be used in lieu of ‘God bless you’ when someone sneezes?  Exactly how far does one have to penetrate the nostril before a scratch becomes a pick?  Are you in a ‘relationship’ if you have an implied date, daily phone calls, and there is Tampax in your house?  What are the rules of ‘double-dipping a chip’?

And on the wider scale – comically evoking the contextual conflict in Wittgenstein’s lion example – we can witness the way in which the rules of one group of language-users rub up against with the rules of another, resulting in a case of ‘Worlds Collide’.  When George is dating Susan, and she seemingly befriends the group without him, ‘Independent George’ suddenly threatens to be subsumed by the social expectations of ‘Relationship George’:

‘You have no idea of the magnitude of this thing.  If she is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him ceases to exist.  You see, right now I have “Relationship George”.  But there is also “Independent George”.  That’s the George you know.  The George you grew up with.  Movie George.  Coffee shop George.  Liar George.  Bawdy George.  …. And he’s dying Jerry!  If “Relationship George” walks through this door he will kill “Independent George”.  A George divided against itself cannot stand!’

Indeed, it is when Susan starts using the language of ‘Independent George’ – declaring that she will put something in ‘The Vault’ – that George specifically begins to see the walls between his behavioural selves crumbling.*****

Perhaps the best example of this kind of language-game play, however, comes in the episode ‘The Alternate Side’, in which Kramer gets a bit role in the project of another loquacious New Yorker, Woody Allen.  Having impressed the filmmaker with an act of unintentional slapstick, Kramer is offered a tiny speaking part (literally elevated from extraneous onlooker to language-user), and is asked to deliver the line,

‘These pretzels are making me thirsty.’

When Kramer returns to Jerry’s apartment to relay this news, he shares with the others the line he is tasked with delivering.  George, Jerry and Elaine each offer suggestions on how best to convey the phrase’s meaning.  Elaine screws up her face, smacking her lips as though trying to banish the salt from her palate, seemingly surprised to discover, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’  Jerry meanwhile, dismissing her effort, declares, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty,’ over-earnestly slicing the air with his hand.  George, offering an overwrought interpretation, bores a hole in the table with his stare as he burbles, ‘These pretzels… are making me thirsty!‘ in a tone of barely contained rising-crisis.  Kramer is unsatisfied with them all, and although vowing to work on the line further, to continue trying to find its most suitable inflection, seems resolved to embrace his own vaudevillian delivery, all but winking into the camera as he grins, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!’

No consensus is reached, and each character goes their own way, each chasing down their individual plotlines.  However, at the end of every one of these excursions, George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer return to the line, this time investing it with genuine and contextual meaning.  Kramer continues to roll the line around in his mind, mystified that he cannot seem to invest the statement with feeling: ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty?’  George, unhinged by the stress of failing to repark an increasingly complex Tetris game of cars, screams the line as a displaced non sequitur out of the apartment window, ‘THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY!’  Elaine, choked with discomfort at trying to break up with her boyfriend – who has just suffered an incapacitating medical scare – squirms, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’ through awkward laughter.  And Jerry, seething with contempt at a rental car employee who has just informed him he will be responsible for paying the damages, despite his having bought the insurance, spits, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!‘  Just as Wittgenstein displayed in his examples of the word ‘blue’, in each of these instances, the phrase takes on dramatically new and singular meaning dependent upon the context of its use.

When George and Jerry conceive of the premise for their show-within-a-show – the mise en abyme that reflects upon the fiction’s larger structure – their description of ‘Nothing’, and a ‘show about nothing’, is not meant to indicate that it will be boring, about depicting emptiness, or the negation of purpose; instead it is about minutiae, about the ineffable strings of usage that govern behaviour, that dictate meaning, and that consequentially allow us to function as a community.  As George would elsewhere poignantly shout:

We’re living in a community here!

And so, for a show that purports to be about ‘nothing’, the show reveals itself to concern the most profound and central ‘something’ of all.  Seinfeld, in celebrating the seeming ‘nothingness’ that binds all verbal communication, exposes the centrality of linguistic communion – of the ineffable ties that define all human speech, and the shared experience that invests these applications with meaning.  As Wittgenstein would say, it’s about language-games: who knows them; how they are being employed.

The genius of the Seinfeld program is that each week we get to watch these concepts, these definitions, play out, watch them effortlessly, organically stirred into usage.  Each episode is a language-game, teasing out the implications of these descriptors, validating or disproving their acceptance into the communal parlance.  In Seinfeld we are drawn into that circle.  Made an unseen occupant of that diner booth.  We know the context.  We’ve seen the usage.

We get it.

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IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

* According to his own account on the Seinfeld DVDs, he even despised, and actively discouraged the audience from applauding when Kramer slid into scene.

** Philosophical Investigations #18.

*** Philosophical Investigations, II xi, p.223.

**** Philosophical Investigations #33.

***** And this play with grammar is even true in its last two, far broader (and arguably less satisfying) seasons after Larry David had left as show-runner.  Although the series had turned into something of a weekly comic cryptic crossword – with three or four seemingly disparate narratives that would somehow interweave by the endpoint – the comedy nonetheless came from knowing just how disconnected those through lines were before they were given new agency in the context of the show’s resolution.  Kramer meaninglessly wandering around with a meat slicer suddenly became crucial to Elaine when she had to feed a dog through the crack under a locked door.

‘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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