In a Family Way
Something strange happened to Arrested Development halfway through its second season. “Strange” would be a relative term here. But when Martin Short guest starred in the episode, “Ready, Aim, Marry Me,” the famously quirky sitcom turned downright bizarre.
“Uncle” Pat Dorso is an ex-movie sidekick and Bluth family friend who made a fortune in Jack LaLanne-style gyms before losing the use of his legs trying to squat press 350 pounds on his 70th birthday. Now carried around by a half-deaf Belgian bodybuilder named Dragon, Uncle Pat is given to vomiting uncontrollably as he’s tossed about the room like a rag doll. This sight goes way over the top, even for a show that satirizes hot-button topics like the Abu Ghraib scandal.
But series creator Mitchell Hurwitz, in a DVD commentary for “Ready, Aim, Marry Me,” admits the episode is where “people felt that we crossed the line.” Which got me to wondering: is Arrested Development too smart, too daring, for its own good? Can a show that takes huge comedic chances ever find an audience in a TV-land that, with some exceptions, likes its comedies safe and homogenized?
I’ve asked this question before, most recently concerning shows like Andy Richter Saves The Universe, The Tick, and Wonderfalls. Like Arrested Development, they were darlings of TV critics who hailed their singular visions and audacious humor. The fact that these shows all aired—briefly—on Fox, which just can’t seem to figure out how to promote challenging new series, is no coincidence.
The clock was ticking on Arrested Development, ratings-challenged even after a 2004 Best Comedy Emmy for its first season. The writers and cast threw everything they had into an 18-episode second season that ramped up the manic energy and multiplied storylines. The result can now be viewed in Fox’s wildly entertaining, if slightly overstuffed, three-disc DVD collection.
Arrested is like Mad magazine come alive, complete with loud, colorful characters, clever sight gags, and ridiculous plot lines. In Season Two, the Bluths continue to live high on the hog despite the fact that their real estate tract business assets have been frozen. It doesn’t help Michael (Jason Bateman) that his older brother Gob (pronounced as the biblical Job) (Will Arnett), a blowhard magician, is now president of the company, also overseen by their bitter lush of a mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter).
Something like the Royal Tenenbaums on angel dust, the Bluths are barely civil to each other. Gob, in particular, is a conniving womanizer whose inflated ego keeps him from admitting he has no idea of how to run the company. Season Two opens with Michael, who had washed his hands of the family at the end of Season One, heading for a new start with his George-Michael (Michael Cera) in Arizona.
Michael’s return reminds us that Arrested still follows in the tradition of every family-themed network shows, affirming family in spite of itself. Lucille finally accepts youngest son Buster (Tony Hale), in “Motherboy XXX,” and Gob, whose self-esteem issues are explored in Season Two, gets the validation he’s seeking from Michael at the company softball game in “Switch Hitter.” But these moments are fleeting; blink and you’ll miss them, as the show races into yet another ridiculous plotline.
Michael tries to keep the business afloat while facing jail time for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), who has been living the family’s attic after escaping from prison, faking his death in Mexico, and being found by George-Michael hiding, Saddam Hussein-like, in a hole in the family’s back yard. In fact, the feds link George Sr.‘s business dealings to the deposed dictator, leading all to believe George Sr. had a hand in developing weapons of mass destruction for Iraq.
Lucille enrolls Buster in the army, Gob discovers he has a wife, Oscar begins a torrid affair with Lucille, Buster has his hand bitten off by a seal, and Lindsay (Portia DeRossi) and her sexually-ambivalent husband Tobias (David Cross), who paints himself blue in anticipation of his role as understudy for the Blue Man Group, explore an open relationship, much to the chagrin of their daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who has become a high-level movie executive.
If all of that seems hard to follow, it is. Whereas Season One was remarkably streamlined, the second seems bloated. Plots are introduced and dropped, secondary characters come and go, played by guest stars as diverse as Ben Stiller, Henry Winkler, Liza Minelli, Ed Begley, Jr., Carl Weathers, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and, in a sly nod to show’s apparent fate, Andy Richter as an out-of-work actor.
Such embarrassment-of-riches criticism is minor, however. Twenty-two minutes of a single episode of Arrested Development is still funnier than an entire night of Must-See TV. Still, the show gallops along at such a marvelous pace, that if one gag doesn’t work, there’s sure to be one to follow that does. Potshots are taken at weapons of mass destruction, Michael Moore, Girls Gone Wild, Mrs. Doubtfire, and, on many occasions, the Fox network itself.
The DVD set whips all this action into a cohesive whole. Watching episodes back-to-back allows new and seasoned viewers a chance to soak in the show’s nuances. But mostly, repeated viewings highlight the subtleties of the performances of the strong ensemble cast, particularly that of Walters, who embodies Lucille with the feral quality of one who would eat her young. With her withering stare and sardonic put-downs, she’s one mother of a mother, and Walters plays this spoiled matriarch with the right touch of icy dominance and comic cluelessness.
If this DVD set delivers the laughs, it’s stingy with the extras. Only three of the episodes feature commentaries (with Hurwitz and the cast, minus Bateman and Tambor) and while it’s fun to hear them joke improv-style, it’s disappointing that they never discuss the creative processes that go into a show this offbeat. Deleted and extended scenes and a bloopers reel don’t add much, although “Season One in Three Minutes” gives a nice overview of last season’s proceedings.
By now, though, even hardcore fans realize that if it’s good and it’s on Fox, it probably won’t be around for long. And that became reality on 11 November when Fox abruptly announced it is putting Arrested Development on hiatus for the next three weeks, before burning off the 13 remaining episodes. While the network is not calling this a cancellation, the show is not likely to return. So fans can look to the DVD collections of Seasons One and Two, as well as the inevitable Season Three collection (with bonus unseen episodes, no doubt) as not only time capsules of an innovative show reaching its prime, but sadly, as reminders of good TV treated badly.