Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #2

Arrested Development - Season 3 - I didn't give much thought to Arrested Development when it first aired on FOX in 2003.  Here was another sitcom starring Jason Bateman that didn't look very promising in the early ads and would probably last three or four episodes before being unceremoniously cancelled.  I tuned in from the pilot episode and was surprised to find that the show was actually pretty entertaining.  It didn't blow my mind, but the cast was superb and the writing was sharp.  But somehow, by the end of the first season, I had come to believe that it was the best comedy on TV.  And by the end of the second season, it was. in my opinion, the best show on TV.  And then the third season was even better.  I can almost understand why the show had poor ratings and was whittled down to cancellation despite drawing rave reviews and winning Emmys.  The characters were frequently terrible people and the humor was dark, often subtle, and usually depended on the audience having seen multiple episodes to get it.  Not to mention the fact that each installment had more confusing, intersecting plot lines than three Seinfelds put together.  But the show snuck up on me (and grew a sizable cult following) so quickly that I didn't know that I was being hooked until it was too late.  Going back and watching the first season again has shown me that Arrested Development arrived pretty much fully-formed.  It is the type of show that grows on you and, even more than The Simpsons, rewards repeat viewing. By the time the third season comes around, the show is chock-full of so many hilarious in-jokes that the writers could have penned entire episodes without an original thought (or at least an original punch-line) and they would be comedy gold from top to bottom.  Season 3 is not everyone's favorite, and it has practically half of the number of episodes that the first two seasons had, but catching up with it again I am convinced that the series was definitely not on the decline and was in fact cut down at the height of its brilliance.

Key Episodes:

Mr. F - The best example of the awesomeness of Arrested Development's 3rd season is the multi-episode arc where widower Michael Bluth (Bateman) courts Rita, a striking but unusual woman he meets in the "Wee Britain" section of Orange County (played by guest star Charlize Theron).  When "Mr. F" opens, Michael is ditching work to have a mid-day date with Rita who is reminding him of the simple pleasures of seeing a movie, visiting a toy store, and rolling down a dusty hill.  Michael's joy is later put on hold when he notices that Rita wears a bracelet that is labeled "M R F", which he assumes refers to the mysterious Mr. F, the codename of the mole that alerted Japanese investors to the family construction business's literal mole problem, which Michael discovered when rolling down the hill.  Whew.  You can see how this may be the most complicated sitcom in television history.  Anyway, the kicker of the episode is that "M R F" stands for "mentally retarded female."  What other show would have the audacity to have an ongoing storyline where a character dates a retarded person without even realizing it?  (Yes, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had a similar plot, but that was after Arrested Development.) Or what show would hide this fact for four episodes before even alerting the audience?  Charlize Theron should have won an Emmy for this performance since although you can totally understand how Michael could fall for her, she also lets us see that there is something off about Rita that you can't quite put your finger on.  Usually this is just a subtle glance or an odd inflection that makes total sense (and is even funnier) when re-watching these episodes.  I have never seen writing or acting so detailed and inventive on a TV comedy before.  This is where Arrested Development catches up to and even surpasses The Simpsons in hilarity.  The greatness of "Mr. F" doesn't end with Rita, however.  The episode, like many AD episodes (taking cues from Seinfeld), ends with all of the plot lines converging in an over-the-top finale acts like the culmination of a Rube Goldberg device.  Michael's brothers Gob (pronounced like the biblical Job) and Buster build a model town to show the the Japanese investors, which, if they squint at from far away (Gob says, "Lord knows their squinters!"), will ease their concerns about the mole problem.  This plan is going swimmingly until Michael's brother-in-law Tobias stumbles into the "Tiny Town" wearing a mole costume (he being the Mr. F referred to earlier) because he mistook his CIA-friend's request to be a mole for an acting job (he thought he worked for the CAA talent agency).  This coincides with Michael's son George Michael flying in with a jet pack (not jet pants) that was ordered by his grandfather in an attempt to escape his house arrest.  Needless to say the investors think they are being made fun with a reenactment of a Japanese monster movie (see the photo above) and storm out.  A perfectly nutty ending.

Making a Stand - Michael suspects that his father George is trying to turn him against Gob just like he used to when they were kids (George filmed his sons fighting and sold the tapes as "Boy Fights," an attempt to cash in on the burgeoning home video craze).  George has Gob suggest to Michael that they sell company blueprints to "our Mexican friends from Columbia," an idea that Michael quickly dismisses as illegal and stupid.  Upon learning of his father's controlling instincts, Michael makes up with Gob by giving him his very own frozen banana stand (the Bluth company's first venture), but this gesture ends up backfiring when Gob and his newly reunited son Steve Holt set out to aggressively out-sell the original stand.  "Why go to a banana stand," Gob barks as he brings out two strippers, "when we can make your banana stand... Don't worry, these young beauties have been nowhere near the bananas."  Meanwhile, Michael's twin sister Lindsay throws herself at her divorce attorney, the sublimely named Bob Loblaw (played by Scott Baio, cast no doubt because the family's first lawyer was played by Henry Winkler, another Happy Days veteran), driving him to defect to the side of Tobias, her estranged husband.  Tobias, played with gusto by comedy all-star David Cross, also hopes to develop some sort of relationship with Loblaw (Tobias' quasi-questionable sexuality is one of the show's best running jokes), but the lawyer's free time is consumed by his hobby: The Bob Loblaw Law Blog.  "Making a Stand" is another episode that marches step by step to a wacky finale involving a fake kidnapping using Mexican painters posing as Colombians (one of them used to be in the Groundlings) and lessons being learned by all, thanks to one-armed family friend J. Walter Weatherman and one-handed Buster.  The way in which the writers embrace the very style of broad humor that other TV shows routinely butcher and twist it into something surprising and hysterical is a sight to behold.

Fakin It - In order to prepare for their upcoming legal case, the Bluth family hires a TV producer from Justice TV to stage a mock trial using her new courtroom show Judge Reinhold (who plays himself in another of Arrested Development's inspired casting choices) as a format.  Michael, having experience being an attorney (he once played a maritime lawyer trying the case of Captain Hook in a grade school musical), volunteers to play the defense in the proceedings.  Buster fakes a coma to escape having to testify and while the family is in the hospital visiting him, George Michael (preternaturally gifted Michael Cera) is asked if he would like to perform a fake wedding for elderly patients' entertainment.  He takes this as an opportunity to possibly kiss his cousin Maeby, on whom he harbors a forbidden crush.  Things get strange when the fake priest is accidentally replaced by a real priest and the two teenage relatives get married for real.  Back at the trial, Judge Reinhold is insulted when he learns that the producers only  and suggests that the show be renamed Mr. Reinhold's Courtroom, eventually compromising on Mock Trial with J. Reinhold (featuring "William Hung and his Hung Jury").  Amateur ventriloquist/magician Gob is proud to have gotten his puppet Franklin on the witness list and discovers ways of making him talk without moving his lips (first by using a talking magazine ad for Judge Reinhold's show that simply says, "My name is Judge," and later by using Buster's doctor's (stolen) tape recorder that recites instructions for taking medication).  Franklin proves to be the key witness in the end when Michael calls him to the stand and Gob plays the tape recorder that had been running when the prosecutor in the real trial had asked Michael to implicate his family.  Will Arnett may never get a role as juicy as Gob Bluth for the rest of his career (similar things can be said about the entire cast), and he is always at his best when working with the Franklin puppet.  And Jason Bateman, who toiled so long in obscurity before landing the lead role of AD is the glue that holds everything together.  He is a great straight man, making other characters shine with his priceless reactions, but he is even funnier when allowed to be just as selfish and mean as everyone else.  The way that he speaks to George Michael about his girlfriend ("Her?") gets me every time.  I haven't even mentioned Jeffrey Tambor as George (and identical twin Oscar) or Jessica Walter as his wife Lucille or Ron Howard's narration, but I think the point has been made.  Arrested Development is brilliant because it packed so much into a 22-minute episode that a write-up could never do it justice. The only way to help you appreciate it is to point you to the DVDs.  Make sure you don't stop before season 3.

And that's how you review a season.

The List So Far:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4
7. Deadwood - Season 1
6. The Office (U.K.) - Season 2
5. The X-Files - Season 2
4. Seinfeld - Season 4
3. The Simpsons - Season 6
2. Arrested Development - Season 3

1 comment:

  1. I think you should watch the Adult Swim show Frisky Dingo, which only lasted two seasons. Very similar to Arrested Development as far as the self-referencing jokes go, but genius in its own way too. Highly recommended!