So over the past 48 hours, I undertook a massive marathon viewing of all three seasons of Arrested Development. I’ve mentioned before some of the benefits and limitations of this kind of viewing – you get the general idea of the show as opposed to the nit-picky details, but at the same time, there is something to be said for spreading the experience out so as to allow for better processing. At any rate, my immediate reaction is that, while AD is undeniably a fantastic show, I might have enjoyed it more if I had never heard of it before. By which I mean that there is no way any show could possibly be as brilliant, hysterical, transcendent, unparalleled, and indubitably incredible as the Internet claims AD is. So while I did try not to let that influence me too much, years of hearing how this one show ruined television for its never-again-to-be-satisfied fans left me with certain expectations that could not hope to be fulfilled.
Now, let me be clear – this is, in fact, a brilliant, hysterical, daring show that rewards close, intelligent viewing. Gags are layered and folded and twisted over seasons, and are often exploded in a breathless burst of comedic energy. One-off jokes are later called back to and added to and occasionally made into critical plot developments. I’ve been told that it is necessary to watch the series three or four times to get some of the more subtle jokes and references, and I absolutely intend to do that (perhaps when I don’t have three midterms I should have spent the past 48 hours studying for).
Ultimately, though, a show lives or dies by its characters. In my opinion, the two biggest problems with a show like Glee are that, first, the characters are secondary to the spectacle, and second, the show does not seem to like its characters (particularly the female ones) very much. In AD, the characters are, with the possible exception of Michael and George Michael, awful, unsympathetic people whom karma has apparently overlooked, but the show clearly loves them and enjoys watching them and always stops just short of sending them over the moral event horizon (a difficulty Community seems to be having right now with Pierce). I would never, ever want to meet these people, but I could (and, over the past weekend, did) watch them for hours. The show also does something unique with Michael (and, to a lesser though parallel extent, George Michael), as the proclaimed moral center of the show. Many – in fact, most – shows make the mistake of thinking that the straight man cannot be funny. The write him (or, less often, her) as constantly bewildered, befuddled, good-hearted, well-intentioned – but generally not funny. Michael, though clearly the best person in his family, snarks with the best of them and has certain flaws of his own that the show is not afraid to acknowledge. Rather than undermining him as a sympathetic character, this makes Michael someone to root for as opposed to a saint to put up with.
And yet, that being said. Arrested Development is not a perfect show. (Did you hear that? I think a geek just lost his wings.) Storylines had a tendency to start and stop too abruptly (Marta, Oscar in jail, Steve Holt come to mind here) or, conversely, go on forever with no actual resolution. Additionally, particularly in the middle of the series, the show began to just spin its wheels, with every episode following the same basic format of “family member needs a favor, Michael says no, family member gets the favor anyway, things go awry, Michael fixes everything aaaaaand scene.” Funny and smart and entertaining, but also tiresome after awhile. I’m of the opinion that the first and third season started slowly, and that the third season’s relentless nosedive into meta was of questionable judgement. I’m not suggesting that this was not miles ahead of most of television sludge, but I would argue that it is flawed and imperfect.
Still, it is incredible how much most of the other shows I enjoy owe to this one. This debt ranges from the general (Rachel leaving the glee club every week is reminiscent of a montage beginning the second season where Michael repeatedly states his determination to leave the family) to the direct (Community’s “Conspiracy Theory” ending parallels a similar quadruple crossing in the Bluth family) to outright thievery (the “shock and aww” of How I Met Your Mother’s “Naked Man” episode was the title of a season 1 AD episode). In some ways, I suppose my less-than-worshipful reaction to AD could be in a Seinfeld is Unfunny way, the phenomenon where something seems less good because it has been copied so many times and seen after its copies. Arrested Development did it first (even though it probably didn’t) and then was ruined by seeing its imitators.
And even though this show might not be perfect, it is still a damn good show, and it deserves a great deal of its accolades. Its early cancellation was a travesty. Speaking of travesty, casting Jason Bateman and Michael Cera in Juno and not giving them A SINGLE SCENE TOGETHER? Jason Reitman, director of Juno, there is a special seat in hell for people like you.