Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Arrested Development Season 4, Episodes 4-6

(I'm going to be watching and reviewing three episodes at a time of Arrested Development. I've gone out of my way to avoid reading reviews of the new season or discussing it on blogs or forums, so these reviews are untainted by outside opinion. Also, fair warning, these aren't recaps or plot synopses. I'm assuming everyone reading has seen the episodes in question and will be launching right into analysis of each.)

Season 4, Episode 4 - "The B. Team"
Starring Character: Michael

"The B. Team," the tale of Michael Bluth joining Imagine Entertainment and going full Hollywood, is easily my favorite of the six episodes I've seen, for a number of reasons ranging from structure to character work to pure comedy. So let's just tackle these one at a time.

First, structure and storytelling. Perhaps alone among the six episodes I've watched, "The B. Team," despite technically being part of the same series of extended flashbacks as most all of this season so far, feels like it's actually telling a story rather than just providing exposition. A clear and simple-to-understand story but one that's nonetheless rife with potential for inter-Bluth interaction and mishaps galore as Michael is tasked with obtaining his family's signatures so Ron Howard can make the Bluth movie. Unlike the California-Mexico border wall and other stories this season that have me saying "Well, let's see where this is going...", this story is already going, entertaining from the moment it's introduced.

Second, character work. True, the episode is lighter on Michael interacting with Bluths than "Flight of the Phoenix" – just George Sr. at any length – but to make up for it is sort of fucking stuffed with guest stars both old (Ron Howard, Barry Zuckerkorn, Bob Loblaw, Lucille Austero, Warden Gentles, Andy Richter, and most welcomely of all Kitty Sanchez and Carl Weathers) and new (Conan O'Brien and Isla Fisher as new character Rebel Alley). Bob Loblaw lobs a law bomb, Carl Weathers is still cheap and Judy Greer simply explodes back into the role of Kitty, now working for Imagine and shouting and threatening and flashing up a storm without missing a beat.

It was also a lot of fun seeing Conan provide comedic backup to Andy rather than the other way around, and the final Conan scene in the "on the next Arrested Development" may be the best thing Andy Richter has yet done on the entire series of Arrested Development (and given how I love the season 3 episode "S.O.B.s" about as much as life itself, that's saying something).

Lastly, the episode, despite its biggest laugh (for my money, Ron Howard's insistence to Michael that it would be "a lot more fun" to actually see Michael's wife die in the Bluth film adaptation) not necessarily being bigger than the biggest laughs of the first three episodes, does a much better job at actually keeping its comedic momentum up from start to finish. A lot of this has to do with the barrage of guest stars I mentioned above, of course.

The one thing that makes me potentially step back and go "hmm..." is this new romantic interest for Michael in form of Rebel Alley, Ron Howard's daughter. I liked the spoof meet cute with the two, but I'm not sure how invested I am in them just yet. Still a way better romantic interest than Jessie the publicist from season 1, though, so we've cleared that bar at least.

Season 4, Episode 5 - "A New Start"
Starring Character: Tobias

This episode cemented the somewhat unfortunate thought that crossed my mind during "Borderline Personalities": I wish they'd gone through and brutally edited these scripts/episodes down to 22 minutes apiece. I know from hearing Mitch Hurwitz speak in person during college that this was an always-agonizing process that resulted in a lot of the writers' favorite little fatty bits getting cut and leaving scenes with no breathing room, but the thing is that cutting out all the fat and breathing room made Arrested Development's first three seasons an awe-inspiring exercise in propulsive comedic storytelling. Its 22-minute episodes usually felt about seven minutes long in the way they danced between all the Bluths in A, B, C, D, and sometimes even E and F-plots that powered forward with murderous speed.

In contrast, the fifteen or so minutes we spend more or less exclusively with Tobias and Maria Bamford's DeBrie Bardeaux in the back half of this episode are frankly brutal. Skimming through the episode again right now on Netflix, I'm stunned to find that the Fantastic Four story only lasts about six minutes, because unbroken by any other stories to cut to and without the joke ever really changing in those six minutes it felt way longer. Like, those six minutes alone felt longer than half of the entire 22-minute episodes of Arrested Development's first three seasons.

I feel kinda bad launching my review of "A New Start" with such negativity, because I think that of all the original cast members David Cross may have resumed playing Tobias Fünke the most seamlessly of any of them (or at least tied with Will Arnett as Gob and Jessica Walter as Lucille). Despite all his success in comedy in the years since, Cross remains wonderfully unburdened from any trace of onscreen ego or need to lessen Tobias' patheticness.

The episode also busts out some hilarious gags in its first act (most notably the Fünke's Thanksgiving duck from "Indian Takers" surviving his own cooking and emerging charred and enraged), and I loved the way it connected with "Indian Takers" in revealing Tobias as the previously unseen victim of Lindsay's plane seat. That interconnectedness has delighted throughout this whole season, and really popped out as a plus here. The John Beard's To Entrap a Local Predator: Supercreeps framing device was also a lot of dark comedic fun.

But I'm still having a tough time getting past how damn slow I found much of the episode to be. Even more than how spread out the characters are and how thin the cast feels, I'm finding the extended episode lengths to be this season's biggest obstacle. If some enterprising young editor wants to recut these episodes to a tight 22 minutes apiece over the summer, I'd honestly be excited as hell to see how different they feel.

Season 4, Episode 6 - "Double Crossers"
Starring Character: George Sr.

I really liked "Double Crossers" a whole lot, which was a nice little surprise after finding George Sr.'s last episode "Borderline Personalities" to be something of a slog by Arrested Development's normally phenomenal pacing standards. While I still have no idea where the story of the wall and Herbert Love is going, it really feels like it's trucking along and picking up steam and wrapping more and more Bluths in its labyrinthine embrace.

Of the major new characters we've met this season, I think ultra-right-wing politician Herbert Love may be my favorite, which is thanks almost entirely to Terry Crews. I feel like I shouldn't be as big a fan of Crews as I am, because, shit, the man is an NFL-player-turned actor, which means he should by all rights be awful. But he's not! He's funny and charismatic in basically everything, and his delivery of "Barack Hussein Obama-Wama-Comma-Mama-on-a-Llama" here was such a great and spot-on parody of idiot Tea Partiers and Herman Cain.

George Sr.'s apparent transformation into a female-identifying cross-dresser throughout the half-hour (perhaps foreshadowed years earlier by his frequent cross-dressing in the attic during season 2?) even as Oscar becomes more manly and dominant is pretty funny, albeit super-random. I'm curious to see if this is just something they threw in there for random fun or if there's actually a plot-related explanation in the form of George Sr.'s personal lemonade stash somehow having estrogen in it, or perhaps something less stupid. I'm nervous to file this in my Arrested Development "mysteries-to-be-solved" column, because that may be setting myself up for disappointment if that's not what the writers have in mind, but I'll be very pleased if it does have an answer provided later on this season.

I also think this episode is the first this season where we've spent a lengthy chunk of time away from the episode's starring character as we take a five-minute break to see what Michael and Gob are up to. And man, did I love that, because I started to have some truly wonderful flashbacks to the good old days of episodes having half a dozen plots encompassing the entire family that we'd cut between at length.

"Double Crossers" has a few problems, to be certain – the several-minutes-long scene between George Sr. and Dr. Norman in the middle is exactly what I'm talking about every time I mention this season's lack of discipline in its pacing and editing – but is nevertheless definitely my favorite non-Michael-centric episode of the fourth season so far.

Also, there's a very strong chance that Jeffrey Tambor's delivery of "Because I'm fat. It's because I am fat. You think I'm a fat person!" is the single greatest comedic line delivery of 2013.

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