Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spoilery Thoughts About Arrested Development, Avec Pictures

So, I figure four full days is enough of a waiting period to discuss the fourth season of Arrested Development. Plus, I'll be upfront with this warning – All of the fourth season is fair game for discussion in this entry! If you’re still pacing yourself through it, well, just bookmark it and read this later.

Anyway, on to the business at hand – The season doesn’t suck! Huzzah! Overall, I’d probably give it a seven or eight on the 10-scale. The first couple episodes start out slowly (and ye gads, what happened to Portia’s face?) but things really start to pick up once Michael gets the job at Imagine, and starts dating Ron Howard’s girlfriend daughter.

To nitpick, here are the three style and structure things that really jumped out at me and hurt the viewing experience:

Here is a picture of Isla, because she's gorgeous.
- As opposed to the standard network television sitcom model of about 22 minutes per show, I think the minimum for each episode of Arrested Development was around 26 to 27 minutes, with some of them even hitting the 31-minute mark.

While this is a seemingly minor thing – who minds having more of a good thing? – it resulted in a couple episodes feeling overly long to me. It didn’t feel like much ended up on the cutting room floor, and echoing the comments of my buddy Tom, they probably could have taken the sheers to a couple episodes.

Because each episode was a bit longer, it basically turned the usual sitcom three-act structure into four acts per episode. I would have preferred if they just sheared off five minutes from each episode, and stretched the season from 15 episodes to 19 or 20, roughly.

- Arrested Development made its money with frequent callbacks and intertwining plots when you least expected it, but it was tougher to track all of that with the “one season” format.

For example, in season three you had a couple different arcs, which usually only lasted from two to six episodes. The spy mystery of Mr. F gave way to the mentally-retarded dating storyline, which then transitioned into the series ending “save our Bluths!” telethon and the final episode.

With the fourth season, everything is more of a slow burn because of how stretched out everything is, plus there is constant recapping. Maybe they just assumed that people wouldn’t be binge watching episodes or familiar with the third season, but as a result, you get to see some of the final scenes from Lucille hijacking the Queen Mary about 500 times.

- There was a big hoopla on The Internet about the fact that some actors and actresses had to do their scenes via blue screen. I didn’t really think that specifically was such a big deal, but rather, you can tell that some limited availability for them probably really hurt the shooting schedule.

As a result, there aren’t many big ensemble scenes, or not as many as you would think with a show that has (essentially) eight leads – Michael, George Michael, GOB, Buster, Lucille, George Sr., Maeby, Tobias and Lindsay. When you factor in all of the accessory characters that they have to shoehorn in for fan service, plus that Barry Zuckerkorn is practically the ninth lead at this point, and new characters like Rebel Alley and on-camera appearances from Ron Howard…

That’s a daunting task, and I can understand why they mostly seem to focus on scene “clusters” of characters, for lack of a better term. It was fine at the beginning of my viewing, but by the end, you kind of figured out that there was usually just two to four characters per scene, and you didn’t have to worry about a walk-in by George Michael at the end.

But hey – Enough dwelling on the negative! As I mentioned at the top, I still found the fourth season really enjoyable, and better than most of the other sitcoms I’m watching on a weekly basis. In particular, I thought the high point of the season was Egg Bland Ann finally getting a well-deserved glory moment, with the straight-bait trick on GOB and Tony Wonder.

I also liked how the season ended, with George Michael punching Michael in the face. It was a tone shift for the show, but not an undeserved one. Over the course of the season, I thought they did a decent job turning Michael into more of a heel. At the beginning of the season, I kind of didn’t like that they were doing it, but I thought it paid off in the end. With George Sr. as more of a comic figure now, you kind of had to make someone be an antagonist, and it made more sense to have it be Michael as opposed to GOB.

Random thoughts here and there:

- As noted in this wonderful article from Buzzfeed, what the hell happened to Portia’s face? I don’t say this to be mean – I mean, Steve Holt also got fat. But Portia’s face in the third episode just looked so drastically different that it was distracting. And THEN, once you got used to it, she went back to “normal” by the time she got her short haircut!

I can’t explain it. The obvious answers seem to be “bad makeup” or “bad botox,” with maybe the crew realizing that she looked a mess after shooting a couple of her scenes. Or maybe they had a big break between that episode and some of the other ones they shot. Whatever the explanation, it was severely distracting at times. (In contrast though, Judy Greer, you keep doing what you do, girl.)

- Keeping her streak alive of great performances in non-Saturday Night Live roles, I loved Kristen Wiig as a young(er) Lucille Bluth. Seth Rogen as George Sr. was a little pitchy to me, but Wiig had the perfect look and tone for Younger Lucille. Thankfully, I did keep away from spoilers on the fourth season, so it was a pleasant surprise for me to see her in that role. (Also, I’m fully onboard for the spinoff show with her and Rogen in five years, if and when their acting careers fall to launch.)

Also good in their guest roles were Isla Fischer as Rebel Alley, Ron Howard as an aloof version of himself, Ben Stiller as Tony Wonder, Ed Helms as the sleazy real estate agent, Maria Bamford as Tobias’ new lover, and Tommy Tune as Lucille 2’s brother. Just OK were Carl Weathers and the dude playing Lindsay’s new guy for that hot minute or so he’s on the show. Also, looping back to Ron Howard, I was
surprised he didn’t use one of his actual daughters to play Rebel Alley, given the past stunt casting on the show with Justine Bateman. (And also also, she, Franklin and J. Walter Weathermen were the most noticeable absences to me.)

- The Buster-focused episode was the best overall of the season to me. I kind of wish it had been earlier in the season, but I understand why it wasn’t. It definitely had a lot of setup in it, mostly involving the Fake Herman Cain campaign of Terry Crews. (That was definitely the most “dated” element of season four – It feels like Cain ran a million years ago. I feel like an AD-original politician probably would have been more amusing.)

So, anyway. After watching season four, and thinking about it for a few days, I’m on board for a season five – I want to see where they go with the Michael and George Michael relationship, and to a lesser extent, how Lindsay will screw up in a campaign race with Sally Sitwell. While I don’t think the fourth season is as re-watchable as the previous three, it was still among the better sitcoms I watched this year.

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