Thursday, October 6, 2011

"ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT" IN DEVELOPMENT AGAIN! NOW I REALLY BETTER WATCH THE DAMN THING.

Over a month ago I wrote a blog where I pleaded for the TV show "Sex and the City," one of my favorite TV shows, to die. I thought, the show had been off the air for seven years, the movies sucked and paled in comparison  (At least the first one did, although most of the critical reviews of the seconds seemed to say the same thing), and that the constant need to revisit the show and its characters was ruining and undermining what had been a show that had ended in what is close to the most perfect way it could've to begin with. The link to that blog is below:

 http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2011/08/dear-sex-and-city-please-die-already.html

Now, news comes out that another TV show from the last decade is not only returning as a film, but also as a short TV series, years after its cancellation. That show is the critical and cult hit "Arrested Development." Why does this sudden news interest me so much, well, here's the thing, I am a fan of "Arrested Development," sort of. Kind of. I started watching it, less than a month ago. So first thing caught my eye, the unusual timing. Just as I'm discovering a TV show that I thought and been long dead and buried, suddenly, just like the phoenix that was "Family Guy," so many years ago, it has arisen for a world of being stuck in the TV cemetary known as "Cancellation." I didn't watch it when it was on, and I wasn't the only one. I wanted to watch it...

(Cut to Footage of younger me trying to watch "Arrested Development.")
GRANDMA: What's happening?
DAVID: I don't know, let's hear it.
GRANDMA: I can't understand this. What else is on.
DAVID: It just started a minute ago.
GRANDMA: This is a new show?
DAVID: Yes, I just explained all this a minute ago.

(Cut to Footage one minute before.)
DAVID: I heard this show, might be good.
GRANDMA: What is it?
DAVID: "Arrested Development."
GRANDMA: What's it about?
DAVID: I don't know, it's a new show, let's see if it's any good.

(Cut back to one minute later) 
MOM: (Taking the remote and switching to Law & Order rerun) It's too confusing for her, David. Let's watch this until "...Housewives" goes on.

Okay, it's possible that I just made most of that up, but for some reason I missed the show, and on the few occasions where I did end up catching it, and trying to figure it out, it all kinda seemed like a disjointed mess to me.

(Cut to DAVID, watching random First Season Episode)
DAVID (Confused): I'm not sure I get this show? I thought Liza Minelli was dead?

I think this was the general reaction that most people had of the show, since it's ratings where never particularly strong, and it got cancelled after a shortened third season. Although some people seemed to like it.

(Cut to David watching the 2004 Emmy Awards)
PRESENTER: And the Best Comedy Series Emmy goes to... (opens envelope) "Arrested Development"!
DAVID looks down at a piece of paper, which he then crumbles.
DAVID: Well, they fucked up my bracket. I wonder if we should watch it.
MOM: That show sucks they got it wrong.

(Cut to Award Show MONTAGE)
PRESENTER 2: And the winner is Jason Bateman for "Arrested Development".
PRESENTER 3: "Arrested Development."
PRESENTER 4: Will Arnett for "Arrested Development"
PRESENTER 5: Casting Society of America is proud to present the Best Casting Award to "Arrested Development"!
DAVID: Why are the Artios's on TV this year?

Anyway, for one reason or another I just wasn't able to get to show, until around last month.

(Cut to Last Month-

Okay, you know what, these "Cut to"'s are getting annoying for me now, so, I'm going to stop, okay? I know it ties in with the storytelling structure of the show, but seriously, it's, a little annoying for me to keep writing them, here, I feel like I'm writing a script and not a blog, so okay? Good.

Anyway, last month, as I went down the list of films they had at the library and compared it with my Netflix queue, the next thing on the list, was the 2nd Season of "Arrested Development," which the Henderson Libraries has a copy of that is currently being shipped to me at the Gibson Branch. Now, they had the 2nd Season, at one point they had the first season, but they don't anymore. Now normally, this is an easy fix, I'll just put it on my netflix and wait, but I wondered, since I had some experience with the show before, that was less than positive, that maybe I wouldn't like the show too much. It really did seem a little bit too much like a confusing mess, at least the parts that I remembered. So, I decided instead to watch the show on Netflix watch instantly when I was at the Library, for at least a couple episodes, just to see if it actually was worth pursuing. Maybe I was right the first time, and it really isn't that good. Well, it's funny as hell. At least the first season. Like I said, the second season is being shipped to the library right now. I think it's a little inconsistent at times, but overall, it's very funny, and I definitely can't wait for the second season on DVD to come out.

I also think I know why the show didn't catch on to a major national audience the first time around though. There's a few reasons. One, this is an unusually structured show. It's didn't use any of the more typical storytelling cues and structures of the time. There's no on-again off-again shy romance, there's no married family, dealing with growing kids, it isn't even a Seinfeld-like structure where episodes seem random and the characters are against the universe at large. It's a family, but the family is all-grown up, and full of eccentrics, which leads to the second knock on the show, the cast. It's huge! The show has nine regular characters, when most sitcoms, probably have around six at the most, and they're all eccentric and elaborate character. They're well-acted, but if somebody walks in on the middle of a random episode, it would probably be akin to walking into the middle of a Shakespearean farce, probably "A Midsummer Night's Dream," all of them wondering who's the fairy character that's causing all this crazy behavior and what exactly is the normal. (Although "Modern Family," has a bigger one now, but people are used to it) Out of context, the most random of events on the show, would be nearly impossible to explain, even with, reason 3, the narrator. You know any other sitcom that uses a third-person narrator, other than "Desperate Housewives," and that's a stretch. A few shows like "Scrubs," or "How I Met Your Mother," experiment(ed) with 1st person narration, but third person?  I can't think of too many that were successful. Such a narration is rarely used in any comedy format, especially a sitcom, but there's Ron Howard's voice, (And boy, that must have confused old people who might still think of him as either Richie Cunningham or Opie.) and he's explaining a few things very quickly, almost all of it, in Reason 4, flashbacks. Flashbacks are nothing new in comedy, but this cutaway structure of the flashbacks was new. I always like to think of the first sitcom that mastered flashbacks as being "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Now, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," was a single-camera show, and about, I'd say almost 1/5 of the episodes had some form of flashback, where a character usually tells a story of what has already happened, and usually the whole episode would consume of this flashback, and most TV shows that have used flashbacks have basically followed that structure, with only a few minor noted exceptions. (The show "Grounded for Life," actually shot every episode in a flashback structure, and now live-action shows like "My Name is Earl," "Raising Hope," and "How I Met Your Mother," constantly use flashbacks as a storytelling device, often adding the multiple-perspective flashbacks, or in film theory, that's called the "Roshomon," structure). It's not used like that in "Arrested Development," though. Flashbacks are used to fill-in missing pieces of information, and update the story as new events, actions or decisions made by the characters would need backstory and explanation, and they weren't the typical harp-playing camera picture fading out flashbacks, they'd simply being very quick-cut, often so quick, that people who aren't more receptive or used to following a sitcom storyline that wasn't exactly linear would get confused. Usually that kind of background information would be spoken by a character in the show, and if it's some bad writing (or worse, bad acting), it would seem like nothing more than dialogue that's simply exposition. This job was given mainly to Ron Howard's narration in this show. Reason 5, I've already elaborated on it a little bit, but the single-camera, quick-cutting structure. Now, when I say quick-cutting, I mean cuts between the scenes of a show. Usually sitcoms cut between scenes, using either a few cords from a theme song and/or a cut to an exterior shot of a location. Think how "Seinfeld," or "Friends," cuts between scenes, they're good examples here. There's almost no such cutting in this show, and that means the audience has to kind of follow the show without those typical cues. This is unusual but, predominately more common in the, reason 6, the single-camera sitcom. Most TV shows are single-camera shows these days, with the main exceptions being the sitcoms on CBS,  which are 3-camera shows. The main difference is that 3-camera shows are shot on a stage, usually in front of a studio audience, usually with a few indoor locations, because that's what the set is. Now, it's a myth that the single-camera sitcom is new. "The Andy Griffith Show," is the earliest single-camera show I can think of, and it had to be because it had to show an entire neighborhood of Mayberry. Not something that you can really do in two or three sets. Other sitcoms that did that, more well-known one like "Room 222," which was the first sitcom to get rid entirely of a laugh track, "M*A*S*H," is a good example, "The Wonder Years," as well, but with "Arrested Development," as well as "Malcolm in the Middle," and "Scrubs," (Not to mention the cable sitcoms, "The Larry Sanders Show," "Sex and the City." "Entourage," etc.) this wasn't done simply for practicality within the structure of the show's sake, this was done so that they could have more creative freedom. To have such things as quick-cutting flashbacks and other editing and shooting options. If you're going to have a flashback scene, that takes place in a location that you have to build, and it's for a joke or a reference that's only going to be in the episode for less than thirty seconds, it wouldn't be practical on a three-camera show. The only sitcoms that had that kind of freedom are the primetime animated shows, which of course, don't pay for new location, costumes, crew, etc. etc., they can just draw it. Now however, this was the beginning of sitcoms having that kind of storytelling freedom, and have more outlandish live-action stories. ("Malcolm in the Middle," in particular, was designed as a TV sitcom to have the same kind of storytelling freedom as an animated sitcom, and in that shows case, it often bordered on outlandishness that including everything except falling anvils.)

Now all of those are things that made "Arrested Development," different and in many ways, revolutionary, but they also made the show less digestable to a national audience, especially at the time, but the reason I'm specifying them is because these are reasons the show would be complicated and difficult for a casual viewer to follow if they are simply flipping channels and looking for something to watch. It looks different, sounded different, structured different, so on and so forth, but all of those things could've turned into beneficial and unique characteristics of the show, had people reason 7, the lack of viewers who watched the Pilot Episode. There's one strange part of TV series that bothers me lately, and it's pilot episodes. These last few premiere weeks have shown me that they are the strangest and oftentimes most unique episodes of a TV show. Pilot are the show's first episodes, and they're job is to explain the show, including the situation and characters. There's a few too many series though lately, and "Arrested Development," is certainly one of them, where, if you don't catch the pilot episode of a TV show, you might be completely lost on the entire series. As I said, I didn't get to see the pilot when it first came around, so any other attempt I made at trying to catch the show later, fell on deaf ears from me. I had to catch up on the entire concept and context of the show I'm watching. Now, this is beneficial on DVD, but in regular airings and in reruns, this can get tricky. I think "30 Rock," for instance, is almost impossible to follow for anybody who didn't see the series's first few episodes, which sets and explains the rules of the universe of that show, which I believe accounts for that series critical acclaim but lackluster ratings, and there's quite a few shows that have suffered from this in recent years, and "Arrested Development," might be the biggest sacrificial lamb of all. Try finding somebody who doesn't know this show, and start them in the middle of season 2; it's gonna to be hard for them to understand it, and I don't blame them. Some shows you can watch anytime, anywhere, and basically know what's happening; I think the big appeal of "Modern Family," is that while it uses many newer sitcom techniques, it's basically an old-fashioned sitcom. A "Three's Company," and "All in the Family," a "The Dick Van Dyke Show," where the basic core of what the TV show is, can be understood no matter when you tune into the show. "Three's Company," is a good example. You can watch that show in Season 1 or Season 5, and basically know everything that's going on, even you miss the theme song, which actually explained it for you.

So what is "Arrested Development," is it this edgy, cult-classic, that tried too many unusual and new things so the only people who watched were TV critics? Actually no. Well it is that, but the show's plot and structure isn't as new and creative as some might think. The main character Michael (Jason Bateman) is the only relatively sane character in a family filled with rich eccentrics who can't take care of themselves after the family patriarch George (Jeffrey Tambor) is sent to jail for about a few hundred tax evasion laws, and possibly light treason. Now this plays more like French farce than most anything else before it on basic TV, but the structure isn't new. There's a couple shows where arguably it came earlier, but I refer to this, as "Bob Newhart Structure." (Patent Pending) Bob Newhart, on top of being one of the greatest comedians of all-time, and who has forever made it almost impossible to write a comedic monologue without accidentally stealing from him (I know that from experience), had two successful sitcoms that originated and mastered this structure, appropriately titled, "The Bob Newhart Show," and "Newhart." Both shows, Bob played a relatively normal character, who was surrounded by strange and eccentric characters. In "The Bob Newhart Show," in one of the most genius ways of having this story, he played a psychiatrist, a perfect storytelling device to have a run of crazy characters, and that's not including his receptionist and his wife, who might not have been as quirky or crazy, but they had their own unique personality traits for our normal protagonist to try and deal with everyday, without himself going crazy. "Newhart," basically had twice as many crazy characters, all of whom metriculated through the Vermont Inn that the Bob Newhart character played the owner of. The basic structure is the one sane protagonist in a world full of crazy people (In "Newhart," especially, we had the added factor that the crazy people aren't aware that they're crazy). In "Arrested Development," it just happens to be a family that makes the ones in "You Can't Take It With You," seem normal, and the one normal (well, let's use the term "least eccentric", actually) character that has to deal with them.

Now, as I move into continuing this series through all three seasons, I don't know where it will go, and I don't apparently, know where it will end. "Timing is everything," as somebody who was always late once said, and oddly enough, I think I have accidentally stumbled into the perfect time to finally dive into "Arrested Development." Right as it's cult appeal is at such a peak that it's getting renewed as a film and brought back as a TV show. Not only will I have the benefit of having actually seen the show and all its previous episodes before, they'll be unusually fresh in my mind for a show that was cancelled half a decade ago, and isn't in syndication. I don't know why it's popularity has grown and remained so long. DVDs, Netflix and Hulu I'm sure had something to do with it, but it's a show that originated storytelling techniques and devices that are only now being mastered and considered the norm on basic television, and it's a show that has more than a few footprints in the past than it at first seems. I don't know whether bringing this show back is a good idea or not, quite yet, but either way, this certainly seems to be one of the more interesting TV shows to experiment with this kind of revisiting. I will be looking forward to the results.
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