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A New Attitude, Arrested Development

“Colony Collapse” was a flawed piece of television, but it worked well enough as a character sketch…as a method of plumbing what we knew of GOB Bluth and filling in some aspects of his humanity. It was also, overall at least, pretty funny, which is why it qualifies as a genuine highlight of season four.

“A New Attitude” seems dead-set on making up for that accidental success, and giving us a poorer, stupider episode about GOB that fits much more in line with the rest of the season.

One thing I’m noticing is that the second episode about each character is significantly worse than the first. “Flight of the Phoenix” was very much about the two most important things in Michael’s life (his son and his Sudden Valley project) and what it means when he botches them both, but “The B. Team” was about him being a movie producer and the straight man to some self-indulgent jokes about Ron Howard. (Wasn’t there also some simmering feud with Kitty, which was never mentioned again? Better not think about that…)

George Sr.’s first episode, “Borderline Personalities,” was about his relationship with Oscar, a construction project, and his latest scam business, but his second episode, “Double Crossers,” was about all the extra footage they had lying around that didn’t fit into other episodes…and also he becomes a woman.

Both Lindsay and Tobias had terrible first episodes, but their second installments still managed to be worse, which I guess qualifies as a kind of accomplishment.

Now we follow up on “Colony Collapse” with “A New Attitude,” which spends an awfully long and tedious time setting up the fact that GOB is going to pork Tony Wonder. Or vice versa. It’s not character work and it’s nothing to do with who GOB is as a person (one detail notwithstanding, and we’ll get to that in a moment)…it’s just something to laugh at, because gay sex is funny. I guess.

The one aspect of GOB’s personality that this does tie into is the fact that he doesn’t have any friends, and so when he has “feelings” for Tony, the narrator informs us that it’s friendship. GOB, without prior experience of this strange emotion, mistakes it for physical attraction. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it has its roots in a good idea, and it would have been far more affecting (and funny, and interesting, and clever, and everything else) had the two buffoons simply circled around each other this way, misunderstanding their own feelings, and confusing themselves about a romance neither of them actually wants.

Instead it ends with GOB and Tony buttfucking in the model home, so…nuts to that.

There’s a lot that this episode does wrong, and even more confusion that it causes, so I can’t even begin to touch upon everything. As far as the timelines go, either I’m very stupid or things got botched on the production end, because GOB makes an unwitting reference to Ann’s pregnancy before his wedding (something to the effect of “We had sex once and now she’s out to here!”) but here she says the child is Tony’s, because he slept with her after GOB ditched her at the altar. Could be a deliberate lie or mislead, but since I also don’t know why GOB still has the limo, what Michael does for Google or why we’re supposed to care at all about Herbert Love, the wall, or anything else introduced by season four, I’m happy to consider it some more sloppy writing and move on.

Then there’s the matter of Tony and Sally Sitwell, which a friend of mine astutely described as happening only because the actors are a couple in real life. There’s no narrative reason for them to be together, and far less of a reason for Sally to suddenly be a villain, embezzling from Lucille 2 as she twirls a non-existent mustache.

In the original run, Sally was a great (and wisely brief) addition to the show: she was a sweet, attractive example of what Michael could have if he let himself overcome his personal hurdles…as well as a comic reminder of how much of a child he still is. In the opening scene of this season she sees him at Cinco de Cuatro and makes a sarcastic comment about how she’s sorry she let him get away, and that works very well because it’s an immediate and biting acknowledgement of how far he’s fallen. Fine.

Now, however, forget all that…she’s just a scheming bitch. Once again, season four not only has no interest in building its characters, it actively wishes to dismantle the building done by seasons one, two and three. It’s disappointing, there’s no comic mileage in it, and — all together now! — it goes nowhere.

Speaking of going nowhere, we also get an interlude with Michael tearing up the movie rights in front of GOB, Lucille and George Sr., spouting off the little catch-phrase that couldn’t: “You’re outta da movie!!!!!” Can’t wait to buy that on a t-shirt.

So Michael spends the first half of the season or so collecting signatures for the movie, then the rest of the season ripping up the papers. There’s the germ of something funny there, but it doesn’t really land. I think I’ve figured out why: nobody actually gives a shit if they’re in the movie.

The one exception is Tobias, and that’s also the funniest “out of the movie” moment. After the debacle in Ron Howard’s office, Michael gets Tobias to sign the release. He then takes the paper and rips it up right in front of him. This is a funny moment, mainly because Tobias is so excited about it, and Michael gets a rightful moment of dickishness out of that.

In every other case, though, nobody cares. Lucille doesn’t give a shit, George Sr. doesn’t give a shit, and I don’t give a shit. It’s just one more example of season four keeping its balls in the air — so to speak — because it has no idea what else to do with them. There’s no destination in mind, no light at the end of the tunnel, and no conclusion or climax toward which we’re building. It’s a series of 15 episodes in which things happen, most of which aren’t funny and all of which are terribly boring, and then suddenly stop happening.

There’s also a pretty clear unbalance in these episodes, as we have four episodes left and all of them focus around characters we’ve barely seen so far. I think the season would have been better served by mixing them up a little better, so we don’t front-load certain characters and shrug off others entirely, and by limiting each character to one episode. I have nothing against devoting two episodes to somebody in theory, but in practice, the show loses track of what it’s trying to accomplish.

If it’s trying to accomplish anything at all.

Which…yeah. Fuck it.

Episode 11: “A New Attitude”
Central Character: GOB
Other Family Appearances: Michael, George Michael, Lucille
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: The Gothic Arsehole?
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: Same! Or the mask / sex scheming. It’s hard to say. This was a really bad episode.
Best Line / Exchange:

TONY: You can’t tell a soul.
ANN: No one I know will care.

As I said. Bad episode.


“Train Song,” Phish
Billy Breathes, 1996

Queen B., Arrested Development

While “Queen B.” might not be the worst episode of season four, it’s certainly the most disappointing. A character like Lucille doesn’t come along very often; she’s entertaining by default. A glare or a glower is enough to get a laugh, and she has a brilliant way of delivering her lines that turns the most innocuous sentiment into a cutting insult. She’s a great character in a show full of great characters, and has always been one of my favorites.

So of course they don’t know what to do with her, and mash her into the fuckin’ Fantastic Four musical.

Did we really need three episodes about that stupid thing? I don’t think the lack of direction in this season is any clearer than when we spend 1/5 of our time circling back to this god forsaken plot thread, and the fact that we now rope Lucille — unquestionably the Bluth least likely to give a shit — into the thing just shows us once again that they have no idea who their characters are.

Of course it’s probably worth mentioning that the offensive stupidity of the Fantastic Four stuff is familiar by now, freeing us up to be more concerned with the Dragon Lady Asian Mafia Reality Show garbage that fills up the beginning of the episode.

The show veers yet again into extended racism for the sake of a laugh, with a collection of shrill, vindictive Chinese women who run the prison, initiate Lucille into their gang, which results in Lucille teaching them how to smoke indoors, and then they enter into some agreement about the wall which is something else happening this season, and then they try to stab her with some noodles and Lucille talks to the camera men.

This isn’t funny, and this isn’t good writing. When you’re writing well it doesn’t matter what happens; you can have your characters at a table, on a couch, in an elevator, anywhere, and it’s funny. That’s all we want as viewers: interaction. We want to see characters bouncing off of each other in interesting ways. That’s absorbing. That’s quotable. That’s good.

In season four we have our characters behaving like pinballs. They’re not bouncing off of other characters, they’re bouncing off of things and events. Every episode is a collection of occurrences that may or may not have anything to do with anything else, and when you start treating all of your characters in this uniform way, you end up with uniform results, which is why Lucille Bluth of all people ends up in a musical about the Fantastic Four.

The plot tries to come up with a reason to put her there — she goes to trial, then to prison, then to rehab, and can get out of rehab early if she participates, which seems like a chain of logistics long enough for someone on the writing staff to realize this might not be the most natural course for her character to take — but ultimately the idea falls flat.

She auditions for the show with a song of her own creation, something about her kids not liking her, which is clumsy and on-the-nose enough to infuriate the Robot Devil. But the worst part is that I don’t believe Lucille would write her own song for this.

Maybe if it was funny I wouldn’t care, but Lucille standing up and setting her feelings to music? No matter how clumsily she handles it, that’s not her. I might be able to picture her reprising her U.S.O. performance of “Downtown,” but I’m sorry, a woman who just wants to get out of rehab sooner isn’t going to be writing a song for a musical about the Fantastic Four. Especially not this woman.

The episode does feature the return of Gene Parmesan though, who gets one of the biggest laughs of the season just by turning up, and it really goes a long way toward highlighting just how poor the new supporting characters this season are. We’re already sick of China Garden and Marky, but we’re thrilled when Gene Parmesan shows up for twenty seconds.

It also, as one of my commenters pointed out, reinstalls Tobias as a therapist, which had been an untapped vein of comedy for the character all along.

Unfortunately, the pinball wizard approach of season four means that just gives him an excuse to work on the Fantastic Four musical as well, and the therapy vein remains almost entirely untapped.

Oh, and we find out Lucille 2 is dead, or something, because there’s blood on the staircar and she’s missing. I’ll probably talk more about that in the Buster episode, because god knows I won’t have much else to say there.

I’d have more to say, but it would probably just be me writing, “How the hell did they forget how to write for Lucille?!” over and over again. And I’ll spare you having to scroll through that.

Episode 10: “Queen B.”
Central Character: Lucille
Other Family Appearances: Buster, George Sr., Michael, GOB, Tobias
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: Dead dove, which is not to be eaten.
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: Lucille and Lucille 2 bickering at the trial would have been much funnier if we could have just cut to it for a quick peek, like the argument at Klimpy’s in the original run. Instead we get a long, unbreaking look at it, and can see clearly that the actual escalation can never be as funny as we’d imagine it to be.
Best Line / Exchange:

LUCILLE: Where the hell did we go wrong with that kid?
GEORGE SR.: Probably where we went wrong with the others, I don’t know.

Smashed, Arrested Development

I’ll say this much for “Smashed”: having rewatched it, it’s not as wall-to-wall bad as I remembered it being.

Of course that’s faint praise, especially since that’s due to the fact that I forgot all about the scene with Tobias and Michael in Ron Howard’s office, which plays to the oblivious strengths of two of my favorite characters. It’s a great sequence that actually uses miscommunication in an interesting way, and the elevator ride back to the lobby serves as excellent punctuation to one of the strongest scenes in the entire season.

But then it’s over, and we’re back to where we were before this very welcome interlude: the Fantastic Four musical.

The Fantastic Four musical.

Arrested Development is devoting an entire, extra-long episode to watching one character attempt to stage a Fantastic Four musical.

I can type variations on that sentence over and over again, and it’ll never make a lick of sense to me.

I think it’s safe to say that whatever story Mitch Hurwitz intended to tell with these episodes (and I’m not playing dumb…I’ve watched the entire season and I still don’t know), 15 super-sized installments is way too much space in which to tell it. And there’s no better evidence of that than the existence of “Smashed,” which moves no story forward, says nothing about its central character, isn’t funny, and totally botches what could have been a very interesting relationship between Tobias and DeBrie.

Watching “Smashed” the first time, I felt like the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew when they’re cut to in this episode: utterly speechless. Of course, I have no idea why they cut to those characters watching a film if the writers literally didn’t have any lines for them, but if you were to cut to me halfway through the episode, you’d have seen pretty much the same thing.

The Tobias and DeBrie pairing was problematic from the start since DeBrie seemed more like a caricature from a lame anti-drug propaganda special than a human being, but that didn’t mean the relationship was beyond redemption. After all, Tobias ultimately just wants somebody who will support him in his delusions. He’s not a bad guy…just completely unaware of who he is, and the world around him.

Likewise DeBrie is an outcast, unloved, who also wants to find someone who can understand her and treat her well. The fact that she’s got a host of personal (and medical) problems works well here: these two social dregs meet, and they might stay at the very bottom but at least they’re there to support each other.

Does that sound like the funniest pairing in the world? Admittedly, no…but it’s at least an interesting one, and it would give the writers a chance to do something new with the character. When’s the last time we saw Tobias happy with someone? Where would it go? What would it look like, and how would he act?

I guess, in a sense, we have an answer to that question: he’d write a musical about the Fantastic Four. Because why the fuck not.

For all the potential good character work set up by “Flight of the Phoenix” and “Colony Collapse,” the rest of this season really feels content not only with not exploring its characters, but with not even understanding them. They don’t know what to do with Tobias, so he’s a pedophile making musicals of comic books. And if any of that sounds at all like the Tobias of the first three seasons to you, then I’m not sure what show you’ve been watching.

Instead of exploring their relationship, we have them reunited just so he can get to writing a musical for her to star in. There’s definitely the shadow of some character work here, as Tobias’s obliviousness keeps him from seeing that she doesn’t want to do this, but that’s something we see in its entirety within about a minute and a half, so it makes for a pretty bad crutch if that’s the only thing you do with the character for thirty-three minutes.

And that is indeed the only thing they do with the character for thirty-three minutes.

The rest of “Smashed” is given over to rehearsing for the play, which is tragically light on jokes, but heavy on DeBrie falling over and having bloody a nose.

I was reminded many times of the “Zoo Animals on Wheels” episode of Get a Life, which also shows us a terrible stage production, from rehearsals right on through opening night, but finds funny things to do with its character along the way. The joke, yes, is that the play is bad, but that’s not the only joke: the joke is that this character is in this play, and so the humor we get is filtered through a very specific lens, and it’s one that is recognizably, therefore, part of the show’s universe.

Here the joke is just that the play is bad. This musical has nothing to do with Tobias. It says nothing about him that he’s mounting it, nothing about him that he’s in it, and nothing about him that, on opening night, someone falls in the water or some shit. I don’t know…the writers don’t seem to even know what happened so I sure as hell don’t.

The play means nothing. A full episode’s worth of build-up for a play so meaningless they couldn’t even think of a way to get the finished product into the episode without playing credits over it.

And no, the fact that the narrator makes a winking comment to that effect doesn’t redeem it, any more than the same joke redeemed the pointless montage in “Making a Stand.” (Though, to be fair, “Smashed” makes “Making a Stand” look like goddamned Hamlet.)

Oddly, though, this episode does manage to achieve something: it takes two of the most go-nowhere plots in a season full of them, and combines them both to actually make them funny. That’s where the whole scene with Michael and Ron Howard comes in. The movie plot and the play plot twist together for one great scene of character interplay…right before they twist apart again, to the detriment of each.

Here’s why I find that interesting:

For all my talk in these reviews of narrative and story, the fact is…those things don’t matter. At least, they don’t matter if you’re laughing. They’re nice to have, of course, but that’s not the reason we’d watch a sitcom. They might be the reason a particular sitcom becomes a favorite, but unless you’re also laughing, you’re probably not going to stick around long.

So yes, I might complain that a plot goes nowhere or has no conclusion, but that’s because I’m not laughing. The season hasn’t given me any reason to care about Michael’s movie, and it’s given me even less of a reason to care about Tobias’s play, and so I get bored and frustrated when I’m forced as a viewer to watch these humorless stories unravel.

However in that scene, and during the painful elevator ride that follows, I do care about those plots. I like them. I enjoy them. Why? Because I’m laughing.

One feeds the other. If I laugh, I’m on your side. I want to see those plots unfold because I want to keep laughing. When I’m not laughing, it’s a chore. Sticking that scene into the middle of this episode made that distinction very clear, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that that scene is about two great characters bouncing off of each other; the Bluths simply don’t work as well in isolation.

As much as people talk about the way this season interlocks, I don’t think it actually does.

It doesn’t interlock…it just coexists. Every so often one character will cross paths with another and it feels so much more exciting for a moment, because it feels like something might actually happen. Sometimes you even get a great joke out of it.

But overall Michael’s plot doesn’t interlock with Tobias’s, George Sr.’s doesn’t interlock with Maeby’s, Buster’s doesn’t interlock with Lucille, and so on. None of them do. They might occupy the same time-frame, but, pardon my French, they don’t have jack shit to do with one another. Which is a problem, because the season is visibly straining to make it feel like they do.

“Smashed” is terrible. And it may not even be the worst episode of the season.

Oh well. Tommy Tune as Argyle Austero is an example of a cartoonish character that works, but the fact that every character is a cartoon means he lacks this distinction, and so he just feels like another thing tossed into the stone soup. He’s funny enough, but the writers have no idea what to do with him.

Sounds like he fits in pretty well with the rest of the main cast, then, huh?

Episode 9: “Smashed”
Central Character: Tobias
Other Family Appearances: GOB, Michael, Lindsay, George Michael (voice), Lucille
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: “I just blue myself again for the first time in five years.” That’s two grammatically corrupt references to this in a row. Please don’t go for the hat trick, “Queen B.”
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: Tightening implies that some editing would make the scene better, and I’m not sure that applies to any of the Fantastic Four material so who knows.
Best Line / Exchange:

MICHAEL: We’ll see each other a la carte. You know? Like the $18 baked potato you ordered that you didn’t touch.

Red Hairing, Arrested Development

We’re now more than halfway through the season so I think it’s fair to pose a question: is this bad Arrested Development, or is this bad television?

The easiest way to answer that is to strip away the title and the names of the characters. If I’m left with everything that happens here, every written line and editing choice, but it’s not attached to the name Arrested Development, do I like it?

I don’t. In fact, my fondness for the original three seasons isn’t working against this batch of aimless, meandering tales; it’s making me work harder to like it. I don’t want to admit the fact that they’re not very good, because I want Arrested Development to be above that.

Above this.

If I were to stumble on this exact season of episodes on television (or Netflix, I guess) and it had no attachment to this show, I’d probably feel like it was made by some cynical executive somewhere who wanted to cash in on the popularity of Arrested Development but didn’t have any sense of why people actually liked it. I’d probably come away from it feeling confused and embarrassed for him, and there’s no way I’d make it through fifteen episodes.

But here I am, trying, rewatching, sticking with it, searching for anything, because I want to like this.

It’s not working, though. The more time I spend with these episodes, the less charitable I feel toward them. This is bad television.

“Red Hairing” is yet another good example of why. Like “Indian Takers” before it, the second Lindsay episode is a jumble of events that go nowhere. I’d be tempted to use the sound and fury comparison but there’s not much of either of those things here. If there were sound and fury it might at least be fun. Instead it’s just…stuff. And it’s not funny, and it’s not smart, and it’s entirely too long, and it’s in serious need of editing. It’s bad television.

I know what you’re thinking: Philip, you crazy man. I can’t get enough of that Herbert Love and his extended non-jokes. He’s a great addition to the cast and I’m very happy his arc reaches no conclusion whatsoever, because that just means we’ll get more of him in season five. But here’s my concern: how does his role in this show fit in with that of my beloved Marky Bark?!

Well, good news, person who will never exist: “Red Hairing” answers that question. It doesn’t do much else, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

Marky doesn’t like Herbert Love, because Marky is a hippie (in case you didn’t get that from all the times they say Marky is a hippie instead of making jokes) and Herbert Love is a politician (in case you didn’t get that from all the times they say Herbert Love is a politician instead of making jokes). With a pairing like that, the scripts just write themselves!

So Marky decides to detonate an ink bomb which will ruin Herbert Love’s suit, I guess. It’s not very clear what he hopes to accomplish and it’s even less clear what he could possibly accomplish, so let’s just assume it’s an inflated dry cleaning bill. Only the bomb goes off on Marky instead, so he can turn blue and Lindsay can repeat a joke from the show’s glory years in a way that makes no grammatical sense whatsoever, and then he goes to jail, and then he’s not in jail anymore. Man, it sure is nice to have Marky around again, huh?

“Red Hairing” does fill in some blanks from other episodes, though. For instance, it reveals that George Sr. wanted something from Michael in exchange for signing the release, which comes as a huge surprise because…no, wait. It’s not surprising at all, because it’s exactly what we already knew he wanted in “Double Crossers.”

Oh, well at least the episode also reveals that the ostrich that attacked Lucille 2 in “A New Start” wasn’t actually trying to hurt her; it was in heat so it was attempting to rape her instead and that’s much funnier.

Oh…wait. It’s actually really stupid. Oops.

When a female ostrich is trying to drive its non-existent ostrich cock into Liza Minelli for the sake of a laugh, you know the show is desperate, and nothing about “Red Hairing” disproves that. And here’s a fun little tidbit: if you’re wondering why it’s called “Red Hairing,” it’s because Lindsay wears a red wig for a little while, and then doesn’t anymore. It’s every bit as riveting as Marky’s plot.

Spending so much time with both Marky Bark and Herbert Love in the same episode goes a long way toward emphasizing how pointless the characters are. They have nothing to do, so they do nothing. In an episode that’s almost 40 minutes long. And we watch them do it. For almost 40 minutes.

We do have some nice moments here. Maeby calling her mother a whore has genuine bite to it, and Michael on the phone with George Michael is also nice, as they both lie to each other about not being able to make it to dinner.

Of course, this being Arrested Development season four, we have to reprise that latter situation later in the season to drag it out, make it less funny, eliminate all heart from the situation, and repeatedly spell out something the audience grasped long ago.

The first three seasons of this show were densely packed little puzzles, with a simple narrative playing out overtop of the cleverness and tricky structure. That’s why it was fun to watch the first time, and rewarding to watch again and again. At first you laughed. Then you went back and laughed at all the stuff you missed because you were laughing the first time. Then you went back more and more to find all the stuff you didn’t notice enough to laugh at before. And there was heart, and social satire, and brilliant character interplay.

Here, we replace all that with long humorless stretches of literally nothing, single jokes that get hammered into the ground so completely that you’re sick of them by the time the episode ends (so much for rewatching) and unintelligent “reveals” that just explain things we already knew or give us a lame punchline that was gracelessly withheld the first time around.

It wouldn’t be fair if I just compared this to the first three seasons, said it’s not as good, and dismissed it completely. Instead, though, forget stacking it up against the first three seasons…the mistakes made by this batch of episodes is just bad television period.

It would have been nice if season four could hold its own against the classic years, but even if it didn’t, it could chart a new identity for itself, and work as some kind of noble experiment at the very least. As it stands, though, I’m glad this is on Netflix, because it genuinely doesn’t deserve to be on TV.

Also, what was that Annyong thing at the end? I have to assume they shot the scene with the assumption that they’d figure out a joke for it later, then couldn’t figure one out and just slapped it in anyway.

That’s not the show I remember, and that’s not a show I’d even watch.

Episode 8: “Red Hairing”
Central Character: Lindsay
Other Family Appearances: Lucille, George Sr., Maeby, Michael, George Michael (voice)
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: “He blue himself.” There’s absolutely no reason to revisit the finish-each-other’s-sandwiches gag either, except that it happened once, and therefore we need to be reminded that yes, the writers like to quote this show too!
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: Herbert Love’s date with Lindsay turns into Herbert Love showing off his rhyming skills and pickup lines for the camera, and if you can reasonably tell me why that belongs in the episode I’ll be hugely impressed.
Best Line / Exchange:

LINDSAY: Honestly, Lucillie 2, you’ve been like a mother to me. Except kind, and loving, and willing to let me eat.

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