Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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“Brilliant Blues,” Pete Townshend
White City, 1985

Arrested Development, The B. Team

It might have taken four seasons to get us there, but “The B. Team” at long last makes good on Michael’s life-long dream to get into the motion picture industry.

No, wait, let me rephrase that: For no reason whatsoever, we get an episode that crams Michael into the motion picture industry.

There’s a lot that’s strange about this episode, but perhaps the most glaring is that if Arrested Development wanted to make jokes about Imagine Entertainment and Jerry Bruckheimer, they already had someone working in the business: Maeby. For no particular narrative reason that I can fathom, this episode fires her and subs Michael in instead.

This is disappointing in a few ways, one of which is that Maeby’s entire character arc gets derailed abruptly, and another is that this probably would have been much funnier if it had been Maeby helming the project rather than Ron Howard (season three ended with her working on this exact project anyway) and Michael taking his role in the process much too seriously.

He still could have been tasked with collecting signatures, he still could bump into Rebel Alley, and he still could assemble his team and give the “already built” speech. A silly story could have flowed naturally from everything we’ve already seen, and give another family member something to do. Instead, we take a moment to dismantle everything so we can start fresh with the silliness, and that feels like a big step backward.

I mentioned earlier that I avoided spoilers while watching these episodes. I finished the season a few days ago, however, and I can say this conclusively: it’s impossible to spoil anything, because nothing actually happens.

Oh, sure, you could spoil a joke here or there. Or you can reveal the identity of someone off camera. But as far as narrative: there isn’t one. We’ll get into this much more in later reviews, but it applies here too; for all the hubbub and importance surrounding narrative developments this season, none of them actually go anywhere.

Which is why, I guess, we have an episode about Michael Bluth assembling a team…which does nothing and not one member of which we’ll see again. It’s probably also why Michael gets a job (which with uncharacteristic and evasive vagueness is never revealed) with Google, so he can drive a funny car and the narrator can make jokes about how they can’t mention the name Google. It’s all very funny if you’ve never seen Arrested Development before this season and therefore have no idea how much better these concepts can be handled.

This season is playing out like an imitator of itself. It’s like seeing one of those trailers for an indie film made by somebody who knows Wes Anderson is popular but doesn’t seem to know why, so he ends up packing his film with the funny costumes and the deadpan delivery and the quirky soundtrack but never quite gets around to writing a good script, piecing together a memorable story or understanding the artistry behind why a great filmmaker makes those decisions in the first place.

The difference is that Arrested Development is still made by the same people, which is what’s confusing. It’s almost like Hurwitz and crew turned to the first three seasons for inspiration, but just latched onto the superficial things (left-field sight gags, jokey narration, guest stars) and never managed to get at anything that made their own show great.

That’s about 700 words of one thing before I get around to revealing another, though: I kind of like “The B. Team.” In fact, this is the last episode through which I was able to retain the illusion that season four might have promise. It was all down hill from here.

It’s not a great episode of television, or even a good one. As I mentioned, none of this goes anywhere. Not within the context of the episode, and at no time later. It upends one character’s arc so another can take her place, when it really would have been smoother and more logical to keep her there. And, strangest of all, the story doesn’t spring forth from anything we know about Michael at all.

Taken in conjunction with “Flight of the Phoenix,” this latter point is especially glaring. That episode was about both his relationship with his son and his failure with Sudden Valley…two very important things to Michael, and the two areas in which failure would feel most cutting to him. In short, it allows him to be a character.

Then we got George Sr., whose episode was about his relationship with Oscar, a scam business, and defrauding the U.S. Government. Again, very George Sr.

Lindsay’s episode was a mess, but then again so was her plastic surgery. Oops! I mean, so was her character. She’s flightly and impulsive, and even if the episode was a trainwreck it was at least true to aspects of her character.

Now Michael is a film producer. And soon Tobias will create a musical about The Fantastic Four. And Lucille will guest star with some shrill Asian women on a reality show. Arrested Development season four will remind us over and over again that any handle it initially seemed to have on its characters was purely coincidental.

So why do I like “The B. Team?” Because it at least has some good gags, and if you forget (or don’t know) that none of this goes anywhere and we might as well watch Michael on a treadmill for 30 minutes, it at least feels like it’s giving the season some direction.

But most of all, here’s what I like: Kitty Sanchez. Carl Weathers. Warden Gentles. Andy Richter. In one fell swoop the show brings back characters that are characters, and it’s such a refreshing taste after China Garden and Marky Bark. Perhaps — it even seems to suggest — those boobish cartoons can one day be remembered as fondly as these old hands. You know that smile you got on your face when Carl Weathers helped himself to a Grinch doll? Maybe one day you’ll be just as happy to see your old pal China Garden!

Yeah, not likely. The reason it’s so nice to see these characters again isn’t just because they were great enough characters that we missed them, but because it means there isn’t any room for the lesser creations of season four to intrude on our fun.

We do get to meet one other new face, though: Rebel Alley. It’s not glaring here in her first appearance, but with the benefit of hindsight I can say I’m disappointed that she also doesn’t have much character. Compared to past season-long romances like Marta or Rita, there’s nothing going on with this character, and no particular reason that Michael would fall for her particularly, any more than he’d fall for any attractive woman.

Sure, he says she reminds him of his dead wife (real artful way of bringing that back, too) but that’s never been why Michael’s chased girls in the past. I would have preferred there to be something more to it than the fact that Michael gets a boner when he sees redheads.

Oh well. It may not get us anywhere, but Warden Gentles failing to get the hang of his iPad is worth the half hour in itself. It’s a little frustrating that the most serialized season of the show refuses to actually go anywhere, but as long as we can keep having fun along the way, I’m happy.

Spoiler: We don’t keep having fun along the way.

Episode 4: “The B. Team”
Central Character: Michael
Other Family Appearances: Maeby, George Sr., Tobias
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: “She’s British so she doesn’t seem…nobody can ever tell that she’s disabled.”
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: Pretty much any exchange with Ron Howard could do to be tightened up.
Best Line / Exchange:

ANDY: Help me remember. What did we do together?
MICHAEL: You came over for a chicken and hamwater dinner that my family threw to raise some funds for itself.
ANDY: And they’re finally getting around to making a movie about that, huh?

The Venture Bros., What Color is Your Cleansuit?

When I reviewed our first taste of season 5 (a Halloween episode shuffled up in the production order) I was knee-deep in reviewing the 10th series of Red Dwarf. That’s a show that I’d list among my all-time favorites, but reviewing series 10 was an exercise in ongoing disappointment. Characters weren’t themselves, the plotting was messy, and the writing — let’s not be coy — was pretty awful. The Venture Bros. proved itself to be a very timely breath of fresh air, and it was nice to be back in the capable hands of writers who knew where they were going, and who were going to take interesting detours along the way.

Now, with the proper premiere of season 5, I’m knee-deep in reviewing the fourth season of Arrested Development, which is proving to be an exercise in ongoing disappointment for the same reasons. And, once again, The Venture Bros. pops up to remind me that no, it’s not just me. Red Dwarf and Arrested Development have lost some significant sense of identity. The Venture Bros. knows very well what it is, and what it needs to be, and while it’s not a show without blemish, it’s been pretty uniformly laudable in the way it always manages to pull itself forward.

That’s not to say that I loved “What Color is Your Cleansuit?” It is to say, rather, that even as it stumbles it reminds us that it knows what it is, and it reassures us that if we thought it was worth following along in the past, it will continue to reward us for following it into the future.

The action of the episode picks up after last season’s double-length finale, “Operation: P.R.O.M.” Interestingly, though, it covers around three months’ worth of plot, and as such zips right past the events of “A Very Venture Halloween.” Not much is made of the time skip (at least not yet…there’s every chance we’ll get more of it later in the season) but that’s okay. The Venture Bros. had its time-jumping fun with “Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel” as the season four premiere, and it’s nice that this episode doesn’t fall back on the same, admittedly tempting, mechanic.

Unfortunately “What Colors is Your Cleansuit?” doesn’t quite earn its own doubled length. I wouldn’t say that there’s much filler really (the Quizboy / St. Cloud stuff could have been shuffled off to episode two without making much of a difference, but it all signified interesting evolutions for Billy and Pete and was quite fun on its own), but unlike “Operation: P.R.O.M.” this doesn’t feel like a plot that deserved the extra space.

The basic narrative is that Dr. Venture was contracted by his brother to design and deliver custom ray shields for the new Gargantua-2 space colony. Having done nothing, Venture’s in a scramble to complete the project in 90 days, and he enlists the help of any college student foolish enough to apply with Venture Industries as an intern.

That’s a great Venture setup, and the episode begins with the team cleaning up and prepping some disused areas of the compound for the project, which provides the episode right off the bat with a nice sense of momentum and a thematic feeling of freshness. Once the interns arrive Dr. Venture splits them into three groups, based on the color cleansuit they’ve been assigned, with the green suits essentially becoming his domestic servants.

This latter detail in itself is also great, as of course Dr. Venture wouldn’t assemble any kind of team that wasn’t at least partly devoted to waiting on him hand and foot, and the class structure of the interns degrades quickly into an echo of the infamous Stanford prison experiment. Hatred comments later that he’s surprised this cruel social order sprung up among them in only three months, but as the real life equivalent demonstrated clearly, it can become pretty solidly installed in a matter of days.

The Venture twist is that since the industrial workers are exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and the domestic workers are not, there evolves a literal predator and prey relationship as well. Soylent Green gets a predictable (but fun) shoutout, but since the stronger, more brutal students actually kill and eat the weaker race of green suits there’s a strong echo of the Morlock and Eloi relationship from The Time Machine, which we know Dean and Hatred both read in season four.

So far, so great. Unfortunately it doesn’t really go anywhere from there. The students are cured (cleverly by Dr. Girlfriend’s antidote, rather than Venture’s Hail-Mary mix of narcotics and antibiotics), which definitely feels like a pulled punch considering the fact that The Venture Bros. has had no problem letting cruel consequences stick in the past. And that’s about it; the story ends after some fun detours but no real resolution.

I do almost wonder if this plot would have been better served by actually being spread out over B-plots in a few episodes. We could raise the ray shields issue here and segregate the interns, and let it be a few weeks before we start seeing how their society has started to crumble, and a few more before we get a full episode-length plot about the cannibalism and antidote. I’m not really sure…I just think it’s an interesting point of consideration.

As it stands, condensed into one long episode, I think it lacks the punch that the previous three season premiers had. “What Color is Your Cleansuit?” is full of great moments (from Billy being commanded to eat a jar of pennies — a joke that unlike anything in Arrested Development season four actually does go around from being annoying to being hilarious — to Dr. Venture running simulations regarding the fate of his interns by playing The Oregon Trail) and such perfect character interplay that I’m reminded of why I fell in love with this show in the first place.

It’s great to be back with these characters again. That’s something I wish I could say about Red Dwarf and Arrested Development, but I know it’s not worth being with any characters again at the expense of the writing quality behind them. The Venture Bros. doesn’t have that issue. While I wish the episode committed even more fully to its dark premise, I have no real concerns about what we ended up with, and it sets up a lot of brilliant ground for the rest of the season to explore.

Dean in particular continues to grow and change as a character, and if this episode taken in tandem with “A Very Venture Halloween” is anything to go by, season five may very well turn out to be his story. Dean, the most rigid and naive Venture, just might figure out who he really is…and that’s something Jackson and Doc can only pull off because they know their characters so well.

If they didn’t…well, The Venture Bros. would just be a cartoon.

Arrested Development, Indian Takers

If you had told me before this season began that Lindsay’s episode would have been miles better than Tobias’s, I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s the case without question, though, and that says more about the bumbling “A New Start” than it does about anything “Indian Takers” does right.

I’ve already discussed my disappointment with the way the individual episodes of this season fail to fit together, but I think it’s worth mentioning that this disappointment could have been avoided entirely if the season didn’t want to fit together. If we had gotten a series of 15 isolated character sketches, we could have taken them at face value. Instead we have 15 components that struggle against themselves to form something bigger, and this reaching for narrative complexity ends up undermining its success.

In “Flight of the Phoenix” and “Borderline Personalities,” we had smaller stories that didn’t exactly close off by the episode’s end, but which progressed at least to natural breaking points. “Indian Takers” is the first of many episodes this season that just shows us a bunch of stuff happening and then suddenly ends because there’s nowhere left to take it.

In fact, it plays out like one of Tobias’s “Yes And…” improvisations that we see in the episode; desperate, flailing attempts to conjure a story from nothingness, which ends with hands being thrown up and the experiment abruptly stopped. I’d say that qualifies as thematic resonance but for that to be the case Hurwitz and co. would have had to have deliberately given us a disappointing episode, and I doubt that’s what happened.

I’m being hard on the episode, but the fact is that the first act or so holds a lot of promise. Lindsay fleeing to India to do some impulsive soul searching is a perfect setup for the flighty character (as is the fact that she only makes it 2/3 of the way through Eat, Pray, Love before running off, inspired), and Lindsay returning to Tobias after flying halfway around the world to get away from him is also in line with her personality and her history.

Unfortunately that’s only the first act. In an earlier episode of Arrested Development this might have been a B-plot, and Lindsay’s return would have been the end of the story, probably capped off by some unfortunate phrasing on Tobias’s part that suggests he wants to be buttfucked by a man. However this is season four, which for some reason I still can’t understand seems to think it needs longer episodes when it has so much less to say, and we have a lot of filler between this and the episode’s end.

There’s a lengthy detour with a Realtor — a welcome Ed Helms, whose cheerful on-screen presence overshadows some pretty lazy writing — another Lindsay and Tobias fight, and then the major development of the episode: a trip to the Method One Clinic.

Tobias misunderstanding the name of the organization is a nice gag, but we get mired there for a while, then get swept along with a junkie couple to a barter restaurant, where Lindsay and Tobias run off separately with the junkies, and then Lindsay has sex with the guy, and the guy says he has “face blindness” so that we can have some jokes about that, and then Lindsay is naked and an ostrich attacks her and an old woman calls her a slut. Cool story, bro.

That sort of thing might pass for a plot on a lot of shows nowadays, but on Arrested Development it’s glaringly sloppy. Lindsay’s soul-searching / bargain hunting in India should have been the focus of this one…instead it’s just a spark meant to kick her through the gauntlet of nonsense the episode really wants to show us — but can’t figure out why — before it ends. Yes and…yes and…yes and.

One of the other problems here is the same problem we had in “Borderline Personalities:” the new characters are simply too broad to care about. At least in “Borderline Personalities” we had Heart-Fire, whose joke actually had some genius to it…and Dr. Norman and China Garden don’t reveal themselves as irritatingly one-note until later in the season. Here we get Marky Bark (descended from Johnny Bark in season one*, because why not) and DeBrie, who punish us for being amused at the methadone / Method One misunderstanding by hanging around all season being annoying.

This is the kind of episode that could afford some narrative messiness in favor of payoff down the line, but these characters don’t really go anywhere. (Maria Bamford as DeBrie at least comes close, but we’ll discuss that in another episode.) Marky Bark’s face blindness offers a chuckle when he not only kicks open a bathroom door to tell the wrong woman he loves her but goes back to the bathroom to apologize, but that’s about it. Every time we return to it it’s the same joke, static, and the show hopes it will somehow just come across as funnier the next time. It never does.

I’m also disappointed by the fact that Lindsay actually has sex with him. In earlier “seeing other people” plots, both Lindsay and Tobias were failures, and naturally gravitated back toward each other. This was both more satisfying — we, as viewers, do want them together — and funnier, especially because the writers had to come up with cogent reasons that eligible men wouldn’t want to be with Lindsay. It might have been expected, but it forced the writers to work for the payoff, and their hard work showed. Especially when compared to this, in which they just have sex and that’s that. That’s not as rewarding, and it takes a lot less effort from all sides. (So to speak…)

In earlier seasons I liked that Lindsay and Tobias were a failure as a couple, but also proved themselves to be failures apart as well. It was cute, and it was interesting. Now, suddenly, they both do quite well apart (spoiler warning), and that’s another step backward in a season that’s been full of them.

Oh well. I’ll have more to say in the Tobias episode for sure, but I do want to end on a big nitpick about the India stuff. (You didn’t think I’d just let myself be satisfied with something I like, did you?)

The casual racism in the first episode involved blacks and Muslims, in episode two we got our hooks in the Asians, and now we’re picking on the Indians. Some of it plays well enough when they’re reacting to Lindsay and playing up the stereotype in order to swindle her, but this episode provides some pretty concrete evidence that it’s not the characters being racist…it’s the show.

When Lindsay asks about a swimming pool, the hotel receptionist tells her, “It’s hard to tell because there are so many people in it, but yes it is a pool.” Later the narrator makes a similar joke about the ocean. If it were Lindsay saying these things (and there’s no reason it shouldn’t have been) it would have told us something about the character and we could have laughed. Instead, it tells us something about the show, which wants us to laugh at them, and that’s problematic. There’s also the clumsy dialogue on the bus about how much worse it would be to hit a cow than a tourist, and it just feels like lazy, embarrassing standup repurposed as a sitcom script. This isn’t funny…it’s just putting a stereotype on display and having it dance for us. Arrested Development, you’re better than this.

Oh well. Up next is another Michael episode. If anyone can get this mess in order, it’s him.

Episode 3: “Indian Takers”
Central Character: Lindsay
Other Family Appearances: Lucille, Tobias, Maeby
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: “I was thinking of Mike, the hot seaman.”
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: The exchange with the Realtor, in which the audience grasps the joke in around three seconds, but is stuck listening to it over and over again for the next several minutes. Lindsay and Tobias shouting at each other through their cavernous home is a close second.
Best Line / Exchange:

TOBIAS: It shouldn’t affect our area. He’s over by where the fountain is.

—–
* Am I the only one who doesn’t like the SHOWSTEALER PRO watermark over the old footage? I guess the joke only really lands if you pirated the first three seasons. Otherwise all it does is prevent the new footage from flowing naturally from the old and makes the whole thing feel even more artificial. That’s a notable step down from the brilliant retreads and retellings we got in the original run.

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