Review: “Borderline Personalities,” Arrested Development season 4, episode 2

Before I got a chance to watch these episodes, I made a point of avoiding spoilers. One thing I did read from folks who had gotten a head start on me, though, was that the first few episodes were a bit exposition-y…stick with them, however, and things only get better.

Watching these first few episodes, then, actually had me feeling like I might fall in love with this season. After all…I liked them. I had some reservations, but they were nothing insurmountable. And if they only got better? Well, then this really could have been something magical.

Looking back, though, I think the first few episodes are actually the best the season has to offer. They at least succeed in telling their own smaller stories, and give us tantalizing glimpses of what’s to come…rather than the clumsy, cheap editing that takes its place later.

I’m thinking specifically of something “Borderline Personalities” does perfectly, which itself feels like the fulfillment of a promise you didn’t even realize you’d entered into. In the first episode, “Flight of the Phoenix,” we see Michael talking to George Sr. and Lucille in the penthouse. The elder Bluths announce they are getting a divorce and the camera pulls back to reveal Buster, shrieking in agony.

That’s funny enough on its own, so when “Borderline Personalities” returns to it we remember what happened. In fact, it seems like we’re just being shown the same clip again, but this time it continues a little further, and some sexual details are spilled causing the camera to pull out again, this time revealing GOB on the couch, groaning in nausea.

It’s funny all over again, and probably even moreso this time because this additional moment is so unexpected.

It works very well, and it serves as the proof of concept for exactly the kind of comic rhythm Hurwitz should have been — and probably was — shooting for with this entire season. When you have overlapping episodes like this, the concern is always going to be that the gimmick will outweigh the writing. Here, Hurwitz shuts us up fast. Not only will these scenes overlap, but when they do you’ll find more to like about them every time.

Unfortunately this is about the only time in the season that it works. We return to the penthouse again (and to the Queen Mary debacle, and to Cinco de Cuatro) and each time learn that somebody else is present, or hear a bit more of somebody else’s conversation, but it doesn’t feel as natural and well-earned as it does here. It does feel gimmicky, and when we lose clever reveals in favor of simply editing away in the middle of a conversation so that we’ll have something left to show later, I’m pretty confident in saying that it outweighs the writing as well.

That’s actually the worst thing I can say about “Borderline Personalities;” it makes the less graceful maneuvers carried out by the rest of the season look that much worse in comparison.

The story this time around is about as self-contained as Michael’s was. We dip into other territory, and we absolutely end the episode on a note that suggests we have a long narrative ahead of us, but we follow one character through a small journey (a doomed business plan, just like Michael) and the consequences flow smoothly from the character’s actions. As I mentioned in the “Flight of the Phoenix” review, this shouldn’t be something that specifically needs to be praised, but in light of what’s to come it’s absolutely worth clinging to while we still have it.

George Sr.’s story involves his twin brother Oscar, unsurprisingly. In an effort to double dip on a desert land investment (which he only made in the first place in order to put the squeeze on the US Government) George Sr. hosts a spiritual getaway for CEOs and other businessmen. The centerpiece of the experience is an hour and a half in a mud hut, where everybody sits and sweats until they begin to hallucinate…at which point George Sr. delivers a rousing a speech and offers them inner peace (and bottomless lemonade) for a mere $15k.

Of course it’s actually Oscar sweating it out in the hut, which is how George Sr. keeps his energy high enough to deliver the sales pitch. And like Michael’s plot from the last episode, it’s silly enough to be funny, but absolutely true to the character.

We also get introduced to a few guest characters who will be sticking around, for better or worse, for the rest of the season. There’s Dr. Norman, a disgraced anesthesiologist whose “Nobody cares about the part of the oath you kept” makes him sound like he’s going to be a far more interesting character than he turns out to be*, and his better half China Garden, who gets a paragraph all of her own…

I don’t understand the joke with China Garden. She shares a name with an actual Chinese restaurant that turns up later in the season, so George Sr. confusing her with it when they’re introduced doesn’t even qualify as a joke. She’s shrill and argumentative, which would be fine, I guess, if that was just a quirk of her character…but later on we meet another group of Asians who all behave the same way, which suggests something very problematic that doesn’t even deserve to be unpacked. Taken in conjunction with what I referred to as “the casual racism” in my review of the previous episode, I have to wonder how “casual” it really is.**

Thankfully we’re also introduced to Heart-Fire, played wonderfully by Mary Lynn Rajskub. She’s another one-joke character (she communicates by thought…and not very well) but that joke evolves many times over, and always in a new and funny way. It’s the difference between finding comic mileage in a joke, and leaving a joke where it began…which, sadly, is what happens to the rest of the characters we meet this time around. Heart-Fire returns, and the joke continues to evolve. She’s great, but I wish she wasn’t such a glaring exception to the season four norm.

With these first two episodes, I feel like Hurwitz is just about where he wants to be. He’s creating isolated pieces that, ultimately, interlock and reveal something greater. We get a sense of that with the penthouse scenes, and while both stories are left wide open, they also feel like they advanced neatly to their natural breaking points.

That’s all about to change, and that’s unfortunate. Because these really should be the weakest episodes. It really should only get better from here. Instead, we’re just left with a grand narrative promise destined to remain unfulfilled.

Episode 2: “Borderline Personalities”
Central Character: George Sr.
Other Family Appearances: Michael, Lucille, Buster
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: Only two overt references by my count, and both were pretty good. In one, Lucille 2 dresses her adopted Hispanic son in the wig and freckles we remember from the Spanish soap operas in season one…it’s a nice visual callback. In the other, George Sr. and Lucille discuss legal issues with a young Barry, who tells them a husband and wife can’t be charged for the same crime. The “We have the best ****ing lawyer!” reversal is a perfect example of how to do these things right.
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: Buster helping Lucille smoke. The mumbled dialogue suggests it might have been conceived as a quick cutaway or something to be overdubbed with narration, but as it stands it really slows down the pace of an already sluggish episode.
Best Line / Exchange:

GEORGE SR.: You know, I shouldn’t judge. Because you have friends and I…I envy that.
OSCAR: You’re welcome to my friends, brother.
GEORGE SR.: …I don’t want these.

* The problem with Dr. Norman is the problem we’ll have more or less across the board this season: the supporting characters are painfully one-note. It’s even worse when measured here against returning guest stars like Henry Winkler and Ed Begley Jr…they played characters that were arguably one-note as well, but the performances all suggested something richer…a more complete personality than we needed to see. They were never the cartoon characters we get inundated with this time around, and that’s a problem with both the performances of the new characters and the writing behind them.

** It’s also a problem when we suddenly populate this universe with caricatures because it rips the character distinctions of the past three seasons away. If everyone on Earth is a bumbling, screaming idiot — and there are certainly enough new characters this season to suggest that — then there’s no comedy to be had when we encounter someone who’s supposed to stand out as a bumbling, screaming idiot. Gene Parmesan was funnier because we had Ice to compare him to. Barry’s incompetence is easily measured against the much more capable (sorry, professional) Wayne Jarvis. Even GOB has Tony Wonder. We need to see people who are good at what they do as well, otherwise the idiocy becomes meaningless. In fact, forgive me for this, but if Rita were introduced in season four, her retardation wouldn’t distinguish her at all. That might sound crass, but think about it for a moment.

Review: “Flight of the Phoenix,” Arrested Development season 4, episode 1

I don’t know if I like this season of Arrested Development. Of course, I don’t know if I dislike it either. As I write this review of the first episode, I’m only halfway through the batch. This has given me, I think, an interesting vantage point: I’m far enough along that I get a sense of what the season is trying to do, but not far enough along that I know how it pulls everything — or fails to pull everything — together.

What I do know is that this season — with its unique structure, twisting timelines and gradual plot reveals — had the potential to be the best one yet. It isn’t.

A lot of this is due to the simple fact that Mitch Hurwitz couldn’t get the cast’s schedules to align. (There were reportedly some budgetary setbacks as well but I don’t know anything about those.) Without the ability to get every actor in the same room at the same time on every day of filming, Hurwitz splintered his narrative. In one episode we’ll see what GOB is up to, in another we’ll check in with Lucille, and of course we’ll circle around and see what wacky Uncle Tobias has been doing as well.

While this sounds gimmicky, the logistical fact is that it was this or nothing, and that goes a long way toward excusing it for even the most negative viewers. What goes the rest of the way toward excusing it is the fact that Arrested Development had an incredibly rich roster of characters in the first place. When you first hear that each installment will be centered around a different character, your reaction is probably skepticism that Character X can carry a full episode on his or her own. Then you stop, think for a second, and realize that any character in this show can carry an episode.

Arrested Development arrived more or less fully formed with its pilot. We got a sense of who everybody was, and also a sense of what got them there. The fact that they then spent three seasons evolving further was something akin to magic.

It would have been enough to keep them in stasis — they were certainly interesting enough as they were — but instead we got to watch them grow, or choose not to grow, and interact in fascinating ways as they each complemented and undermined each other’s goals.

The reset button was never pressed…sure, they’d eventually gravitate back to their comfort zones, but there was always a sense that everything that had happened along the way had really happened, and is now a part of their shared history. Of course, the narratives and sub-narratives that spanned multiple episodes meant that even as one character was returning back to center, there was at least one other plate spinning somewhere to keep up the illusion (…Michael) of forward progression. Long story short: it was good writing.

Which brings us to season four, which isn’t really able to rely on that formula. We have 15 new episodes, but only one plot…and halfway through the season I couldn’t spoil it for you if I wanted to, because I still don’t understand it. That’s okay, or would be okay, as long as the individual episodes accomplish something along the way to stitching up the greater whole. Sometimes they do…other times they definitively do not.

“Flight of the Phoenix” is actually a strong contender for my favorite episode so far, largely because it raises an issue of its own, sees the consequences through, and then resolves them. That shouldn’t sound like much for an episode of television to do, but in light of what follows it feels like an achievement.

Arrested Development was always at its most impressive when it discovered some throwaway detail embedded in its past that, suddenly, could have a new and intriguing resonance. In this case, it’s Michael’s earlier threats to leave the family and run away to Phoenix. Not only does he do this at the end of the episode, but the fact that Phoenix (of any city in the country) was chosen for this detail in the past means we’re now treated to some great jokes about Michael attending notorious scam The University of Phoenix, as well as getting a subtle echo in the fact that the show itself has risen once again. It’s a great theme which gives the episode a sense of consistency that a lot of what follows doesn’t have.

Also working hugely in its favor is the father / son dynamic. Whenever I rewatch the original run, I’m struck by how wonderful the relationship is between Michael and George Michael. They love each other, but are constantly tripping over their own communication, shutting each other out without meaning to. I’m also struck by how unfortunate it is that that theme softened massively after season one. While I don’t think the show got worse when it charted zanier territory, it did leave less room for single-minded Michael and his awkward son to share quiet moments together…which, in turn, made the heart of the show that much more difficult to find.

Here it’s back in full force, and it serves a dual purpose: not only are we re-exploring the relationship between these two characters, but we’re being shown — more vividly than ever — just how delusional Michael is. George Michael has grown up, and he’s starting to see his father for what he really is. In what is unquestionably the most heart-breaking moment in the episode, we see that George Michael voted his father out of the dorm by starting to write “Dad,” but crossing it out and replacing it with the word “Michael.” It’s a rich moment that speaks silent volumes about how the dynamic has shifted, and Michael sulking out of the dorm is the ending the episode should have had.

Instead, however, we get a trip to the airport, a short flight to Phoenix, another flight back, and then a check-in at Lucille’s penthouse. It’s flab appended to what could have been a clean episode, and that’s a criticism I think you’ll be hearing a lot. Streaming on demand instead of airing in a rigid timeslot means Arrested Development has as much time as it needs to tell its story…but it also unintentionally reinforces the creative value of rigid timeslots: choosier editing.

Because these episodes have more room to sprawl, we end up with lengthy digressions and repeated jokes that overstay their welcome. We end up with scenes that would barely deserve to be retained as extra footage on a DVD. We have, basically, a lack of focus, and this works against the final product. That’s why we have the pointless scene with the twins, why Michael and George Michael have the same vague exchange about how the room sharing isn’t working (one single, tighter exchange would have packed a lot more punch) and why we waste so much time in laughless strategizing over who is going to be voted out of the dorm.

The flab is noticeable and absolutely on display, but in “Flight of the Phoenix” there’s at least a lot more going for it. The laughs, when they come, are solid. Kristen Wiig is unbelievably perfect as a young Lucille. The casual racism tossed around about tipping black people and investigating people in burqas is a bit left-field, but it’s at least funny and says something about the characters making those observations.

Best of all, however, we get to see Michael see through his vision of Sudden Valley without interference from or reliance upon his family. As it must be, it’s a total failure, and it’s great to finally see illustrated what had been so masterfully implied from the start: Michael may be the most capable Bluth…but that certainly isn’t saying much.

“Flight of the Phoenix” is a good episode, with a daringly dour atmosphere to position as the fourth season premiere. However it’s also overstuffed and doesn’t seem to have a sense of where its real narrative closure needs to be, nor does it seem capable of telling its great scenes from its needless ones.

From what I’ve seen, the balance is never really found…but it should still be an interesting ride.

Episode 1: “Flight of the Phoenix”
Central Character: Michael
Other Family Appearances: GOB, George Michael, Maeby*
Most Clumsy Reference to Original Run: “Loose seal.”
Scene That Most Needed Tightening: The vote planning sequence, which should have been about 10 seconds long and handled through narration. Instead it drags on for two full minutes, and is then reprised in the airport.
Best Line / Exchange:

MICHAEL: Maybe I’ll go to the real Phoenix and finish school. They’ve got one in Costa Mesa.


* Not counting the penthouse scene, which is returned to throughout the season, the younger version of George and Lucille played by different actors, or archival footage.

Update: Arrested Development and Venture Bros. reviews

Venture Bros. Season 5 Reviews

So I just realized that I wanted to review every episode of Arrested Development season four and The Venture Bros. season five.

And they’re back to back. Arrested Development is currently streaming (I’ve made it through around four episodes) and The Venture Bros. starts June 2, so I think there’s going to be some overlap.

What I’ll probably do is space out the Arrested Development ones for a while, since they’re not time sensitive and were dropped in one big lump on the viewing public, while The Venture Bros. is airing on a traditional weekly schedule. Who knows what I’ll get up to. What I thought would be a nice easy way to WRITE THINGS ON THE BLOG I OWN now actually feels really intimidating.

Is there either show you think I should prioritize? Or do you not care about anything I have to say ever?