Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 26th, 2011

Learning from the masters: Arrested Development

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As long as we’re on the subject of ensembles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the best ensemble sitcom of the decade, and arguably the best television show of any kind: Arrested Development. Like most people, I caught up with this series long after it had been canceled, and for a while, I was reluctant to try it, mostly because it was clear to me that this was a writer’s show, with elaborate plots and storylines, which are usually deadly to comedy. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course: once I finally gave it a chance, thanks to its availability on Hulu, I discovered that this is the rare series that successfully blends comedy, farce, and surrealism into a flawless whole. And while Arrested Development remains so singular a series that it turned out to be difficult—even for its creator, Mitch Hurwitz—to apply its lessons elsewhere, it’s still tempting to ask how the show does what it does.

Granted, nothing ruins a joke like explaining it, and Arrested Development can hardly be reduced to a set of rules. Still, it’s possible to gently examine the roots of the show’s appeal. First off, it has a strong cast playing extraordinary characters, all of whom compete fiercely and successfully for the viewer’s attention. It’s worth emphasizing how unusual this is: in most ensemble shows, not every character is equally compelling, but in Arrested Development, everyone in the primary cast is ridiculously watchable, and even among the scores of recurring characters, there’s barely a dud (except perhaps Martin Short’s painfully unfunny Uncle Jack). And as the AV Club’s Steve Heisler recently pointed out, the enormous cast works, from a dramatic perspective, because each character has a clearly defined selfish agenda. (I once used The Godfather as an illustration of how large casts need to be defined by their objectives, but Arrested Development may be an even better example.)

Second, this is an incredibly organized show. One reason that Arrested Development struggled to find an audience is that it makes the viewer work, or at least pay attention, in a way that other sitcoms don’t. As David Mamet likes to point out, you can tune into a show like Friends halfway through and know, within seconds, what the story is. Arrested Development is the exception: it asks us to keep track of a huge cast, an intricate ongoing plot, and throwaway gags that often don’t become clear until after multiple viewings of an entire season. This isn’t entirely unprecedented: The Simpsons did it for many years. But it took The Simpsons at least three seasons to ramp up to its peak velocity, while Arrested Development hit the ground running. And, as in most great shows, form is inseparable from content: it was the first sitcom to use the now-popular documentary format, but so far, it’s the only one to use that form (with cutaway shots, archive footage, and above all Ron Howard’s terrific narration) to increase the density of information that the viewer can process.

Third, and perhaps most crucially, the show used its exceptional cast and innovative narrative techniques to tell strong, emotionally grounded stories. True, the emotion usually only crept in at the last minute of each episode, but as writers on The Simpsons like to point out, fifteen seconds of sentiment is often all you need, while two minutes is probably too much. Arrested Development‘s greatest achievement lies in making you care, weirdly, about the characters: Will Arnett’s work as Gob stands as a master class in turning a gloriously unsympathetic character into someone easy to love. The result was a show that, for all its frenetic pacing, was also willing to take its time when it counted—for instance, in the slow burn of Charlize Theron’s arc as Rita, Michael’s mysterious girlfriend, which took five episodes to build to an unforgettable conclusion. And for all its imitators, it stands alone. There may or may not be a movie; Mitch Hurwitz may never have a chance to make a show this good again. But he did it once. And that’s enough to ensure his immortality.

In the meantime, though, here’s some Tobias:

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2011 at 7:59 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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