Monday, March 21, 2005

Opie's All Grown Up

It's been very rare that I have fallen in love with TV shows over the years. The first was Hill Street Blues with its philosophy that work is messy, life is chaos, and there is very little we can do to change either. The second was Buffy the Vampire Slayer with its beyond belief soulfulness and unmatched depth and introspection, which among other things was a great reminder that angst and humor walk hand in hand.

I'm not saying I'm in love with Fox's Arrested Development, yet, but I have certainly developed a great admiration for the show. It is in a word, witty, and how it has been able to sustain its ever so subtle momentum over two seasons makes it the one show on TV that I make sure I don't miss. There wasn't a bad episode in the first season and though the second has been a bit more inconsistent, its best moments are easily among the funniest I've ever seen on TV.

Of course as in the case of most TV shows with any shred of originality, Arrested Development has been slow to find a mass audience. Even after winning the Emmy last year for "Best Comedy" the show hasn't exactly been burning up the Nielsen charts.

The show would probably be worth watching if you just assembled its ridiculously talented cast (especially Jeffrey Tambor from The Larry Sanders Show and Hill Street, and David Cross whose self deprecating sarcasm made him the best panelist on Politically Incorrect ) and let them improvise.

But it is the show's writing that is its greatest strength. At its base Arrested Development is about a highly dysfunctional family like 90 percent of all sitcoms. But unlike most American comedies, the show's writers understand that comedy is funniest when it is derived from well developed characters reacting to situations and not from a situation being bizarre in itself.

The show's lead character Michael (played by Jason Bateman- my second favorite Bateman after his sister Justine), is the Bluth family's oldest son and it thus falls upon him to hold them together when their father is put in prison for embezzling funds from the family business. Bateman is terrific in the part and many of the show's better moments come from his deadpan reaction to learning the latest absurdity that a family member has found themselves in.

My favorite character (and one of my all-time favorite TV characters) is the oldest brother Gob (played by Will Arnett) who manages to have a massive ego at the same time as having a terminal case of fragile, folding self confidence. Gob is a failed magician even if he doesn't know it and he's always scheming to get Michael only to have his schemes usually end up helping Michael while still diminishing himself.

The other brother, Buster (played by Tony Hale), is dim and timid and a complete mama's boy. The show's latest storyline has Buster losing his hand, having had it bit off by a seal who got a taste for blood because Gob had used it in a failed magic act and had fed it rabbit. In an effort to retrieve the seal (and Buster's hand) the rescue crew accidentally cuts off the seal's flapper thus leaving it to swim forever in circles.

The show has had a lot of great guest performances from Henry Winkler's incompetent family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn (kind of the anti-Fonzie) to Liza Minelli, Martin Short, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Winkler's reoccurring character along with the show's producer, Ron Howard (who also serves as the narrator) makes Arrested Development seem like Happy Days revisited only this time the two men get to let their wicked sides flourish.

Even in Howard's better movies like Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind there has always been a hint of the all-American Opie that gives his work a sunny quality. Arrested Development uses Howard's narration to give it a dark edge and makes it clear that there isn't anything sympathetic about this pathetic family. At the same time they aren't evil or unredeemable and thus they are as realistic a family as you might ever see on TV.

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