Arrested Development - Season One
It’s unusual for much to catch my eye on network television anymore. Hour long dramas can’t seem to move away from cops, lawyers, and doctors. Reality television has moved away from just observing its contestants, to seeing just how badly it can abuse them. Half hour sitcoms regurgitate stories and gimmicks with no apology, utilizing the same actors playing the same parts, over and over. And then there’s Fox... the network whose programming highlights include men being mauled by bears they married, and ugly women getting makeovers and then getting screwed over by men who they thought were rich. Finally though comes a show that combines the best elements of all of these genres to weave a rich, hilarious story about the most self centered people imaginable. "Arrested Development" is the result.
Imagine the story of The Royal Tennenbaums being told with the vérité style of documentaries and reality television and you have "Arrested Development", the story of the Bluth family. Until recently a rich family of socialites and odd characters, the story of the Bluths begins with the arresting of the family patron George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) for embezzlement, which leads to the freezing of the Bluth company assets. Suddenly with no money, the family must come together to survive this tragedy, under the leadership of middle son Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman).
The thing is, this isn’t the type of family that "comes together". Other than Michael and his son George-Michael (Michael Cera) who are well grounded in the real world, this family makes "Dynasty" look like a day in the park. Mother Lucille Bluth is an overly critical, vindictive woman who stabs at her progeny with insults every chance she gets, and works her mechanisms to keep the Bluth children from uniting against her. Eldest son George Oscar "Gob" Bluth (Will Arnett) is a magician - or perhaps better described as a failure of a magician. He accidentally gives away secrets, alienating himself from the magician’s society. He attacks life with a smug, holier-then-thou approach while wheeling around on a segway, and is the epitome of a rich son who has never honestly worked a day in his life. In fact he is only surpassed in that area by Lindsay Bluth Funke (Portia de Rossi), Michael’s twin sister. Always surrounded by money, the closest to work Lindsay has come is in organizing her constant fundraisers and social gatherings. Along with Lindsay is husband Tobias Funke (David Cross) a former psychiatrist who has abandoned that job (one that would actually support his family) for the pursuit of an acting career, and daughter Maeby Funke (Alia Shawkat) who is the consistently defiant daughter, always interested in whatever opposes her parent’s views. Finally, there’s Buster Bluth (Tony Hale), the youngest of the Bluth children and the oddest character television has seen since Mork. Buster has been babied and coddled all of his life, to the point that even as an adult there’s a virtual umbilical cord keeping him attached to his mother. Like his siblings, he too has never really worked, but has continued his education in one pointless pursuit after another.
So as you can see, this isn’t the type of family that'll understand what it means to have your assets frozen, or to have to work, or be nice to each other. Michael and his son are the only characters the audience can really identify with, normal people in a band of mean, self important snobs, and that’s what makes the show funny. The rest of the family is so out of touch with reality that watching them interact with each other and attempt to understand the situation their family is in, is outrageously funny. In a post dot-com crash, Enron type world, this family is the modern day version of "Married... With Children"’s Bundys; a family that treats its members with contempt and sarcasm rather then love and appreciation.
Most of the episodes of the series focus on elements of the family’s predicament - attempting to maintain their status and position with assets frozen and their world crashing around them. Other subplots include George Sr. adjusting to life in jail and finding religion (becoming Jewish), Buster’s new relationship with his mother’s social adversary Lucille II (Liza Minnelli), George-Michael’s infatuation with his cousin Maeby, and Michael’s interest in his brother Gob’s girlfriend. Of course the show does sometimes resort to traditional sitcom plotlines such as a son falling in love with his teacher, and then his father also falling in love with that teacher, but even that old story seems to have new life when told with the surreal perceptions of the Bluth characters.
Also helping to keep the show interesting, is that the story remains dynamic throughout every episode, meaning everything is not back to status quo in time for the end credits. Major developments are referenced in future episodes, but that doesn’t mean newcomers to the show will be lost, mostly thanks to the narration of the series (provided by executive producer Ron Howard), which adds just as much to the taste of the show as the Bluth characters themselves. The narrator helps explain events we’ve seen in previous episodes, or just events that occurred earlier in the character’s lives (before the show started following them). It really builds the whole documentary feel of the show, injecting even more humor into these stories.
"Arrested Development" is one of the best things to happen to television since the advent of color. Its unique vérité cinematography is a fresh approach towards the sitcom, allowing a cool method of telling the story of the Bluths. Unusual for Fox, they’ve recognized that they have a hit on their hands, and are actually giving it a go-ahead for a second season. Thanks to the nature of the show, there’s no telling what might happen next to these characters, but it’ll always be fun finding out.
Because of the dynamic nature of the show, DVD is a great way to see every part of each storyline, catching details you might have previously missed. "Arrested Development" really becomes more enjoyable when you have the opportunity to watch it in a marathon, but be warned - once you watch a couple of episodes it becomes hard to turn the show off. You’ll be hard pressed to push stop without wanting to see what the Bluth family will do next - even if you’ve seen these episodes before.
This three-disc set has one episode commentary per disc. The first commentary, on the extended pilot episode, is done by series creator Mitchell Hurwitz, directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and actor Jason Bateman. This is the best of the commentaries, actually shedding some light on the concept behind the series and some of the production methods used. In the other two commentaries (on episodes "Beef Consommé" and "Let Them Eat Cake") Hurwitz is joined by the complete cast, but it’s less fun to listen to. Unlike the crew, the cast cheers as each actor makes an appearance and just kind of gabs about little things. Both the cast and crew tracks are fun in that they aren’t boring (one of the advantages of lots of people involved on the commentaries), but the cast tracks are more of an effort in cheerleading while the crew track is at least informative. It’s a bummer the crew didn’t do more tracks. It especially would have been nice to have writers involved to talk more about their inspiration and writing process for each episode.
Each disc holds a couple of other extras beyond commentaries. The highlight for each disc are deleted/extended scenes from the episodes on that disc. These scenes show how strong the creative staff of the show is, because the deleted footage is just as strong as anything within the final episodes. Probably the only disappointment about the deleted scenes is they lack Ron Howard’s narration, which is instead provided by other miscellaneous crew’s voices. It’s rare to find deleted footage that is consistently this good. I would gamble the only reason this footage was removed was due to the time constraints of television, which again is high praise for the creative forces at work on this show.
Most of the rest of the extras are exactly that - extra. There’s a pretty good behind the scenes featurette that offers a look at the show from creation to casting to production. Other than that the extras are fun, but not the type of thing you’d watch more then once really. There’s footage from TVLand’s "Future Classic" award ceremony, including the promotional video they showed featuring interviews with David Cross, Will Arnett, and Jason Bateman, although really it’s the three of them being silly. A cast panel discussion from the Museum of Television & Radio shows the cast at a Q&A, although it isn’t the most informative. Another extra collects the music of series composer David Schwarz which for the most part is just music stingers, although there are a few gems in there that are instantly recognizable from the show, such as the theme music, or "Big Yellow Joint".
The biggest disappointment of the set is Ron Howard’s sneak peek at season two, which really is just Howard sitting in front of the camera talking about where the show could potentially go in the second season. I was hoping for some footage or something solid being discussed, instead of the speculation we seem to get from the Executive Producer. Very disappointing, and now I’ll have to wait until season two actually starts to find out what they’ll do next.
Disappointing and mundane extras aside, “Arrested Development” itself is more than enough reason to pick this set up. Television just doesn’t get this good often enough. If it did I might spend more time watching it instead of DVDs.
Reviewed By: Rafe Telsch