After ‘Arrested Development’ Perfected the Situation Comedy, the Show Moved on to the ‘Structure…

By  · Published on June 4th, 2013

After ‘Arrested Development’ Perfected the Situation Comedy, the Show Moved on to the ‘Structure Comedy’

The original 3 seasons of Arrested Development that ran from 2003–2006 represent arguably the highest form of situation comedy. The show contrived and constructed a complex web of intersecting situations within each episode that continually developed and overlapped with each other throughout the series. Gags like Tobias’s coming out as a denim-cutoff-donning “never-nude” were briefly hinted at, later explained, then circuitously referenced during the rest of the series as the characters and the ensemble developed through a fast-paced narrative.

It’s Arrested Development’s deft balance of many simultaneous situations that made it such a continually rewarding, notably risky, and certainly groundbreaking show for network television: the show remunerates the attentive viewer by returning to gags and referencing situations from past episodes even as present situations rapidly advance. I can’t think of another show before it that successfully and inventively got so much mileage out of individual revisited gags. Rather than simply repeat the same gag, like a catchphrase, Arrested Development laboriously re-contextualized prior jokes with big and small variations on their results (e.g., the many ways Michael forgets who Anne is).

Netflix’s new season of Arrested Development is, as reported, comparably ambitious in its approach to the situation comedy. The show makes good on its promise of audacity by replacing its prior experimentation with the situation with an experiment in structure.

Except this new season exists in a world in which not only Arrested Development exists, but its influence has been well established. The original Arrested Development, in retrospect, seems prophetically tailor-made for binge-watching practices and close-viewing-enabling technologies that became popularized in its wake. In a post-Abrams, post-Harmon world of network TV, the viewing practices that Arrested Development cultivated in order to deliver its off-brand humor have now become the norm for a form of TV spectatorship that consumes television through any means other than watching at airtime.

Thus, Netflix seems the natural home base for the return of such a forward-looking sitcom. Unlike February’s House of Cards, which was basically a run-of-the-mill “quality drama” that could have aired on a basic cable network like AMC, Arrested Development is a show that provides a certain reward for viewers who watch it in large consecutive chunks. It was no surprise, then, to hear in advance that the new season would attempt a Rashomon-structured approach to the comedic situation, revisiting the same set of scenarios in a pretzel-shaped fashion from different characters’ points of view in a way that (theoretically) permits the viewer to watch all 15 episodes in any order they so choose, and to better understand previously scenarios and jokes as the set of situations are continuously returned to.

While the fourth season of Arrested Development certainly marks an ambitious approach befitting the new medium of television-after-television, with all its aspirations to maintain its place ahead of the curve, I’m not convinced that the show’s exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) play with structure actually develops and investigates new comic possibilities. To demonstrate this point, I’ll compare my favorite episode of the show’s original run to my favorite episode of the show’s new season.

Season 2, Episode 16: “Meat the Veals”

This is the third and final episode in which Tobias plays Mrs. Featherbottom, a British maid modeled after Mrs. Doubtfire that he invents in order to be closer to his family. George Sr. hides in the attic of the model home and seeks to renew his vows with Lucille over fear that Oscar is getting too close. Michael attempts to break apart George Michael’s desire to get pre-married to Ann by introducing her conservative Christian parents to his dysfunctional family, and ends up having a brief affair with Ann’s mother. This episode is also notable for introducing Franklin, Gob’s problematically caricatured African-American-coded puppet.

These various situational elements eventually come together in a brilliant comic climax that features Tobias as Mrs. Featherbottom, convinced that his family still isn’t keyed in to his disguise, driving a Union Jack’d Mini Cooper in the wrong lane to the church in which Ann and George Michael seek to get married; Frankin enduring racial profiling at the hands of OC police; Oscar and George, Sr. engaging in a go-nowhere twin fight.; Ann’s dad fighting Michael for the honor of Ann’s mother; and Ann’s sudden realization that she desires to be taught Michael’s “secular ways” demonstrated by the Bluth family’s frank discussion of their sexual misadventures.

Season 4, Episode 11: “A New Attitude”

Gob estranges himself from son Steve Holt despite promising to work in his bug extermination business, and fills Michael’s struggling Sudden Valley neighborhood with sex offenders in need of strict geographic specifications for residency after having breakfast with Tobias. Gob’s secret significant other is revealed to be Tony Wonder, his magician archrival, with whom Gob stages an affair because he believes Wonder to be gay, when Wonder is in fact posing as gay in order to entrap Gob. Gob gets in a fight with Michael, because Michael believes that Gob is seeing his new girlfriend, Rebel. Gob is tricked by Ann into having sex with Wonder after an elaborate plot that involves creepy Gob and Wonder masks.

This episode has a number of funny moments, including Gob and Wonder’s strained attempt to complete the same sentence, Gob’s confusion of a cross with a “t,” and Gob and Michael’s ball pit fight. But the episode, exemplary of the rest of Arrested Development’s fourth season, is more interested in revealing previously hidden elements of prior situations than allowing existing situations to develop and intersect, like the moment that displays Wonder hidden in a conspicuous beanbag chair at the gay club in which Gob stages a “break-up” from George Michael.

This approach to structure certainly has some unique comic potential, revealing punchlines previously hidden or alluded to, and is conversant with Arrested Development’s interest in letting jokes play out across rather than strictly within episodes. But such an approach also involves an incredible degree of comic labor for both the show and viewer: previously viewed moments have to play out entirely or in abbreviated form in order for a new gag or revelatory character development to be inserted into it. In “A New Attitude,” for instance, Gob’s act of telling off Steve Holt for being an absent son is screened twice before the beginning credits roll. Other gags are revisited not in order to mine their potential, but in service of the season’s labyrinthine structure.

Certainly, the new season has its moments of pure comic bliss (George and Buster driving around a circular building pretending that it’s a wall between the US and Mexico; the Funke family’s attempt to bake a live “Thanksgiving miracle”) and overflows with clever cultural, political, and self-reflexive references that are remarkably specific to the historical interim between the show’s cancellation and return (George Michael’s Social Network parody subplot; Herbert Love’s recasting of Herman Cain’s presidential run, complete with a smoking campaign manager; Ron Howard as “Ron Howard”), all of which retains the show’s status as well above par for the sitcom.

But the fourth season’s focus on structure in place of situation foregrounds the show’s web of intertextual references, rather than its careful unfolding of comic situations, as its primary locus of appeal. In Arrested Development’s original airing, in-jokes and oblique references provided ample rewards for the viewer who took the time and effort to revisit the show, yet the show still had a lot of comic value to offer to first-time viewers. The fourth season of Arrested Development is strictly for the fans, which is fine, but it feels like the potential of comic situations are occasionally sacrificed in order for us to admire the complexity of its form. In other words, the new season of Arrested Development may motivate the devoted fan to construct a temporal map of the season’s events sooner than it may cause him/her to actually laugh out loud. In a way, the fourth season reaps what the series sowed by distilling the cult television show to a complex web of clues and maneuvers that ultimately serves to reference only that web itself.

As exemplified by “Meat the Veals,” the first three seasons of Arrested Development traded in ensemble, developing the situations of its many characters until they intersected together. The new season uses such an intersection as a starting point and inverts the approach, focusing instead on the perspectives of individual characters. Where the show might gain complexity, it looses its sense of ensemble, or the comic development of the situation. When structural complexity doesn’t bring about new comic possibilities, then what exactly is the point – beyond admiring the show’s determination to remain groundbreaking even while re-writing itself into the corners of previously-told jokes?

To illustrate this final point, let’s compare Mrs. Featherbottom to the “Thanksgiving miracle,” for my money the best laugh-out-loud moment in the forth season. Mrs. Featherbottom, in her three successive episodes, is a character who offers many funny opportunities as s/he encounters the other characters and becomes involved in their situations. The Thanksgiving miracle is a hilarious and dark one-off sight gag that finds a live duck waddling to its possible demise in the oven of Tobias and Lindsay’s unfurnished mansion.

When Mrs. Featherbottom returns throughout episodes, s/he offers new comic possibilities in service of the other subplots. However, when the Thanksgiving miracle is revisited twice more, the show is essentially telling the exact same joke (same place/time/context/circumstances) with only the slightest of variation, and ultimately meets dwindling returns. Sure, original-run jokes like “never-nude” or the cornballer operate similarly, bit in those cases the familiar gag at least felt like it benefitted and grew from its placement in a new situation.

In short, sometimes it’s funnier to simply leave the live duck in the oven.

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