Guides | March 11, 2008 | Comments ()
When it came time to pick my choice for the first of our new Guide series — over the next four months or so, the Pajiba staff will be exploring the best 15 television seasons over the past 20 years — I really didn’t have any choice at all. I’ve already sorta discussed the best season of television ever (Season Four of “The Wire”), and I’ve written at length about my personal number two on the list of best seasons ever (“Freaks and Geeks”). So I just moseyed right on down to the third best season of TV ever, Season Two of “Arrested Development.” Right up front, let’s get this out of the way — going with Season Two is not meant to be any diss of the first or third season. If you want to argue that either or both of those are better, well, you may have a point. But for my money, the second season is where the show was just knocking it out of the park — tits to the wall — for 18 gloriously brilliant episodes.
I’ve talked before about my deep infatuation with really good comedy. Not that there’s anything wrong with well-done crass and crude — the dick and fart jokes of the world — but I think that truly smart, engaging comedy is one of the hardest things to get right in the world of entertainment. And while many have been close, no comedy series has ever touched the levels of “Arrested Development,” particularly this second season. I’ve watched this show several times over, and yet I still find new things to laugh at and appreciate with each go-round. The show actually grows, and I find my perspective and appreciation changing with repeated viewings. For example, the first time I watched the show, when it was originally airing, GOB was easily my favorite character. But now, he’s been easily surpassed by Buster, who just tickles me pink to no end. In fact, while there’s plenty to talk about with Season Two, Buster is the perfect place to start.
As most of you (should) know, Buster loses his hand in a seal attack about two-thirds of the way through Season Two and winds up becoming a monster with a hook. This whole storyline encapsulates many of the reasons why this show, and especially this season, is so fucking brilliant. First, it exemplifies just how much repeated viewings are rewarded. Not only does every episode build on the one before it, but the early episodes actually build on the later ones. So when Buster sees his old shaped-like-a-hand chair in the third episode (when he thinks he’s escaped to Mexico but is really in Santa Ana!), it’s funny enough on its own when he says, “I never thought I’d miss a hand so much.” But watching that episode again, knowing of the monster he’ll become? Brilliantly hilarious. Similarly, the “Afternoon Delight” episode from whence this Guide’s title comes features an amusing plotline where Buster becomes fascinated with one of those claw game machines and winds up getting himself a cute stuffed seal. The payoff in that episode comes when Buster uses a big construction machine clawy-type thinger to kinda/sorta help GOB out. But the real payoff comes with the foresight of his seal accident. Words can’t really do the genius of this type of comedy justice — if you’ve seen the show, you just know what I’m talking about and if you haven’t, you’ll just have to take my word for it. But the layers within each episode, and within so many of the jokes, is something you rarely see in any other comedy, because it’s just too damn hard to pull off. But these writers were smart enough to nail it.
Speaking of the writers, another thing that the Buster/seal/claw storyline shows is how well written and developed the characters were. Sure, there are and have been other comedies with richly developed characters. But I’m not sure I can think of another comedy with over-the-top, farcical characters that are nevertheless treated with such respect. Buster isn’t suddenly thrust into the ocean to face off against a seal. Rather, the season spends 10 episodes giving him a well laid out character arc which perfectly explains how and why the meek man-child would suddenly face his fear of the ocean and charge out into the great white. It starts with his mother signing him up for Army in the first episode, and then slowly builds with his training in the Army, with him finding out that Lucille is getting it on with his uncle/father, with his Lucille II dating issues, etc. By the time we get to episode 11, it makes complete and total sense that he’d run out into the ocean as he does, only to once again be hurt by a “loose seal.”
But if you step back and look at it, this is absolutely ridiculous — motherfucker gets his hand bitten off by a seal. For serious? And that’s the other thing that this storyline, and this episode in particular, shows, which is that while this show pulls off the smart, it can also be completely random and stupid and ridunkulous. A main character losing a hand in a seal attack would, on most shows, kinda be a big deal. And yet, the seminal moment is covered with eight simple words from Ron Howard during the last seconds of the show: “…and then a seal bites off his hand.” I mean: Jesus Christ. I remember the first time I saw that episode, I laughed my ass off, and then I thought to myself, “well there’s no way that’ll come back up next week.” But hell if he don’t have a hook for a hand after that. Amazing.
There are many things to love about “Arrested Development,” and as entertaining and well laid out as the plots are, my personal favorite element is the expert running gags. For example, it’s not just that there are character catch phrases, like Buster’s “hey brother” or GOB’s “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Rather, it’s almost like these catch phrases exist primarily so that the writers can do something better with them later on. For example, there’s a great scene where Maebe is telling some campers the urban legend about the guy with a hook. And of course, along comes Buster. Ever friendly and nice, he greets everyone with a “hey campers,” already funny just for playing on his usual line. But when the kids all scream and run, he immediately busts out with his new post-claw “I’m a monster!” And you know the writers who came up with that were sitting in their sunless little room just thinking of a way that they could work both dialogue elements, the soft spoken, friendly greeting and the shout of horror, into one wonderful moment.
It’s also clear that the writers love taking one character’s line and working it into another character’s mouth but, again, without forcing it (the most common example is that just about everyone busts out a “I’ve made a huge mistake” at some point). My favorite example of this type of word play just so happens to come out of my favorite overall running gag of Season Two, which is George Michael’s girlfriend, Ann. Ann is played up as this boring, frumpy thing of a girlfriend, and nobody can understand George Michael’s infatuation with her (when GOB first sees her, for example, he asks Michael: “That’s his girlfriend? …What is she, funny or something?”). But for Michael, it’s not just that he can’t understand why his son is with her, but he actively dislikes her. This manifests itself in two ways. First, Michael is constantly getting her name wrong, calling her Egg, Plant, Yam, Plain, etc. (“George Michael, I’m sure Egg is a very nice person. I just don’t want you spending all your money getting her glittered up for Easter.”) Second, whenever George Michael starts going off about some wonderful aspect of Ann, Michael’s response is invariably a disbelieving “her?” So late in the season, when Michael tells George Michael that he is once again dating Maggie Lizer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ “blind” lawyer) and George Michael comes back at him with a “her,” it’s brilliant. Especially because it’s not played with a wink-and-a-nod, a “I’m throwing your line back at you” type of thing. George Michael has no realization that Michael and others have repeatedly made the same digging comment about Ann — rather, it’s just the character’s gut reaction in that moment, and that’s why it’s not simply funny, but fucking hilarious.
All of which is to say, as I’ve suggested above, the show rewards faithful viewers who pay close attention. In an early episode of Season Two, Michael has to take a breast pump out of the attic because his father George (who spends most of the season hiding away in the attic) is using it for, uhm, inappropriate purposes. Several episodes later, George Michael happens to be looking for an air pump, and Michael almost casually mentions that he had to take all the pumps out of the attic awhile back. If you don’t remember that first joke, this second one isn’t even a joke to you — it’s just a line. But if you do remember, it’s gold. Similarly, in the second episode, part of the story revolved around Lindsay trying to actor Thomas Jayne, who was playing himself as the lead in Homeless Dad. Several episodes later, during a shot outside of a studio, the careful observer will notice a banner reading “Homeless Dad is America’s #3 Comedy.” And several episodes after that, when GOB is having an over-the-top dramatic moment, someone refers to him as Tom Jayne. Again, these two jokes are only funny to folks paying close attention to every piece of the show. And that the writers were willing to take the show to such a difficult place, entrusting in the smarts of its viewers, goes a long way to explaining why its popular appeal never got anywhere near its critical appeal.
Which isn’t to suggest, of course, that the show always takes the smart comedy high road. It’s just as good at taking pure slapstick, such as when Tobias (as Mrs. Featherbottom) tries to do a Mary Poppins floating-down-thanks-to-her-umbrella thing, only to come crashing into the coffee table. I literally rewound that scene four times while watching it last weekend. Similarly, the show can also bang out crass humor to compete with the best of them. Take Tobias lines like “I’ll be your wingman — even if it means me taking a chubby, I will suck it up” or “I’m afraid I just blue myself” or this gem of dialogue between Michael and Tobias:
Michael: But you got one of these too, didn’t you? You bought Lindsay at the same auction?
Tobias: Well yes, but I’m afraid I prematurely shot my wad on what was supposed to be a dry run if you will. So I’m afraid I have something of a mess on my hands.
Michael: It’s just … there’s so many poorly chosen words in that sentence.
Or the best crass moment of them all:
Michael: [To GOB, about his new boat] Get rid of “The Seaward.”
Lucille: I’ll leave when I’m good and ready.
You know, when I think of the current crop of comedies, I’d say that “30 Rock” is the heir apparent in terms of being able to readily move back and forth between the smart and “stupid” comedy. And I was actually reminded of “30 Rock” at one point while re-watching Season Two. “30 Rock” has done several product placement gags (off the top of my head, there was the Snapple bit and the bizarre Verizon “can we have our money now” bit) but I had forgotten that “Arrested Development” has an even more ridiculous and over-the-top product placement gag, with a whole scene being set in a Burger King, loaded with references to how wonderful the BK is. Totally bizarre meta humor that few shows even try, let alone successfully pull off. And then minutes later, that same episode features a moment with family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler) on a dock, daintily jumping over a shark. Again, a joke that many viewers won’t even realize is a joke, but for those who do get it, they love the show all the more for it.
Ramble ramble ramble — I think you get my point. Smart show, funny show, brilliant show. And while the specific examples I’ve talked about all come from Season Two, most of what I’ve said applies to all three seasons. But Season Two took the things from Season One to another level, and laid the groundwork for much of Season Three, which endlessly calls back to this season. And if you’re not sold on why Season Two is the best, just dig this laundry list of some of the other gems from the season:
—The double “Afternoon Delight” duets
—Maebe’s storyline of becoming a movie studio executive
—Martin Short’s first stomach-able role since 1987’s Innerspace
—GOB being Steve Holt!’s dad
—George Michael’s sad Charlie Brown walk (complete with a background Snoopy)
—The single best funeral ever put on television, complete with Lindsay’s slut shirt, GOB’s awful magic and Buster’s stripper army getup
—The repeated police beatings of George and Oscar
—Everyone’s ludicrous chicken dances
—Franklin the puppet
…and, need I mention:
I mean, how can you argue with me about this. Come on!
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. It’s a testament to just how good this show is that, while he originally planned to do some other things while re-watching Season Two for about the fifth time, he quickly got sucked in completely and spent 7-or-so hours only moving from his couch to swap out DVDs.