May 29, 2013

Arrested Development: “Flight of the Phoenix”

By Paul Krueger


And now the story of a perfect sitcom that died before its time, and the awesome streaming company who had no choice but to give it the Lazarus treatment it deserved.

It’s motherfucking back, bitches.

Welcome to Wine & Pop’s coverage of the once-impossible phenomenon that is Arrested Development, season four (ah, such sweet words…).  Since the entire season’s been released all at once, I’ve no doubt that you’ll have plenty of chances to watch and rewatch it before I finish off this series of write-ups.  Which is just as well, because I very much doubt I’ll be able to just watch it once.

Having seen the whole season at this point, my overall opinion of this episode has been buoyed in hindsight.  It and the next few to follow introduce a lot of elements that soon get riffed on in classic Arrested fashion from every possible twist and angle.  Unfortunately, though, that can be disconcerting for viewers seeing it for the first time with no idea of what’s to come.  Certainly, I fell into that trap watching “Flight of the Phoenix,” if only for a few moments.

There are a few actual flaws to the episode.  The most obvious one is that, unrestricted by network-mandated running times, a few of the sequences overstay their welcome (Michael’s vote engineering is the most obvious offender).  Arrested was critically worshipped for its zippy pace, and at times in this premiere episode it feels as though the production team is shaking off the rust--underlined excellently by the coughing start to Ron Howard’s voice over.

I also could have done with a little less fan service.  I know that the love of its fanbase is how Arrested returned in the first place, and that the show is known for its reflexivity and callbacks.  But in the premiere I thought they referenced perhaps too much of the old material, trotted out too many colorful side characters.  Some of the best moments in the series’ original run came from the entire family getting drawn into a web of chaos together, and every appearance of Barry or Lucille 2 had me just wanting to see Buster already.

But that said, those are paltry complaints to make.  The cast hasn’t lost a step--no surprise there, since following Arrested’s cancellation they’ve all been regularly employed in some of the best projects Hollywood has to offer.  In particular, Jason Bateman deserves scads of praise for making Michael a believable scumbag while not significantly altering anything about the way he’s played the character before.  Michael has often been the easiest Bluth with whom to identify, and it was a shot to the gut to see him having fallen so far.

That said, putting one of the most human Bluths into that position allows the show to wring out some of the finest cringe comedy this side of the British version of The Office.  “Flight of the Phoenix” shows us right at the top where Michael ends up, and there’s an exquisite excruciation to seeing him build that awful life for himself brick by brick.  Especially in the most literal sense, when finishing the Sudden Valley development and thereby cleaning up one of the Bluth family’s longest-standing embarrassments only sinks him into life-ruining debt.  It’s a great expression of one of Arrested’s most consistent themes: Michael’s efforts are noble, but ultimately doomed to failure.

Michael Cera is the other star of this episode, still a master of the hemming and hawing technique he perfected during his first three years as George Michael (not to mention the movie career that followed).  But now he’s given the boy some backbone, further cementing George Michael’s status as secretly the only sane Bluth.  It was fun seeing Cera act every bit the exasperated straight man to his wayward dad as Bateman has to all the rest of his family, another suggestion that the Bluths will always have a wise younger generation powerless against their crazy forebears.  And complementing him excellently is Maeby, sitting on the edge of every scene and quietly amused at the knots of delusion in which Michael ties himself.

Guest performances were more of a mixed bag.  The cast of Workaholics’ appearance was amusing but unmemorable, and Seth Rogen was stalwart as young George, Sr. when he could have been great.  But all that is completely eclipsed by how perfectly Kristen Wiig captures Lucille in the origin story of Cinco de Cuatro.  The Grinch shout-out is characterful, funny, and a typically sly reference to a cast member’s past all in one.  A great way to welcome the show back into the world.

Look.  This show doesn’t feel the same.  There’s no denying that.  But if you still have misgivings by the end of this episode, take heart and click “next” in your Netflix window.  After all, if this weren’t a show that improved with each subsequent episode and every rewatch thereafter, it wouldn’t be Arrested Development.

Grade: B

Mice-scellaneous:
  • I was worried that the nature of this season’s production would cause it to lose some of the punchiness that made its original run so great.  I’m glad to see my fears were misplaced.  This time: the economic collapse is set up as a major plot point, and we get an amusing riff on young adults moving back in with their parents.
  • Buster gets next to nothing to do in this episode, but leave it to Tony Hale to make an indelible impression with a prolonged and mostly inaudible scream.
  • Michael using guilt over George Michael’s dead mother to control him is hilariously despicable--almost as much as calling him “Boy George.”
  • Also, “Boy George” serves as a nice callback to the “Boy Michael” mixup of season three’s “Family Ties.”  Normally I’d fear I’m reading too much into things, but this is Arrested Development we’re talking about here.  Nothing’s by accident.
  • Cursory research shows the watermarks on Fox’s archive footage of the show are a joke.  “Cursory research” here means figuring no one would ever call a product “Show Stealer Pro.”
  • For all my readers who love both Game of Thrones and Arrested Developmentyou're welcome.
Ed. Note: You can find a full-season review of he new Arrested Development here. Paul will be reviewing the remainder of the season in two episode chunks every Wednesday for the next seven weeks.

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