Jun 26, 2013

Arrested Development: “Red Hairing”/“Smashed”

By Paul Krueger

Since its inception, television’s adhered to certain rules and formats as a medium.  From dime-a-dozen CBS crime procedurals to intensely serialized prestige dramas like Breaking Bad, individual episodes of a series have each told their own story.  Sometimes, they add up into a greater overarching plot (see: everything that’s come after Buffy).  Sometimes, the journey on which it takes its audience is more of a thematic and emotional one (see: the plot-lite Mad Men).  But the point is, that was just a rung in television’s double helix.  It wasn’t a movie; it was a collection of stories.

And then, there’s season four of Arrested Development.

The word “novelistic” has been used to describe series before: critics used the term far too generously when discussing The Wire, and it figures that a show like Game of Thrones, itself based on a book series, would also earn such a descriptor.  But Arrested’s comback effort tries to disguise its individual character plotlines as independent stories.  Sometimes it succeeds, and sometimes not.  But even when it succeeds, the fact is that the stories aren’t truly independent.  This season is a big, complicated, wibbly wobbly timey-wimey ball of interconnected plots that collapse without the support of each other.

The first few episodes of this season are rough to watch the first time through because they seem like a random collection of events starring a family of selfish idiots we’ve come to know and love.  At least for me, that reluctance is far in my rearview mirror by the this point in the season.  But even on my rewatch, while I applaud the show’s audacity and experimental spirit, I have to say: this isn’t television.

“Red Hairing” provides some backstory to a couple previously-introduced elements (the red wig, the ransacked apartment, the ostrich assault).  It shows how another Bluth fares without familial support (in this case: an unwitting hooker pimped out by her own daughter).  And it proves to be the most direct expression yet of another theme that’s been building this season: the gradual transformation of each Bluth generation into the one that came before it, a sure sign that the family is ultimately doomed.

I rather enjoyed “Red Hairing” more than I did Lindsay’s previous spotlight, “Indian Takers.”  Terry Crews has the right comedic chops to ensure a one-note character like Herbert Love doesn’t fall flat when expected to carry more than three seconds onscreen at a time.  And Alia Shawkat, who’s been almost as criminally underused this season as Tony Hale, puts in an excellent string of appearances as Maeby.

But its most glaring weakness (and one we’ll keep finding as we head into the season’s home stretch) is that it’s not quite television.  Up until now Lindsay’s storyline has been interesting and building towards a bold new direction (or perhaps a new start) for the character.  But once she agrees to campaign in Herbert Love’s place, her story for the season abruptly ends, ne’er to be revisited in this batch of episodes.  A traditional setup to a season would have demanded more follow-up and follow-through.  Of all the criticisms that could be levied at Arrested, wishing that there was more of it is probably the best it could ever want.  But it is slightly disappointing to see a character like Lindsay, often relegated to romantic subplots, exit stage left right as a promising new path opens itself up for her.

“Smashed” has a smaller version of the same problem, but the impact isn’t as strongly felt since the stakes of Tobias’ story are much lower and his arc more shallow.  That’s actually not a knock against him--despite his status as a joke amongst the Bluths, his inability to recognize his need to change allows him to fit right in with them.  It got him declared a sex offender, it got him into rehab, and got his one last lifeboat, the Austeros, to turn on him.  And then there’s just the fact that Tobias is himself a walking machine for story, and David Cross a magnetic enough performer to portray him.

But while the material for the most part fires on all cylinders, we come again to this problem of being not-television.  The story’s tension twists itself more and more tautly, backing Tobias into a corner, and then...that’s it.  To be continued in season five, whenever the hell that is.  They even allude to this when Argyle mentions the need for a second act (Hurwitz having said this season is act one of a trilogy).  The buildup so far has been good, but if anything is going to hamper the back half of this season, it’s a lack of catharsis.

Now, all the above sounds awfully critical for two episodes of not-television I very much enjoyed.  In truth, there was a lot to love about both.  Lucille/Tobias is a great character pairing that never really came about in the series’ original run, and her cattiness forms the perfect counterpoint to his ebullience.  Maria Bamford has another great turn as DeBrie, ending up in (where else?) a pile of debris.  And holy shit, another Buster sighting!

So at least for now, Lindsay and Tobias’ stories are at a middle.  Mitchell Hurwitz has staked everything on the idea that he’ll get a chance to eventually tell us what comes next.  Given the fact that season four exists at all, he’s not without reason to think this way.  And perhaps I, who’ve preached patience to all season four skeptics, should myself exhibit some patience.  But no matter how well-intentioned his promises of follow-through are, and no matter how excellent this pair of episodes was, it’s hard not to feel a little like I’ve been left hanging.

“Red Hairing”: B+
“Smashed”: B+

  • Linday’s totally right, by the way; her short hair is way cuter than her long hair.  Ellen DeGeneres is a lucky lady.
  • Tobias constantly having to declare his sex offender status is a great new level of discomfort comedy for David Cross to play.  His mustache sure doesn’t help matters, either.
  • It figures Lucille would call Tobias an anus tart even without knowing about his license plate.
  • The staggeringly long runtime of “Red Hairing” gives us a gag that overstays its welcome (Michael and Lindsay’s awful hugs) and one that achieves a kind of Sideshow Bob rake effect (Michael and George Michael’s guilt trip war over the phone).
  • I hope in Lindsay’s new campaign, she’s as juvenile about it as she was in high school.  Also: apparently the Bluths have a single banner.

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