Friday, July 26, 2013

Week 10 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Ten weeks in! Another comedy episode that I really just love. Something I've learned during this exercise is that the idea I've always had about how much worse I am at writing about a drama than a comedy is probably actually the opposite. In any case, here's a relatively short pre-vacation entry. Because of that vacation, this series (or whatever) will take next week off and then resume on Friday, August 9 (it is important my millions of fans don't wonder where I've gone).

After the break: A little David Cross goes a long way. Or sometimes none at all.

Arrested Development, "Pier Pressure"
First aired on Fox Sunday, January 11, 2004

"And that's why you don't teach lessons to your son." - J. Walter Weatherman

When the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” one of TV’s all-time great comedies, began streaming exclusively through Netflix back on May 26, there was a pretty common criticism of the new episodes shared by people who disliked the season as a whole and even by the people who liked it very much: the episodes were just too long. Yes, the show we had missed for seven years was finally coming back to us, and our immediate reaction was that it had given us too much.

For some comedies, hour-long episodes can be hit or miss. “The Office,” for example, has a number of very good extended episodes (“Casino Night,” “The Job,” “Goodbye, Toby”) and a number that are not so good. At the height of NBC’s dire straits, the network considered permanently expanding “The Office” to an hour-long show in the fall of 2007. Thankfully that didn’t end up happening, considering the fourth season began with four hour-long episodes in a row and only one of them (“Money”) is any good. But by and large, it’s an example of a show where an extended running time can often be put to good use. If used sparingly enough, most comedies can benefit from ten or twenty extra minutes now and again.

But “Arrested Development” isn’t just another show, or even just another comedy. Since the show’s original cancellation, Fox has been savaged by fans for a perceived mistreatment of the beloved series, but the network loved the show and tried everything they could to save it: they aired episodes after then-powerhouse “American Idol,” and after an entire season of “The Simpsons”. When the show really started to slip in the second season, they moved it to Mondays rather than just dumping it on Fridays, as they did that year with the final seasons of “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Bernie Mac Show”. When “Arrested” went off the air, viewers bemoaned that the show was not airing on a cable network like HBO or Showtime, whose “intelligent audiences” would have “appreciated the show more”. Well sorry, but that’s bullshit. Airing on a broadcast network was the best thing that ever happened to “Arrested Development”.

The shortest of the fourth season’s episodes runs 28 minutes long, the average length of an HBO half-hour like “Girls” or “Veep”. The longest, an almost excruciating 37 minutes, or just a few minutes shy of your average network drama. But back when the show’s original seasons aired on Fox, the show had to come in at the length of a normal network comedy: 21 minutes.

21 minutes means a need for tighter editing and a faster overall pace, and in no other episode of “Arrested Development” can you feel the show embracing those needs as much as “Pier Pressure” does. The series as a whole is known for its rapid-fire nature, but this episode in particular feels like such a blur that by the time it’s over you can’t believe it’s only been 21 minutes. I actually kept checking the clock on my DVD player to mentally note how fast things were happening and I couldn’t believe that I was only two minutes, four minutes, eight minutes etc. into the episode and so much had already happened.

There were two things I really took note of in “Pier Pressure” that I think differentiate it from other episodes. Number one: in relation to how fast it’s paced, another thing I was mentally taking note of was an almost total lack of gaps between anything in this episode. Scenes change with no warning, characters immediately shuffle in an out like you would see actors do in the most well rehearsed play, and even within scenes there is only the occasional organic pause in dialogue. Even Ron Howard’s narration explaining the banana stand’s resemblance to a joint and its history as “pot central” on the boardwalk overlaps by half a second with the actual beginning of the infamous “Big Yellow Joint” novelty song. Not only are episodes of “Arrested Development” much better when they have less time to work with, episodes like this where you can feel really feel the show straining to fit everything in actually end up being their best ones. And that’s despite the fact that “Pier Pressure” is one of just a few installments that does not feature an “On the next ‘Arrested Development’” tag at the end of the episode (there’s just no time for it), and contains not even a mention of one Dr. Tobias Funke.

Just ten or so episodes in, the dynamic cast and the so-full-they’re-ready-to-burst scripts are already meshing together so well. Next time you watch “Pier Pressure,” take note of the fact that the first few minutes of the episode is basically just Michael checking in with all of his family members (George Michael, Maeby, Lindsay, Gob, Lucille, Buster), spending about 30 seconds with each character. We get to hear about the kids’ grades on their latest test, Lindsay’s hippy parenting, Gob’s dilemma with the Hot Cops, Lucille doctoring receipts to keep the SEC off her back, and Buster trying to contend with Lucille 2’s worsening vertigo. All of that happens within the first five minutes – in another comedy, that might be “enough” for a whole episode.

The second thing I noticed was that except for the total lack of Tobias, “Pier Pressure” functions as a very good introduction to the show for a new viewer. Both storylines nicely play off the show’s central theme that while this family does love each other, it’s also kind of all bullshit. Michael and his son are fundamentally good, nice people, but they’re nice to a fault in that George Michael is willing to put himself at risk to buy pot for his Uncle Buster and then lies about it to protect him. Gob plays a similar role in that his willingness to help his nephew does not preclude potentially introducing him to drugs, seeing nothing wrong with taking his money to get him pot. George Sr. knows that it’s wrong to continue to warp his children by scaring them with the one armed man, but just can’t help himself when he knows how well his lessons work (I was wondering why J. Walter Weatherman/George Sr.’s lessons didn’t make a cameo appearance in the new season until I learned that Steve Ryan, the actor who played Weatherman, died in 2007).

Even the slightly lighter Lindsay and Maeby storyline shows Maeby learning just how awful her grandmother can be when she herself is Lucille’s punching bad instead of her mother and bringing Lindsay the elephant brooch that she has wanted her whole life. But in true Bluth fashion, Lindsay and Maeby hug out their differences only for Lindsay to immediately suggest they sell the brooch and use the money to go shopping. For Michael and George Michael, the most important things in the world are family and breakfast (not always in that order), but for the rest of the family, it’s all about material things.

A spectacular episode that is a well-plotted laugh riot from start to finish - I can't recommend "Pier Pressure," or "Arrested Development," enough.

In two weeks: Good lord, they actually thought they could promote this show by rewriting lyrics to "In the Navy"