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Re-watch: Arrested Development, Season 2

24 May

Season 2

I’m rewatching, like many in America and throughout the world (but mostly in America, surely), Arrested Development, straight through, to get in the spirit for the new episodes appearing this weekend.  I talked about season 1 here; a bunch of scattershot notes about season 2 now.

A few words on Buster’s hand being eaten by a seal.  Cutting off a character’s hand is one of the most insane character changes to ever happen in a comedy (people occasionally die on the more serious comedies (M*A*S*H) but I’d argue this is more insane in a way), and while I think it’s super awesome, my first reaction (and I doubt I’m the only one) was what the fuck.  This reaction was doubly so since his hand came off not in the main episode, but in a “on the next Arrested Development” section at the end, which makes it easy to not pay attention to, since only about half of events in that section actually come true.  What makes it even better is both the foreshadowing of Buster losing his hand which occurs multiple times in the second season before it happens, which I certainly didn’t notice, because a character having his hand bit off by a seal is not a possibility you think to look out for. I also enjoy that the show offers an easy potential return to the status quo by mentioning that if the hand was found, it could be reattached, but then that’s a fake out and the hook stays. Just a brilliant and ballsy move all around.

A quick note on the “On the next Arrested Development” segment: it’s a brilliant idea, having a fake next on, making fun of the ludicrous three suspenseful promises made on these segments across television, and I’m surprised no one did it before (or maybe they did and I don’t know about it which is very possible).  What’s partly brilliant is that while the events shown are never on the actual next Arrested Development, sometimes they’re actually canonical events which impact the next episode, like Buster losing his hand, and sometimes they have nothing to do with anything and are inconsequential.

I love that they can use the “next on” device in multiple ways.  They can use it for a cheap joke, a non-sequitur vaguely related to the current episode that there was no room for, or as a way to quickly and succinctly wrap up a plotline from the previous episode in a line or two without having to waste any actual episode time on it.

The second season definitely starts getting a little bit more out there than the first, a process that will go even further in the third.  One example of this is Maeby’s plotline, working as a movie studio executive, a position she conned her way in to.  The plot is incredibly ludicrous, and it would bother me a lot more if it wasn’t also my favorite recurring Maeby bit in the series.  It gives her a chance to also use my favorite recurring Maeby line, “Marry Me!”

One of the second season bits veering off into ridiculousness is the introduction of Gob’s puppet Franklin.  I love Franklin, but it’s definitely kind of insane, especially the way it seems to have a mind of its own, which takes over Buster when he’s using Franklin as well.  Also, the introduction of Mrs. Doubtfire/Mary Poppins clone, Mrs. Featherbottom, the faux British nanny Tobias dresses up as to be closer to his kids when he’s kicked out of the model house by Lindsay.  Did I mention one of the characters has his hand eaten by a seal with a taste for mammals?

After a season in which George Michael is solely focused on his cousin, Season 2 is the season of Ann, which leads to some of my favorite jokes of the season, and severs for a platform for banter between my two possibly favorite characters from the season, Michael and George Michael.  From the debut of the absolutely disgusting mayonegg, to Ann-hog, to simply many repeated, “hers?” and “I don’t like Ann,” it never really gets old.  George Michael gets a chance to show off some genius physical comedy in episode Good Grief, when, after Ann breaks up with him, he returns to the model house with his head down and crumbles into a mess on the floor.

Gob has some serious winners as well.  “Michael, if I make this comeback, I’ll buy you a hundred George Michaels that you can teach to drive,” as a response to Michael when Michael says he needs to help out his son rather than do something for Gob.  After he tells Michael he runs a pretty tight ship as President of the Bluth company, Michael notes he put in a pool table.  “It’s a gaming ship,” Gob replies pithily.

Favorite episodes.  Good Grief, The Immaculate Election, and Afternoon Delight stand out quickly as serious contenders.  Good Grief has the aforementioned George Michael fetal position scene, as well as some solid Ice the bounty hunter.  The Immaculate Election and Afternoon Delight both feature some excellent Gob work.  The Immaculate Election has Gob’s wonderful election tape for George Michael “the girls like him just fine, young and old – it doesn’t matter in the dark,” while Afternoon Delight has the recurring, “Come on” as Gob continues to increase the value of his suit to demonstrate how much he doesn’t care about his employees.

I thought I’d be more certain of whether I liked this season or the first better, and I’m still not sure.    If I could make a season out of the second half of the first season and the first half of the second, that would probably be the winner, but it’s all pretty good.  Good show.  Looking forward to season 3.

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Re-watch: Arrested Development, Season 1

20 May

The San Francisco Chronicle loves it!

So I’ve started the moderately ambitious project that I’m sure many more around the country have as well, rewatching every episode of Arrested Development to prepare for the new episodes coming out next week.  I’ll be discussing some general thoughts on the first season and the experience of rewatching it here.

I’ve seen some of these first season episodes probably ten times but most of them (I’ve caught a couple of episodes here and there on IFC) not in at least three and probably more like five years.  However, after just a couple of minutes, most of these first season episodes come right back, even though it’s been a while.  It’s like quoting a bicycle.  The most surprising moments are when I see the occasional joke or scene that I have totally forgotten about.

I was ever so slightly concerned that the appeal of Arrested Development would have dimmed over the years, and that years of hype, some of it propagated by myself, would have built up the show in my mind to a level that the show couldn’t possibly actually meet (this was aided by a couple of friends who watched the show much later on and described it as good, but not great).   Fortunately, it turned out I had nothing to worry about.  Almost from the get go, Arrested Development again proved itself one of the best comedies of all time, and not just because all the jokes came streaming back into my mind (though it’s hard to watch a show like this with truly fresh eyes, I’m sure I was at least influenced somewhat by my memory).

The pilot episode is solid enough, but it, like many comedy pilots, is a bit weighed down by needing to focus extra on premise and exposition.  It’s the second episode, Top Banana, where the show’s genius really becomes to come together.  Top Banana’s key plotline, as the title suggests, involves the Bluth frozen banana stand, and particularly, its burning down.  The miscommunication that makes up many of the show’s best jokes is in play, as the line, which George Sr. tells Michael, that, “There’s always money in the banana stand” is tragically misinterpreted.  Michael believes he simply means the banana stand turns a profit, while, we and Michael learn later on that there is quite literally hundreds of thousands of dollars lining the walls of the stand.

An unlikely show I think Arrested Development has a lot in common with is The Venture Bros.  Both shows pick up on offhand moments and mentions from earlier episodes and flush them out later on, making it appear as it was always the plan to incorporate these references.  Of course, sometimes it probably was always the plan, and Arrested Development’s incredible foreshadowing is like no other comedy on TV.  What’s more remarkable is that Arrested Development was doing this in 2003, making serial comedy in a way where ordered viewing was important and re-watching was valuable, at a time just before DV-r and Netflix and internet viewing really came to the fore.  I’ve often wondered if Arrested Development was always doomed to be cancelled, or whether, if it had come out a couple of years later, the cult popularity would have been enough to keep it going longer.

The elements that make the show so good are all here pretty much from the beginning.  Many of the show’s great recurring bits and lines start debuting in various first season episodes episodes, including Gob’s “I’ve made a huge mistake,” the prison’s “No Touching” policy, the cornballer, and the chicken dance.   Memorable recurring and single-episode characters start appearing too, such as Tobias’s muse Carl Weathers, Steve Holt, Lucille Austero, and George Sr.’s twin brother Oscar. The chemistry between family members in palpable immediately, and the one on one interactions between different family members, often speaking on different levels to one another are an important part of the show from the beginning.

The Pier Pressure/Public Relations back-to-back about halfway through the season may be my favorite two consecutive episodes of the season.  Pier Pressure contains classic one episode character J. Walter Weatherman, a one-armed man who worked for George Sr. and was tasked with teaching the children lessons by terrifying them during their youth (his popularity resulted in another appearance a couple seasons later).  It also contains Gob’s wonderful enthusiastic pitch to George Michael, “All right, kid…let’s deal some drugs!”  Public Relations, in which Michael hires a cute public relations woman to help reshape the Bluth family image, has many fine moments, but my favorite may be the simple scene where crazy PR woman Jessie walks away from Michael, and as she’s leaving the house, Michael just says, “Jessie.”  When she turns around and attempts to figure out what Michael wanted, Michael awkwardly replies, “No, I was just saying your name as you walked away…I didn’t…I have no follow up.”  It doesn’t necessarily seem like it should be a funny line but Jason Bateman exclaims it with the perfect level of “Why did I just say that?” emphasis, a frequent occurrence for Michael.

The biggest change in my impressions from re-watching the season in order was in my personal character ranking.  As I want to leave open a possible character ranking post, I won’t go into too much detail about my overall standings, but, during this re-watch Lucille shot up, while Tobias fell down a bit.  Tobias’s he’s gay but doesn’t realize it gimmick is a bit much and gets a little old; there’s only so many ways to keep harping on it, and not all of them work.  It’s a credit to David Cross that he wrings as much out of sometimes obvious or too over the top material than he does, as well as the physical humor, which is all Cross.  Lucille on the other hand was a revelation.  I’ve always liked every major character, but I’m not sure why I didn’t like her more before.  Her recurring hatred of Gob always makes my day, and her cruel  one-liners to her family are constantly a joy.  Michael and George Michael also remain very high in my rankings, particularly due to both of their levels of compelling awkwardness, but I’ll have more to say on that when I talk about season 2.

I think it’s interesting to note that at least half the cast seems to be pretty much playing the role they played in Arrested Development in their work after the show was cancelled.  Tony Hale (Buster) on Veep, Will Arnett (Gob) in 30 Rock, Michael Cera (George Michael) in Superbad, and Jessica Walter (Lucille) in Archer all seem to be playing very similar characters in the listed movies and TV shows as well as others which have come out since.

I’d like to end with one of my favorite non sequitur Arrested Development quotes of all time, from the episode Not Without My Daughter, when George Michael says to Gob, “You know, say what you will about America. 13 bucks still gets you a hell of a lot of mice.”  Truer words have never been spoken.

Re-watch: Season 2 of Breaking Bad

12 Apr

Jesse and Walt taking a break

Warning:  This post is about Season 2 of Breaking Bad.  I will not be revealing specific spoilers from later seasons but I will allude to them generally, so watch out if you’re not up to date.

I re-watched Season 2 of Breaking Bad recently with a friend watching it for the first time, and I appreciated it a lot more than I remembered appreciating it the first time through.  There were a couple of plotlines I had forgotten about completely, and a couple that occupied less or more time than I had thought.

In particular, I forgot what a different show Breaking Bad is in Season 2 than it becomes in Season 3 and especially in seasons 4 and 5.  Breaking Bad Season 2 is the show as its most human; the characters are still regular people, and not superheros with special meth-peddling, empire-building, abilities.  Season 4 of Breaking Bad was one of my favorite seasons of TV in a long time, and I’m really looking forward to watching the next couple of seasons all the way through a second time, but only after watching Season 2 again did I realize the starkness of the differences.

Season 4 has suburb pace and direction, and it’s a brilliantly plotted and stylized suspense movie with deep characters and themes, but the characters pop out of the real world as super characters who have special abilities regular people don’t.  Season 2 has at least some of all these characteristics of course, because it’s the same show at heart, but it’s much less densely plotted, and it’s much more about dealing with our characters as regular people.  Notable super characters Mike and Gus are not yet really present, and this is before the full transition to Heisenberg; Walt is still a science teacher and only a part-time druglord.  Walt still lives a more or less ordinary suburban nuclear home life.  Walt is uncertain; he lies constantly but he rarely acts on the reserves of power and ego that he builds up in the later seasons.  Only once, when he comes onto Skyler from behind when she’s in the kitchen, and Walt Jr is about to come home, does it really feel like he’s acting out his power fantasies and attempting to rise above the rules that apply to regular humans.  Other than that, even though he loves the way his can dominate the meth market in a way he could never the law-abiding science world, he’s much more committed to evasion than exercising his power.  He absolutely hates the idea of laundering his money through his son’s charity site in a way that doesn’t let them know the money is coming from him, but he eventually accedes.  Saul, while helping him and Jessie, who, he correctly notes, are terrible at dealing drugs, also acts as a cheap therapist occasionally where Walt, unafraid of being caught, can vent his frustrations before going back and lying in the real world.  Walt’s biggest god moment in the season is actually a moment of inactivity, when he lets Jesse’s blackmailing and methhead girlfriend Jane, choke on her own vomit and die.  It’s a stepping stone in the timeline of Walt’s comfort level with violence and his own power, but it signifies where Walt is at at the moment; the extent of his power is doing nothing.

Walt is less confident here in these early seasons.  He lies but he doesn’t really know how to do it yet, and he still cares whether Skyler believes it.  I forgot how quickly into the show Skyler didn’t quite trust Walt; it was the first great lie, the fugue state that Walt fakes after being kidnapped by Tuco in the second episode, that sets off her radar.  She very soon doesn’t buy the fugue state explanation, and the second cell phone gnaws and gnaws at her until it finally returns in the last episode when Walt, doped up before surgery, alludes to his having multiple phones.

I’ve said for years that the second episode of the second season was what really hooked me on the show (not that the earlier episodes weren’t excellent, but this was the confirmation to me that this show was really on to something).  It’s still brilliant,though the non-Walt and Jesse parts aren’t quite as good as the Walt and Jesse parts alone with Tuco and Tio, and his bell, in the desert.  Excellent segments I forgot about included Jesse’s attempt to “take care” of the methhead couple who robbed Skinny Pete, which is just a fantastic piece of film-making.  Breaking Bad also, as always, has the best montage sequences in television, managing to convey quickly ideas and plots which take days and weeks in stylistically elegant and informative ways, such as showing Badger, Skinny Pete, and Combo selling the blue meth and expanding their territory.

I can’t talk about this brilliant season of television without mentioning the one ploy that doesn’t work at all, the plane crash.  I’ve never met anyone who disagrees, and I don’t really want to waste time talking about the single bad part in an otherwise great season.  Still, it’s a shame it happens at the very end.  My theory, and I forget whether I’ve read anything that confirms, or at least informs this view, is that by the time the writers got to the end of the season, they realized that the plane crash didn’t work the way they had intended, but since they had committed themselves by having those occasional flash forwards from the first scene of the season, they felt like they had no choice, and could only minimize it’s relevancy.

Jesse gets a lot more real meat this season than he did in the first season, and we see how human and vulnerable he is.  Also, an underrated aspect of Walt that I think is not properly appreciated is on display.  Walt, for all his bluster, actually does care for Jesse.  He may have a strange way of doing it, and it may be locked up into his own selfish reasons, but he puts himself on the line several times for Jesse, including making sure Tuco doesn’t kill him early on.  When he asks Jesse to go to rehab, sure, it’s better for business, but I think he’s not wrong that it’s better for Jesse too.  I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority here, but I think Jesse running away with Jane would have been a drug-addled disaster.  I’m not sure if in the long run staying with Walt will be better for his health, but I don’t think the Jane option at that point would have been brilliant either.

If there’s a grand narrative to just the meth sales aspect of Breaking Bad, it’s the constant back and forth between Jesse and Walt trying to sell it themselves, and then failing for some reason, and then distributing through someone else, and having that not work for some reason, and repeat, as their production operations get bigger and bigger. This season, after Tuco’s death, is them really trying to do it themselves on a decent -sized scale the first time.

I couldn’t end this write up without another salute to the entrance of lawyer Saul Goodman. I didn’t initially realize he would be a frequently recurring character, but he was a fantastic addition to the show, giving Walter a reality check quickly, and adding some much-needed humor to a show that could easily be dragged down by overbearing seriousness and tension.  Humor is a sometimes underrated element of Breaking Bad; the show can be laugh out loud frequently funny, often by way of Saul or Jesse, and that helps the writers keep their feet to the pedal of the dramatic aspect of the show without it being overwhelming.

Lastly, I’ve always adored the passion and concern Walt exudes when telling his son and wife that their house has rot in the tenth episode of the season, “Over”.  I might be the only one, but I quote those lines over and over.

Watch it Again: Community – Season 1, Episodes 3 and 4

20 Jul

A while I ago, I began a campaign of re-watching the first season of Community.  Episodes 3 and 4 of season 1 capsuled and commended on below.

Season 1, Episode 3:  Introduction to Film

Community as the Jeff and Britta show continues, now with some Abed.  The A story is about Abed taking a film class which Britta paid for, in opposition to his dad, who wants him to stay in the family falafel business.  Jeff counsels against Britta getting involved, and the two fight over the benefits of getting involved vs. staying out of it for the entire episode, often while being filmed by Abed, and getting into a fight with Abed’s dad.  Britta and Jeff take on a mom and dad role relative to Abed, and eventually Abed’s film moves his dad to understand.  We get a little bit more of Abed’s inability to relate with people, and his use of film as a medium to help him.  The B story involves Jeff taking a class, which he thinks is the ultimate blow-off class, taught by John Michael Higgins (lawyer from Arrested Development, Christopher Guest movie regular, saying “Owner of a Lonely Heart” a capella in those vaguely memorable commercials for The Break Up) whose only criteria for an A is “seizing the day.”  Jeff desperately tries to manufacture a day seized, failing to fool the professor until he kisses Britta, thinking she was into him, but she was only trying to help him ace the project.  The tiny C story involves Pierce trying to teach Troy how to sneeze manly, and converting Troy’s baby sneeze into a far more imposing sneeze (that is way too many times to use sneeze in a sentence).

The C story actually gets the best bang for the buck; Chevy Chase is at his finest when he’s demonstrated the different sneezes in his arsenal.  John Michael Higgins shows of his impulsiveness a couple of times, and he’s used just enough so that he’s not overused; the best scene is the episode may be when he chastises Jeff for ordering an ordinary coffee, and then tears up the coffee menu and asks for a birthday cake.

Rating 7.0 – it’s a good episode, but it’s not a great episode.

Season 1, Episode 4: Social Psychology

The episode starts with a relatively pointless encounter between Chang and Annie.  I’ve never liked Chang.  He’s always been my least favorite part of the show, primarily because Ken Jeong shows absolutely no restraint.  He’s more over the top than any character, ruthlessly so, with the possible exception of the Dean, but, well, the Dean is generally funnier and doesn’t get as big parts.

The A plot of this episode involves Shirley and Jeff learning the only thing they have in common is a love of gossip – Jeff can now stop timing his exit from one class to avoid having to awkwardly walk with Shirley to the next.  Their favorite gossip topic is Britta’s new boyfriend, hackey-sack loving hippie, Vaughn.  Vaughn is a ridiculous stereotype of course, but he gets some choice lines, such as “What makes Frisbee ultimate?  If I had a nickel for every time I wish someone asked me that”  Britta, learning to be friends with Jeff, trusts him with too much information, particularly considering he still has feelings for her.  Although he tries to be a good friend, when Britta shows him the awful poem Vaughn wrote for her, he cracks, and shows it to Shirley, who, incorrigible gossip that she is, shows it to the group.  Of course Vaughn catches them laughing about, and dumps Britta, making her not too pleased with Jeff.

The B plot involves Annie joining Professor Duncan, who is back, in order to help prove his “Duncan Principle,” which is that left waiting for something, in this case, a fake experiment, over time, even the calmest person will erupt in a fit of insane anger.  Annie recruits Abed and Troy to be test subjects for the Duncan principle, however, Abed ruins the principle altogether by sitting calmly in the room for hours upon hours, even when everyone else has broken, forcing Duncan to give up, and Annie to be mad at Abed.

The little C-plot involves Pierce’s use of ear-noculars, which are the equivalent of binoculars for your ears (kind of the same purpose as that awesome directional microphone in Metal Gear Solid, but a lot more dopey looking).  It’s small, but pretty funny.

Worth noting is that Matt L. Jones, better known as Badger from Breaking Bad shows up for just a second as a stoner-y friend of Vaughn’s.  Also, Abed makes an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reference which probably was current at the time.

All right, I feel bad that these episode ratings keep going down, and I know they’ll be going up at least a couple times later in the season, but I guess that’s just the opening pattern.  Remember, all the ratings are simply relative to the first one, which I didn’t want to rate too high (I still rated it fairly high) lest I leave no room for improvement (not to mention, the farther I go in the season, the more ticky-tacky the ratings will naturally get).  There’s plenty of funny parts – John Oliver in particular – but it’s not top level.

Rating:  7.2 – I still don’t understand why John Oliver couldn’t have been shepherded into more episodes instead of Chang – one of Oliver’s best lines, out of context, was “Youre an eight, which si a British 10 – I’m angry.”

Watch it Again: Community

11 Jun

In order to celebrate the three wonderful years of Community before Dan Harmon was fired, and the show may or may not be terrible and cancelled, in that order, I’ve begun a re-watch of the first season.  I was curious to see how it held up to the later seasons, but in terms of how funny it was, but also in terms of tone and personality.  As I watch, I’ll be writing up little summaries and notes, and assessing each episode with a rating, all relative to whatever arbitrary rating I give the first episode.  If you’ve already seen Community, consider this an invitation to re-watch yourself, or at least read and remind yourself of the good times.  If you haven’t seen Community yet, no better day to start than today, what may have been the best comedy on TV of the past couple of years.  Here we go:

Pilot

It’s very different than what the show has become, but not quite as different as I imagined it would be going back.  We have to deal with the whole introduction to the show, which comes out of Jeff wanting to hook up with Britta, and Community is hardly the ensemble it’s become; rather it’s a Jeff show, with a bit of Britta.  John Oliver shows up as Professor Ian Duncan, a former client of Jeff’s who Jeff tries to get answers to, and it seems like he would be in more episodes from this pilot.  The dean appears for a second with his mangled opening speech, which is a hilarious way to start off the show.  There’s basically two plots which both star Jeff; Jeff arranging the study group to hook up with Britta, and Jeff trying to get the answers from Professor Duncan.  The two parts I remember as particularly memorable are Abed imitating Emilio Estevez from The Breakfast Club and Jeff’s speech about how humans are the only animals who observe Shark Week.  Abed seems far less socially adept in the pilot than later on, though obviously he gets super crazy in other, evil Abed Dreamatorium ways.

Overall, I remember being instantly hooked on the show, and though I was worried this would pale compared to some of the newer episodes, although it was different, I can see again why I was hooked.

Rating:  7.8  – This number is completely arbitrary yet is the number by which I will judge all subsequent episodes; I would put it higher, but I want to give some solid room so I don’t have most episodes crowding between 9 and 10, say.

Spanish 101

Still the Jeff and Britta show, but Pierce becomes our first additional character to play a major role.  The A plot is Jeff and Pierce being paired together for a Spanish project; Jeff trades cards and shirts with Abed to be paired with Britta, but Britta’s traded cards as well, so he’s paired with Pierce.  Jeff’s been avoiding Pierce, and after getting sick of him while Pierce turns a five minute Spanish project into an hours long extremely racist whiskey session, finally comes back around and decides to join Pierce and present their project together.  The B plot is largely forgettable as Annie and Shirley trying to learn from Britta’s protest-y past, forming a protest and candlelight vigil for a Guatamalan journalist, while realizing that Britta talks a big talk about protesting but doesn’t do it herself.

This episode is the birth of the Troy-Abed connection, even thoughTroy’s still barely a character, as they are Spanish project partners, and then conclude the episode in the cold closing with their Spanish rap, which I didn’t realize in hindsight, started as early as the second episode.

The most memorable scenes are probably the Pierce and Jeff performing their Spanish project montage, where they wear all sorts of hilarious costumes, an theTroyand Abed rap at the end.

Rating:  7.2 – it’s not quite as good as the pilot, and the B plot is largely unmemorable.