Over the next few weeks, StoriesHouse – well let’s be frank, Nick – will be bringing you a series of analyses of the year in sitcoms, culminating with the first ever StoriesHouse award ceremony, which will not be broadcast live, nor is it voted on by any reputable voters. This is the first installment in the series.
In the eighth season of America’s smartest and best-written sitcom of all time, it may have seemed that the show was beat. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer just weren’t who they used to be. The show would only last nine seasons, but something spectacular (and real) happened in the middle of the eighth season. There was a remarkable resurgence, in my mind, in the quality of the show. From January of 1997 to December of 1997, the show churned out 22 episodes. These episodes ranged from forgettable to quotable to iconic. It’s hard to believe, but it was in this era when we were introduced to Festivus, the Yada Yada, and the Summer of George. Some of my other miscellaneous favorite episodes were in this era, including the Betrayal, one of the only two episodes of television I have ever seen which was played backwards, and The Comeback, a normal episode by the standards of the show. The thing is though, through this era of Seinfeld, especially through these two episodes, one can perfectly explain Season 4 of Arrested Development.
Like most episodes of Seinfeld, The Comeback wove four plots together seamlessly while connecting each of them with conversation. The episode was witty, silly, poignant and above all else laden with quotes. Most notably, this episode led us to all references to “The Jerk Store,” to which we owe the writing staff a great deal of debt. (Think about it: without “The Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!,” we probably wouldn’t have had the Toilet Store remark from Anchorman and we would all be much sadder as a result. Food for thought.) In other news, the show also featured Jerry getting tennis lessons from a poor tennis player, Elaine dating a teenager over the phone and Kramer filling out his last will and testament. So really, none of those occurrences mattered. In other words, just like Season 4 of Arrested Development, it was all about the comeback.
George Costanza traveled great distances (well, Akron) to execute his comeback. It took him well out of his way, but he felt he needed closure against Reilly, a mean-spirited businessman who refused to take him seriously. Mitchell Hurwitz traveled great distances in time (seven freaking years) in order to execute his comeback. It took him well out of his way and may have stunted his endeavors in the era, but he needed to stick it to FOX, the evil corporation which had deprived him of his show. And what is the name of the current president of FOX, you ask? His name is Kevin Reilly. Reilly. Reilly. Reilly. (Of course, he wasn’t the guy who cancelled the show, but who cares. I just had a breakthrough. I feel good about noticing that.) Anyway, George Costanza tried so hard and went so far out of his way that he succeeded initially based purely on the fact that he tried so hard. But yea verily at the end, seconds later in fact, George was once again one-upped by Reilly. That is, in a very microcosmic way of looking at things, how Season 4 of Arrested Development was characterized. The show was not about the plot, or the jokes, or the characters or even the binging. All in all, the fourth season of Arrested Development was all about the comeback. Even if the first few episodes started off slowly as many say they did, the episodes which were easily the most enjoyable were in fact those. It just holds testament to how much we loved the show and still love the show that the idea of a comeback was so enticing. So you can say what you want about the changes in character analysis and plot structure of the show, and believe me I will, but more than anything the return wasn’t about anything but the fact that there was a return. That being said…
I had never in my life, nor did I ever think I would again, seen an episode of television as brilliantly written and executed as The Betrayal. Easily the most complicated tale ever spun by the Seinfeld gang, it tells the story of how more so than the story of what. Beginning at a wedding gone wrong in India of all places, the episode both slowly and abruptly leads us back eleven years in time, both explaining the plot of the show and also the entire context upon which the past eight years of television history had been built. In classic Seinfeldian fashion, we are exposed to three key plots, an allegory to classic theater, one of the best quotes in the history of television, call-backs, sight and ear gags and of course some arguing, backstabbing and general bad-personerry. From India we are taken backwards to the beginning of the wedding, back to the airport, back to Monk’s Café, back to Jerry’s apartment, back to Monk’s, and then officially at the nexus of the universe known as Seinfeld where Jerry moves into his apartment across the hall from Kramer and establishes that what’s his is yours’. Meanwhile, we meet the best conversationalist with whom Jerry had ever been on a date, we are reintroduced to the Bra-less Wonder Sue Ellen Mischke, our sorries get stuffed in sacks and Kramer hits FDR in the face with a snowball. Not to mention there is a hidden joke where the groom at the wedding bears the same name as the playwright responsible for the inspiration of the episode and we get a visit from beyond the grave from Susan Ross. By the standards of the average sitcom, this is the wackiest, most convoluted episode imaginable. By the standards of Seinfeld, consider it mediocre at best. But why do I mention the Betrayal when trying to explain my feelings on Arrested Development you may ask? Simply put, Arrested Development’s fourth season, much like The Betrayal, found its success purely in its mode of delivery.
The new season of Arrested Development was all over the place. As I characterized it, there is no comedy on television currently, not even a colossus like How I Met Your Mother which prides itself in intricacy, which has packed more plot into its entire run than Arrested Development did into 15 episodes. Oddly enough, because the show was all over the place it seemed to find structure within its chaos. And I can say from a personal touch, which I have been trying to avoid in this review for the record but some keep slipping through, most of my enjoyment of the show came from how abnormal and incomparable the plots were outlined. Much like The Betrayal, the show began at (well, near) the very end of the season and flowed back to the beginning to give context about the end. Unlike The Betrayal, Arrested Development flowed more like a planet orbiting the sun; slowly shedding more light with each passing hour until we revolve back to a point where we have already been before. And to continue this metaphor, we had to have gone through at least five or six revolutions of the earth and possible a full year worth of orbit. Centering around the Cinco de Cuatro party on the Newport Beach Pier, the first episode explained absolutely nothing in retrospect. After rewatching what served as a second pilot for the show (Side Note: Seinfeld also had two pilots: their first episode was called The Seinfeld Chronicles and the last episode of Season 4 was called The Pilot) everything which was explained in the lead was proven false or insignificant by the end. That which we believed the story to center around: Michael being a debtor, Lucille Austero owning the company, hordes of angry Mexicans destroying the Bluth family et. al, was either written out or solved by the penultimate episode and completely stricken from the books by the ultimate episode. Despite all of this confusion – I’ll admit, even I, a cocky, self-proclaimed sitcom savant, couldn’t keep up with the ins and outs of the show at some points – it was precisely this structure which gave the show a new breath of life.
The plots were confusing and overlapping in true Hurwitzian fashion, but there was a sense of familiarity exuded by these plots which truly made me understand who these characters were. As I’ve said countless times and will explain more in-depth in my next Sitcomology post, the premise of a sitcom is not to build memorable plots, but to frame memorable characters. And although the original three seasons were all about what, the emphasis of “who” in Season 4 was what set it apart both creatively and comedically. Creatively, the decision to center each episode around a specific character and slowly reveal important pieces of information was an idea which was tough to execute and has already been lampooned and chastised on the internet as if it was a meme being used incorrectly. I, always the contrarian, think it was a stroke of pure genius. I don’t care what the characters have done since Lucille told the homosexuals to shovel coal on the Queen Mary all these years ago, I care about who they were and who they’ve become. This format allowed for me to learn this and to also grasp the reality of this universe. Comedically, the style of presentation was the only way to explain the situation at hand. There were so many beloved characters during the series’ original run that to deprive the fans of just one of them, as they did with Buster, would create a major backlash. Therefore, the only way to truly explain the fate of the Bluth family was to break them off one by one and explain just how codependent they were. Speaking of codependence…
As I read in another review (I can’t remember where or I would link there, sorry) it makes sense that Michael Bluth became a sad-sack without his family as he couldn’t lord his better-than-thou attitude over the rest of the world because he was only better than his family. Michael wasn’t all that smart, but GOB, Lindsay and Buster made him look like Einstein. Michael wasn’t all that sane, but Lucille and George Sr. gave him the appearance of a Tibetan monk. His love life wasn’t together, but compared to that of Tobias, Maeby and George Michael he was a regular Rico Suave. As a human being, Michael’s best asset was that he thrived in a den of crazy. But without them, his life fell apart. He was so codependent on his family that he actually might have been better with them. As the ending proved, Michael is a bad person, just like the rest of his insane, deeply-flawed family. And his progeny, usually the most stable of the Bluth kin, ended the season by clocking his father with a vicious hook that would’ve made Sugar Ray Robinson shake. Let’s be honest, the ending sucked. But it was a Dark Knight ending. As fans of AD, it wasn’t the ending we wanted, but it was the ending we deserved. We were gluttonous, raging addicts searching for lost remnants of what used to be the glory days, carelessly reminiscing in the nostalgia of our past love’s labor’s lost. Harking back to a better time, we sat and watched, looking for the closure which Mitchell Hurwitz never let us have the first time, dangling our feeling as one would play God with a spider spooling a single strand of webbing from a railing-top. And as he let us down once again, I couldn’t help but realize one thing. Mitchell Hurwitz doesn’t want us to have the candy bar. It’s as if he gets off on being withholding.
In the history of television, nothing was more disappointing than the finale to Seinfeld. If there is no resolution to Arrested Development, something may come close. But if we can count of the Bluth family for two things, we all know what they are. There will always be room for another comeback and some more betrayal. And if we are once again deprived of that which we love, well, The Hurwitz Company can stuff their sorries in a sack.