A review of the Pilot of "Arrested Development"
|Scooped by Robert Turner III|
“Arrested Development” is an artful take on the sitcom, told through the same techniques we see in documentaries and especially in reality television. The characters are the focus of this series, and they are the driving force behind the humor as well. The progression of character development within the pilot also sets the stage for a vast, powerful commentary on both reality television and the timely fall of Enron. This show came from the minds of Mitchell Hurwitz and Ron Howard, when, according to Katie O’Connell (senior vice president of comedy development and current programming at Imagine Television) Ron wanted to “[do] a comedy that had the disciplines of multi-camera comedy with the style of single-camera and reality shows.” (From The O.P. Interview with Katie O’Connell), and they found Mitchell Hurwitz, who Katie and Ron had worked with before, to write the show. The good timing of the show’s story about corporate corruption and the nature of the characters made it a good fit for Ron Howard’s idea. According to IMDB, Mitchell Hurwitz is the creator of the series, but this input from Ron Howard is essential to understanding this show.
The usage of a character driven narrative coupled with the stylistic treatment of the show means that the formal elements of film contribute significantly to the show. Without the genre-defining naturalistic view afforded by multiple cameras in a traditional sitcom, blocking and other elements of Mise-en-Scène become much more important. Graphic blocking is used often in “Arrested Development” to help foreshadow the impulsive behaviors of the family and their relationships to each other. You see this most especially in scenes where various family members are asserting dominance in some way over the others. For example, Tobias and Buster are not often the focus of the camera, and are instead off-screen until they interrupt the action. This can function as a sort of delayed joke, or “Brick Joke” as TVTropes would call it. Certainly Buster is a walking brick joke throughout the pilot. His ineptness is hinted at throughout the pilot, but comes to fruition near the end, once they demonstrate it. Similarly, every character’s flaw is brought to bear during the major event of the episode, during the retirement party, to great hilarity. Without the narrow perspective afforded by the single-camera and the special attention paid to the interactions between the cast of characters (seen best in George Bluth’s aside to Michael Bluth after naming Lucille as CEO), the subtle humor of the series would not function. One of the funnier things about the show is how it aggressively parodies reality television.
Specifically “Arrested Development” likes to use Mise-En-Scène as a measure of character, as well. Michael Bluth is living in an attic while his family lives a life of luxury. His son, George Michael, is shown to be a major motivation in his life when Michael decides to stay with the family at the end of the pilot. GOB’s body language in any given scene and the way in which each character is shot by the camera indicates almost as much about them than anything they say. The way they use the aforementioned graphic blocking and framing of the characters tells you a lot about them. Lucille, for instance, is almost always shown in a close-up, and she talks the big talk of a socialite, so much so that is given that subtitle when she’s introduced, documentary style. This double-whammy of comedic structure and well-written jokes in this show served it well when it came out in 2003.
With a character-driven story and good writing, the show inevitably suffered from the trend of good shows being canceled by FOX. It ran from 2003 until 2006, and will be airing new episodes on Netflix very soon. There is also a film in production. Winner of many awards, the show has critical acclaim, but the ratings were too low to justify continued production. The artistic appeal of the show may have discouraged people familiar with sitcoms from watching it. The way it’s crafted is using genre conventions that were both of niche appeal at the time (Documentary style and reality television style). With reality television dominating several networks, the impact of “Arrested Development” is becoming clearer. The greatest impact the show made was likely due to the filming methods. The continued popularity of reality television and documentary-style shows is firmly entrenched in the level of quality that shows like “Arrested Development” brought to the table.
If you like to watch screwball comedy, discuss the scholarship of film, or criticize reality television(and America at large), “Arrested Development” is for you.