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DVD Review: Arrested Development Season 1 - Best "Sitcom" Since Seinfeld

by Scott Weinberg

It's not too often that I'll pluck one of my own DVDs off the shelf and write a review. I've got plenty of REAL work to do without banging out a review that nobody (the studio, the publicist, my mom, etc.) asked for in the first place. But when you're so entirely blown away by the quality of new TV series and its subsequent DVD release, you just want to get up on a mountain and scream real loud "Go BUY this 3-disc set! Thank me later!"

The best sitcoms transcend the word "sitcom". Does Seinfeld deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Full House? I think not. But since Arrested Development is a half-hour comedy program, it's a "sitcom". Frankly I think we need a new term for series like these - but I'm rambling.

Shot with handheld cameras, presented in a documentary style and gloriously free of anything resembling a "laugh track" (shudder), Arrested Development is unique enough in presentation alone. But further widening the gap between itself and any other half-hour comedy series in the writing. The crisp, clever, quick, daring, insightful and downright hilarious writing...

But perhaps a few introductions are in order.

Michael Bluth is the lone voice of reason in a family full of selfish jackals. He's recently widowed, perpetually frustrated, and deeply devoted to one person: his 13-year-old son. As played by Jason Bateman, Michael Bluth is a quick wit indeed, delivering joyously deadpan retorts to whatever familial insanity is presently afoot. Bateman absolutely soars in this role, as if he's spent his entire television career (often proving the sole ray of light in several otherwise disposable sitcoms) building up to this character. The only way he doesn't win some awards is if the show gets cancelled soon. (A POX on the house of whomever moves to cancel this damn show!)

Michael's dad is George Bluth, the CEO of Bluth Industries, which is a company that A) builds homes, and B) is currently under SEC investigation for all sorts of Enron-type naughtiness. As the series opens, George is being sent to jail for embezzlement...and maybe some light treason. Pop's played by the painfully talented Jeffrey Tambor, and if you don't already know this guy from The Larry Sanders Show...well then shame on you. (OK, maybe you remember him from The Ropers??)

Lucille Bluth is Michael's mother...and what a mother she is! Rude, ruthless and all but dripping with venomous sarcasm, Lucille is as spoiled as they come. As played by veteran character actress Jessica Walter, Lucille vamps it up with an effortless zeal, making this malicious mama one of the show's most enjoyable treats.

George Michael Bluth is Michael's kind-hearted and terminally flustered teenage son. George Michael is decent enough to help out wherever he can, but the kid's got a sporadic gift for mischief, too. (And boy does he have plenty of potential partners in crime!) The young Michael Cera, already a TV veteran, is pitch-perfect every time out. This kid earns more laughs from a few mumbles than most 'sitcom kids' deliver in one full season. Forced to hold his own among several funny grown-ups, Cera is not only up to the task; he steals scenes left and right.

Michael's big brother, George Oscar Bluth, likes to be called Gob - and that's pronounced "Jobe". Yeah. That's a hint. Competitive, devious and more than a little cracked, Gob is one of those very rare sitcom characters in that he's drop-dead funny every time he's onscreen. Chalk that up to the writers, of course, and the smoothly brilliant work of actor Will Arnett. Gob scoots around the periphery on his obnoxious little Segway scooter, always on the lookout for easy money and easier women. Oh, and he's a magician. A really, really bad one.

Michael has another brother called Buster. Buster is a nervous little oddball, a juice-box-addicted misfit who still lives with Mommy and has an Oedipal complex a mile wide. (Incidentally, Buster is over 30.) And here's just another example of how Arrested Development is so much better than anything on network TV: in any other sitcom, Buster would just be "the dumb one," the character who says the wrong thing at the wrong time and bumps into walls. Here, Buster is an instantly ingratiating man-child who's merely the product of two wacko parents and a misshapen childhood. As played by Tony Hale, Buster is the insane icing on an already lunatic cake.

Michael also has a twin sister named Lindsay Bluth Fünke. (More on that Fünke business in a minute.) Lindsay is a gorgeous, spoiled rich-girl, but she's a gal who also has some true affection for her family. It's just that shopping comes first. As portrayed by the angelic Portia de Rossi, Lindsay is one of the series' most startling revelations. Not just because the character is well-conceived and cleverly-written, but Ms. Rossi absolutely shines here. This isn't just the best work of her career; she's absolutely one of the funniest ladies on television right now.

Lindsay's husband is Dr. Tobias Fünke, and let's just cut through all the adjectives, shall we? David Cross. That's all I should have to say. David Cross plays Tobias and let me tell you people...if you leave this rambling review and you remember only one thing, let it be this: David Cross is one of the funniest men on the planet. If you don't think so, I suggest you rent a few discs of Mr. Show and get back to me at a later date. Despite being married to a blonde of supermodel proportions, Tobias is clearly harboring some decidedly...effeminate tendencies. Plus he's just plain old clueless most of the time. Formerly a (not very gifted) psychiatrist, Dr. Fünke is currently seeking his fame as an actor.

May "Maeby" Fünke is daughter to Lindsay and Tobias, niece to Michael (obviously), and an adorable little troublemaker if ever there was one. Maeby is close with cousin George Michael (although not as close as he wishes...ew), somewhat alienated from her odd-couple parents, and consistently bemused by the insanity of the family she's in. Newcomer Alia Shawkat should thank her lucky stars she didn't end up as some eye-rolling sass-machine in another sitcom, but hey, sometimes the cream rises to the top. This is one funny young lady, and she clearly earned the gig.

You'll also get to know the Bluth attorney (Henry Winkler, doing some truly great stuff here and good for him), George Michael's ethics teacher (Heather Graham, always adorable and surprisingly solid here), Gob's girlfriend Marta (both Michael and Buster try to steal her away...and they're the nice brothers), George Sr.'s blind prosecutor (Julia Louis Dreyfus, offering by far her best post-Seinfeld work), Lucille's vertigo-stricken neighbor Lucille (Liza Minnelli, poking fun at herself quite hilariously), and our humble narrator, series producer Ron Howard. Ron's down-home narration provides a much-needed sense of warmth to the proceedings. I'm not normally a fan of voice-over narration, but here's a perfect example of how to make it work. Howard's vocal interjections are a perfect balance to all the sniping and backbiting so popular at the Bluth homestead. Plus Ronny's dry delivery often earns some of the show's biggest laughs.

So there's your family. They were once very rich and comfortable. And now...not. Thanks to George Sr.'s numerous indiscretions (not to mention his incarceration), the Bluth's assets are frozen solid, and the whole frenzied family (save Mom and Buster, of course) are forced to live in their last remaining house. (It's a flimsily constructed model home in the middle of a huge vacant tract of land.) Michael, now the head of the floundering Bluth Company, is forced to ride his bicycle to work. The only family automobile is one of those stairway-cars that you find at the airport. (They had to sell the jet, of course!)

So Arrested Development is where we get to laugh at people who were once filthy rich, but must now come to terms with Real Life? Well, no. That would be way too easy, plus it's kind of hard to fall in love with a show that's populated by non-stop assholes. No, Arrested Development, like all the best sitcoms ever made, is about character. It's about frailty and ego and compassion and commitment. But because the show is so brilliantly constructed, those morality tales are hidden beneath layers and layers of unique wit, smart sass and the sort of vicious one-liners we all wish we'd thought of first. It's got characters you'll love because of their flaws and not despite them. Plus it's just so great to find a sitcom that's not afraid to be smart while it's being silly. Smart people appreciate being catered to once in a while.

Several years back I read an article that described the cast of Frasier as "a symphony." It was a solid comparison, and it's one that immediately popped into my head after watching six consecutive episodes of Arrested Development. This is an ensemble like no other, one that combines masterful comic timing with a few slight sprinkles of improvisation. Not only does each actor shine in his (or her) own spotlight, but each one complements the other with remarkable skill. As you get to know the characters better you'll long for those moments of "Lindsay / Tobias," "Michael / Gob," "Buster / anyone". And with this many characters, the combinations are endless! So clearly I just dig the show a whole lot. Your mileage may vary, but I've recommended this show to a few dozen folks - and I've earned zero complaints so far.

So what's the 3-disc DVD collection have to offer besides 22 episodes that you'll devour like chocolate-covered crack? First off, we have widescreen. Yeah. You believe that? A sitcom presented in widescreen? What gives? I'm not exactly sure, but I'd bet it has something to do with the handheld camera / mockumentary narrative, but I do know this: I dig it. Chop off the credits from each episode and Arrested Development becomes the longest, funniest movie of 2003. In the extras department the fans will find a great little collection of goodies, including audio commentary on three episodes (two of which feature the entire cast!) and a great little behind-the-scenes featurette in which Will Arnett pokes fun at Jason Bateman for being a "Teen Wolf........Too!" Ha! There's also an entertaining little Q & A session from The Museum of Radio & Televison that features the cast and creators. Poke around a bit more for several deleted and extended scenes, 29 original audio tracks from composer David Schwartz, a brief TV Land presentation to the series, and an "unaired" version of the original pilot episode.

If Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a Joss Whedon and Alias has a J.J. Abrams, then Arrested Development has a Mitchell Hurwitz. Mitch has worked as a writer on shows like The Golden Girls, The John Larroquette Show and Ellen, but it's safe to assume that Arrested Development is Mr. Hurwitz's "baby". Although I doubt Mitchell's family is anything like the Bluth clan, it's obvious that this show and these characters are things he holds close to his heart. For the first season he brought together a host of great writers, brilliant comedic actors, and crafty directors like Paul Feig, Jay Chandrasekhar and the Russo brothers. Although not a ratings success at the beginning, Arrested Development was adored and admired by virtually every TV critic on the planet. Fox was kind of enough to offer up a full season (instead of canceling it like they do with a LOT of potentially great shows), and Arrested Development went on to win five Emmys (out of seven nominations). This DVD release has been selling OUT at your neighborhood Best Buy (seriously), TV Land gave Arrested Development their "Instant Classic" award, and we're presently three episodes in to a stellar sophomore season on Fox (Sundays, 8:30 Eastern).

Trust me on this one, folks. Rent the three discs separately if you must. But you'll just be delaying the inevitable 26-dollar drop you'll be making in a week or two. You'll quickly come to the conclusion that a show this funny is worth every penny.

And this is coming from a guy who pretty much hates television.

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originally posted: 11/27/04 20:19:03
last updated: 11/30/04 23:12:29
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