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Sunday, December 8

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Airbags

4 of 5 stars
Created and executive produced by Mitchell Hurwitz.
Starring Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter.

I catch some TV at friends' houses now and again, but I stopped watching TV at home years ago. As a result, I end up watching good TV shows pretty late in the game -- usually once they're released on DVD. Even when I do hear people singing the praises of some show or another, I'm generally skeptical, because "good" for a television show is usually just that: good for a television show. Most TV shows -- even the good ones -- are inconsequential fluff, which is why I don't watch them anymore. There are exceptions, of course: Cowboy Bebop and Six Feet Under, for instance, or noble efforts like the cancelled-too-soon Freaks & Geeks and the first season of Alias, which I'm told is still putzing around with that interminable Rambaldi storyline (I haven't seen the third season yet).

When a friend of mine suggested I rent Arrested Development, which came out last month on DVD, my interest was easily piqued by the fact that David Cross (Mr. Show), Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show) and Jason Bateman (Starsky & Hutch, Dodgeball -- oh yeah, and Teen Wolf Too) were all in one sitcom together. In the show's pilot, real estate and construction magnate George Bluth (Tambor) is arrested thanks to his inventive accounting practices and possibly "mild treason," sticking his oldest son Michael with the task of running the family's main business, as well as their frozen banana stand. Jason Bateman stars as Michael Bluth, the relatively sane one in the family, opposite his dim, materialistic twin sister Lindsay (Ally McBeal's smokin' hot Portia de Rossi); the dim, gravelly-voiced, Segway-riding older brother George Oscar Bluth II, a.k.a. GOB (pronounced "Job," as in The Book of), played by Will Arnett; and the dim, Oedipal Buster (Tony Hale). Rounding out the cast is Tobias (Cross), Lindsay's dim, psychologist-turned-"actor" husband; Lucille (Jessica Walter) as the wickedly manipulative matriarch of the family; and George Michael (Michael Cera), who is struggling with a crush on Lindsay and Tobias's daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat).

With the family fortune frozen pending the trial, the family is about as broke as any rich family on TV can be. Lindsay, Tobias and Maeby pile into the model home George and George Michael have been crashing at, with GOB coming and going depending on how his relationship is going with Marta, a Spanish-language soap star (initially played by Leonor Varela, but later by Patricia Velasquez). Michael attempts to get the family business back on track while his siblings make their half-assed attempts at pulling their own weight and, this being a sitcom after all, comedy ensues.

One two-part storyline involves a blind woman Michael hooks up with (Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus) turning out to be the prosecuting attorney in George's arraignment. After Tobias has been dispatched to steal files from her house, Michael discovers she has only been pretending to be blind since law school to help her law practice. Another episode involves the cluelessly closeted Tobias' old psychology book, The Man Inside, becoming a surprise hit in the gay community ("there’s a man inside me, and only when he’s finally out, can I walk free of pain"). My favorite episode, "Not Without My Daughter," takes place on Take Your Daughter to Work Day, complete with all the predictable (yet not less grin-inducing) consequences that implies.

Some critics have fawned over Arrested Development's supposedly unique look, which Jason Bateman describes in "Breaking Ground: Behind-the-Scenes of Arrested Development" as "Royal Tenenbaums shot like Cops." But as fans of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm will tell you, it is not the first sitcom to use this style. Aside from my prejudice against the visual artlessness of shaky-cam TV shows and movies, the only trouble with this approach is that the characters incriminate themselves on camera too often for them to be aware of the cameras around them. But, since the camera is only acknowledged in one episode during this first season (at least that I noticed), this is an easy enough flaw to get past. The general absurdity of the situations in the show also renders any overanalysis of the logic behind the show pointless. You simply can't think too much a show where, for instance, Lindsay is traumatized at being completely ignored by the inmates when she visits her father in prison. She wears ever more risqué get-ups, at one point wearing a T-shirt reading "SLUT," but nothing seems to work. Finally, she is relieved to learn that he's been paying them to not harass her, and, when he complains that she is driving him broke, she almost cries, saying, "That's all I ever wanted from you, Daddy. For you to spend money on me."

The pseudo-documentary style "became, stylistically, a way to move the story along," according to creator and show-runner Mitchell Hurwitz in "Breaking Ground," and, when it's not scrutinized too closely, it serves that purpose very well, allowing the scripts to be more condensed and less linear than on other sitcoms. "To this day, when we do a rough cut and people see it [without uncredited narrator and executive producer Ron Howard's] voice on it, people say, 'Boy, it's a little hard to follow. It's kind of confusing.' And then Ron gets in there and just slowly describes it all, and tells the story."

But that is exactly my problem with the narration. The vast majority of the time, I don't feel the narration is really necessary. To me, it is a distraction because, more often than not, the former Opie simply tells you where a character is heading -- which would be obvious after about two seconds anyway -- or explains the thought processes going through the characters' heads -- thought processes that are perfectly obvious to anyone looking at the screen, thanks to the show's uniformly gifted regular cast. Perhaps the narration helps blind people follow what is going on more easily, but the narration simply pulls me out of the stories, and I welcome the stretches where Ron Howard doesn't turn the show into a very bizarre storybook.

The voice-overs are necessary only during the "next episode" teasers. In an inspired running gag, the teasers for next week's episodes are, to some extent, fake. Occasionally they show a resolution to a subplot from that episode or foreshadow an upcoming storyline, but, whatever their function in the larger story of the show, they are always brilliantly funny. For instance, after an episode in which Tobias begins to overcome his inability to be nude -- ever, Howard's narration states that Tobias "overcompensates" for his cured never-nudity as we catch a glimpse of David Cross strolling across the house completely naked while the family sits at the breakfast table. As he leans over to kiss his wife on the head, Portia de Rossi has to hide her mouth to (ineffectively) hide her laughter.

Easily one of the funniest sitcoms I've seen, Arrested Development only falls a little bit short of perfection for me because of its ties to network TV. The lowest-common-denominator-appeasing narration and the too-short running time (22 minutes, thanks to all the ads) result in little meaningful progression in the main story arc -- a problem that I hope be addressed in the next few years, provided the show doesn't get cancelled. Arrested Development is extremely funny, but, without an overriding story to add to that, it is just really good fluff. Still, minor quibbles aside, Arrested Development is not just good "for television." For network television, it is a revelation.

The Arrested Development: Season 1 DVD set is available for rent from Blockbuster, Netflix and any number of video stores. You can also buy it from Amazon for under $30. The second season began two Sundays ago (11/7) on Fox. But I won't get to see the new episodes for another year.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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