What Can We Steal From Season Four of Arrested Development?

Title of Work and its Form:  Season Four of the Television Program Arrested Development
Author: The program was created by Mitchell Hurwitz (on Twitter @MitchHurwitz).  Much of the original creative team joined him, including Jim Vallely.
Date of Work: The episodes premiered on May 26, 2013.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The episodes can be found streaming on Netflix. (Thank you, Netflix!)

Bonuses: Here is The Onion A/V Club’s ongoing coverage of the program.  Here is a massive chart from NPR that chronicles the running jokes in the program.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Well, friends, you knew this essay was inevitable.  I’ve already espoused my deep love for the first three seasons of Arrested Development and the fourth season does nothing to tarnish that legacy.  As for a summary?  The fourth season takes place several years after the show ended on Fox.  We learn how each of the characters spent their time.  George Maharris went to college and studied abroad in Spain.  (He did a little bit too much studying, perhaps.)  Maeby went to high school again and again.  Tobias and Lindsay bought a house they couldn’t afford and traveled to India.  Michael built Sudden Valley and lost everything.  Lucille goes on trial for stealing the Queen Mary.  George Sr. becomes a sweat lodge guru…it’s really hard to summarize what happens.

Hurwitz and friends had a massive challenge in front of them.  Fans of Arrested Development had very high expectations for the new episodes.  The new season had to be written in such a manner that filming would coincide with the actors’ busy schedules.  There are many Bluths whose stories needed to be told in addition those of the tangential characters we all know and love.  What is the main reason that Season Four succeeded? It’s the same reason that any extended narrative succeeds: the characters are deep and the characters drive the humor.  

Think of just about ANY great extended narrative.  Harry PotterLord of the RingsCheersAll in the FamilySeinfeldThe Dick Van Dyke Show.  The situations and the humor (there IS humor in Harry Potter) emerge from the characters; it isn’t foisted upon them.  Mr. Hurwitz and company, in a way, didn’t write the new season as much as they figured out what the characters would be doing.  Think about DeBrie, one of the new characters.  She’s an STD-ridden former actress with a heart of gold.  Tobias meets her at the Method One clinic, where she’s doing one of her monologues. (Tobias is a bad actor, so it makes sense that he would confuse NA-type confessional as an actor plying her craft.)

After her character has been well-established, Tobias tries to get her back into acting by saying: “No, DeBrie, come on… Don’t you want to get back on that horse?”

To which DeBrie replies, “Even better!”

It’s not a complicated punchline, but the humor is derived from DeBrie’s constant desire to use narcotics.

Think about the extended scene in the first episode in which Michael, Maeby and George Michael are trying to decide how the voting-out procedure will go.  If we didn’t know the characters, we would probably find the scene alone pretty boring.  Instead, we love the scene because so much is going on and it’s derived from the characters.

  • Michael doesn’t understand how pitiful he has become and that his son wants to get rid of him.
  • George Michael is trying to break out of the Bluth mold and to get some independence from the family, a difficult proposition.  He’s even named for his grandfather and his father.  He wants to seduce Maeby (and was about to when Michael first burst in).
  • Maeby wants to get FakeBlock going (if I recall correctly) and wants to make pop-pop with George Michael and probably wants to eliminate reminders of her inattentive parents.

The audience understands the emotional stakes for the characters, so they care and flinch and laugh at the same time.

Another reason that the new season is so great is that Mr. Hurwitz gave us exactly what we all wanted without giving us exactly what we wanted.  It would have been very easy for him to create a less complicated version of Arrested Development in order to please the maximum number of people.  Instead, Hurwitz gave us what we REALLY wanted: a work that is complicated and requires that the viewer pay attention.

Season Four will age very well because Mr. Hurwitz followed his muse in the confines of his real-world restrictions.  I think I read in an interview that he could only get the whole cast together on-set for two days.  The budget for the new episodes was likely lower than the budget for the Fox episodes.  Therefore, Mr. Hurwitz changed the Arrested Development format in a way that he felt was true to the characters and his goals on the original show.  Had he not experimented with the Rashomon structure and each-character-gets-a-short-film idea, the art would suffer.  It’s no longer 2006, so he couldn’t pretend as though he were making whatever the original Season Four would have been.  He created the show that was dictated to him by his muse.

One of the million things I’ve always loved about Arrested Development is how clear it is that everyone on board bought into making the show great.  It’s hard to make great comedy if you are being “reverent.”  Comedy is, by its nature, irreverent.  (That’s why it is sometimes difficult to find good comedy by conservatives.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Prove me wrong?)

There are many times in Season Four in which the writers are making good-natured jokes about the actors.  For example, the acclaimed director Ron Howard gets a “hat haircut” and calls all of his barbers Floyd.  The design accent above his office door is a ballcap. (And Brian Grazer’s office next door is sculpted to look like Mr. Grazer’s trademark hair.)  Rocky Richter sits in for his brother on Conan and makes a joke about Ron Howard’s hair.  Mr. Howard could easily have had any of these details excised, but he didn’t.  Why?  Because he is laughing WITH the writers and the audience and because he is apparently as emotionally secure and as happy as he should be.  Mr. Howard has reverence for storytelling and comedy and pleasing the audience and doesn’t revere himself in an unhealthy manner, all of which benefits the work as a whole.  Isn’t this attitude one of the marks of a true artist?

What Should We Steal?

  • Derive humor and drama from your deep, complicated and human characters.  A story is not as compelling if the reader can see the hand of its creator.  Instead, the reader should feel that he or she has been offered a window into another world and a glimpse into the lives of real people.
  • Write to satisfy your muse, not your audience, imagined or real.  You’re more likely to impress the audience if you impress yourself first!
  • Allow yourself and your treasured characters to be the butt of the joke. Within reason, your priority should be to serve the work, not yourself.

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