I’ve been working a lot on my computer lately, and what I’ve been reading away from it has tended to be so very heavy and demanding that I’ve preferred to spend my spare time viewing TV series to which I have gained access. The two I’ve watched lately have been the BBC series Peep Show (which is not what it sound like) and the American series Arrested Development.
Peep Show is not intelligent humor. It doesn’t try to be, it doesn’t aspire to be. It’s very often gutter humor, and a kind of poor man’s Seinfeld. The big gimmick for the show is that it’s filmed from the first person perspective, meaning that viewers have access to the characters P.O.V. but also have access to a character’s thoughts while “inside” his or her head (hence the title). The main characters in the series are two men who live together and are about the worst-matched pair of buddies/roommates one can imagine: one, a kind of lazily half-aspiring DJ brimming with schemes and excuses why he should not have a job; the other, an uptight, repressed, and messed-up bank loans manager. We watch these men make obvious blunders, mess up one anothers’ lives and plans, and general make total fools of themselves in their pursuit of success with money and women. But there are strange, deeply tangential moments where characters act on impulse, which are gut-splittingly funny. I can’t say I recommend paying money for them,but if you can get your hands on these episodes for free, they’re a fun way to pass a few hours, or at least that was true of Season 1.
Arrested Development, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliant television. The intro narration tells the most pertinent outline:
And now the story of a wealthy family, who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together … it’s ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
The program takes after films like This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and Waiting for Guffman, using a false-documentary (or mockumentary) premise for the playing out of the story. The narration (by Ron Howard, aka Richie Cunningham from Happy Days) adds pertinent sarcastic commentary and the characters are each, though rather normal caricatures, beautifully bound together. I remember emphasizing to my students that when writing their own drama, stereotype characters are fine, but what needs to be thought about is the relationship between characters. Mom, Dad, Son: fine, but who is the Son’s favorite parent? Are the Mom and Dad getting along these days? Does the Son manipulate the parents? These are the kinds of things that make a drama interesting, when characters’ relationships become complex enough that a story simply arises out of those relationships (even if it is just an argument over the best place to go for a family vacation).
Arrested Development is built on a deep mastery of this principle. Seinfeld played with what happens when you put four (or more) neurotic people together. Arrested Development is deeper and richer in my opinion because it explores the insanity that is endemic in modern Western families: the ways that parents and children relate through dependencies, resentments, manipulations, and misunderstandings; the ways that siblings compete and depend on one another; the way in-laws sometimes are inescapable and yet are also inextricably bound to a family; the way boys will be boys — teenaged or adult alike. There are the specificities of the characters — a hopeless magician, a coddled man-boy in his thirties, a daughter with nearly no self-esteem and her husband, a delicensed psychiatrist who suddenly wants to be an actor; a father in prison who’s halfway undergone a mystical conversion to a kind of New-Age Judaism of his own fashioning; and a mom that makes the evil stepmothers of Grimms’ tales seem mediocre in their wickednesses.
What’s most fascinating to watch is how the “the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together” slowly gets sucked into the insanity of his family; lying to judges, sneaking around, blaming his own mistakes on his irresponsible idiot brother… this says a lot about the way family rubs off on one, how being with one’s family brings one to change in ways one doesn’t always like, and yet, of course, since it is a Comedy in the older, Shakespearean sense, everything turns out alright in the end, because, yes, family is important, family is everything… maybe. Except, then, then your mom is lying to try to get you to commit insurance fraud so she can afford a membership at a country club, or your sister has accidentally sent all your company’s employees to Mexico, or your brother is trying to hunt down and sleep with every woman you like, or your father is trying to run the family business from prison and messing things up even worse than they were when he was first arrested…
Another thing I very much enjoy about the show is that it’s somewhat more subtle in its strong thematic unities than you see in other sitcoms. Sometimes it seems as if each character on a show has love-life problems, or money problems, or problems with parents, during the same episode. Other times, the problems of the different characters seem too disconnected from one another. Arrested Development balances all of this: everything that comes up at any given point, comes up for a reason. And yet you also see a lot of true-and false-parallels between characters; relations between real siblings, false siblings, pseudo-siblings, for example, in one episode. Issues tend to ride out over several episodes, instead of climaxing and subsiding in the course of a single weekly minute episode, and even after they seem solved, they surface again and must be dealt with further. I’ll put it this way: I think the writing is masterful, perhaps as masterful as anything on TV since Dead Like Me and what I saw of Six Feet Under.
I’ve heard that Arrested Development is in its last season. Knowing this early on may be a good thing; it will allow the writers a chance to bring the thing to a brilliant close, something many good shows have been denied a chance to do. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Seasons 2 and 3, and recommend the series very highly.