Other Ten Percent 5/29/13

May 29 2013

So you may quickly notice this post doesn’t look a lot like a video. That’s because it isn’t one. I was going to dedicate a few hours to it today but then I suddenly got a fast turn around assignment to write up the new season of Arrested Development which I’d been discussing with Nikki all morning. The article is about 1100 words but it won’t be up till Friday so here’s the short version: The new season judged as a collection of individual episodes has a number of issues but it’s really one big 8 hour episode that, when judged on its own terms is a pretty remarkable achievement that also happens to be hilarious.

The thing is, I seem to be the only person who feels that way. Fienberg, VanDerWerff and a lot more people all seem to be agreed that the season is basically flawed and they all even seem to agree that the reason of that is season 4’s totally bizarre structure, following an individual Bluth for a full episode instead of jumping back and forth.

So, against my better judgement, and almost certainly everybody else’s desires, it’s time for Puzzlebox Comedies Ep. III: Revenge of the Making Shit Up as I Go Along. Because what I figured out as soon as Arrested Development slotted into place as the third example is that I’m not just arguing that Puzzlebox Comedies exist I’m arguing for them as a protected species because every critic seems to naturally HATE any sign of structural fuckery in sitcoms.

Somehow, a show which became a cult hit entirely because of its love of making structural games out of its jokes and creating callbacks so elaborate they don’t reveal themselves until the 4th or 5th time you watch the show, is now done in by abandoning its secret “emotional core” for structural games. Just like How I Met Your Mother used to be better when it was about the characters instead of the elaborate structural tricks, presumably meaning the first nine episodes of the show. (In fact, after claiming that all this structural nonsense is distracting from the real heart of what Arrested Development used to be Todd VanDerWerff directly compares it to How I Met Your Mother.)

Community may seem like an odd fit for this list since it’s so critically beloved but, especially when it was most attached to its meta-textual parody episodes, critical consensus seemed to always be on the verge of declaring it too clever for its own good and even critics who liked it, like Todd VanDerWerff felt a constant need to defend the show as really being about the character relationships even in elaborate parody episodes about clip shows that mock the show for repeating the same character beats over and over.

What I can’t quite figure out, still, is how exactly to combat this bias because I can’t really figure out where it comes from. The simplest explanation is that it comes from a desire to prove that Sitcoms are worthy of serious consideration as “art” which basically always means “look how much realism we’ve secretly got over here.” Science Fiction isn’t about wacky robots it’s about the human condition and our relationship with technology so take us seriously. Comic books aren’t about guys in funny underwear punching each other they’re about power and how it’s exercised. And sitcoms aren’t about clever callback jokes to 20 episodes ago they’re about human connections and how funny (and…tragic?) those connections are.

Which is true in so far as they CAN all be about those things, but also boring as fuck because it’s basically arguing that there’s only one kind of art that actually matters and if you’re going to try and be good art you’d damn well better act exactly like that or at least genuflect when you don’t.

Arrested Development does something truly new with its new season, the best structural analog I can make to its approach to storytelling is probably Infinite Jest. I swear I tried desperately to come up with a less pretentious comparison but the best I could do was Rashomon and that is both not as accurate and not significantly less pretentious. Like Infinite Jest the narrative begins with a flash forward and then jumps back to follow a whole host of characters in a slow lead up to that event and, like Infinite Jest the new season of Arrested Development ends [Aaaaaand spoiler warning for a book now old enough to be considering which tennis scholarship it should accept] unfinished with a bunch of loose ends that point toward a resolution that doesn’t reveal itself and a final moment that’s more a character moment than a traditional finale.

Also like Infinite Jest that seems to have pissed a lot of reviewers off.

[It’s now safe to read again if you were avoiding the spoilers or the pretentiousness]

What’s most odd about the critical reaction is that reviewers seem to simultaneously acknowledge how truly original Arrested Developments format is, how groundbreaking it’s likely to be and how much it creates a new formula for comedy online, while also knocking it for not acting enough like traditional sitcoms. To be sure the new structure comes with problems but those problems seem to be dwarfed in reviews by the “problem” of not acting like a prestige sitcom is supposed to act. The story isn’t shaped like a traditional sitcom story and nobody seems to be making an effort to even ask why not before decrying it as a structural failure for not resolving the way they expected it to.

It’s possible, more than possible really, that I’m giving too much credit here and the new season’s dangling threads are nothing more than a messy, irritating attempt to beg for another season or a feature film, which is how most critics seem to be interpreting them. But it doesn’t feel like it. For a story that’s supposed to be a huge mess it feels oddly complete, leaving as a suggestion plot lines you don’t really need to see. Part of me hopes that when/if the show does continue (okay, let’s be honest, when) it doesn’t pick up where it leaves off here but jumps forward in time again essentially repeating this structure and leaving large parts of the Bluth family history somewhat ambiguous. Partially that’s because it feels like it would be the most satisfying way to honor the story they’ve created here, and partially that’s because reviewers would HATE IT and the comedy part of my brain just wants to watch the world burn.

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