Monday, November 08, 2004

Not Aunt Lindsay's Real Nose

I'm blogging at work. Don't tell on me.

Presently, I should be writing a news article on the burgeoning industry of Thanksgiving leisure travel — that is, Americans heading out to South America, Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and Australia rather than traveling within the country to meet with relatives. People have finally realized that braving snow and holiday traffic just isn't worth it and instead have chosen to go somewhere nice.

People can be smart sometimes.

However, I have nothing to write because no one will call me back. I'm floating in that limbo space that all journalists know: desperately wanting to write but having to words to put on paper because you're waiting for calls. I tried going downstairs to buy coffee. I tried using the bathroom. I wish I smoked so I could step outside to do that, just so I could have a reason to leave my office. (As any reporter should know, stepping out of the office is the easiest way to get called back. At least playing phone tag means having something to do.)

So in lieu of a travel story, I will instead write about "Arrested Development."

If you don't already watch this show, you're missing out. It's the best sitcom on network TV, easily. It's likely in the running for best thing on TV on any channel, though that's surely a tighter race. In any case, "Arrested Development" assembles a strong cost of performers, including well-known comedic actors — like David Cross and Jeffrey Tambour — relatively unknown but nonetheless solid actors — Jessica Walter, better known as the evil dean from "PCU" and the voice of Fran Sinclair on "Dinosaurs" — and who-knew-they-were-funny types — like Jason Bateman and Portia de Rossi.

Sitcoms detailing the interactions of dysfunctional families are nothing new, but I think the show's true strength lies in its emulation of recently established new forms of comedy. The quasi-mockumentary and the animated sitcom.

If you really think about it, "Arrested Development" owes a great debt to "The Royal Tennenbaums." Both works present a screwed-up family in a narrated manner that suggests "Best in Show" or "Drop Dead Gorgeous." However, the mockumentarians are never mentioned. They're just floating there, capturing the family's intimate moments in the way a normal sitcom would, just using the trappings of the mockumentary.

Besides that connection, both the Bluths and the Tennenbaums have financially criminal patriarchs and interfamily crushes that flirt with incest. Both families are rich, famous and, in their own way, outstanding.

"Arrested Development" also shares a prominent stylistic feature with animated sitcoms like "The Simpsons" or several of the Adult Swim shows.

Most non-animated sitcoms are constrained to a certain linearity. The plot goes along steadily and rarely ranges beyond the confines of immediate space and time. Episodes eschew subplots and instead contain several long scenes.

"Arrested Development," however, frequently flashes back to different points in the characters' lives — from childhood to a few minutes ago, and often both within one half-hour episode. Furthermore, the show also isn't above cutting away to a joke — something funny happening away from the setting of the current scene's main plot — just for a laugh. Ultimately, these little asides usually don't affect the main plot, but they're still funny as hell. "The Simpsons" does this a lot by jumping for a few seconds to a scene involving some Springfield resident and only tangentially relating to the plot, then jumping back. As far as I can remember, "Arrested Development" is the first non-animated show to mimic this fast and loose handle on what can appear within the scope of an episode.

And aside from these two points, I like "Arrested Development" because it's funny. I think it gives hope for sitcoms and television shows in general. The genre's nearly dead. The only truly funny stuff besides "Arrested Development" is acted out by cartoon characters or actors on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Think about it.

One small note: Before "Oliver Beene" got canned, David Cross was on two FOX Sunday night sitcoms. He provided the voice of the adult Oliver — the narrator — and then played Tobias F√ľnke on a different show with a never-seen narrator.

Another small note: The never-seen narrator on "Arrested Development" is Ron Howard. He's also a producer, and his daughter Bryce Dallas Howard appeared in "The Village" this summer as Ivy Walker. Her character had a sister named Kitty, who was played by the talented Judy Greer, who appears regularly on "Arrested Development" as the conniving secretary, Kitty Sanchez.

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