Monday, November 12, 2007

"I Don't Know Who That is and I Don't Care to Find Out"
creator David Chase once said that his show was about "people who lie to themselves, as we all do". I'm paraphrasing from memory, so I may not have the quote exactly right but you get the point. One doesn't have to be a sour-faced veteran Hollywood misanthrope to see what Chase was getting at. Some might even say that the socio-economic order that we are all - to some degree - complicit in is so morally abhorrent that, for most people, total denial is the only available strategy for psychological survival. I mean, we're all basically good people, right?

While The Sopranos certainly deals with this denial quite brilliantly, it's actually Fox's Arrested Development that most effectively makes denial the central topic of an extended satire on contemporary society, politics, economics and culture. Sure, it mainly does this through an endless stream of outlandish characters, knob gags, catch phrases and pratfalls but make no mistake, Arrested Development has layers and layers and layers beneath the surface.

The structures of the episodes themselves is extraordinary enough. In many ways, AD is similar to Seinfeld in the way that it splices and folds sitcom conventions into astounding new patterns. But whereas Seinfeld has a specifically sitcom-y approach to deconstructing the sitcom, there's something more literary (or at least cinematic) about the way AD uses foreshadowing, coincidence, captions, narration (courtesy of Ron Howard) etc. etc. to create a bizzare labyrinth of thematic juxtapositions. This reaches its absurd formal zenith during the episode in which Tobias (acclaimed stand-up comedian David Cross) and his nephew George Michael (the astonishingly gifted Michael Cera) unwittingly stage a live-action pastiche of vintage Japanese monster movies.

While Cross and Cera both give virtuoso performances throughout the series - each deploying a method actor-like array of tics, gestures and mannerisms - it seems unfair to single them out among what must undoubtedly be the greatest ensemble cast ever in a US network TV show (featuring Portia de Rossi, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Jeffrey Tambor, among others).

Still, it's worth mentioning Cross and his failed-psychiatrist/actor character because Tobias is present at the central moment of denial in the entire series. Somewhere in the middle of the second season, Tobias confronts his mother-in-law Lucille (played with imperious venom by Jessica Walter) to tell her that - in his qualified opinion - she is suffering from what psychiatrists call "denial". Lucille then delivers a razor sharp, concise assassination of Tobias's character, directly to his face. There's a pregnant pause after which Tobias says something like "Well, if she's not going to say anything, I simply can't help her" before hastily leaving the room.

The thing is that, like most of the characters on the show, Lucille lives her life in deep denial. But with her, denial seems to be an entirely voluntary state, as evidenced by her fondness for phrases like "I didn't understand the question and I won't respond to it." Lucille may seem like the most despicable character on AD but in many ways, she's actually one of the most honest and least hypocritical.

The same might be said of her granddaughter Maeby (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat). Maeby
and her cousin George Michael are interesting cases because they're still teenagers (and unlike most US shows, the teens on AD really are played by teens). You see, "the Kids" haven't yet learned to work denial seamlessly into their day-to-day lives. For George Michael, this means enduring a constant stream of horrifically embarrassing and traumatic incidents. For Maeby, on the other hand, it means being able to shamelessly exploit the credulity of the adult world for personal gain - much to George Michael's horror. (Notably, one of the few adults on the show who seems to live without denial is the man-child Buster - played by Tony Hale in another of AD's most virtuosic performances).

Cera's character spends much of his time trying to live up to the apparently saintly example set by his father Michael (the show's central character, played by Bateman). The catch here is that Michael is a judgmental and egocentric jerk. His essential lameness is paralleled by the ludicrous faux-charitable antics of his twin sister Lindsay (de Rossi). Don't get me wrong, they both mean well. They're basically good people.

But aren't we all?

(Postscript: The lack of embedded multi-media content in this post has less to do with my recently-acquired aversion to such things and everything to do with the fact that Fox seems to be having some kind of ridiculous crybaby dispute with YouTube. Fear not, though, because it seems that you can stream the entire series online, legally, here!)


crys said...

funny... i came home from work to find the 2nd season of AD splayed out on the table in the living room... being watched for the umpteenth time, and you know what, i think i'll go play another episode right now... cuz i just can't get sick of it.

In a way it just get's better and better...

Biggie Samuels said...

Yeah, every time I watch it I notice something new. Like have you ever noticed how awesome Lupe the maid is? Or the fact that Tobias and Lindsay actually like each other?

We just finished Season Two again last night.

psherburne said...

awesome analysis. your argument that the show is a critique of americans' denial is certainly one way of reading the show's cringeworth, definitely hilarious, and difficult-to-parse attitude towards race...

Biggie Samuels said...

I used to think that AD's approach to race was a bit dodgy, actually but now I'm not so sure. At least the show isn't obsessed with the alleged differences between black people and white people, like most Hollywood comedy is these days.

Anyway, the whole Franklin thing is a pretty good illustration of AD's utterly insensitive but surprisingly intelligent approach to the question of race/enthnicity. Gob thinks he's using his African American puppet Franklin to "heal this country a little bit" but all that Franklin's antics really do is prove just how deeply ingrained racism is among privileged white Americans like Gob.

The show's treatment of Latin Americans is more deeply troublesome, not least because of the "funny" Mexican music that starts to play whenever one appears. In fact, though, Latin Americans (Lupe's family, Marta...) are mostly portrayed as honest-to-God authentically good people. I'm not sure that's any better, really. It seems a little patronizing.

Still how can you argue with lines like: "I'm a professor of American Studies at the University of Mexico City!" Priceless.

Christopher O said...

I'm really looking forward to committing to AD soon. It's one of those shows that I stumble onto mid-way through an episode, usually mid-season and the ???'s start popping up above my head.

Kind of like Deadwood, I'm sure it'll be quite rewarding
and Christmas break is coming up soon, so I'm looking forward to doing the DVD marathon.

Can't wait to see the new Curb Your Enthusiasm season as well, whenever it comes out on DVD. (I have this aversion to watching tv shows online.)

Oh yes---

It's new. Figured you might like.

Biggie Samuels said...

I actually envy people who haven't seen all of AD yet. So much to discover! But you don't really get the whole picture until at least the third viewing. Maybe not even then.