The accused: Arrested Development, “For British Eyes Only” (Season 3, Episode 2)
The crime: Losing control of the series’ successful and innovative frameworks
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Welcome back to #TVFail, y’all. It’s a new year, but of course there is still all sorts of disappointing, failed television to discuss in 2012. If you missed it sometime at the tail-end of 2011, I have planned out the #TVFail entries through late May and I think there are some really compelling and complicated cases to dig into. Today’s post is one of those, and perhaps, it might even be little controversial as well.
Hindsight does weird things to us. On one hand, the passage of time brings us the needed detachment necessary to evaluate texts in new lights and determine what has changed, or what has not, about said text. It can be really easy to poke holes in something we loved a few years later, passing off those initial feelings as naivety, confusion or both. On the other hand, the passage of time, especially in popular culture, also evokes this grand sense of nostalgia where we begin to believe certain things were “better” in some nebulous past time period. I would argue that the speed and frameworks of contemporary popular culture magnify these feelings even further, so all the people who missed a great, but canceled television series can catch up on Netflix and retroactively commiserate with those who were there, man.
In my personal perspective, I think Arrested Development is one such series that’s been a victim of hindsight in both manners. We sometimes tend forget all the novel and innovative things Arrested Development in the middle of the last decade while we’re busy deconstructing new Community episodes or frothing at the mouth over Parks and Recreation or whatever else. In that respect, I wonder what it would be like to experience Arrested Development in the contemporary television criticism and consumption worlds.
Nevertheless, somehow, we simultaneously also tend to gloss over Arrested Development’s faults while we are complaining about it being canceled too soon, posting misguided comments about how much FOX sucks or if recent events are any indication, celebrating the possibility of a film continuation.* I am not here today to talk about how much Arrested Development, as a whole, sucks. I’m not an idiot. However, I do think that the general assumption about the series’ out-and-out genius and success is faulty. Thus, I want to go back to that third season to a story thread that I don’t think worked, really at all, and try to consider not only went wrong, but also what we might be in store for once the Netflix season and the film actually exist.
*It’s hard not to put an asterisk next to this film news. I’m very cynical about these things, if you might remember.
I think it is fair to say that we assume and basically expect that television series are going to have off episodes. We want everything to be good and we might be inordinately harsh when something doesn’t meet our standards, but most television viewers are smart enough to realize that making television isn’t an easy gig. The breakneck pace of the production schedule is a bear for everyone involved, particularly on a broadcast network, 20-plus-episode-per-season schedule, and at a certain point, almost every series delivers an episode below its typical quality, whatever that may be. These assumptions are even truer for comedies, where the pressure to be funny every single second creates a tightrope that can’t always be walked on, and the general subjectivity of humor is bound to turn certain viewers off at times. This is a long-winded way of saying that television series have bumps along the way, and we know that.
For most comedies, the occasional middling or even dud effort isn’t much of a problem. Parks and Recreation has been on one heck of a consistent run since the middle of season two, but there were a few slight misfires among the bunch. Community’s so different each week that its never-ending balance between genius and disaster is always in play. Even certain episodes or segments of Louie season two fell flat. Heck, a comedy like 30 Rock can have a full season-and-a-half of pretty mediocre episodes – sup, season three and part of season four? – and then turn it around again without much major concern.
But what makes random comedy failure so easy for us to swallow – aside from the subjectivity – is that most sitcoms train us to wash our hands of whatever happened one week and get ready for something new the following week. Clearly, character arcs and plot points carry over from week to week, but outside of Parks’ Harvest Festival mini-arc, those comedies above typically rely on some sort of standalone framework within their episodic structures. The jokes, for the most part, don’t carry over, and those jokes that do aren’t necessarily overtly repeated but instead are part of a larger character beat or theme (the Parks Department’s treatment of Jerry comes to mind).
What then makes Arrested Development so singular (and impressive, of course) is that it is powered by a successive building of characters and plot-points, but jokes, gags, cutaway bits and more. The serialization is all-encompassing and more important in the story of the Bluths than it is for contemporary great sitcoms. The writers’ ability to construct situations where repetition doesn’t just make sense, it is almost necessary, is one of the things that make Arrested Development so darn impressive. Community is a structurally impressive and novel sitcom, and the way Dan Harmon deconstructs and reconstructs the form constantly compels me, but to be fair, Community doesn’t exist without Arrested Development. And the ability of AD’s staff, led by Mitch Hurwitz and Jim Vallely, to construct their narrative with such purpose is truly dizzying, even watching it today.
In that sense, then, I would posit that Arrested Development is one of the only sitcoms that require the viewer to see every episode to truly get the full experience. The comparisons to Lost are too easy, especially since they debuted at the same time, but they’re also not entirely far off. Arrested Development’s brand of serialization rewards extended and long-term engagement, not just on a character level or a plot level, but on every level. Season one of the series is probably my favorite, but the second works so masterfully because of the consistent pay-offs to gags and beats alike.
But if Lost – and really, most of the hackneyed series that followed it – has taught us anything, it is that serialization can be a fickle bitch. When things are going well, and gradually building, that thrill of dramatically linked episodes is a television viewing experience like no other. But when things go wrong, they can go very wrong and there’s oftentimes little escaping for an extended period of time. This is likely even more troubling for a comedy. Lost could at least slam on the breaks in the middle of a bad storyline (say, like in the first half of season three) and tell a standalone story that had some satisfying moments amid all the obvious problems (“Not in Portland” comes to mind). A comedy, though? If a thread or a running joke doesn’t work, it’s not only harmful on a storytelling level, it can be flat-out painful to watch due to it not being funny. If the glorious construction has any base weaknesses, the whole thing can come crashing down.* The impact is instantly toxic and noticeable. This, I want to suggest, happened in Arrested Development’s third season.
*Playing it safe obviously has its rewards. Something like Parks isn’t as innately constructed as Arrested Development or Community, but it’s also much more consistent. There’s definitely a corollary, I think.
“For British Eyes Only” begins what I think is the only really failed story in Arrested Development’s history. Because the episodes are linked together so tightly, it was difficult to pick out which one bothered me the most, so I went with the beginning, the source of the problems. The season’s journey down to Wee Britain and the introduction of Charlize Theron’s Rita brings an interesting new energy to the series, but one that ultimately fails to be well-integrated into the “typical” rhythms of the Arrested Development world. For all the wacky things the series did in its run, this plotline is the only one that feels gimmicky in some way. It might not have been intended to be, but plays that way.
Critics often talk about the slick tightrope Community has to walk in order to stay on-track and not go up its own ass and that sort of observation fits well for season three of Arrested Development. I wouldn’t say the series became too self-referential or –reflexive, because they managed to make that kind of content work throughout. However, the first chunk of season three and the Wee Britain story had issues because they simply weren’t funny and more importantly, they lacked any real connection or build to previous events – though the series tried its hardest to make that so.
As I touched on before, what made the series so strong at various points is that it used repetition so intelligently, where beats and jokes were hammered home constantly for great effect. But the Wee Britain angle started fairly slow in “For British Eyes Only” and then quickly kept repeating the same jokes, ones that weren’t particularly funny in the first place and didn’t have enough time to develop, so the repetition came off as a bit lazy. I’m not sure if the constraints of the shortened season hampered the story or if the creative team just wanted to try something entirely new, but no matter what the reason, issues exist.
One of the primary reasons the Wee Britain storyline stumbles is that it makes Michael look more like an idiot than usual. There is no question that the series had no problem putting their straight-man into situations where he looked like a fool, made bad choices and displayed traits that proved he was a rightful member of the dysfunctional Bluth family, but generally, there was a sense that the insanity around him caused him to make those weird/bad decisions. Here, though, Michael’s a dolt from the outset and things only get worse as the truth behind Rita’s identity is revealed and yet Michael almost marries the woman. I guess you could argue that Michael is so confused over everything with his family that he cannot pay enough attention to Rita and her fairly-obvious condition, but that’s still not particularly flattering for a relatively admirable guy. Theron is funny in a number of scenes throughout the arc, but that’s not enough to carry it out of mediocrity.
Throughout the first two seasons and then later in the third, Development succeeds because of the tight focus on the Bluth family. Supporting characters weave in and out of the story, but they are almost all included for a specific purpose (either on a plot or joke level). The Wee Britain angle is more detached from the family and the family stories than usual, another substantial issue. There is likely some value in exploring how George Bluth’s insane deals extend past the Middle East, and this arc covered that somewhat, but was generally more interested in making a fool out of Michael as he tried to find love and make a lot of obvious British culture jokes over and over. The ridiculous connections to Iraq, Sadaam Hussein and the War on Terror worked because they were both hilarious and very, very relevant at the time. Gags about British currency and Monty Python? Neither. The series always walked this line between super-intelligent comedy, particularly in the structure, and low-ball obvious comedy and unfortunately, the Wee Britain story is almost entirely based in the latter.
And this is where Arrested Development’s approach to storytelling, with the noticeable serialization and repetition in jokes, comes back to haunt the series. The Wee Britain story arc begins in the second episode of the season and carries on for four more episodes. Those five episodes aren’t flat-out ruined, but they are weighed down significantly, and in a final season of only 13 episodes, it’s disappointing that the series spends almost 40 percent of its episodes on a middling arc. The jokes are stale after the first episode and Michael looks like a massive idiot after the second, but the series keeps hitting the same marks. Obviously, all series have problematic arcs that take a while to maneuver out of, but Arrested Development’s storytelling style makes that slow maneuvering more painful than most.
Of course, the series regains some traction immediately after Rita and the Wee Britain story concluded. The second half of season three refocuses a little bit more on the family, the company and Michael as the mostly rationale man stuck at the center of it all and not surprisingly, it’s much better overall. I would guess that the cancelation news spurred Hurwitz and company to reign it back in a little more and the season’s final two or three episodes are really tremendous. I blame that finale for the constant rumor mongering related to the possible film*, but as a conceit within the episode, it works quite well.
*I don’t want to keep beating this drum, but if we look at this third season and then all the things the creative team has done since Arrested Development concluded initially, why should we be that excited about a new season or a film? I don’t want to be completely cynical here, but re-watching this season reminded me that some of the luster had worn off, and Hurwitz has done a few miserable projects since. Noticeable declined quality plus extended absence doesn’t really equal instant success.
I guess I applaud the series’ creative team for trying something new in season three, but Arrested Development went a little far off the Bluth reservation. The failure of the Wee Britain arc and the series’ rebound in the second half only further pointed out how strong AD could be with a tight focus on the family. And again, the innovative approach to traditional sitcom storytelling, with the reflexivity, the repetition and the serialization, eventually became something of a problem once the series got stuck in a middling story.