Monday, February 11, 2013

Arrested Development - "Meat the Veals"

Season 2, Episode 16
Original Airdate: April 3, 2005
Writers: Richard Rosenstock, Barbie Adler
Director: Joe Russo
Executive Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Mitchell Hurwitz, David Nevins
Cast: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Tony Hale

Telling a single funny joke is infinitely more difficult than telling a single unfunny one, and filling 22 minutes with funny jokes is nearly impossible, no matter what a laughing studio audience would have you believe. “Meat the Veals” is as close to a perfect comedic episode of television I’ve ever seen. Every single joke is funny, and every time I watch the episode I am as entertained as I was the first time. And yes, I write this fully acknowledging that the title is horrible. For me, it’s the pinnacle of “Arrested Development,” a show with many creative peaks.

Plus, there’s Mrs. Featherbottom.

Plus, we’re introduced to Franklin the puppet.

Though now it seems like everyone knows and loves the show (and likes to boast that they watched it when it was originally on air. As if.), the series was an underground movement from the start…the type of program that four hipsters in Brooklyn watched but were afraid to tell others about because it would mean admitting they had a television. Even I, the guy who watched all three episodes of “The Return of Jezebel James,” didn’t start watching until the beginning of the second season. And, truthfully, it’s easy to see why its many eccentricities turned off new viewers. Instead of self-contained, simple A-and-B stories, any given episode had about ten continuing storylines going on. Instead of giving viewers easy jumping-on points for prospective viewers, it filled its half-hours with dozens of in-jokes new viewers would not understand. This craziness is what makes the show great, of course – and are a huge reason why it has flourished on DVD and Netflix (where viewers can watch from episode one and not miss a beat). But for the show’s original audience, the inside-baseball gags were just another reason we loved it. It was like we were part of an elite club that most of the world was not privy to.

Of course being part of a small, elite club watching a broadcast sitcom doesn’t guarantee it’ll have a long and successful run, but that’s beside the point.

The main story of “Meat the Veals” (let me reiterate how much better the episode is than its name suggests) involves George Michael (Michael Cera), to his father Michael’s (Jason Bateman) chagrin, wanting to get pre-engaged to his girlfriend Anne (Mae Whitman). Meanwhile, Oscar (Jeffrey Tambor) wants to throw an anniversary party for his missing twin brother (Tambor again) and Lucille (Jessica Walter). Meanwhile, Tobias (David Cross) has been thrown out of the house by Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and, in order to see his daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), dons the persona of a British housekeeper named Mrs. Featherbottom. Meanwhile, Maeby tries to keep her dual life as a studio exec hidden from her family. Meanwhile, GOB (Will Arnett) wants to re-introduce the family to Franklin, a racist black puppet that mocks George Michael’s “cracker ass,” among other non-bleeped things. Like I said, it’s a little complex for a half-hour sitcom. But then again, half the fun is watching the multiple storylines crash into one another in ways much cooler than “Crash.”

Like I wrote, every single joke lands. Also, this happens, which is my favorite bit of physical television comedy in the past decade. I can’t watch the episode without rewinding Mrs. Featherbottom’s fall multiple times. It’s difficult to pick a favorite bit of dialogue…maybe this one?

Lindsay (re: Mrs. Featherbottom): “You do realize that’s Tobias, right?”Lucille: “If he’s going to get into my closet, he’s going to work for it.”
Or this one?
Mrs. Featherbottom: “Who’s up for a banger in the mouth?”
I’d mention more, but then I’d just start listing, which is only fun if it involves Roger Ebert quotes.

What struck me during this viewing is how varied the actors’ different styles of comedy are. In series like “Fraiser,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” every actor seems to be hitting the same comedic notes in any given episode. Often when a different comedic style is introduced on sitcoms, a’la Urkel on “Family Matters” or Fonzie in “Happy Days,” they tend to take over the show and shift the comedy to their strengths. I don’t write that as a criticism of those shows, just an observation in order to underline how special it is that “Arrested Development” can marry all those brands of humor into one cohesive whole. Cera’s quiet, awkward humor couldn’t be further removed from Cross’ broad slapstick, and yet when they are in the same room together, it feels right.

This leads me to the question of whether this is the best comedic ensemble in television history. Surely the casts of shows like “I Love Lucy,” “Seinfeld” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” were, in their own ways, perfect…but this cast is also perfect. And bigger. And while those sitcoms ostensibly had the title star at their center, here there is no true lead. Yes, Michael is our way into the show, but in many ways he’s just as demented as the rest of his family (it’s just not as obvious) – and just because you play the straight man in a comedy sketch does not mean you are central to it. So yeah, as to the question posed above, I’ll call this troupe the once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle, other-cliché-chesnut, best cast in the history of television.

And I’m so happy that “Arrested Development” has crossed over garnered the popularity it always deserved. I remember being in college when I discovered it, and putting on DVDs of the first season for my friends while we were eating Papa Johns and whipped ice cream. In a way, helping others discover the program and the greatness contained therein was part of the fun – like handing a great novel to someone and whispering “you’ll thank me later.”

“Meat the Veals” is available on DVD, Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Hulu. And now, seven years after the show was cancelled midseason by Fox, it has been revived by Netflix. The fourth season will be available in May.

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