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01 February 2013
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Two things spring to mind first in revisiting Arrested Development's pilot episode for the first time in at least a couple of years: one is that the show hit the ground running, with all the things that would end up marking it as the object of unrelieved, cultish affection in the years to follow showing up not just embryonically but, in most cases, fully formed, as though series creator Mitchell Hurwitz knew from the beginning exactly where things would be going not just an episode or two down the line, but a full season and a half in the future. The other is that, despite this, it still feels really pilot-like, compared to what came after; a little more hesitant about going all the way to the extremes that it would hit by the time of its third episode, at most. By which I suppose I am first thinking of the "On the next Arrested Development... gag", which is here as it virtually never will be again, an actual preview of events that will actually show up in the next episode.
But there are other things, too: it's obvious from the way he's played and staged that Jeffrey Tambor's George Bluth, Sr. wasn't expected to be a series regular just yet, and some of the visual gags are forced in a way they aren't anywhere else in the show. But let me return to that
A quick refresher on the plot: Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), the only competent member of a wealthy Orange County, CA real-estate family, has decided to abandon everyone around him, finding their avarice and emotional immaturity to be too much to put up with, even when their company has been put on ice by the SEC. It's all about setting things up, of course, and the really elaborate curlicues of storyline that would come to dominate the show simply don't have an opportunity to put in an appearance, though taken in isolation, there's still plenty of complexity: when Michael's sister Lindsay Bluth Fünke (Portia de Rossi) grouses that one of the gay marriage activists ruining George senior's retirement party is wearing a blouse like one she owns, we later find that it's because it is her blouse, and the man wearing it is her clueless husband Tobias (David Cross). Another moment where the show's "finding our way" nature briefly asserts itself - by the time the writers were drunk on their power to include jokes like this in seasons 2 and 3, they would never have called our attention to it the way they do here.
Anyway, for a set-up episode, it's pretty damn effortless, and the feeling is less like we're watching a showrunner and his actors feeling out a new world, than that we're being shown a world which already exists, complete. The amount of specificity and detail in every single major character except for George Sr. and Lindsay's daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who fits in more as a figure for Michael's son George-Michael (Michael Cera) to react to than as a character in her own right, is pretty damn stunning. Some of that detail would be sloughed off as the show proceeded - I had forgotten all about youngest brother Buster's (Tony Hale) tendency to give unwanted shoulder massages - but for the most part, these are already exactly the same characters they'd be 52 episodes later, and that's a hell of an achievement.
Of course, what Arrested Development never was, was a character drama - though the continuity of characters is a necessary strength that gives the rest of its more experimental, deranged gestures a plausible space to fit - and the very specific sense of humor that made it one of the most highly-praised comedies in television history is here, too, though it's playing it safe in a lot of ways: none of the gags really make us work for it, although plenty of small details and background business crop up that require an almost superhuman amount of close attention to pick up (the matter of the graffiti in the police station, for example, which I had never seen before this, my fourth or fifth viewing at least, and had to have pointed out to me), and are so subtle and delicate as to not earn a word like "gag" anyway.
Still, just because the jokes in the pilot episode aren't flawless, doesn't mean that they aren't mostly great: in addition to having found their characters instantly, the actors found their timing instantly as well, and other than a handful of moments where somebody can't quite find their way around a line (Shawkat and Will Arnett both swallow a couple of jokes), everything is firing on all cylinders. Bateman's are-you-shitting-me reaction shots, one of the great constants in the series, are flawless; de Rossi's flat delivery of "you're gay" to Tobias, and Cross's clumsy attempt to deflect her question, is all by itself a terrific joke that's also a really involved character moment, one of several points where the show doesn't even pause to let us digest the fact that these characters all have pre-established life stories that we're going to have to pick up on the fly if we want to keep up. The use of graphics as a component of the comedy isn't nearly as involved as it would be later on, though George-Michael's introduction as "frozen banana salesman/child" is pretty fantastic in its unstressed absurdity, especially coming mere seconds after an onscreen credit for "the morning of the party" that shows up the exact same instant that the Narrator (Ron Howard, the show's executive producer) says the same words; arguably the first formalist joke the series ever made, and that from a show whose chief strength, in my mind, would be its engagement with and satire of its own structure as a TV show, as a comedy, as a fake documentary. The really inventive structural and formalist jokes won't start for a long time yet - it's one of the reasons the first season is my least favorite - but even here, the show is eager to poke fun at its own construction in a way that's pretty fantastic.
Final thoughts: there exists, on the DVDs, an extended and uncensored cut of the pilot, that for my tastes just isn't as good. Some of the extended moments are amazingly wonderful: George-Michael's cheerful parroting of some boilerplate his dad gave him about work building character is an outstanding character moment for both father and son that I deeply regret (hints that Michael is, in his own way, as dysfunctional as the rest of the family were slow in coming early in the show, and this little gesture would have meant a lot), and a few of the extended lines either make jokes funnier or give them more room to breathe, or do both of those things while deepening character - the additions to Michael's announcement that he's leaving the family in the prison waiting room is a key example. On the other side, the pace isn't as breathless in the longer cut, and that hurts as many gags as it saves.
More importantly, there's no upshot at all to leaving "fuck" unbleeped in its two appearances: the show would very shortly turn bleeped-out curse words with objects conspicuously blocking the speaker's mouth into an art form and one of its best running gags, and the heightened sense of comic strip logic can't stand up to something as rough and crude as an F-bomb. Worse yet, the uncensored cut ruins one of my favorite Gob moments in the whole show: "A trick is something a whore does for money." [sees children] "...or candy!" is turned into the much more laconic "...or cocaine". This misses the point of the joke entirely: not that Gob is embarrassed that he just said something filthy in front of kids, but that he genuinely believes that by saying something child-friendly like "candy", he's redeemed himself.
That went a whole lot longer than I planned, and hopefully future editions of this series will be a bit more self-contained. In the meanwhile, have at it in comments! I look forward to watching the discussion in comments, even if, unfortunately, I will not be able to join in said discussion until after this weekend.