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13 March 2013
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Richard Rosenstock
Directed by Lee Shallat Chemel
The first indication of how bold getting renewed for a second season was going to make Arrested Development comes not during its first episode, but simply from that episode's title: "The One Where Michael Leaves". Earlier that year, the Zeitgeisty hit Friends had ended a 10-season run, leading to the expected spate of "what will the be the next Friends?" pieces, and by copying that series longstanding titling tradition (every episode starts with "The One Where..." or "The One With..."), AD could be seen as putting its hat in the "next Friends" ring. Except, of course, that Arrested Development is about as far from Friends as it's possible to go without leaving the realm of the half-hour American sitcom, and the show very much knows this; moreover, it would only become more intensely the anti-Friends over the course of Season 2, with its increasingly nasty characters and unconventional form and opaque reference pool. If anything, then, titling the show "The One Where..." (the next two episodes also have Friends-referencing titles) was a gesture of rude defiance, putting the rest of network television on notice that this Arrested Development, though it might superficially look like the rest of TV, is aggressively different. And if Season 1 was already a fairly edgy and complex show, Season 2 absolutely blows it out of the water.
But not right away. "The One Where Michael Leaves" is by all means a strong episode, with a couple of all-time classic AD gags, setting up plotlines and running jokes that would trickle through the rest of the season, but it suffers from an ailment common to season premieres, which is that it has to devote too much time to setting pieces back out on the board and making sure the newbies are caught up. This is done with a fair degree of elegance in this particular case, and much of the most actively annoying re-exposition is disguised by structuring the whole episode as something of a riff on the pilot, especially in the very first and very last moments. And it's also helped in that, as much as the characters are being reintroduced, most of them also end up being redefined by the episode's end; the Tobias-as-Blue Man plot is merely the most obvious way in which this episode does, in fact, send the series in an entirely new direction, in terms of its narrative development and the way it forces its characters to change - or, at least, for them to be increasingly battered as their inability to change runs into situations that they can't deal with.
For the most part, that's all obvious in hindsight, as we realise that many of the seeds planted in this episode are actually the beginnings of plot arcs and not just goofy jokes (a great example is Oscar's blatant "innuendo" about being Buster's father, complete with a pensive soap opera motif in the score: funny when it shows up here simply because it's funny, not because it's obvious how much it will come to define the season's texture). In the moment, "The One Where Michael Leaves" doesn't necessarily feel like it's changing anything about show, but simply pushing the show that already existed to a further extreme (this is one of the great achievements of Arrested Development, as a whole: no matter how much it developed, the core of it was already so strong from the very beginning, that nothing feels like it was redefining the series but merely progressing to the next logical exaggeration). Hence things like the increasing reliance on gags whose humor comes almost entirely through the editing - and when you stop and think about that, how incredibly weird is that for a TV show? Most contemporary movies don't even have a good handle on how important a well-timed cut can be for humor - as typified by the moment where George-Michael sits on Michael's lap behind the wheel of the car; that's also a keen example of the show's love for little chronology games, which has been present all along but turns into a defining aspect of the show this season. Hence also the more aggressive use of the "found footage" documentary conceit: though one of the things Arrested Development had long been brilliant at was using cutaways to home videos, photographs and the like, there's something unusually special about e.g. the thank-you to the bank that loaned out its ATM camera for one shot, or the fact that the third of the four repetitions of Oscar being attacked by cops is seen through an elevator security cam.
And while naughty wordplay that hardly seems like it could have managed to get by any network censors stretches far back into the show's history, it reaches a new high in one simple line that prefigures increasing wit and increasing smuttiness in the episodes to come, while becoming one of the show's all-time signature lines: "I'm afraid I just blue myself".
All in all, this is a pretty terrific, extremely funny episode that suffers only a little from having to get back up to speed in a series that was always about moving as fast as possible. What's really stunning then, is that for all "The One Where Michael Leaves" is a rock-solid episode in light of what had already come, it's not not a patch on the run of episodes to follow in its immediate wake. That the second season of Arrested Development would only improve from such a solid start is a stark proof of just how fantastic a run of nearly-flawless brilliance those 18 episodes were.