No one at Slant Magazine wanted to review the latest season of Arrested Development. It’s difficult enough to write about comedy (or so they say), let alone the single best sitcom on television. But seeing as how Fox has finally pulled the plug on the show after two and a half years of threats (the final five episodes begin airing on December 5th), someone had to step up to the plate. Arrested Development is as consistent a live-action comedy as one can hope for these days, an offbeat work of brainy brilliance whose only flaws can be found in the occasionally self-referential narration by executive producer Ron Howard. (I’ll forgive the first half of season two, the rhythm of which seemed bumpy and irregular but ultimately led us back to smooth sailing in this, its third and final season.)
The show’s often convoluted plot and fast pace, the things that make Arrested Development so different from its inferior competition, are precisely the same things that are probably keeping potential new viewers away. (When informed of the show’s cancellation, a friend of mine said, “That’s because America is fat and lazy and doesn’t want to think.”) No amount of critical praise or award-show accolades can change the fact that if you haven’t been watching from the beginning, the show is a hard pill to swallow…even if you’re Lucille Bluth. But as jawdroppingly clever as the writing is, understanding the plot’s twists and turns is just icing. The actors are, rightfully, the stars of the show here. As the figurehead matriarch of the Bluth clan, Jessica Walter gives Lucille such a delicious one-dimensionality that you don’t even want to know her backstory (let’s face it, humanizing alcoholics a la Will & Grace’s Karen Walker doesn’t make for good comedy), while her on-screen husband, Jeffrey Tambor, imbues his legally-challenged real estate mogul/absentee father figure George Bluth Sr. with an equal amount of consciencelessness.
But not every character is as pitiless as Lucille and George…or as out there as their eldest son Gob (Will Arnett)…or as permanently underdeveloped as Buster (Tony Hale)…or as bizarre and dysfunctional as odd couple Lindsay and Tobias (Portia de Rossi and David Cross, respectively). Voices of reason (even if that reason is oftentimes perverted) and familiarity come in the form of Lindsay and Tobias’s cunning teenage daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who watches most of her family’s zaniness from the sidelines while pursuing an accidental career as an executive at a Hollywood studio, and Michael (Jason Bateman, whose deadpan delivery earned him a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination), the calm and collected son who tries, in vain, to keep his family together. The casting of guest stars—one of the show’s only traditional sitcom signposts—is near-perfect; some, like MADtv alum Mo Collins, are underused but most, including regulars (like season one and two’s blouse-lifting Judy Greer) and guest stars (Liza Minnelli, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Charlize “For Your Eyes Only” Theron), manage to successfully integrate themselves into the quirky ensemble.
At times, it’s difficult to determine if Arrested Development is good or just really fast. A show that spouts dry, think-and-you-missed-it punchlines and plot points that would keep the writers of Lost on their toes was bound to build a loyal—albeit tiny—fanbase, but no one should misinterpret the show’s spectacle of sarcasm-as-defense-mechanism for superficiality. The writing is impeccable, a subtle mix of highbrow crass (because “rape horn” is extra funny when coming from the mouths of the well-washed), pop-culture satire and French absurdism (only it’s California instead of France and it’s the war in Iraq instead of World War II). The various members of the Bluth family aren’t existentialists consciously in search of the meaning of the universe—though later seasons could have led Michael’s son George-Michael (a flawlessly wide-eyed Michael Cera), arguably the “purest” of the bunch despite his attraction to cousin Maeby, to some sort of quest for enlightenment…or at least a job title above Uncle Gob—but they’re a bit like people going through the motions of trying to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Add the cancellation of their little-watched, family-affirming existence to the list of random (or not-so-random) events that have touched their lives.