Saturday, November 10, 2012

Arrested Development = Shakespeare


Recent re-viewings of that great classic of my college years have revealed that, even watched by an audience as sober as a flock of Mormons at an AA meeting, the show is desperately, astoundingly funny. Why?

The writing.

Say what you will about the decline of media and the death of storytelling at the hands of special effects (I'm looking at you, Lucas/Cameron/Spielberg); the rules of human entertainment are hard-wired and ultimately insusceptible to the strategy of hollow spectacle. What worked for Shakespeare works today. I mean that quite literally: the devices used to advance plot and humor in Arrested Development are remarkably similar to those used in Shakespeare's work. Here are three specific similarities.

1) Mistaken identity/connections. (WARNING! PLOT SPOILERS!) The wacky misunderstandings caused by questions of Maeby's and Lindsay's familial status and George Sr.'s twin brother work in the same way as, say, Kent/Cauis in King Lear or Antipholus and Dromio in A Comedy of Errors or Portia/Balthazar in The Merchant of Venice or the revelation of Perdita in A Winter's Tale. When Buster drinks boxed-wine believing it to be juice, or when Tobias tries to set up George Michael with Steve Holt, they're making mistakes similar to Puck accidentally charming Lysander instead of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

2) Comic dramatic irony. Hitchcock is said to have explained suspense in the following way: an explosion by itself is boring; what's interesting is bringing a ticking suitcase-bomb into a cafe, setting it under a table, and letting the audience squirm while the main characters chat and sip coffee, oblivious to the danger they're in. This is an example of dramatic irony at work: the audience knowing something that the characters don't. It's an ingredient of the best comedy, and Arrested Development) uses it well. What's funny about Buster accidentally dating Lucille 2 (despite his best efforts to the contrary) is that we watch him bumble and mistake; we see him mis-see Lucille 2. Ron Howard's narration reinforces this: just in case there's some crucial plot-point or mis-perception that we need to appreciate, he'll spell it out for us.

3) Foiled romantic interest. There's nothing like problematic love to fuel a plot. Shakespeare used this with great success in Romeo and Juliet, obviously, but he also used it to fuel the secondary plots in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. And there's nary a romance in Arrested Development which doesn't use this device: Michael and Gob's love triangle with Marta; George Michael's lust for Maeby (and hers for Steve Holt); the love polygon between George Sr., his secretary (and, by extension, Gob), Lucille, and George Sr.'s twin brother. Etc. Fools in love are half the plot of the show.

So Arrested Development is funny in the deep, clever, structural way that Shakespeare's comedies are funny, as opposed to the spectacular way that Jackass is funny or the topical way that Saturday Night Live is funny.

One last point to make (since this article is about listing the things I love about the show) is how well Arrested Development portrays behavior patterns passing between generations. The whole premise of the show, in a sense, is the smorgasbord of emotional problems the Bluth family has accrued under the abusive tutelage of George Sr. and Lucille: Michael's need to live up to his father's expectations, Gob's need (and utter failure) to impress his father, Lindsay's reliance upon her sex appeal as the basis for her self-worth, Buster's unsevered reliance upon his mother. Probably the clearest example of this is in "Pier Pressure" (Season 1, Episode 10), in which George Michael begins calling himself "Stupid, stupid" for failing his father's expectations. Later in the episode, we see his father Michael do the same thing after failing his own father's expectations. The portrayals of family dynamics and learned behaviors in this show are just spectacular.

So, in conclusion: I endorse Arrested Development, and I'm thrilled to hear that a new season will be coming out next year (and maybe a movie).

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