Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thoughts On The End Of Arrested Development

It’s still up in the air whether Arrested Development will return on ABC or Showtime, but the last of the FOX episodes aired last Friday. As of a few weeks ago, creator Mitch Hurwitz was still on the fence over whether to continue the series.

The last of the episodes were designed to offer some closure, so that if the show ends here it will be reasonably satisfying, yet they also leave some threads dangling so that the show has somewhere to go if it does come back. That said, there was a surprising amount of closure. Ron Howard’s narration closes the show with “It was Arrested Development,” and instead of “On the next…” he says, “On the epilogue…” So it all feels very much like an ending.

For those of you still working your way through the DVDs, here is a

SPOILER WARNING

…and on with the show.

Resolutions

Most surprising was that the main story arc of the series, George Sr.’s arrest, came to an end. Another long-running story, George Michael’s infatuation with Maeby, reached a turning point but remains frustratingly unresolved. There may not be a truly satisfying way to end this story, but as it is, it falls just short of the closure we’re hoping for.

Where Would It Go From Here?

If the show ended here, that would be okay. As Bruce Wayne repeatedly muses in The Dark Knight Returns, “This would make a fine death.” It's easier to accept when the show actually presents you with an ending, rather than when you just hear about a cancellation.

But here, in the end of season three, it is the unpredictable plot twists that offer the most excitement, and the show’s amazing arsenal of running gags threatens to wear thin. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all still funny. Arrested is an incredible humor study in how many ways you can recontextualize a single joke. It’s like a symphony of comedy, re-using rhythms and in-jokes on top of one another in a masterful build until you don’t even remember where a joke began, but it’s hilarious that it’s still going. Early in season three it started to feel like the writers grew too self-conscious that callbacks were a trademark of the show, and they started to feel forced and predictable (“Her?” in particular was overused quite a bit). As the season has progressed they have found the groove again and introduced new running jokes to keep things fresh.

I’m getting sidetracked. The point I was driving at is that by the end of the third season, one wonders whether there is much left for the show to do. The show is practically a Moebius strip, looping back on itself with increasingly absurd riffs on the same themes—but how much further can you take Tobias and his repressed homosexuality, or George Michael’s impossible crush on his cousin? The show could probably keep it funny—who would have thought you could play out an incest joke for this long, after all?—but would we actually find anything new?

I don't know, maybe we would, maybe not. But it's worth asking. I’m just thinking on the page at this point. It’s actually hard to judge the show’s potential based on the third season. These last few episodes were created in such a desperate climate. First clinging to survival, then cobbling out an ending. Who knows in what directions the show might have gone had the writers not been so pressured to spend the second half of a truncated season wrapping things up?

The Tone

I want to talk about the note on which the series ends. One of the main criticisms of Arrested Development, and one of the many reasons frequently cited for why it failed to find a broad audience, is the show’s lack of heart. Granted, almost all the characters are clueless and selfish, but I’ve always felt that Michael’s drive to hold the family together really did offer a core of heart to all the crazy things that went on—even if that heart was easily missed in the surrounding chaos.

But the show ends with Michael finally doing what he has threatened to do throughout the series—abandon his irresponsible family for a better life with his son. It’s like an admission that all of Michael’s struggles to keep the family together have been a waste of time. It's not the story of a guy trying to keep a family together, but the story of a sucker who learns that the only way to stick up for himself is to be a quitter. No one else has learned anything, they are all hopeless, and maybe the family is better apart. It’s funny, but it’s an awfully bleak, cynical message to leave us with—one that suggests that maybe the detractors were right. Maybe this show never did have any heart, and the moments where it appeared to were just a big ironic joke. Or maybe Michael's decision reflects Hurwitz's own bitterness and exasperation after struggling to keep the show itself afloat: It's easier just to leave.

Or the ending may simply be a necessary evil to keep the show open-ended. If keeping the family together is indeed where the heart is, that may actually be the most important thread to leave open. Michael could always come back. After all, he also deserted the family at the end of season one. It’s not the act of desertion but the finality of it that gives the last episode that vaguely depressing feeling.

UPDATE 2/16: Just to be clear, I did enjoy the episodes. Like Simon and Cynthia, I agree that there was a strong sense of closure, to the point where I could easily accept if the show were to end here. Also, I adjusted one of the paragraphs to be less excessively spoilery, since I didn't really discuss the plot points in question enough to justify including them.

3 comments:

Simon said...

I guess I disagree a little.

The show didn't leave a bleak or cynical taste in my mouth. I mean it was kind of just more of the same, but it was a very satisfying resolution.

Michael and George-Michael leave, but it's not really bitter. I think Michael even says that maybe the only way for the family to grow is to have to pull themselves together without him for a little while.

My only problem with the finale was that it was so good and so satisfying that I've almost lost interest in seeing the show picked up. Before I was chomping at the bit to see a news article saying it was moving to ABC or Showtime, but now it's kind of like, "Geez, that was a really good and satisfying finale."

Yeah the Maeby and GM thing wasn't super wrapped up, but Michael's point about them still being family regardless of blood was a good one and I could totally live with that ending. I dunno, I guess I was just more touched by the sense of closure I felt and by just an intense feeling that I really enjoyed the last episode. It was kind of a nice present for the fans.

lyan! said...

Over here in Japan, everything either comes by download or word of mouth/trip home kinda thing. Everyone here gives season 2 a big thumbs down, but I still like it. I'll be happy to see three. I'm happy to hear it's probably not disappointing.

C said...

I was satisfied. The only ones I wanted anything good to come to were Michael and George Michael. And there was definitely hope.

I hope the show doesn't go to Showtime. There'll be too much pressure to dirty it up.