Old shows with a new face
December 18, 2018
While we tend to gravitate to the new, hoping to find a hidden gem before the rest of the world, sometimes what we should be watching is hidden right in front of us. Netflix hosts a huge haul of movies and shows, and while many are forgettable, a few in particular stand out as worth revisiting.
“There’s always money in the banana stand”, mutters Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) as he watches his family’s banana stand, and 250 thousand dollars, burn in a fire he created. The 2003 show Arrested Development is the perfect proof of the saying: tragedy plus distance equals comedy. If miscommunication has ever caused you any issues, then you will relate to this show. The cast has many long time comedy players: Jessica Walter, voice of Malory Archer from Archer, and Michael Cera playing an awkward bumbling teenager. However, the cast isn’t what sets the show apart but the show’s writing. The writing is so dense with humor that rewatching the show seven times will reveal more and more and more layers of comedy.
Character-driven sitcoms are typically based on episodic conflicts compared to long-term character dramas that evolve over one or more seasons. Arrested Development, however, incorporates bits of both plot strategies. Conflicts are still resolved in episodic intervals, but jokes can take whole seasons to develop, getting crazier and crazier, building comedic value. A joke introduced in the first episode in season 1 can be forgotten, then slowly reintroduced, then become more and more of a motif. For example, Tobias’(David Cross) obsession with joining the Blue Man Group reoccurs through the seasons. While at first he simply looks for a job with them, he ends up at a depressed people (blue men) group a season later, writing a very successful self help book. In season 3, George Sr. uses the blue men as a place to hide. This subtle elaboration on a previous joke pulls together a tightly knit world where each puzzle piece fits in.
The producers leave the drama and character development on the backburner and use it largely for comedic purposes. George Michael is awkward. Tobias is unhappy in his marriage. Gob (Will Arnett) is oblivious and stupid. The characters are purposefully unlikeable.The characters are inherently bad people; they’re selfish, ruthless, and delusional. If we knew them in real life, we would absolutely hate them. The disconnect with such horrible people makes everything that happens to them and their actions hilarious. It’s like watching a perfectly crafted reality TV show.
The first two seasons of Arrested Development are considered by the shows fans to be it’s peak. Each layer of a joke recurring was more and more satisfying, and the plot was tight. Season one focuses on the Bluth company, as Michael Bluth struggles to assert himself as the new leader of the disconnected and foolish family. Season two goes even further, focusing on Michael struggling with whether to keep his father safe when news breaks that he built homes in Iraq.
The closely knit writing of the first two season was incredible, making joke after joke. Despite that, the shows ratings were low when it first aired in 2003, and the writers realized it could not go on. Season 3 was their last ditch attempt to keep the show on the air, and went to the extreme in bringing out the Arrested Development style. In this realization, it became the reflection on itself. The show became self aware, making jokes about lazy writing and using a narrator instead of the story to move the plot. It brought on as many famous celebrities as would agree to go on the show, and made a joke about using celebrities as a last ditch effort to save the Bluth company. While many feel that this is where the show began to drop off, this season is just as funny as the rest. It features the same awkwardness and miscommunication, and simply adds to the shows absurdity.
Netflix bought the show and aired a season 4 in 2013, seven years after the show was cancelled in 2006. The choice to try to recreate the same show, with the same cast, doing the same thing, ended with a shell of a season. Season five suffers from the same issues.
Bo Burnham’s What.
What? If the end of that question asks about a great comedy special, then the answer is What. Bo Burnham first made waves at the very beginning of YouTube’s cultural significance in 2006. He first uploaded original comedy skits that incorporated music. For example. “i’m bo yo.”, a witty introduction of himself, has 29 million views on YouTube. Right from the start, his content did not avoid topics of serious value. His satire touched on the topics of homosexuality, depression, white supremacy, and other prevalent issues on his mind. Fast forward a few years, and we get to What. What. is his second comedy special, released in 2013 to YouTube right after his tour. What. pushes comedy in a new direction, a blend of acknowledging our repressed emotions and appealing to our sense of what is funny. What sets it apart is its perfect timing, its appeal to the teenage audience and its use of YouTube.
What. did everything perfectly for its teen audience. To start, it is a parody of itself. He over and over again breaks the fourth wall of stand up. When “reading” a poem from a notebook, he mentions that the pages are empty, and that he’s lying. In the intro track, he edits an audio loop so that he can have a fake argument with a sound person making a mistake, then edits in a clip of him saying that was all a lie. You can never guess what will come next in What.
What. is built around long musical pieces. Bo Burnham emerged early in Youtube’s reign, making videos mixing comedy and music. Often, small jokes are put in between set ups to keep the audience from being overwhelmed, but the show consists of a couple 10 minute song/jokes. Each song tells a different running joke, and a different story. It is both a standup show and a concert.
Teenagers love to hear something new, that goes against the grain, and Bo Burnham gives them just that. He discusses taboo issues for male comedians, from slut-shaming to religion to a lack of reason to live. He does this all through a heavy layer of satire. Rather than saying slut shaming is bad or funny, he attacks women (satirically) repeatedly, slowly revealing how sad his character’s life has become because of it.
While it’s funny, it isn’t a joke you hear and forget. Its appeal to the psyche forces us to consider; why is this funny? Is it even? On “Sad”, he criticizes the audience for laughing at these horrible things he says, just because they’re at a show. On “#deep”, he switches back and forth from worrying about his life to cracking jokes. Is this funny? That is for the audience to ponder.