It’s probably just because I’m a big p—y, but I think the best way for a TV series, movie, or any other piece of art to show that it’s got merit is in how it handles sentimentality.
And that’s yet another way that “Arrested Development” gets it exactly right. If you were cynical, you could say that tonight’s episode (“The Ocean Walker”) had all the in-jokes, continuity, and references to previous episodes that helped doom the series from the start — the “every episode I’ve seen is funny, but I’m coming into it too late to get caught up” syndrome. It’s got all the self-referential jokes required for post-modernist humor (including the still shot from Monster) (which was just genius). And it’s got everything you need to make it edgy, since it’s basically about a guy trying to have sex with a retarded woman and his family’s attempts to hide that fact so that they can steal her money.
But then the ending was just sweet, and done so well. To paraphrase Ron Howard, it was “such a nice moment” and a perfect ending to that storyline.
It reminds me of a movie I haven’t seen yet: Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic. From what I’ve seen of Silverman’s stand-up routine in the past, I can tell that her whole schtick is taking the anti-PC shock-value routine and putting a little bit of a spin on it. And based on the reviews, it sounds as if the spin is there enough to be detected, but not enough to save the movie. One gag that keeps getting repeated in reviews is the line:
Recognizing the political incorrectness of using the term “retarded,” she facetiously corrects herself with “And by ‘retard,’ I mean ‘They can do anything.”
Again, I haven’t seen the movie, but it sounds like she just leaves the joke there — funny, but nothing more than a shock-value joke until you take it in the context of the rest of her show. The bigger joke is that her on-stage persona is so wide-eyed and self-involved and naive that she says something like that and really believes it.
I think that “Arrested Development” started with basically the same gag, but managed to work it into the episode for a real pay-off that’s genuinely sweet and romantic. (And then, of course, only lingered on it for a second before going back to an in-joke, because you don’t want to get too corny.)
The easiest comedy in the world is just doing a reverse on PC speak and patting yourself on the back for being “edgy.” Harder is dodging sensitive material altogether and still making it funny. Harder than that is doing the anti-PC thing for laughs and then layering a bigger message on top of it, like “South Park” and Silverman’s act. And then the hardest of all is to take that and add a genuine layer of sentimentality to it, without coming across as overly earnest and undermining your credibility as someone who’s able to see through the schmaltz.
That’s where “Arrested Development” is too good to be a sitcom, and why it turns out Fox really does suck, after all.