I co-wrote a comedy piece with my pal Nick Klinger. It’s called “2013’s Notable Commencement Speeches,” and it’s now live at Funny or Die. If you like it, pass it around to your friends and on your social networks. We’d really appreciate it.
Naturally, I watched the new season of Arrested Development immediately, finishing it in a few days and already wondering when I’ll watch it again. What’s most impressive about the new season is simply how it doesn’t collapse under the enormous weight of expectation. It’s an easy choice to hate it for how confusing and different it is, but I found the bold decisions to be refreshing. There’s very little that’s familiar or comforting about season 4 of Arrested Development. Fan service was the easy way out, but I’m happy to report that it’s not a path that creator Mitch Hurwitz chose.
In fact, what’s most surprising about the new season is how much I missed it appearing on network television. There are a lot of advantages to having it on Netflix — it’s neat that it’s simply up all at once, and the episodes didn’t have to adhere to a strict 22-minute time limit. That said, I wonder if the season would’ve been better with some limitations, particularly related to run time. Several episodes earn every second, but too many don’t. I’ve read complaints about several long bits falling flat for viewers, but I didn’t mind them so much, as many were funny and all were simply taking advantage of the new format. What I found more tedious was the copious amount of hand-holding and explanation: the season is complicated and occasionally confusing, but a more traditional sitcom running time would have forced Hurwitz and company to be a bit more ruthless and creative in their cuts.
I hope any additional future seasons — or simply other series that begin to appear on Netflix — push even further past the traditions of network and cable television. Arrested Development certainly blows past length and narrative structure, but has hits and misses with other decisions. Bleeping profanity, for instance, was a great choice: it preserves series continuity, and is frankly funnier than hearing the actual words. But the show also preserves act breaks for commercials, which simply serve as awkward ways to jump out of one story and into another.
The best way to sum up my reaction: Season 4 manages to be both the best and worst season of the entire series. While individual episodes may not compare one-on-one to top episodes from previous seasons, the season as a whole is big and daring. Upon its completion, it begs to be watched again, just to marvel at how it was all put together. And while the show looks different and plays differently, that sensation — the admiration of something well built — remains the same.
I think my favorite character on Mad Men this year might be Bob Benson. I admit this is a strange choice, particularly since he’s a new and relatively minor character in a season that is still very much unfolding.
Bob is such a blank slate at times that he exists entirely of the projections cast upon him by Mad Men viewers. Find any Mad Men article with a few hundred comments and you’ll discover someone tossing out theories as drab as Bob being Joan’s white knight to as crazy as Bob being a serial killer trying to find his next victim.
At first, I had assumed Bob was simply Pete Campbell reincarnated (right down to the bright blue suit that Bob sports now and Pete would wear in earlier seasons), but a Pete who managed to hide even broader ambitions behind a friendlier demeanor. Yet Bob had seemed so inexplicably normal and kind over the course of the season that I thought something else was going on — namely, that show creator Matt Weiner was using Bob as a way to teach us something about the way we not just watch television, but jump to conclusions about characters and story lines. We were assuming Bob was a monster because he’s surrounded by people who can, at times and to varying degrees, be monsters themselves.
Bob, though, can’t be pegged down quite so easily. On this Sunday’s episode, we see him at Joan’s apartment as the two prepare for a beach trip. Joan confides some juicy Pete gossip to him, which he promptly uses to help Pete out — recommending a nurse who had brought his father back to health very recently. To top it all off, Bob does his best job convincing Pete not to be sour with Joan for passing along the confidential info.
Nice guy? Perhaps. Go-getter? Probably. But Bob continues to allude all of our grasps, as the very father he brags about to Pete was dead and buried when Bob was being chewed out by Ken Cosgrove just a few weeks earlier.
I’m not particularly interested in wild theories about the skeletons in Bob’s closet. But I did want to write a bit about what’s made him such an interesting character to me. It should come as no surprise, either: what consistently impresses me about Mad Men is the way in which it adds new and interesting characters to a core cast that very well could demand the show’s scarce remaining time on its own.