Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Failed Pilot Project Case File #9: Arrested Development

Mitchell Hurwitz decided to make an extended cut of the pilot after the series got picked up. Why, exactly?

My freshman year in college, I came into ownership of the first season DVD set of Arrested Development. (Sadly, I don’t remember how, though I do know that I came to own seasons 2 and 3 after receiving a second copy of the first season as a gift for my 20th birthday, which I then exchanged for store credit.) As a fan of all goodies that come with DVD sets, I consumed all of them, including the “extended pilot”, and from there on out, I could never watch the original pilot again. Now this extended cut was compiled specifically for the DVD set, which invariably means that the definition of “failed” has to be stretched in order to accommodate it into the Failed Pilot Project. But looking at the differences between the regular pilot and this extended cut, you get the sense that the creators prefer this version to the one that aired, and I would have to agree. The fact that the extended cut is so much better tells us a lot about what Mitchell Hurwitz and his team had to give up – and in some cases, gain – in order for the show to be broadcast on network television.

According to the commentary for this extended cut, they were originally 32 hours of footage shot, which had to be whittled down into 21 minutes of story. (How much of that footage was flubs/bloopers/alternate takes and how much of that was completely unused footage isn’t specified, but 32 hours does exceed most half-hour pilots in terms of hours shot.) The extended cut may only run an extra seven minutes in length (28 minutes in total), but that extra 33% percent is a real boon to the storyline, as it gives everything, especially the original pilot’s back third, room to breathe to the effect that things no longer feel rushed.

This is mostly done by padding out the existing scenes, instead of adding extra ones. Thanks to the countless nerds that inhabit the internet, Wikipedia contains a fairly comprehensive list of what is included in the extended cut:  
  • After waking up with George Michael in the model home, Michael mentions how his father calls him "partner" and how he is going through a "cowboy phase".
  • After Michael and George Michael eat breakfast, they mention that their relatives are spoiled and, when a couple walks in to look at the model home, praise it to advertise it.
  • A cut scene shows the manufacture of bananas.
  • Gob takes a twenty dollar bill from George Michael and makes it "disappear" in a magic trick when he is working at the Banana Stand.
  • After Gob responds, in front of children, that "A trick is something a whore does for money", he erroneously backpedals by saying, "Or cocaine". In the aired version of the pilot, he said, "Or candy".
  • In Buster's introduction, Michael says, "Hasn't everything sorta been discovered though, by like Magellan, Cortés, NASA". In TV version of the pilot, the line was "Magellan, Cortés, all those other folks".
  • In Maeby's introduction, there is a scene about her unique ways of rebelling against her mother in which Lindsay wants to get her a tattoo, but Maeby decides to enter beauty pageants instead. Footage of this scene appears in the show's opening.
  • In a conversation between George Michael and Maeby, Maeby asks why George Michael works so much. George Michael says something (that his father probably told him) about a lack of work ethic in the youth today, but is unable to explain what he means.
  • There are some extra lines of dialogue during Michael's intervention.
  • In the FOX news clip, John Beard says, "Normally we're used to high speed chases..but today it was on the sea.. and as slow as molasses".
  • There are some extra lines of dialogue when Michael visits George Sr.
  • A short clip where the Bluth's assets are "frozen" shows bananas being loaded into a freezer
  • When the Bluths are playing Monopoly at the end of the episode, Tobias says "How are you?" again.
  • "On the next Arrested Development", there is an extra scene where Lindsay gets a "job" at a watch store.
  • Various characters get extra introduction lines, and the dialogue is uncensored.
Now this list isn’t totally complete; adding all the extra jokes and one-liners would make the list just unbearable to read, not mentions trying to catch all of them in first place might just make people crazy. I do have a problem that this list doesn’t include everybody turning on Lindsey at the jail after Michael’s blow up at his family, (after Michael says “I expect this from them, because they’re oblivious, but I expected better from you” and storms off, you can here Gob say “Lindsay, he’s really mad at you”), because I feel like it’s an important character moment (more on that in a bit), but besides this, the list is fairly solid.  And seeing as how there exist no copies on the internet of the extended pilot (or the regular pilot, for that matter) that I can link to or embed, and there’s only a faint smattering of Youtube clips, this list is the most efficient way to clue you into what the extra time affords this episode.

While this list doesn’t look all that extraordinary written out, seeing all of the parts come together on the screen has a much greater effect. The last bullet, which states “various characters get extra introduction lines”, is in fact one of the most key differences in the extended cut, as these extra/extended scenes help to round out the cast in a way that the aired pilot simply didn’t have time to do. Take this leftover Gob-centric clip, for example:

This scene isn’t all that revelatory based on what we know from the show’s entire 53 episode run, but that’s what makes it noteworthy. While most shows take a while to find their characters, to flesh them out fully, Arrested Development already had an incredibly clear sense of who their characters would be. Sure we saw Gob con members of his family many times during the show’s run, but that seems more like something that would have evolved out Gob’s introduction as a smarmy magician, not something Hurwitz would necessarily have known about the character right out of the gate. Yet he did know, and that this and other bits of characterization were present from the start means that Hurwitz should be given even more credit for having a fully realized world before this show even aired.

This forethought is also evident in the extra George, Sr. scenes. The extended cut has a line or two about how the patriarch was going through a “cowboy phase”, which explains the reason for the cowboy hat and the sign on the boat that says “Happy Trails, Pard’ner”, but it also clues us onto who George is. In the aired version, George’s role is limited to that of plot device; he’s really only needed to start Michael and the rest of them along their journey. In fact, Jeffery Tambor was originally only meant to be a recurring guest star, not part of the main cast. But Tambor was signed on as a regular, and that allowed the show to give George funny (if inconsequential) side plots like his enjoyment of prison life, or his conversion to Judaism, plots that are a direct reflection of the degree to which he throws himself into his cowboy phase. I could go on (especially about the “Lindsey, he’s really mad at you” line that I mentioned above) but I think these two scenes help to illustrate Hurwitz’s attention to detail as he wrote this script.

The other main strength of the pilot, as stated above, is that story had enough time to breathe. This is especially true of the back-to-back scenes of Buster’s collapse in the boardroom, the family’s intervention/imposition of Michael, Michael’s last visit to his father in jail, and the Lindsay’s pilfering the model home, which seems very slipshod and pasted together in the aired version, but which actually flows together much more smoothly in the extended cut. The story’s denouement and conclusion no longer feel rushed; it all feels far more connected, and not just like a random bunch of plot points thrown together to resemble a story. Arrested Development would eventually become very good at mad-cap, rushed storytelling that managed to make sense while remaining funny, but in the aired pilot it’s quite clear that Hurwtiz didn’t quite yet have the skills at tight plotting. (Also a hindrance: the original pilot script was 60 pages long, meaning it would have run for about an hour, which further complicated his attempts to shorten the story.)  

Of course, perhaps the most obvious difference is that the lines here are uncensored; while I am usually for uncensored material as I feel that it usually leads to more realistic material, here the increased vulgarity works against the show’s more cartoony aesthetic, one in which the litany of bleeps, clever double entendres, and conveniently covered mouths were just as integral and important as any of the show’s other trademarks.

Take for instance the altered line that had Gob finishing his “a trick is something a whore does for money” line with “or cocaine” as opposed to “or candy.” While “cocaine” is the obvious raunchy buzzword, there’s something about the second layer added to the “or candy” line – this connotatively innocent word thrown about to distract kids from the horrible thing they just heard – that just makes the aired line so much creepier, and funnier. The same can be said for George covering his mouth when he says “I have the worst fucking attorneys”, a move that was an accident at the time, but would eventually become practice when FOX mandated that the characters lips had to be obfuscated whilst swearing. What followed was a series of attempts to hide the characters lips by natural means (as opposed to pixelating their mouths), something that would result in a variety of hilarious sight gags.

So then what do all of these differences between the aired and extended versions of the pilot show us? That:
1)      Mitchell Hurwitz had a much better handle on his characters than the 21 minute constraints of the pilot would allow to be seen
2)      That it was Hurwitz’s ambition, and not necessarily his writing skills, that caused the pilot’s storyline to go awry; however, it was the same time constraint that ruined the pilot that also forced the writers to make their storytelling so tight.
3)      That some of show’s funniest moments actually the product of working around S&P/FCC mandates for network television

These points are all important in considering one of the longest running debates concerning the show’s fate: Was Arrested Development too smart for network television? Should it have aired on cable instead? The answer seems to be ‘yes’ to the first, and ‘no’ to the second, which is an unfortunate paradox, but also a true one. Though the show’s sensibilities were always too smart for the traditional network audience, there was something about the limitations, both in content and time, that seemed to push Hurwitz and the writers to cram in as many jokes and sly references that they could, a move that in large part helped the show to earn the praises as a “smart comedy”.

So while we most might bemoan how Arrested Development never got picked up by another network after its cancellation by FOX, I thank the television gods that that was the case. Certainly the cable-length pilot was better than the network version, both in terms of storytelling and characterization, but Hurwitz quickly moved past the time limitation, and the show evolved into something greater. A move to cable would mean giving up the wacky sense of storytelling (at least if that cable channel was HBO or Showtime), the constant bleeps and careful camerawork, and the numerous double entendres, and if that had been the case, then Arrested Development would have stopped being the show I fell in love with and been transformed into something else.

Next Week: Editing and reordering leads to a more than a few weird episodes over on The Dresden Files.

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