Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Christmas TV Episode #9: "Arrested Development"

9.) "Arrested Development" 1.7 In God We Trust  (Watch it now.)

Christmas in Orange County--there's a lovely thought. I never really understood quite what that meant until, oh, about this time last year, when suddenly, Christmas decorations became just painfully ironic, these dusty flags on lamp posts advertising "Comfort and Joy!" and "Holiday Cheer!" while the sun blazes down and I'm sweating on my way home from campus. My car is disgustingly dirty, because we haven't had any real rainfall since May, and listening to Christmas music while anywhere but locked in my room with the blinds drawn just seems wrong, like I'm wearing snow boots in the desert or a bikini in the Himalayas. The people here crack me up, too, especially around the holidays. "Doesn't it feel like Christmas?" one friendly (though misguided) barista posed to me the other day. I didn't even know she was talking to me, but she was. I said, "No, why?" She told me that the weather made it feel like Christmas. I thought about slapping her but laughed politely instead, and then the girl behind me ordered an iced Chai latte because it was seventy-four degrees out. Yeah, Christmas weather. That's a hilarious joke. Seriously.

When you're from Wisconsin like me, or anywhere like it, you know the true meaning of cold. You know what it's like when your face goes numb on the way from the car to the front door, or when snow gets in your shoes and drenches your toes, and then they hurt for an hour even after you've gone inside. You know what it's like to drive to work in a snow storm, watch three cars spin out or drive slowly into the ditch and then wonder if that will be you in five minutes. The days feel like hell, until about April. Then, they still feel like hell until July, and if you're really unlucky (which, usually, we are), things never really get better, and then there's snow again before there ever really was sun. The whole thing makes Christmas in Orange County seem as mundane and predictable as a knock-knock joke. Everybody's got the same frame of mind (and the same wardrobe) as they did six months ago on the Fourth of July. You sort of wonder what's the point, and then you sort of feel a little bit bad for them, because will they ever know true Christmas cheer? Well, no, or it's a different kind of Christmas cheer. I seem to find that it's cheerful all year 'round here in SoCal (which is maddening, I tell you, but okay), and so do they need Christmas cheer in Orange County? Not really, because they've got constant sunshine. Who needs nog when there's sunshine?

See, in the Midwest, we need Christmas cheer. We need big, jolly glasses of eggnog and giant frosted cookies and fur boots and wool scarves--TO KEEP US WARM. TO KEEP US SANE. Go to Racine, WI, you'll see those same flags on the lamp posts, and they'll provide a considerable amount of holiday cheer, not just a minor change in the scenery. The Christmas spirit, in Wisconsin, is not about red and green, and it's not just about Santa displays at Bloomingdale's (I'm pretty sure we don't even have one of those). It's about plucking us out of our weather-related misery for a month before dropping us flat on our asses again for January drear. So I don't want to hear that it feels like Christmas when it's seventy-four and sunny. But then again, this is a SoCal thing (I'm not condescending--they've got great weather. Why should they care about our suffering?), and this type of SoCal mentality is EXACTLY what "Arrested Development" does best.

In this episode, we learn that Tobias is a never-nude. We watch Michael and Lindsay get drunk together in the middle of the afternoon (in one of the funnier drunk montages I've seen on TV). We get to see what the Living Classics pageant is all about in Orange County (it's all about grumpy rich people in summer formalwear getting angry over denim cut-offs and a missing God in the Michelangelo piece). George Michael wears a muscle suit under his clothes to impress Maeby. Maeby packs a suitcase and buys a ticket to Portugal in a desperate attempt to get attention from her flake, self-absorbed parents. There's a whole lot in this episode, actually. It's a pretty good summation of what "Arrested Development" is. It's a sitcom, sort of, that screws with us. It's sort of like "How I Met Your Mother"'s slightly more innovative, less successful big sister, in its propensity for inside jokes, running jokes, delicate word play (Bob Loblaw's Law Blog, for starters), and an insightful voiceover from a TV has-been. Like "How I Met Your Mother," "Arrested Development" places quite a bit of trust in the audience. It asks us to pay very close attention to what's going on, to make intricate connections between episodes and situations, to locate the family dynamics ourselves, and to notice background jokes that are sort of happening all the time, or that the writers will touch on for just a second before moving on. This show in no way calls attention to any of these things. It trusts us to notice them and put them together, and therein lies the hilarity. It's a show for people who like to participate in their television, people like me, who don't just watch, but who see TV as a sort of conversation in which things are revealed and withheld at specific moments, and then it's my job to figure out why.

This episode is not so Christmassy. There are some decorations, however, in the model home, and that's EXACTLY what I'm talking about when I talk about a SoCal Christmas mentality. Christmas decorations make Christmas! Red tinsel! Voi la! You've got Christmas! There's no real sense of nostalgia for what Christmas time actually means in the home. When I think of Christmas, I think of cold nights and mittens, fireplaces all glowy, hot cocoa with candy cane stirring sticks, footprints in the snow, heavy scarves, and the warmth that's created by lights on the tree, by garland, by baking smells and cookies fresh out of the oven. Not JUST the decorations and objects of Christmas, the physical warmth that these things create. "Arrested Development" really captures that idea of the mundane Southern California Christmas. It's just like in "Studio 60," when Matt Albie is running around trying to find fake snow (They end up shaving coconuts--go figure), and grudgingly trying get everybody into the Christmas spirit, and there's some commentary about how Christmas isn't real in LA. That's exactly what I'm talking about! There's no weather. Weather is the simplest form of conflict. Well, that and money and a ticking clock. But without weather, and with millions of dollars and all the time in the world, there's no real need for the warmth generated by mistletoe and shiny wrapping paper. I don't know whether they've got it great or got it bad here in Southern California. I just know that I miss Christmas time in Wisconsin, and that In God We Trust is a GREAT Christmas episode--precisely because it doesn't rely on snow and chestnuts crackling over the fire. It's funny, because it sort of ignores Christmas, but it still uses the decorations and, of course, there's family, so there's this fantastic irony, and that's the humor.

UP NEXT: More Southern California Christmas bliss. Pasadena, to be exact. Also, there's a funeral home. Complications!

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