SEALAB 2021: SEASON IV
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"Isla de Chupacabra," "Joy of Grief," "Green Fever," "Sharko's Machine," "Return of Marko," "Casinko," "Butchslap," "Monkey Banana Raffle," "Shrabster," "Cavemen," "Moby Sick," "No Waterworld," "Legacy of Laughter"
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: SEASON THREE
Image A Sound B Extras B
"The Cabin Show," "For British Eyes Only," "Forget Me Now," "Notapussy," "Mr. F," "The Ocean Walker," "Prison Break-In," "Making a Stand," "S.O.B.s," "Fakin' It," "Family Ties," "Exit Strategy," "Development Arrested"
by Walter Chaw Oh, I get it. It's hostile.
The rhyme and reason of "Sealab 2021"--a dubbed, found-footage exercise culled from a mostly-forgotten Hanna-Barbera cartoon called "Sealab 2020"--is that it's an unpleasant, ugly piece of work in the "Family Guy", random pop-culture mode, and if it happens more often than not to be of a hostility to which I respond, well, that speaks more to me than to the quality of the presentation. Moreover, it speaks to the audience for stuff like this and (the superior) "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"--all of which could possibly trace their lineage to things like the surreal/minimalist comic strip "Red Meat" and the desire, eternal, for a certain specific, frustrated demographic to have resentment and anger at general inanity thrown up on our collective behalf. I remember an episode of this series from a previous season in which a pet scorpion paralyzes its master and lays eggs inside him--that's not funny in the traditional sense, it's funny in the notably untraditional sense. Funny in the same way the story of a man getting stung on the tongue by his pet scorpion during his nightly ritual of giving it a goodnight kiss is funny: because it's funny when stupid people misplace their affections on things that are incapable of affection. To the point, it's funny when people are vulnerable and express feelings of love. Call "Sealab 2021" the cartoon version of Very Bad Things.
Here in "Sealab 2021"'s final DVD collection, labelled Season IV even though it contains only the last five episodes of Season Four and the full nine from Season Five, we're reintroduced to our crew of undersea explorers as they soldier on following the death of co-hort Marco (voiced by Erik Estrada, which for what it's worth is funny in the same way that laughing at a dead guy with a pet scorpion is funny), who was eaten by the shark he raped ("He put his human penis in it") and consequently impregnated with a half-shark/half-man minotaur that is the focus of the first few episodes. The humour revolves around the idea that the shark/man rues his parentage and believes that if he stops moving he'll die, and around that is pressed a ton of references to The Warriors and other old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. It's funny because the character is an innocent: In the crosshairs of this kind of entertainment, being innocent is as bad as being capable of love. Consider the child character of Dolphin Boy, who speaks only in squeaks and whistles, functioning like the similarly vocally-mute Kenny in "South Park" by dying in various and sundry ways every other episode. There's probably something to be mined from the way that these sacrificial lambs are stripped of speech, but the aggregate affect is that they're irritating, so when they're murdered, we derive a bit of base satisfaction at their arbitrary suffering. In truth, though, it feels a lot more like our own wishes have been fulfilled--like watching "Saved by the Bell" armed with the certainty that they're going to pop Screech like a blood blister over and over again. The repetition automatism of that particular pleasure principle is the most puerile form of gratification. Of course it's funny. Of course it's indefensible.
There are a few threadbare jabs at race--an entire episode about Native American casinos ("Trail of Beers") revolves around how tired the racism of the show is, ending with a gross-out punchline that demonstrates either that the cartoon is self-aware or, more likely, that it doesn't give a shit. "Sealab 2021" isn't about the emptiness of pop culture and our post-modern wasteland of lovelessness and random acts of incoherent violence and nihilism, it's an example of it. For better or worse.
The third and final season of "Arrested Development" seems headed down that same empty path, making me glad in a way that one of my richest boob-tube pleasures decided to leave the curtains drawn in spite of Showtime offering a fourth-season reprieve at the eleventh hour. One of the most warmly-written family dramas (a comic "Six Feet Under", if you will) in memory, the show sullies itself with a strange multi-episode arc involving a retarded British girl (Charlize Theron) who enters into a love affair of misadventure with Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), the "responsible" son of the Bluth real estate family, whose paterfamilias George (Jeffrey Tambor) is serving a prison sentence because he's in cahoots with Saddam Hussein over a housing development scheme. Mining its farcical plots for nice father/son melancholia in the first two seasons, "Arrested Development" plunges in its homestretch into the surreal with a visit to Iraq by Michael and his brothers (Gob (Will Arnett) and Buster (Tony Hale)) in the company of a gaggle of Hussein impersonators. In so doing, it comes perilously close to jumping the proverbial shark.
The genius of the series flares brightly in a meticulously-developed episode (3.5, "Mr. F") involving Japanese investors offended by a spectacle that unintentionally lampoons old Toho monster movies--an episode that by itself marks the difference between Hussein impersonators and an almost physical, Harold Lloyd representation of pop cultural (and racial, as it happens) subversion. Which is to say that "Arrested Development"'s third season is not without the type of moments that make the prior two (especially the second) classic television, but it goes astray in allowing more than Tobias (David Cross) to be a true grotesque. (A running gag about a cabin and lost youth, for instance, is notably poignant and fine, as is the idea of a "surrogate" for the housebound George.) What to make of Theron's Rita character? Though she's retarded in an adorable way (I've never wanted to fuck a mentally disabled person more) and mistaken often for a fashion plate or British spy, the mileage gained at Michael's expense (he doesn't know that she's a feeb) is nothing compared to the mileage gained at Rita's, a character of neither particular depth nor, ultimately, the intended (I think) pathos. It's just sort of ugly in the "Sealab 2021" mold, where being in love is laughable--almost as funny as thinking that love is even possible. If that's the direction that "Arrested Development" was headed, when, pointedly, it found its worth in the ultimate grace of familial love (see, too, "The Simpsons" at its best), I'm glad it derailed. By the end, once creator Mitchell Hurwitz and company knew of their impending demise and started making overt overtures to other networks through the dialogue itself, the chief arc concerned Bateman's real-life sister Justine Bateman as a hooker whose identity is, again, a complete mystery only to Michael. The heart of the show, Michael, is reduced intratextually to a halfwit and extratextually to an incest joke. Replacing Henry Winkler's Bluth-Family-Lawyer with Scott Baio is not the same as suggesting Justine Bateman as a love interest for Jason. It's the gulf that separates biting wit from witless, almost nihilistic prank.
"Sealab 2021: Season IV" is delivered to the format via a limited edition two-disc set under Warner's [adult swim] label in a punishingly bright fullscreen transfer. Given that the animation is nothing to write home about in the old "Super Friends" mode, the best that could really be said for the image is that it's not as grainy as a TV broadcast. The DD 2.0 audio is likewise clear as a smart-assed bell. The second platter houses the special features, beginning with "Shrabster Forward" (11 mins.), which is essentially the "Shrabster" episode (wherein theme restaurant villains attempt to hijack the genetic recipe for a shrimp/crab/lobster hybrid) told in chronological order. It's as successful as the chronological version of Memento, which is to say that it's not nearly as good. A 20-second alternate ending for "Legacy of Laughter" provides a different punchline that could be subbed for the original with no diminishment of quality, such as it is, and deleted scenes for "Joy of Grief" (2 mins.) are simply scenes that, again, are completely interchangeable with one another and the finished product's. "Best of Sealab: Sunken Treasures" (16 mins.) is a droll clips show while "Nightshift" (11 mins.) is a faux-episode starring the "night shift" of unseen characters that mainly mocks the unused footage from the old series.
"Arrested Development" comes home again courtesy sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic video accompanied by equally sharp Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Very much what one would expect from a digital rendering of shot-on-HD contemporary network television. Disc One of the double-disc set includes a commentary on "Forget Me Now" (3.3) that features, essentially, the entire cast hailing from various points via the magic of modern conference-call technology. It's raucous and warm and causes one to long for a fourth season despite one's better judgment. Don't expect a lot of insight, but it's entertaining in a "Hey, I'm not invited to this cool party" sort of way. The question of why the casting of Baio is raised ("We wanted someone to creep [de Rossi] out") and Cross, bless his heart, refers to the actor as "Thousand Yard Stare." I like that they use the word "retarded" and I like, too, the idea that the producers were actively involved in pissing off Fox execs. More of the same on "Mr. F," with the merry pranksters reaching Tambor via telephone and Tambor showing his improv chops by pretending to not know who's calling. It's more amusing than it sounds. Five deleted scenes totalling six minutes are as hilarious as the rest of the series tends to be and, it warrants mention, demonstrate some of the rich family dynamic that's in suddenly shorter supply.
Disc Two sports a yak-track for "Development Arrested" (3.13), the series capper, wherein any anticipated sentimentality is submarined by a certain sense of satisfaction with a project completed. Hurwitz drops the nugget that there might be a movie--a suggestion quickly dismissed by all assembled as a weird joke. The idea here and throughout for me is that the show's over in every sense: There's enough "Arrested Development" left in the third season to slake a thirst for quality writing and performances, yet the feeling is that it's been played out; better to leave well enough alone at, if not the top, at least in view of the summit. Six deleted/extended scenes (8 mins. total) are great, if more expendable, generally speaking, than the first disc's batch. Of chief (if minor) interest is hearing Cross do Ron Howard's voice-over. A "Season Three Bloopers" reel (8 mins.) is one of those rare reels that's actually hilarious for the cast's ability to lambaste one another off the cuff with a litany of colourful uses of the word "fuck." I also, incidentally, liked Judge Reinhold's shock at Cross's improvisation of a line that goes something like "flapping of her labia." A nice little love note/thank you for fans, "The Last Day On Location" (8 mins.) is a pleasant, blooper-filled diversion (with some genuine-seeming tears), if little else. Originally published: October 24, 2006.