Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wilde, Arrested

What would happen if Mitchell Hurwitz, who created Arrested Development, made a show starring Will Arnett and David Cross (dearly loved in Arrested Development as Gob Bluth andTobias Fünke respectively), adding Peter Serafinowicz as a character named Fa'ad Shaoulin, and called it Running Wilde?

Before I stumble towards an answer, let's just take a moment to admire Arrested Development one more time. As it turns out, the critics who thought the show was the only situation comedy to address its times were doing it a serious injustice. It was not only about the times; it was prophetic. Running from 2003 to 2006, the show was about a family whose riches came from the housing market (and, admittedly, the Cornballer) in the era of George Bush's "ownership" society, well before subprime mortgages and Credit Default Swaps became part of the common lingo; the Bluths bounced on the bubbly cornerstone of the economy, which finally burst two years after Arrested Development was cancelled, in 2008.

Running Wilde was cancelled after airing only eight episodes. There was a painful hush, a silence all the more apparent after the raucous disapproval that met arresting Arrested Development's development. Even those of us who wanted to love the show, who approached it primed like a sailor on shore leave, couldn't muster up much than a bored sigh as the expected kimono-clad vamp coming through the bead curtains turned out to be an actor auditioning as a longshoreman in the newest Tony Kushner play. Yeah, so there were some major problems with the show. I don't want to go into too much detail. You may want to see it. And it's not inconceivable that in years to come Running Wilde will secure a place in the cultural heart as a series ended tragically soon by short-sighted, small-souled fools who whimpered into their lattes about "major problems" with the show.

But anyway, the problems. The first is that the wealth in Arrested Development was never real. The yacht, the diamonds, the membership in the private club, grown children who saw no need to get real jobs--

--all of this wealth was a mirage, and however hard the family clung onto their torrid dream, reality kept imposing itself. The shabbiness of the Bluth family wealth and their desperate vulgarity made their fiction that much more wonderfully grotesque, and had a number of consequences for our viewing pleasure. First, it made every fall from grace delicious, as we watched scrabbling rich vulgarians getting their comeuppance; second, it made every fall from grace heart-breaking: willful, proud people scrabbling to keep their phony lives and broken family together. And if every set on the show seemed cheap, all the better. That was one of the jokes, played out in two ways: the family was trying to keep up appearances, squirming as their house fell apart around them; and the real economy itself was no more than a cheap set. Their fiction was the fiction of the West.

In Running Wilde, the protagonist is a filthy rich billionaire playboy, Steve Wilde (Will Arnett) who re-connects with his childhood sweetheart, Emmy Kadubic (Keri Russell), an anthropologist and activist living in a rain forest in the Amazon. The first mistake the show makes is that Steve Wilde (and his neighbouring millionaire, Fa'ad Shaoulin) are essentially secure in their wealth.

We may be invited to laugh at their vulgarity and their extravagance, but there are obstacles to accepting that invitation. Cheap, tacky sets don't convey luxury and wealth, they convey cheapness and tackiness; whereas this made perfect sense in the Bluths' world, we lacked anything similar to latch onto in Running Wilde: if Wilde is ridiculously rich but also cheap and tacky, so what? Who cares? It just doesn't work. Another obstacle is reminiscent of the tagline to the current Russell Brand re-make of Arthur: "Meet the World's Only Lovable Billionaire." Lovable? That makes you want to kick his teeth in even more.

This may be in part an issue of class discomfort. Who wants to watch monstrously-rich people in the aftermath of George Bush's economic collapse? I might - but it's unfortunate that Running Wilde found no way to address the very real financial catastrophe. And it may be that we really wanted a Zizekian middle-finger directed at the purportedly well-meaning, golden-hearted, lovable rich (cf Violence, for a take-down of Gates and Soros for their double-dealing as cut-throat capitalists and the benefactors of what Zizek calls liberal communism while they parade around as generous philanthropists and even spokesmen for the unfairness of the system; they will always have already taken far more than they could give). If that's what we wanted, Running Wilde was again disappointingly mute.

But I also think it's a function of comedy's own two faces. Arrested Development had its finger on the pulse, you could feel the systole of sympathy and the diastole of loathing in every beat; you were drawn into a dynamic of Schadenfreude and empathy. Running Wilde wanted to do the same thing with two brilliant comic actors, Arnett and Serafinowicz, who can deliver casual cruelty and sweet charm over the course of a single line, who have been cast as comic villains (say, 30 Rock or Spaced, respectively) and whose every thrashing is truly deserved and yet whose presence is magnetic and pathetic and even loving. Anchoring them to wealth, in an era in which wealth is not a solid, grounding anchor but rather is an act of force, like the wind, called into creation and then into action by politicians and their financiers, stultified them.

The second major problem was in casting Keri Russell as Emmy Kadubic and Stefania LaVie Owen as her daughter, Puddle. Russell, raised on the neurotic-ironic patter of Friends, had no conviction as an anthropologist-activist (except for the lines where she said how much conviction she had); Owen was far too harmless.

The show's dramatic tension, between the rich and the poor, the carefree and the caring, the socially-oblivious and the socially-committed had little resonance; the comic tension, as the various ironies and inconsistencies, weaknesses and foibles, vanities and desires subverting or parodying or mocking the distinction between rich and poor, carefree and caring, socially-oblivious and socially-committed, had nowhere to go.

And, frankly, I didn't spot a single Oscar Wilde reference during the entire 8-show run. Was I missing something?

So, anyway, speaking of kimono-clad vamps . . . tomorrow, DNA and sex slavery.


Daniel F said...

I love the title of this post. I haven't read it, cos I've had no opportunity to see Running Wilde. My little brother quite liked it?

sw said...

You should see it. I really do recommend seeing it. There's a lot to "quite like".