Sitcoms are the focus of my undying hatred. Wait, is hate too pedestrian of a word? I loathe, abhor, detest, scorn, curse, spurn, and anathematize the old school of laugh track sitcoms. Along with reality television, sit-coms are the most brain-dead junk food that you can feed your mind. The “actors” simply regurgitate one-liners in front of three or four cameras, pause unnaturally so that the editor can later insert a laugh track, exist in worlds where everyone’s a comedian yet no one is funny, and cycle through a series of ludicrous situations where the outcome doesn’t change a thing in their life. I can’t view Friends or Seinfeld without screeching like a vampire exposed to holy water, nor can I even stomach more than one viewing in a row of Everyone Loves Raymond without strongly desiring to show them that, yes, there is someone to break that titular rule.
So when I come to you and say that Arrested Development is one of the most brilliant sitcoms ever – and I say that without a trace of irony – you better darn well sit up and take notice. Now, mister!
As of the time of this writing, Arrested Development has struggled through two seasons on Fox and is prepping for a third. Fox, a network that’s as infamous for developing groundbreaking shows as it is for canceling them without giving them a fair shakedown by week three, has jiggled back and forth on this show, although to be fair, none of Arrested Development’s actors or crew thought it would’ve lasted past season one. It just had such a different mold that network suits who thrive on reliable predictable aspects in shows were understandably nervous.
Don’t worry; I’ll get to the show in a second. I just want to finish this background nonsense.
Arrested Development debuted in 2003 as an already critical favorite. Many magazines and TV writers were hailing it as THE show of the year. While they didn’t change their mind (if anything, the critics’ praise of this show increased), the almighty Neilson ratings suffered, even as AD was given a slot next to The Simpsons. Although Fox didn’t yank it by the end of its first full season (22 episodes), hopes were dim for re-enlistment… until AD won an amazing five Emmys. Thus, season two and Fox’s newfound love for the show. This didn’t stop Fox from suddenly slicing the second season from 22 to 18 episodes (a fact which the makers of the show worked snarkily into one of the episodes, when a housing order got “cut” from 22 to 18), causing understandable fears that there would be no third season. Yet, here we are, as the plucky sitcom darling with millions of fierce fans and no real watchers is renewed for a third season and nominated for 11 Emmys in its second year.
Okay, okay, I know that’s probably not at all interesting to you, so I apologize. Why don’t we just cut the cake, break out the exotic dancer inside, and get to the real party?
So what is this show, and why does it make every other sitcom on TV look like chewed-up garbage? In the vein of “one camera shows” like Scrubs or Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development eschews many of the typical sitcom rules to refocus on what is funny. The conceit of the show is that it’s an ongoing documentary of one of the most dysfunctional rich families in America. The documentary aspect isn’t ever really acknowledged by the family, who go on with their bizarre lives like no one’s watching, but we at home do get one of the more ingenious bonuses from this setup: the narration.
In my opinion, the narration (voiced by show creator Ron Howard) is the key for the best laughs in AD. The narrator has a distinct disdain for the family and enjoys pointing out all of their faults, contradictions, lies, errors, manipulations and mistakes, often roping in an off-screen editor to provide additional footage to underscore a point. One of my favorite moments was when the narrator was filling us in on Carl Weathers, who plays Carl Weathers in a couple episodes, and the editor – for no real reason whatsoever – plays that clip from Predator where Weathers gets his arm shot off by the alien’s laser gun. Splendid.
With the ongoing narration, the show is free to do, as the producers point out, many situations where the punchline of a joke is revealed far before the setup of the joke, urging the audience to work itself backwards and then find the whole thing to be far funnier than it would’ve been normally. For instance, in the pilot episode, the sister is watching a barge full of homosexual protestors and comments that she has “the exact same blouse” as one of the protestors. It takes most of the episode to learn – in flashback – that it’s her husband who accidentally got on the barge, thinking that it was a pirate party, and borrowed her blouse to make up his costume. Trust me, it’s funnier than how I wrote it, there.
This pseudo-documentary follows around the life and times of the Bluths, a wealthy real estate family that’s fallen on hard times. In the pilot, father George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for fraud, which leaves his one upright son Michael (Jason Bateman) to pull the company out of ruin and to lead his family on. The only real assets the family has left is the model home where they live, and a stair car from the airport.
This is a much tougher problem than you might imagine.
While in his own way quite dysfunctional, Michael is the normal rose in a massively ugly briar patch of his family. His twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is a self-absorbed spoiled brat married to ex-psychiatrist Tobias (David Cross), a “never-nude” (which, as the narrator points out, is exactly what it sounds like) who is obviously gay but refuses to see it. His older brother G.O.B. (pronounced “Jobe”, played to hilarious excess by Will Arnett) is a failed magician who often kills the birds he’s using in his act and is a minor league evil mastermind. His younger brother Buster (Tony Hale) is an eternal momma’s boy with no real understanding of how the world works. His mother (PCU’s Jessica Walters) is a scheming, drunk banshee, and his father a lying, manipulative jerk. This isn’t even to mention the two “innocents” in this messed-up family, Michael’s son George Michael (Michael Cera, meek to the point of death) and Lindsay’s miracle daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat) who George Michael sort of falls in love with. Yes, they’re all twisted – and we haven’t even gotten to any of the storylines or recurring guest stars!
Here’s how the show works. From the first episode on, each half hour continues an ongoing story with continuity and multi-episode plotlines, something that would make it a bit prohibitive for a first-timer to watch if it wasn’t for the narration. Instead of doing the old TV trick of “Last week, on Melrose Place…”, Arrested Development’s narrator is always there to fill us in on what’s going on and to remind us of events that took place episodes – or even seasons – earlier. As I said, quite ingenious. As a result, instead of having all of these self-contained 22 minutes of comedy, AD is allowed to grow into its own without having to force any story to come to a quick and tidy resolution. Sure, each episode usually has a main story that it features and wraps up by the end, but not always… and there are also all of these other stories that go on around each main one. Think a soap opera, but only if it was funny, accessible and much more interesting to partake of.
And while Arrested Development is certainly shameless when it comes to pulling quick, cheap gags for a laugh, what truly endears me to the show is that the real meat of the comedy rewards the smart viewer who pays attention. About a half of the jokes are ongoing gags that are subtlely presented, thrown into certain episodes at strange times, but if you’re quick and catch them, they provide a huge laugh. Some of my favorites, if you’re a newcomer:
In one episode, Tobias paints himself entirely blue to audition to become a member of the Blue Man Group. As he does so, he accidentally gets blue smudges on parts of the house during the scenes he’s interacting with other characters. Instead of getting rid of these smudges, the show’s creators obviously thought that the Bluths were too lazy to paint over them, and thus left the blue paint there for future episodes.
Another episode has several of the characters at different points being depressed and walking away, to the tune of the classic Peanuts “sad walk song” (whatever that is) with their heads down. In one scene, there’s even a red doghouse in the background and a dog lying on top of it.
At the end of each episode, they have a “On the next Arrested Development” preview of clips – although these clips never actually happen on the next show (they’re just thrown in for comedy value and to tie certain jokes up).
One last one! The Bluth’s mom’s name is Lucille. Her best friend – and Buster’s sometime romantic squeeze – is also named Lucille, which has all of the characters calling her Lucille 2 (and causing Buster a lot of mother issues). In the second season, the narrator notes almost off-handedly that a character was then attacked by “a loose seal”.
I could go on and on and on, but I’d much rather just urge you to go out and get or rent the first and second season of this show and give it a fair chance. If you’ve got any sense of humor whatsoever, it’s about one of the best things that could happen to you other than getting to slam a pie into the face of your boss. Steve Holt!