Arrested_Development_family.jpgNow the story of a wealthy family who lost everything–and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. But enough of that already: this is the story of a ridiculous collection of human beings who fall apart and are ill-equipped to deal with the loss of their family’s good fortune, instead flailing absurdly in their downfall’s wake to great amusement of its viewers.

Arrested Development aired to an indifferent audience first in 2003, although not to this viewer. I watched this series from its first airing until its last episode on FOX, sadly watching along as the best show on TV was snuffed out from existence due to unfathomably low ratings. Maybe that’s the charm of the series in present time: to have been a great satire of a specific culture in America from 2003 and 2006 before the country even realized how good they had it before its own good fortune fell apart in 2008.

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Let us praise Arrested Development and not mourn the historical period it first appeared in–after all, it’s a wonderful, funny, complex comedy series that should be celebrated. I was one of the few people who actually watched this show when it first aired (its first season averaged 6 million viewers a week; its final episode in 2006 only had a little over 3 million viewers) and immediately loved it.

I still love it, even its clunky 4th season that appeared on Netflix a few years ago. The goofy Bluth family has always made me laugh, and I encourage everyone to check out the series if they want to watch the best comedy TV has made in the past 20 years.

Great TV: Arrested Development

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How can you not love a TV series that makes hand decapitation funny? That may scan strange if you’re not familiar with Arrested Development, but for those in the know, they will remember the dozens of weird jokes and situations at overgrown mama’s boy Buster Bluth’s expense when–halfway through the second season–his hand is bit off by a (loose) seal. For the rest of the series, Buster wears either a fake hand or a razor-sharp hook to replace his missing appendage. You’d think a show with any sense of propriety wouldn’t make this a running gag, but instead it becomes Buster’s horrifying defining characteristic, as he’s often shunned by the family and finds continuous disaster by being literally unarmed.

This is one of Arrested Development’s great strengths–to make their characters just this side of unlikable enough that when they lose a hand, or are obviously closeted, or in general get continuously dumped on by the universe, the audience chuckles at the jokes of their misfortune instead of really thinking about how sad their lives are. Is losing all of your wealth and finding your family business spiraling into bankruptcy funny? No, but having to drive around the family stair car for the private jet they used to own while they watch out for hop-ons (you’re gonna get hop-ons) is, as is watching them have to live in one of their businesses’ unsold model homes whose crappy construction leads to glass panels shattering just by closing the door, refrigerators to slide into empty spaces in the walls, and have the house eventually literally collapse under them.

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And maybe it’s because the Bluth family has cast their inevitable doom throughout their lives until it’s finally caught up with them. In the pilot episode, patriarch George Sr. has been arrested by the Security & Exchanges Committee for what he refers to as “light treason,” leaving the family’s assets frozen and their business–real estate development–in free-fall. While at first seemingly noble son Michael steps up to try and save the business and his family, his brothers and sister– useless socialite Lindsay, hack magician GOB (George Oscar Bluth), and manchild Buster–continue to sponge off what little the family has left and prove to be completely unable to actually function without their family’s wealth. Michael’s son, George Michael, is a skittish teenager who finds himself attracted to his cousin, Lindsay’s daughter Maeby. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s husband Tobias is a psycholinguist who surprisingly can’t hear his own glaringly telling phrasing that leads everyone to believe he’s gay. Oh, and he’s also a never-nude (a concept you think would necessitate explanation, but really the explanation is right there: he has a psychological inability to ever be completely nude; there are dozens of them). Meanwhile, matriarch Lucille plays constant head games with her children and is a firm alcoholic.

That’s the basic premise of Arrested Development: can this family of spoiled loose cannons keep it together long enough to save their family business? The answer is no, of course not, but it’s a lot of fun to watch as they all slip further down the social ladder and into near-insanity as they start to rely on each other to make it through this difficult time.

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Were this any other show, this setup may lead to some amusing character moments and potentially touching conclusions, but there has never been a show like Arrested Development: with its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags, densely packed-in recurring bits and callbacks that reward watching every episode closely, and a linguistically acrobatic use of language where puns double back on themselves to become large parts of the plot.

Arrested Development was not a laid-back show to kick your heels up and passively watch. This may be a big reason why it didn’t succeed on television: nobody wants to watch a show that requires them to think too much, and that’s exactly what this show demanded from its audience. In an average episode, you’d be following an A, B, and C (and sometimes D and E) story along with a disembodied narrator (voiced with a perfect wryness by Ron Howard) keeping track of the shenanigans, with each story producing its own distinct jokes, gags, and story elements that would most likely be part of a call-back or referenced in a later episode and most definitely somehow be interconnected to someone else’s storyline. All of the action is pushed forward based on misunderstandings and petty differences the family has with each other, where they will or won’t do certain things as misguided attempts at revenge–even though it ends up screwing them, and the family as a whole, in the long run. Oh, and this was all squeezed into 22-minute episodes.

As an early example of this dense approach to its comedy: in the second episode of the series, “Top Banana,” Michael is getting sick of his father’s attempts to control the company from behind bars; meanwhile, he’s also reopened the family’s banana stand–where his father first made the cash that started their real estate empire and and of which Michael has terrible memories of working at as a teenager–and is now the only profitable part of their business (as his father continues to insist, “There’s always money in the banana stand”). Upon visiting his son, who’s working the stand, he’s angry that GOB is there getting a deluxe chocolate-dipped frozen banana for free, chastises GOB, and makes his son the manager (“Mister Manager”) to give him a sense of control over the banana stand. He also presses Maeby into working at the banana stand with George Michael, which upsets George Michael even more since he is trying to keep his distance from his cousin, for whom he’s developed romantic feelings. She promptly starts stealing from the cash register.

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Michael has other problems, as well: he’s trying to get his father’s travel records to see what this “light treason” business is all about but doesn’t get any help from his mother or father in that regard. Meanwhile, Tobias–who suddenly had a revelation that he’s an actor–goes out for a radio audition, but his wife accidentally gets the part, which crushes his spirit. When Michael returns to the banana stand, he finds that a convict his father has befriended in jail named T-Bone now works there.

Michael also finds out the flight records he’s looking for are being kept in a storage locker but T-Bone, working under orders from George Bluth, has burned its contents before Michael could get to them. Meanwhile, Michael also entrusts his screw-up brother GOB with mailing the insurance check for the banana stand, which–in an act of misguided defiance–GOB instead attempts futilely to hurl it into the sea. Back at the banana stand, George Michael–having realized that Maeby’s embezzlement will be found out and as manager he’d be to blame–prepares to burn down the banana stand. Michael arrives just in time to stop him and realizes that he’s done the same thing to his son that his father did to him and promptly tells his son to burn the banana stand to the ground.

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He does so, and father and son look wistfully at the flaming stand. GOB shows up on his Segway scooter and Michael asks if he mailed that insurance check, which leads GOB to slowly back away, having thrown it into the ocean. Lindsay has slept through her call-time for the radio commercial and loses the job; Tobias also loses it because he’s in the shower crying and doesn’t hear the phone ring. And back in jail, Michael proudly announces to his dad that he burned down the banana stand and to back off trying to run things from inside. George Bluth gets furious at this, and for good reason: the walls of the banana stand were lined with $250,000. This is why he’s been continually hinting to his son, “There’s always money in the banana stand.” The End.

That’s a lot of plot to fit into 22 quick-paced minutes, and just the second episode introduces a ton of great running gags: the somewhat hellish life of working in a small banana stand on a boardwalk; Tobias is revealed (but not explained yet) to be a never-nude; Tobias’s complete lack of acting ability or talent; the guards warning “NO TOUCHING!” in the visitor’s block of the jail; and George Michael’s extreme timidness being part of his eventual downfall. Besides this, larger plot elements like needing to get George Sr.’s travel records to find out where he could have visited that he’s now charged with treason (and Lucille’s obtuse recollection that he was always going somewhere very hot and would smell like dates when he returned) becomes a series-long running storyline.

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It’s all, of course, very funny as well: something like watching GOB attempt to hurl the letter into the ocean goes about as well as you’d expect: he tries to toss it like it’s a rock instead of flimsy paper and it predictably flies back up in his face or simply falls to the ground. What makes this joke even funnier, however, is when you ask yourself, who is he doing this for? Nobody is around him that could possibly care this guy’s tossing a letter into the ocean, and none of the family–particularly Michael–would ever know this is how he disposed of it.. No, GOB’s just doing this little act of defiance for himself. That it ends up screwing everyone over doubly (no insurance money for burning down the stand, and the quarter million that burned up in it is gone, as well) due to miscommunications, secret acts of pointless defiance, and not understanding another person’s true meaning become cornerstones of Arrested Development’s signature style.

Text to Live Action

Perhaps the most impressive feat accomplished by Arrested Development is its highly literate complexity: whereas most comedies are fine with a setup–>punchline structure, AD instead goes five extra steps for a joke: sub-setup–>setup–>punchline–>callback to punchline–>setup from callback–>punchline. Example: in the season 2 episode “Afternoon Delight,” Michael is chafing under his brother GOB having been placed as the head of the company, a business he knows nothing about. GOB takes this opportunity to start wearing his dad’s expensive suits, which give him (like his magic tricks) the illusion of being a professional. But he’s no good at keeping his ego at bay, or lording over his employees his newfound status. From this complex joke structure comes this great sequence:

Michael Bluth: You may want to start acting like the president, GOB. You’re beginning to alienate some of the employees.

Gob: Yeah, like the president has to worry about alienating the employees. (sub-setup)

Narrator: In fact, GOB had started to alienate some of the employees. (setup)

Gob: [in the break room] Yeah, like I’m going to spill coffee all over this $3,000 suit! COME ON! (punchline)

Gob: [at the elevator] Yeah, the guy wearing the $4,000 suit is holding the elevator for the guy who doesn’t make that in four months. COME ON! (callback to punchline)

Gob: [in the bathroom] Yeah, like I’m going to take a whiz through this $5,000 suit! COME ON! (setup from callback)

Gob: [back with talking to Michael in present time] COME ON! (punchline)

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This little joke–taking up maybe 20 seconds of screen time–comes from a complex construction that involves two characters in the beginning and then involves an unseen narrator, until jumping back to three separate locations and moments of time for the punchline before cutting back to the present to continue the scene and add another punchline at the coda. That’s a lot of work for one joke, but the joke is so good that it’s worth the extra steps it takes to get there. Of course, the price of the suit fluctuates throughout the episode as his confidence begins to wane, which extends the joke further.

And this is typical of the type of humor of the series: by constantly flashing back to previous events and to concurrent events, complex jokes can be made without breaking up the narrative too much. As opposed to a 3-camera sitcom, where all of the action happens in present-time and in one location, the single-camera setup of Arrested Development allows for a fluidity in time and place that lends itself to the sort of dense approach. A single-camera comedy just ahead of its time, audiences didn’t know what to make of AD’s approach and would only catch on once the American version of The Office standardized this sort of temporal and location shifting not usually seen in TV comedies. Taking its cues from literary devices that are unbound by the visual medium’s need for constancy or linear narratives, Arrested Development created a distinct visual grammar and editing style that was glued together by a narrator to keep track of these shifts in time and title cards to let the audience know when they had flashed back to a previous time and separate location.  

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The show only gets more dense and less approachable as it went on as is the nature of a show that heavily relies on the audience’s understanding of the characters, previous episodes, and recurring running jokes, character motifs, and references. By the time the show rounded the corner deep into its second season, it would be very difficult for a new viewer to simply enter the show without being bewildered as to the (to the outsider) elliptical nature of the show’s storytelling and the general insanity most of the characters have devolved into. By this point, Buster’s a one-handed outcast in his own family, GOB has resurrected an unbelievably racist ventriloquist act he once had, and Tobias is constantly painting himself blue to be a stand-by for the Blue Man Group. All of these things would require quite a bit of explanation to any new viewer, and much of the humor as to how all of this came about would be lost without them watching the show.

And this was before Netflix and where people could easily stream whole seasons; I got a number of people into the series by lending them my DVD box sets of the first and second season, but even that netted AD about 16 viewers. By the third season, which was truncated from 18 episodes to 13, the show gave up even trying to appeal to new viewers, instead going out in reference-heavy bang in its final episodes to gratify its small but loyal audience.

They even did an entire episode about the series’ impending cancellation and difficulties it had finding an audience in the third season episode “S.O.B.s,” which would be nearly impenetrable (or at the very least not particularly funny) for someone to watch who didn’t understand not only the show itself but more obscure things like its competition in the time slot it aired, marketing strategies and trends in television that were popular in 2006, and the general backroom struggles with the network that the show was experiencing. But such is the nature of the show to create an entire episode that was a great big nose-thumbing at both the network that produced and aired it and at the general TV audience that didn’t “get” what the show was doing.

Wholesale Gags

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All of this talk about the complexity of the show and its great construction really is missing the main point, which is that the show was hilarious. It could be goofy, clever, dark, and satirical all within the same breath and even mix the two together to great results (as mentioned previously, Buster losing a hand should seem unbelievably dark–and it is–but it’s also somehow silly and funny, as well). Other unbelievably dark things include: running gags about prison rape, using Lucille’s alcoholism for comedy; Tobias getting into horrifying accidents that eventually nearly kill him in season 3; awful references to Michael’s now-deceased wife; the rather uncomfortable unresolved sexual tension between George Michael and Maeby, who are cousins and minors; Tobias constantly being referred to as gay, often due to his own inability to understand exactly why people think he’s gay (hint: it’s because of the things he says and does); and the generally cruel behavior of the Bluths which lead to the eventual breaking of Ann, George Michael’s Christian girlfriend who is disrespected by his father who refers to her as plant, egg, her?, and yam and who disgustingly ends up with GOB; Steve Holt (STEVE HOLT!), who ends up being GOB’s illegitimate son that he constantly disrespects and hurts due to GOB’s selfishness and negligence; and almost anybody else that has the misfortune of getting too close to the Bluth family’s orbit.

You would think this would make the Bluths wildly unlikable, but because their lives are a never-ending farce and they are themselves completely helpless and unable to act in any way resembling responsibility or adult-like behavior, instead the series becomes much like a live-action cartoon (particularly near the end of the second season, where the show seems to fly off the rails into sheer absurdity). Besides, if they weren’t caricatures, the show would most likely come across as unrelentingly bleak and mean-spirited.

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The other strength of the show was its ability to carry gags for miles, which were the great recurring jokes and gags peppered throughout that long-time viewers end up appreciating the most. For example: the Bluths have a peculiar family taunt of calling each other chickens, followed by bizarre chicken dances and imitations of a chicken. This begins with GOB (“Coka-coh! Coka-coh!”), and then in a later episode Lindsay reveals her awful impression (“Chaa-chee! Chaa-chee!”), and then Lucille gets in on the act (“A-coodle-doodle-doo!”), until finally the whole family breaks down into an insane caterwaul that leads Michael to ask, “Has anyone in this family ever even seen a chicken?”

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So many more: Europe’s “The Final Countdown” being used in GOB’s ridiculous stage act and then kind of as his personal theme in general; Bob Loblaw, the family’s new attorney, who runs the Bob Loblaw Law Blog; GOB’s personal catchphrase, “Come on!”; Tobias’s never-nude status; “I’ve made a huge mistake,”; “STEVE HOLT!”; “Her?”; “Marry me!”; Kitty Sanchez, George Sr.’s assistant and mistress, who gets her breasts done on the company dime and afterwards can’t help but lift up her shirt and say, “Take a good look, because this is the last time you’ll see these” repeatedly when she’s either leaving or quitting; “Look at banner, Michael!” and the banner says, “Family Love Michael,” a grammatically incorrect gag that tends to show up on a number of banners throughout the series; the Bluth family’s fondness for ice cream; “I have the worst [bleep]ing attorneys; clever running audio gags and cues; the sad Charlie Brown walk a number of characters do when feeling low while “Christmastime Is Here” plays in the background; the family often having two separate conversations with each other while they both think they’re on the same page; “Hey brother!”; the family thinking Portugal is in South America; hop-ons; maritime law; and literally dozens of others.

It’s a show with a gift for finding something funny and then using that idea in every possible permutation, which somehow makes it even more funny as time goes on–maybe because it’s just so damn clever how the show manages to keep circling back to an idea to find a new use for it. The internal consistency of the humor makes these gags turn into the kind of inside jokes and references only a family would understand–which makes sense, given the self-obsessed family the show details.

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To Be Continued…

In an almost unbelievable turn of events, Arrested Development returned for a fourth season, nearly a decade after it was first cancelled. Thanks to its appearance on Netflix and strong word-of-mouth, AD found a secondary audience online and became a beloved cult show. What’s more, interest was still strong enough in this crazy family that an entire new season was produced on Netflix by Mitch Hurwitz, the creator and lead writer of the show.

The results were curious: with a smaller budget and less availability of many of its principles (many of which had gone on to very successful careers elsewhere), there was very limited interaction among family members, once a great strength of the show. Also, while the original structure of Arrested Development was complex enough, the structure of the new season was downright Byzantine, creating a confusing puzzle box for viewers to solve as the episodes took the approach of focusing in on one character at a time. This led to a lot of confusion even among dedicated viewers who had a hard time keeping track where in time and place certain overlapping events were occurring, and at the season’s end it puts together where everything lined up and how they got to the conclusion at which the season started off–but this didn’t make for a fluid viewing experience.

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Nevertheless, more Arrested Development is great news: it’s easily my favorite TV show of all time (well, narrative TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000 is still my favorite show ever–and hey, even that got a shout-out in the fourth season!). It’s recently been announced that a fifth season will be produced for Netflix and appear sometime in 2018, and I’m looking forward to watching the continuing, complex, and ultimately doomed adventures of the Bluth family.

But nothing can maybe ever match those first three seasons, produced now over a decade ago in the increasingly obscure mid-2000s. If you have never watched this series from the beginning, I urge you to: it’s some of the most satisfying TV I’ve ever seen. Funny, weird, and way ahead of its time when it first aired, maybe TV and the culture is finally catching up to the show. The entire series is available on Netflix, and Arrested Development is perhaps the most bingeable TV series of all time.

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